Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,704 pages of information and 235,205 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Mersey Railway Tunnel

From Graces Guide
Two Walker Brothers engines driving Guibal fans in Liverpool
Pumping & ventilating station in Liverpool, looking north from Canning Dock. Air was exhausted through the castellated towers
Pumping & ventilating station in Birkenhead. Tower of Hamilton Square Station in distance
2016. Pumping station at Liverpool Pierhead. Queensway Tunnel ventilation tower in background

The Mersey Railway connected Liverpool and Birkenhead via the Mersey Railway Tunnel under the River Mersey. It represents one of the later generation of Liverpool Railway Tunnels.

Hamilton Square Station, Birkenhead, 2022

Brief History

Opened in 1886, the railway ran through the first tunnel built under the river. It was constructed by John Waddell and Sons, who had been sub-contracted the work by Samuel Isaac. James Prentice was the resident representative for Waddell.

The Mersey Tunnel was designed by Sir Charles Fox, and the design was carried out by his son, Douglas Fox, a Civil Engineer who was joint engineer to the Mersey Tunnel Co (set up in 1866) with James Brunlees. Douglas Fox was later knighted for his work on the project after its official opening by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

The Mersey Railway opened between Green Lane station in Birkenhead and James Street station in Liverpool in 1886, via Birkenhead Central and Hamilton Square stations, both in Birkenhead.

For the opening of the line, powerful condensing tank locomotives were obtained from Beyer, Peacock and Co. See below.

In 1888 a branch to Birkenhead Park station opened, with a connection to the Wirral Railway.

This was followed in 1891 by an extension from Green Lane to Rock Ferry with a connection to the Birkenhead Railway.

The signals were manufactured by the Railway-Signal Co of Fazakerly ; the telegraph, telephone, and electric-repeating arrangements were carried out by John Lavender, of Manchester.

In 1892 the tunnel was extended from James Street to a new Low Level station at Liverpool Central. The total length of the tunnel was 3.12 miles and by 1890 it was carrying 10 million passengers a year.

In 1903, the railway was electrified, becoming the first underground railway in the world to change over completely from steam to electric power. It was originally electrified with a fourth rail system, which was later replaced by a third rail system. The nearby Liverpool Overhead Railway, the world's first electric overhead railway, had already operated successfully with electric traction since its opening in 1893.

The Mersey Railway electric trains ran from Liverpool Central to Birkenhead Park and to Rock Ferry, where passengers to points beyond would change. In 1938 the LMS electrified from Birkenhead Park to New Brighton and to West Kirby, and built new trains which ran through to Liverpool. Normally new LMS trains handled the West Kirby route and Mersey Railway trains handled the New Brighton service, as well as the existing Rock Ferry operation. In 1948, on nationalisation of the railways, the Mersey Railway became known as the London Midland Region Mersey section and the old cars were renumbered in the British Railways sequence. In 1956 these trains were life-expired and replaced by further trains built to the LMS 1938 design, the last of the American-designed cars being phased out a year later.

The tunnel and railway are still in use today as part of the Wirral Line of the Merseyrail commuter rail network.

Aspects of Construction

Francis Fox produced a detailed account of the railway's construction, which can be read here[1], and a few snippets are included below. See also here for an account by C. A. Rowlandson of the Bold Street Extension Tunnel and Central low-level Station of the Mersey Railway.

See also 1891 The Practical Engineer for a description of works.

Francis Fox's account also includes a drawing showing a cross-sectional elevation of the tunnel. This exaggerates the heights, but it does show clearly how the tunnel slopes deeply at a gradient of 1 in 30 down from Borough Road Station in Birkenhead, levels out slightly at Hamilton Square Station, then slopes steeply again until well under the River Mersey, where it becomes practically level, before rising at 1 in 27 and then 1 in 30 to Liverpool St James Street Station. The smaller drainage (heading) tunnel is set slightly lower than the lowest part of the railway tunnel, and continues with a very slight slope until well under land, and terminates in the vertical shafts used for pumping water at Birkenhead and Liverpool. Another heading, offset from the railway tunnel and with cross branches to it, was used for ventilation. This ran more or less horizontally under the deepest part of the river, before rising to connect with ventilating shafts on the Birkenhead and Liverpool sides.

The construction work began by sinking two shafts, one each at Liverpool and Birkenhead, about 170 feet deep to the bottom of the sump, 1770 yards apart. The Liverpool shaft was lined with cast-iron tubbing, except for those portions, in solid rock, which not yielding much water. The cast-iron tubbing comprised segments with flanges on the concave side. The joint faces were left as-cast, the joints being made of red-pine timber sheeting, 25" wide and 3" thick, which, when all the tubbing was in place, was wedged tight by driving in dry timber wedges. At Birkenhead it was found unnecessary to do more than line a portion of the shaft with tubbing, where water-bearing strata occur between layers of sound rock.

