Thursday, 1 January 2009

Steam around Morecambe

Although I didn't realise it at the time, the holiday my mother and I had in Morecambe in 1952 gave a unique opportunity to see steam working in the area. Well, it was a holiday for me but my mother was responsible for a party of about 200 pensioners from the West Midlands who had come for a week's holiday organised by a voluntary organisation. In those far-off days, it was safe for me to entertain myself and, although I loved the sea and the beach, it wasn't long before I found my way to the station at Morecambe Promenade. First, a little background.

Both the London and North Western Railway and the Midland Railway operated branches to Morecambe to support the significant local and tourist traffic. Morecambe Euston Road was the L&NWR terminus in the town, less than two miles from a triangular junction with the West Coast Main Line a little over two miles north of Lancaster Castle station. The later Midland Railway branch terminated at Morecambe Promenade, an airy, spacious station right on the front and ideally suited for holiday traffic. The Midland branch went through Lancaster at Lancaster Green Ayre station, continuing across country to the Midland main line at Skipton, giving access to Leeds and the South. A single-line steeply-graded branch less than half a mile long linked the two stations at Lancaster. The Midland Railway promoted its own route to Ireland, with a branch about four and a half miles in length from a triangular junction just outside Morecambe to the port of Heysham.

As early as 1908, the Midland Railway electrified the 20 track miles embracing Lancaster Green Ayre and Morecambe Promenade, together with the branches to Lancaster Castle and Heysham. They chose an experimental system of electrification with the overhead contact wire fed at 6.6 kilovolts, 25 Hertz.

The 'Gloucester Transport History' site, rather improbably, has an interesting feature on the electrified lines around Morecambe here.

The original electric trains were finally withdrawn in 1951 and British Railways decided to modernise the system as a testbed for 50 Hertz electrification, prior to making decisions about main line electrification.

Whilst the modernisation was taking place, push-pull fitted Stanier 0-4-4T from the 41900 series were drafted in to maintain the service with 'Push-Pull' trains (sometimes called 'auto' or 'motor' trains) where the locomotive is permanently coupled at one end of the rake of coaches. When the engine is leading, driver and fireman are on the footplate in the normal way. But, when travelling in the opposite direction, the driver moves to a small compartment at the opposite end of the train, from where he has a good view ahead and can drive 'remotely'. Normally, the driver is provided with a brake application valve, a control for the regulator, an audible warning and an electric bell for communication with the fireman. In addition to his normal duties, the fireman has to set the reverser in the correct direction and 'link-up' as necessary.

On Great Western 'Push-Pull' trains, a mechanical linkage connected the remote regulator handle in the end coach to the actual regulator handle on the locomotive footplate but on L.M.S. lines, the use of a 'Vacuum Controlled Regulator' was widespread, where the remote regulator valve in the end coach operated a mechanism on the locomotive which actually adjusted the regulator over pipes and flexible hoses between vehicles. The system used vacuum created by the locomotive ejector to move the regulator proportionally, just as the brake valve proportionally moves the brake rigging.

Since trains typically started at Lancaster Castle, reversed at Lancaster Green Ayre, reversed again at Morecambe Promenade and terminated at Heysham before repeating the process in reverse, 'Push-Pull' working was essential in taking over from the old electric trains.

So, what of my adventures when I discovered the 'Push-Pull' trains at Morecambe Promenade? I'll tell you another time but before finishing this time, I will conclude the potted history of the modernisation.

Most of the original overhead catenary system was retained, but a section was 're-wired' to test various proposed designs of lightweight masts, to assist the design of main-line overhead electrification systems. To keep the cost of the 50 Hertz trains down, three surplus 3-car sets built in 1914 by Metropolitan Carriage for fourth-rail, low-voltage d.c. systems in the London area were converted at Wolverton. By the end of 1952, trial running had commenced and all local trains reverted to electric traction on 17-Aug-1953.

There's a article on the modernisation in the 'Railway Magazine' December 1953 issue.

You can find more detailed track and signalling diagrams of the route in the excellent series of publications from the Signalling Record Society 'British Railways Layout Plans of the 1950's'. The ex-Midland Lines around Morecambe are included in 'Volume 12: ex-MR Main Line Carlisle to Leeds, associated branches and point lines' (ISBN: 1 873228 15 5).

Years later, in 1967, I did a sketch of the layout of Lancaster Green Ayre which is here.

For details of what remained of this route in 2005, refer to 'Railway Track Diagrams Book 4: Midlands & North West', Second Edition, published by Trackmaps (ISBN: 0-9549866-0-1). The First Edition of this book was published by Quail in 1988.

Wikipedia has a useful Article on the history of the Morecambe Branch and the railway today.

[Revised August 2011]