The Reshaping of our Railways: 3. All This, Rail Blue and Rationalisation Too

The third part of East of the M60’s report on the effects of its area’s railways before, during and after the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways

BR Mark II 2nd Class carriage interior
For many passengers, the public face of 1970s British Rail involved a Mark 2 carriage such as this TSO (Tourist Second Open) example on the East Lancashire Railway between Heywood and Bury (photographed more recently in 2010, alas). By then, Rail Blue was everywhere.

A new decade enabled British Rail to make a fresh start. Two years earlier, they got rid of steam by means of a send off one August through Manchester Victoria railway station. The 1948 vintage British Railways signs were gradually replaced by the Design Research Unit’s works with black Transport font on a minimalist background. It looked clean, pretty much a byproduct of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. By the 1970s, minimalism would soon be extended to its railway stations. The reason was more to do with cost cutting instead of a clamour for more modernism. Even so, it led to the survival of some services.

This maxim wasn’t true with the Macclesfield to Manchester Piccadilly stopping service, which along with a number of other services in our area, was discontinued in the 1970s. The section between Rose Hill Marple and Macclesfield was closed on the 05 January 1970 with the service curtailed to terminate at Rose Hill Marple. Hydonians wishing to visit Macclesfield need have to change at Manchester Piccadilly. Today, that section forms part of the Middlewood Way path. Also facing closure the same date was the Hayfield branch from New Mills Central. The trackbed survives as today’s Sett Valley Trail.

Though not part of The Reshaping of British Railways, long distance passenger services along the Woodhead line were discontinued on the same date. At the time, British Rail wanted to reduce the number of duplicate services – hence the closure of Manchester Central and Manchester Exchange railway stations. Manchester had two Sheffield bound services at the time with one going to Sheffield Midland via the Hope Valley Line, and the other Woodhead line service which terminated at Sheffield Victoria station. Similarly, London St. Pancras bound trains would cease to use Central station with Manchester’s sole London terminus becoming Euston. The discontinuation of the St. Pancras service – and the Midland Pullman service – also meant the closure of the Cornbrook to Heaton Mersey line via Didsbury.

The 05 October 1970 saw the closure of the Castleton to Bolton line to passengers. This meant the closure of Heywood, Broadfield, Bury Knowsley Street, Radcliffe Black Lane and Darcy Lever railway stations. A further line from Radcliffe Central would also link up with the line to Manchester Victoria. To mitigate any issues caused by the route’s closure, SELNEC PTE added extra journeys to its newly created Trans-Lancs Express route between Bolton, Bury and Rochdale.

Rationalisation

Nineteen months on from the closure of the Bolton – Castleton line to passengers, Bury fell victim to another line closure. After being given a reprieve in 1966, albeit after swingeing cuts to services and its stations, the Rawtenstall – Bury Bolton Street service faced withdrawal on the 05 June 1972, with all its remaining stations closing. A single line from Bury Bolton Street to Rawtenstall was retained for a coal concentration depot.

In the early 1970s, there was half a chance of full employment for demolition workers, owing to the amount of station buildings and other railway structures which bit the dust. In Tameside alone, 1971 saw the demolition of Park Bridge viaduct; Tame Bridge, on the Stalybridge Junction Railway over the Peak Forest Canal would follow suit in 1973. Saddleworth also saw the demolition of her viaducts along the Micklehurst Loop Line.

The most telling signs of the basic railway were the unstaffed halts sporting rudimentary bus shelters, demolished or partially demolished station buildings, and guards selling tickets on board. Was that the age of the Paytrain? Most definitely. 1972 saw the Stockport to Stalybridge route converted to full Paytrain operation. The Rose Hill Marple to Manchester Piccadilly service would follow suit, as guards selling tickets soon became the norm on local services.

This proved to be more economically viable than the continuance of staffed small stations such as Hyde North and Oldham Werneth. The former, along with Hyde Central and Fairfield, saw its fine buildings demolished and – you’ve guessed it – its waiting rooms replaced by two Queensbury designed bus shelters. Succumbing to the bus shelter, Oldham Werneth lost its full length canopies on both up and down lines. Prior to BR’s rationalisation policies, they had an air of opulence, much needed in Edwardian times when Oldham’s movers and shakers used the train to do business with Platt Brothers (whose offices were off the station on Featherstall Road South), the Hartford Works close by, and of course its proximity to the mills.

Oldham Mumps faired better retaining its canopy till the end and gained a new station building in the early 1960s. Nearby was the Clegg Street Parcels Concentration Depot, which benefitted from the cotton mills’ decline (some were converted to warehouses for mail order catalogue companies like Littlewoods). Ashton Charlestown, saved from closure, saw its canopy and main station demolished in 1971. Instead, the ticket office moved to its present position on the island platform.

It seemed as if the railway was in continual decline. Passenger numbers on the Trans-Pennine Inter-City routes fell as a result of the opening of the M62 motorway from South Cave to Liverpool. The Huddersfield line’s local service only operated in peak hours, and the Oldham – Rochdale Loop Line was threatened with closure. As a result of Greater Manchester’s parlous position with its railways, SELNEC PTE stepped in and became the first Passenger Transport Executive to subsidise local rail services. Therefore, the Oldham – Rochdale Loop Line gained a reprieve.