From each shaft the drainage heading was driven under the river towards the centre, rising with gradients of 1 in 500, and 1 in 900. This heading was initially driven from both sides byhand, but the Birkenhead face was afterwards excavated using the Beaumont tunnelling machine, which bored out a circular heading 7 ft 4" diameter.

The difficult matter of accurately setting out of the heading was carried out by Messrs Irvine and Davidson. The positions of the shafts were fixed by means of triangulation, made difficult by high warehouses intervening. The pumping shafts were not on the centre line of the tunnel, being connected with the heading by cross-cut channels. Wires were suspended in the shafts, weighted with heavy plumb-bobs, and positioned laterally by fine-threaded screw-adjusters. The deep shafts were being used for pumping purposes, so there was the possibility that the wires were fouling pipework rather than hanging free, so it was decided to monitor them electrically to check for inadvertent earthing.

Transit theodolites by Troughton and Simms and Cook and sons, of York were used.

'The headings met at 1,115 yards from the Birkenhead working-shaft, and 639 yards from that at Liverpool, with an error of 1 inch in meeting, and of 23 inches maximum error at the centre from the true line as afterwards ranged through, both lines having diverged slightly to the sout. As might have been expected, there was less error in the lines taken down by the working-shafts, 95 feet deep, than in those through the pumping-shafts, with bobs suspended at a depth of 163 feet.'

The tunnel under the river is 26 feet wide. Where in rock, it was lined and inverted with brickwork in cement 2 feet 3 inches thick thickness. It is 19 feet high from the rails to the intrados, or 23 feet from the invert to the intrados, and provided with refuges for platelayers on each side, at 45 yard intervals.

The Hamilton Square and the James Street stations were excavated in the solid rock, and are about 90 feet below the level the booking halls. Access was by: a 10 ft wide subway with an incline of about 1 in 9; a staircase of about 160 steps; and three passenger-lifts, each giving a floor-area of 340 square feet in the cage, and having a stroke at Birkenhead of 87 feet 9 inches, and at Liverpool of 76 feet 6 inches. The station buildings (architect: G . E. Grayson) included hydraulic towers, containing water-tanks for the hydraulic machinery.

The original lifts, three at each station, were made by Easton and Anderson, and use a direct-acting low pressure ram. This necessitated the sinking of wells in the sandstone 40 inches in diameter und 90 feet deep to accommodate the hydraulic cylinders. The boring at Liverpool James Street was done by Mather and Platt of Salford, whilst E. Timmins and Sons, of Runcorn, undertook the sinking at Hamilton Square Station, Birkenhead. The method adopted by Timmins was to bore a hole, 18 inches in diameter in the first instance, to a depth of 90 feet. The hole was then carefully plumbed to ascertain if it was in any degree out of truth, and if so to what extent. This decided the size of the widening-out bar. It was then increased in diameter to 36 inches. The plumbing of the holes involved a good deal of thought, owing to the wells being in all cases full of water. The plumb-bob consisted of a double cone, each cone being 3 feet in length, and 39 inches in diameter at the centre. This was suspended from a point 95 feet above the top of the top of the well, cross strings being carefully fixed. If, on lowering the plumb-bob, any irregularity was encountered, the amount could be determined by the travel of the plumb-line at the cross strings.

Each lift could accommodate 100 passengers, and the journey took about 45 seconds. The cages, or cars, were made by the Starbuck Car Co, and had seats on each side, and the mirrored lantern-roof had a central gas-lamp. The cage was supported on a frame of iron girders, riveted to a central forged-steel cross, attached to a hollow steel ram, 18 inches in diameter. In the tower at the stations, about 120 feet above the pavement, was a 10,000 gallon water tank, and at about 60 feet below the pavement there was a waste tank of similar capacity. The hydraulic pumping machinery was on an intermediate floor. In the engine-room at James Street there were three marine boilers, and three pairs of Easton and Anderson’s duplex pumping-engines, each capable of raising 30,000 gallons of water per hour, from the waste-tank to the header tank. The lifts were tested with loads equal to about 140 passengers concentrated on one side of the cage.

Note: The imposing James Street station building, with five storeys plus a turreted tower, was severely damaged in the 1941 blitz. Surprisingly, the tall tower remained standing. All was susbsequently demolished, to be replaced by a monolithic office building.

Ventilation System

The use of steam locomotives running at frequent intervals dictated the provision of a poweful ventilation system. Fox calculated that at peak times 464 cubic feet of noxious gas would be generated per minute. This, diluted to the extent of 1 in 500, would require 232,000 cubic feet of air per minute to be drawn from the tunnel, or an average duty of 116,000 cubic feet per minute by each of the fans.

