Bring Me Sunshine – Lancaster to Morecambe & Heysham

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To me, the railway from Lancaster to Morecambe has always been linked to holidays by the sea. We would arrive from Lancaster Castle, by way of Lancaster Green Ayre, and on to Morecambe, almost never to Heysham.  We almost always travelled between Lancaster Castle, then down to Green Ayre on the electric trains, and across the Lune past Scale Hall to Morecambe Promenade station.  Right next door was the famed Winter Gardens, and directly opposite, the outstanding Midland Hotel.  On occasions we did arrive at Euston Road as well via a diesel multiple unit, and just that little bit further from the seafront.

The line was of course never intended to be a mere holiday branch line, and the route from industrial West Yorkshire, through Skipton was to connect to the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway at Low Park (Grayrigg / Dillicar) near Kendal, with a branch to Lancaster from Sedbergh.

Midland Hotel_July 2018 copyIn the 1840s a plan was hatched to build a railway from industrial West Yorkshire, through Skipton to a port at Lancaster – St George’s Quay – on top of which it was agreed by the businessmen involved, it would also connect with Hull on the East Coast. Over £1million in share capital was raised, with Charles Vignoles as the engineer in charge.

At the same time as the North Western Railway secured its Act, the Morecambe Harbour & Railway Company was planning to build its own line from the harbour at Poulton-le-Sands, (as Morecambe was then known) to Lancaster.   The Morecambe Act was approved on 16th June 1846, two weeks before the North Western Railway secured its own Act.

Morecambe Promenade from above 1920 EPW004078However, the Morecambe harbour company was more focussed on gaining increased revenue from harbour dues that coastal shipping and ferry trade offered, and its line was ‘handed over’ to the North Western Railway even before construction started. In addition to the line from Morecambe to Lancaster, the Harbour Company’s plan also included a proposed connection to the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway near Hest Bank, but this was dropped in 1849, only to be resurrected under the LNWR some 10 years later, and completed in 1864.

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1891 OS Map of approaches to Morecambe. “Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland”

The ‘Little’ North Western proposal from Leeds to Lancaster’s main purpose was to carry its produce from Leeds and Bradford to the west coast ports and main line railways, and unsurprisingly, the company’s head office was at 22 Commercial Street, Leeds. Here was the northern end of the North Midland Railway in the 1840s, and George Hudson’s territory for his grand plans for the York and North Midland, and expansion westwards to Liverpool and Manchester. However, the ‘Little’ North Western came to connect with the Leeds & Bradford Extension Railway, which was absorbed into the Midland Railway in 1851, and the ‘Little’ North Western leased by the Midland from January 1859.

Morecambe to Lancaster

The original terminus of the Morecambe Harbour & Railway Company was on the wooden jetty at Poulton-le-Sands, which was later replaced by a stone structure. The present day “Midland Hotel” was originally known as the “Morecambe Hotel”, and the stone jetty marked the western boundary of the harbour.

A more ‘conventional’ station, with an overall roof was built at Northumberland Street, as the railway’s passenger traffic grew, along with a hotel to serve travellers for Douglas and Belfast. The line did actually end on the jetty, with a long, low building designed and constructed to allow goods to be offloaded rapidly from ships on to the waiting trains, before setting off on their eastward journeys. The building actually lasted around 90 years – into the 1930s – although shipping had ceased after the loss of traffic to the Furness Railway, and from 1904, following the opening of the Midland Railway’s harbour at Heysham.

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Morecambe’s original passenger station at Northumberland Street boasted an overall roof.  Photo Courtesy: Ken Ludlam

One of the major problems with Morecambe’s harbour was the range of the tide, resulting in the Midland Railway transferring sailings to Piel, near Barrow, on the Furness Railway. In 1867, the direct connection with the Furness, from Wennington was completed, connecting with the Lancaster & Carlisle at Carnforth. The new ‘Furness & Midland Joint’ line allowed the Midland to transfer its ‘boat train’ traffic from Poulton to the Furness Railway jetty at Piel, which was independent of the tide, and provided a better option for the Midland Railway. The Midland and Furness companies, together with James Little & Co., as equal shareholders, jointly owned the IOM steamers. The Furness Railway began construction of its extensive docks at Barrow in 1867, and created a new station at Ramsden Dock, specifically for the steamer traffic to the IOM, Ireland, and even America. The Midland continued to operate all its Irish and other seaborne traffic from either Piel or Barrow until 1893, when it duly gave notice of its intention to cease that operation.

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1893 OS Map of Lancaster Green Ayre.      “Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland”

Heysham Harbour

The first mention of a harbour at Heysham was included in the Act of Parliament obtained by the ‘Little’ North Western in 1849, the same year that saw approval for the connection between Green Ayre and Castle stations in Lancaster.

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Interior of the original Heysham Harbour station, possibly around 1908.                                   Photo courtesy: Mandy Sharpe

However, it wasn’t until 1897 that the Midland Railway – by then effectively owners of the ‘Little’ North Western – bought the land to build a new deep water harbour, to provide greater reliability for their cross-sea traffic. The site chosen was at the southern end of Half Moon Bay, with a branch line connecting to the original line at Torrisholme, with access from both Morecambe Promenade and the lines to the harbour, as well as directly to Lancaster Green Ayre – in effect the ‘Torrisholme Triangle’.