Elsewhere, South Manchester’s electric services fared better. Altrincham saw its non-standard 1,500 V d.c. overhead line equipment energised to the 25kV a.c. system. Class 304s from Stoke-on-Trent and Crewe would continue to Altrincham via the former MSJ&AR line via Sale. In doing this, Altrinchamians not only gained a link to Crewe and Stoke-on-Trent, but also Alderley Edge, Stockport and East Didsbury. The Manchester Piccadilly to Hadfield and Manchester Victoria to Bury Bolton Street trains would retain their non-standard systems throughout the 1970s and first part of the 1980s. And of course, this was the problem which SELNEC PTE would have faced if the Picc-Vic Project went ahead.

The Picc-Vic Project

Manchester rail passengers had for several years been hamstrung by the lack of a physical rail connection between Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly stations. There had previously been plans to build an underground railway in the 1920s, and a mid-1960s to introduce light rapid transport using the Duorail system. The latter, if it went ahead, would have linked Langley with Wythenshawe and Manchester International Airport. This would include cross-city running from Manchester Victoria to Oxford Road railway stations via Market Street and St. Peter’s Square.

Instead, plans suggested cross-city access between Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly stations by means of a cut and cover tunnel, with intermediate stations at St. Peter’s Square (Central), Whitworth Street and by the Royal Exchange. The latter would serve the then forthcoming Arndale Centre. Underground passenger conveyors would be built to link Oxford Road station with Central, with Piccadilly Low Level’s conveyor linking up with Piccadilly Gardens. Tracks, even on the underground sections would be energised to the 25kV a.c. system. Trains would run every two and a half minutes on the central section, with provision for trains to run every 90 seconds.

There would be four Picc-Vic lines, with the Bury to Manchester Victoria line continuing to Alderley Edge. Part of the closed Bolton – Castleton line would be reopened up to Radcliffe, with direct services to Wilmslow along the Styal line. Shorter lines beginning at Victoria Low Level would continue to Macclesfield and Hazel Grove. The Picc-Vic project was also part of a wider project to increase the attractiveness of public transport in Greater Manchester. Other offshoots of the project (detailed in SELNEC PTE’s ‘Public Transport Plan For The Future’) included an upgraded East-West Network from Irlam to Ashton-under-Lyne, plus branches to both Marple stations, and Glossop and Hadfield. Besides the rail upgrades, it was hoped that a complementary rapid transit system, along with integrated buses, would complete the picture.

In 1977, the project was scrapped due to cost, after underground excavation and construction required a substantial one-off outlay. Besides the central tunnel, some parts of the project, mainly improved bus/rail interchanges went ahead. As a result, Altrincham received her new bus and rail interchange in 1976, complete with feeder buses under the ‘Interlink’ banner. Whitefield bus station saw improved facilities, and Bury Interchange would follow in 1980.

Late Seventies Developments

The second half of the 1970s, among railway buffs would be remembered for the introduction of the Class 253 (later Class 43) High Speed Train in 1976. Anglo-Scottish electrification on the West Coast Main Line ushered in the arrival of new Class 87 electric locomotives. The air conditioned carriage also came of age when the first BR Mark 3 carriages were introduced, complementing BR’s earlier Mark 2F carriages from 1971. With these developments, the railway was starting to become a serious competitor to the motorway.

Away from the bright lights of a thyristor controlled electric locomotive, some of Greater Manchester’s local services started to look down to heel. The Class 506s still ruled the roost on the Hadfield line on the 1,500V d.c. overhead system; corridor-less Class 504s remained the sole preserve of the Bury Bolton Street to Manchester Victoria route on its 1,200V d.c. third rail system. The DMUs were starting to look antiquated, even with a mid-life refurbishment in 1974, and a new version of the rail blue livery – white with a rail blue band below the windows.

The Trans-Pennine express services were often hauled by Class 40s, Class 47s or Class 45s, with a mix of Mark 1 carriages with either side corridor compartment or open variants. Though crack coaching stock only ten years ago, they began to look long in the tooth compared with their counterparts on the West Coast Main Line.

Though the first part of the decade saw station closures, the second part saw the opening of two stations in our area. 1976 saw the opening of Brinnington’s station, with Hattersley’s following suit in 1978. The latter was originally going to be part of a local bus/rail interchange with generous parking facilities and bus provision made available. Both stations had substantial cover – a far cry from the prefabricated shelters which would follow when GMC and GMPTE opened a number of stations from 1985 onwards.

Losing some of its cover the same year as Hattersley’s opening was Stalybridge railway station. Part of the canopy on the Yorkshire platform was removed up to the entrance of the station’s famous buffet bar. The whole of the Manchester platform was left open to the elements, with a brick built waiting room in its place.

