This month saw the last of the once huge manufacturing railway workshops in Glasgow closed. The facilities were established in the Springburn district of the city by the Caledonian Railway in 1854, brining to an end the 169 year history of building, repairing and maintaining railway locomotives and rolling stock on a 15 acre site. The St Rollox site was just one of three major sites in the area – the others being the former North British Locomotive Co works, which closed in the 1960s, and of course the Cowlairs Works.
As a loco works for the Caledonian Railway, it produced many fine steam types, but the works’ status changed dramatically after the grouping of 1923, and under the ownership of the LMS, no new building was carried out there after 1927. As a workshop responsible for maintenance and repair, this was the position of St Rollox for the next 40 years.
At the time of nationalisation the works employed 3,382 staff, whilst neighbouring Cowlairs employed a little over 1,200 in 1949, with work being transferred away to Horwich. Interestingly, at the time the staffing of railway works came under scrutiny, in 1962, both Cowlairs and St Rollox employed just over 1,900 on each site. Plans were laid to modernise and re-equip the works, and in order to do that, most of the work in St. Rollox was moved temporarily into Cowlairs. Once re-equipped the plan was to transfer all work into St. Rollox, and close Cowlairs. The new St. Rollox was re-named the Glasgow Railway Works – at least on paper. In addition to repairs and maintenence of motive power and rolling stock, manufacture light alloy containers and the repair of all signal and telegraph equipment was to be set up. The total labour force by 1966 will be approximately 2,800 men.
St Rollox in Glasgow’s Springburn area was at the heart of railway and locomotive engineering in Glasgow, and Scotland, the work to modernise the works was expensive, costing more than £1 million, but the eventual outcome was closure of Cowlairs in 1968. All of the Scottish works of BR were discussed in great detail during the 1960s, and the social and economic consequences of decisions taken in London were not lost on local MPs.
The same seems to be happening again in 2019.
St Rollox became part of BREL with the 1980s restructuring of BR workshops, and following the privatisation of BREL in 1988 was operated purely as a rail maintenance facility by British Rail Maintenance Limited (BRML).
In effect St Rollox was closed in 1988 with the loss of 1,200 jobs. That said, in the seven years that followed, much of what was the St Rollox site was sold off to developers, and occupied by a Tesco supermarket, Costco, Lidl, and a new Springburn fire station. The rump of what was left for rail maintenance was sold off after privatisation, in 1995, to a Babcock/Siemens consortium. In 2007 it was sold on again to Alstom, and finally to Railcare Ltd., which went into administration in July 2013. The following month, the remaining works was purchased by Knorr-Bremse, who created Knorr-Bremse RailServices (UK) Ltd as a new rolling stock maintenance and repair company. Five years later it was sold on to Mutares, a German based group specialising in acquiring low income companies, with a view to turning them into growing, and profitable enterprises.
The Mutares acquisition, and operation under the Gemini Rail Group took pl;ace in late 2018, and by December, the new owner announced it planned to close the Springburn works.
The annoucement was greeted with dismay, and in the early hours of 14th January 2019, the MP Paul Sweeney made this observation:
In 2018, it was sold to another German company, an industrial turnaround specialist called Mutares. In November 2018, just a few weeks after its acquisition, it was formed into a newco known as Gemini Rail, which was a wholly owned subsidiary company of Mutares but also associated with Knorr-Bremse—for instance, sharing the same company house number. It is clear this has been an exercise conveniently designed to quickly rationalise their operations in the UK.
As at December 2018, St Rollox continues to carry out component and rolling stock repairs and overhauls. Recent work has included overhauls of class 156s, class 158s and Class 320s for Abellio ScotRail. It is the largest rolling stock repair site in Scotland. Two smaller sites in Kilmarnock are operated by Brodie and Wabtec respectively, and are still operating at capacity.
In December last year, shortly after acquiring the site, the new owner announced very suddenly that it planned to close the works, stating that it was making losses of between £3 million and £4 million.
At the time, St Rollox had barely 200 staff, but they would be the last to work at this famous site, if the closure went ahead. As a final point in the January 2019 debate, Paul Sweeney made the following point:
The Minister is making a number of pertinent points, but the fundamental crux of this issue is that while it is a private decision for a private company at this point, it is clear that the company, ScotRail and Network Rail could work collaboratively to restructure the site to put it on a sound commercial footing and allow it to win business competitively. This is not about bailing something out or state aid for a failing industry; this is a kernel of expertise and a centre of excellence that could thrive with a restructuring of ownership.
However, despite the perhaps good intentions, and warm words from the Government spokesperson, the closure has gone ahead, and St Rollox is no longer a railway works, be it construction, or maintenance. The skillsets remain, but it seems the desire to maintain a rail industry has all but evaporated.
Useful Links & Further Reading
- An Illustrated History of British Railways’ Workshops; Edgar Larkin; Pub Ian Allan 1998
- St Rollox Railway Works: Closure
- St Rollox Railway Works closure threatens hundreds of jobs
- Save the Caley in Springburn