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The impressive approaches to Heysham Harbour in later British Railways days.            Photo courtesy: David Wood

There was a 4 year delay after giving notice to the Furness of its intention to cease running boat trains to Barrow, but after spending £3 million on a new 350 acre site, construction was completed and the new harbour with its rail connection was opened in 1904.

Electrification

Just after the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, the original station at Northumberland Street was replaced by the impressive Morecambe Promenade station, and a curve linking the LNWR line to Morecambe via Bare Lane was completed. This longer route from Lancaster Castle provided the LNWR with access to its own station at Euston Road – only a very short branch from the Midland’s line. Yet another connecting curve was made from the LNWR’s Bare Lane route to the main line at Hest Bank, which enabled trains from the north to access Morecambe directly, these changes collectively known as forming the ‘Torrisholme Triangle’.

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Taken on Heysham old station’s No.2 platform in BR days, showing the final livery applied to the ex-LNWR stock, converted by Metropolitan-Vickers and brought into use on the M&H route in 1953.                        Photo courtesy: David Wood

By far the most far-reaching change was the announcement in 1906 that electrification of the line from Lancaster Castle, to Green Ayre, and on to Morecambe Promenade. At that time Richard Deeley was the Midland Railway’s Locomotive Superintendent, and this work would have been seen as we today look at the use of ‘new technology’ in industry. This work built on the successful use of electricity at the recently opened Heysham Harbour, where the Midland’s own power station was supplying power to dockside cranes and other equipment.

Traffic

Throughout its life, the ‘Little’ North Western arm of the Midland Railway, and well into BR days, passenger traffic was typically the holidaymakers from the east, and Yorkshire in particular, which together with day trippers and local traffic from North Lancashire was certainly popular. To a degree it was also quite cost effective. For example the new station at Scale Hall, which opened in June 1957, was expected to pay for itself in 7 years, but it achieved its target in half of that time, only 3 ½ years – even before the ‘Beeching Report’ was published.

It wasn’t just holidaymakers though, as businessmen from Leeds and Bradford were provided with a ‘Residential Express’ by the Midland to transport the wealthy wool merchants and manufacturers from Yorkshire to their homes at Poulton, and for a time, the service even included a ‘Club Car’.

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Carlisle Upperby based 45518 on a stopping passenger train on the “Little” North Western at Wennington in 1962, heading for Morecambe.        Photo courtesy: Mandy Sharpe

After nationalisation, passenger numbers remained largely unchanged, and Morecambe remained a popular holiday resort, but like most UK resorts was dramatically affected by the growth of foreign holidays, and cheaper flights to destinations with guaranteed sunshine.

In terms of pure passenger numbers, in 1962/63 Beeching records these as 50,000 per week on the Lancaster to Morecambe line, but only around 5,000 a week on the ‘Little’ North Western route, along with the line from Wennington to Carnforth.

Density of freight on the other hand was an interesting picture, with 50,000 tons a week for the Heysham, Lancaster to Skipton and Leeds – at least it was justification for the original reasons for the building of the ‘Little’ North Western line, with access to the port of Heysham. Tonnage by station on these routes was much more varied, and perhaps as expected, places like Halton, Wennington, etc. delivered between zero and 5,000 tons.

Again though, Lancaster, Morecambe and Heysham generated between 5,000 and 25,000 tons a week. Heysham was listed on Map No. 11 of the Beeching Report as one of the terminals for the ‘Liner Train Routes’ being considered by BR at that time, and so perhaps its future was assured even during that dramatic period. In fact daily liner train services were operated between London, Birmingham and Heysham in 1968, as the national freight strategy was set to be expanded with a £12 million investment in new terminals and routes.

Beeching & Closure

In the infamous “Beeching Report” 13 stations were scheduled for closure, and the Lancaster Castle, Green Ayre, Morecambe and Heysham service was to be stopped, and the route closed completely. Green Ayre was perhaps the largest casualty, along with the electrified line, and Morecambe’s Euston Road station. The latter was in a derelict state for many years after the line closed, until the site was cleared and redeveloped.

There is little doubt that the decision to withdraw and modify the Leeds to Morecambe services contributed greatly to the once famous seaside town’s decline, although the freight services to Heysham continued, the economic prosperity of the area suffered badly.

On the 3rd January 1966 the passenger traffic ceased on the line, four months later the locomotive and goods depots closed, including boat trains to/from Manchester, Birmingham and London and ” The Ulster Express”. In May 1966 the locomotive and goods depots closed, and with the withdrawal of all traffic on the remnants of the eastbound track from Green Ayre in 1976, the station and remaining yards were demolished.

Further reading:

Click on the image below to load a more detailed review of the lines between Lancaster, Morecambe and Heysham, services, locos and rolling stock.

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Useful Links:

rylands railway map 1950s extract

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