Into the 1980s

Whilst British Rail was content with the success of the High Speed Train, and testing the Advanced Passenger Train, its next mission was the development of a cheap and cheerful solution for local services. One was the development of a new railbus using Leyland National bodywork. Another was the development of a new generation of multiple units. Much of this began with the PEP train project in the early 1970s, which led to the introduction of Class 313 EMUs and its d.c. equivalent, the Class 508 (examples of which would see service on the revamped Merseyrail system’s Wirral and Northern lines).

The most tangible developments affecting our area involved Rochdale and Bury stations. A new station building opened on the island platform of Rochdale station in 1980. In the same year, Bury Interchange opened, offering seamless connections between bus, rail, taxi and private car. As a legacy from the aborted Picc-Vic project, the bus section replaced the town’s stands on Kay Gardens and offered a real improvement for bus and rail passengers alike. To facilitate this, the Bury – Victoria rail services saw its terminus move from Bolton Street to a new station. The goods line to Rawtenstall criss-crossed the new line into Bury Interchange, though that use was short lived as the line was closed in November 1980.

A loss of coal traffic played a part in the closure of the Woodhead line. Despite being modernised to great expense in the early 1950s – and not featuring in The Reshaping of British Railways – it closed to all traffic on the 17 July 1981. The line was mothballed, probably pending future use, though dismantled between Penistone and Hadfield in 1986. The legacy of this non-Beeching closure meant the loss of a fast connection to Sheffield for Mancunian passengers (at that time, the only way to the Hope Valley line was via Reddish North and New Mills). This led to the subsequent closure of Mottram sidings, the rundown of Tinsley Marshalling Yard, and eventual closures of Reddish Depot and Dewsnap Sidings.

Also closing in 1981 was the Tiviot Dale line and the Apethorn Branch from Woodley to Godley Junction. The latter formed a connection with the Woodhead line and the Cheshire Lines Committee’s Tiviot Dale line towards Warrington and Widnes. The section between Heaton Mersey and Bredbury closed not as a result of unprofitability, but structural issues caused by the construction of the M63 motorway which also opened in the same year.

August 1981 would also see the demise of British Rail’s Collected and Delivered parcels service. This service was a godsend to mail order companies who used rail for most part of the route and road for a short distance to the customer’s home. Instead, BR decided to focus on the more profitable Red Star service, and this factor led to the closure of Oldham’s Parcel Concentration Depot, refurbished to great expense in the 1960s.

Amid all this, the APT was being tested on the West Coast Main Line, and a gaggle of queasy journalists criticised its tilt mechanism. Though 1981 offered enough potential to elaborate on Inter-City’s successes, journalists and commentators, particularly those on the right wing of politics, saw fit to criticise British Rail. One Conservative peer, Lord Sherman, wanted to see railway lines replaced by guided bus ways. Efforts at selling off non-railway related activities began, and most of this would take root at the end of the 1980s.

For some commentators, Beeching didn’t go far enough. A 1982 report by Sir David Serpell spawned a monster which would have made The Reshaping of British Railways seem like a list of service changes affecting the 343 route since 2007.

1982 was deemed British Rail’s worst year in terms of passenger revenues, mileage and its deficit. Though Passenger Transport Executives made good progress in Metropolitan areas (i.e. West Yorkshire PTE’s cheap fares and West Midlands PTE’s station modernisation schemes), the private car didn’t turn out to be rail’s only competitor. Domestic flights started to take a slice of the action; the rejuvenation of express coaches would hit excursion and holiday traffic. A national rail strike didn’t help matters either.

Meanwhile, a cheap and cheerful railbus would be two years away from entering service. This would have a great affect on the destiny of our area’s local services, not only by 1985, but also now.

*                         *                         *

Part Four: The Crumbling Edge of Quality? (1983 – 1993)

In our fourth part, we shall focus on more recent developments affecting our railways. There will be reference to new rolling stock, rail preservation, and fancy liveries. This section will take us up to the dawn of rail privatisation.

S.V., 28 March 2013.

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4 thoughts on “The Reshaping of our Railways: 3. All This, Rail Blue and Rationalisation Too

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  1. There is a three-volume copy of the “Manchester Rapid Transport Study” that was jointly commisioned in the late 1960’s by Manchester Corporation, the Ministry of Transport and British Railway and prepared by two leading bodies of consulting enginrers in the archives of the Museum of Transport at Boyle Street in Cheeham Hill.

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  2. I have only just stumbled across this article; one thing that always does amaze me is how well documented it is that the Micklehurst Loop Line did once exist. I’m not entirely sure when the Bridleway path was laid out, although I know that Greenfield viaduct was demolished 1978(?) or around that time.

    One thing that has always baffled me is where the exact location of the Western (Uppermill) portal of the Butterhouse tunnel was located, I believe it was buried late 80’s (so not that long ago comparatively) owing to the proximity to Saddleworth School .. I’m sure it acted as a bit of a sneaky ‘play’ area for schoolkids to mess around with in the 70’s and 80’s! But here in 2015, any evidence of the South Western Portal is diminished, they did a good job of re landscaping the terrain. I would have a guess it was located ‘below’ the private road leading to Ryefields house otherwise that private driveway would have crossed the railway but I cannot work out where the actual portal would have been.

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