The whole of the ventilation system was supplied by Walker Brothers, comprising five fans with the steam engines for driving them. Four were Walker's improved Guibal type, two at Liverpool and two at Birkenhead (Hamilton Street and Shore Road) and one was the Walker 'Indestructible' type, erected near Liverpool Central Station [2]. Each fan was driven by a tandem compound engine. In the photograph above it will be noted that on each bedplate there are three cylinders. On each engine, nearest the camera are the low pressure and high pressure cylinder, while at the far end is a large high pressure cylinder, with the crankshaft (coupled to the fan) between them. In fact the large high pressure cylinder was normally disconnected and only used a standby, its connecting rod being stored on the adjacent wall, as seen in the photograph. This catered for the event of failure or essential maintenance of the duty engine, to ensure maximum fan availability. The engine, on the left, drove a 40 ft diameter, 12 ft wide fan, and its cylinder diameters were 33" (low pressure cylinder), 20" (high pressure), while the standby (HP) cylinder was 33" diameter, the stroke being 2ft 6". The smaller engine, on the right, drove a 30 ft diameter, 10 ft wide fan, and the corresponding cylinder diameters were 24", 15" and 34", the stroke being 2ft. The Liverpool engines had horizontal condensers, the one on the RH engine being visible in the foreground. The Birkenhead engines were non-condensing, cooling water being unavailable. The exhaust was silenced by passing it first into a receiver, which was provided with a feed water heat exchanger.

For ventilation purposes the tunnel was divided into four sections, each having a dedicated fan, although doors were provided to allow the duty to be shared. The 30 ft fan at Liverpool also served St. James Station.

The main pumping and ventilating station on the Liverpool side comprised a group of buildings located immediately east of the George's Dock Passage (a short channel linking George's Dock with Canning Dock). See photo. The tunnel passed under the north end of the buildings. The Harbour Master's office was immediately east of the building. 25" O.S. map here.

Pumping Machinery

The pumping machinery at Liverpool consisted of a (a) pair of pumps, 20" diameter by 6 stroke, connected by means of quadrants with a compound Davey differential engine made by Hathorn, Davey and Co of Leeds. The low-pressure was 35", and the high-pressure cylinder 20", the stroke being 6 feet; (b) a pair of pumps 30" diameter, driven by engines having cylinders 60" and 33" in diameter, and a stroke of 10 feet; (c) a pump 40" in diameter and 15 feet stroke, driven directly by an over-hanging beam-engine, manufactured by Andrew Barclay and Son, of Kilmarnock. The high-pressure cylinder diameter was 36", with a stroke of 10 feet 6 inches, and the low-pressure cylinder 55" diameter, with a stroke of 13 feet.

The pumping machinery at Birkenhead was similar to that described above, with the addition of a second 40" pump, with 15 feet stroke. See Shore Road Pumping Station.

Extracts from a Press Report, 1886

'In the spring of 1883 a new and interesting feature in the progress of the work was added by the adoption of the now celebrated boring machine of Colonel Beaumont, R.E., which in the end greatly accelerated the driving of the headways and main tunnel. The cutting instruments are discs of chilled cast iron, set in a strong iron bar, which is made to revolve by the aid of compressed air, and thus scoops out a tunnel seven feet in diameter. By progressive improvements in the mechanism to suit the special quality of the rock. Colonel Beaumont finally attained a high degree of speed of over fifty linear yards per week, which left far behind the old method of blasting with dynamite or tonite. Mr. Waddell's operations in breaking the rock at different places to the size of the main tunnel, and bricking in short lengths, followed close upon the tunnel driven by Colonel Beaumont; and all through 1883 and1884 the works, both under the Mersey and on the landward extensions, were in full swing. These operations were under the responsible control Mr. A. H. Irvine, who from the commencement of the work under Major Isaac to final handing over of railway a few day ago, has been the resident engineer.'[3]

Steam Locomotives

For the opening of the line, eight powerful 0-6-4 tank locomotives were obtained from Beyer, Peacock and Co. These were fitted with condensing apparatus for working in the tunnel. One of them (number 5 Cecil Raikes) is currently (2022) in store in Bootle, under the care of the Museum of Liverpool. It is likely that it is named after Henry Cecil Raikes who was Member of Parliament for Preston in 1882. Beyer Peacock built a ninth 0-6-4T locomotive in 1886, along with six 2-6-2 tank locomotives in 1887–1888. A seventh 2-6-2T was built by Kitson & Co in 1892.

The locomotives were designed by Hermann Ludwig Lange of Beyer, Peacock. Lange had designed the first condensing steam locomotives in 1864, for the Metropoloitan Railway. When operating in condensing mode, the exhaust steam from the cylinders was diverted to the side tanks. In condensing, the steam heated the water, necessitating the use of crosshead-driven boiler feed pumps, as injectors would not work with hot water.[4]

After electrification four of the Railway's 0-6-4T locomotives were sold to J. & A. Brown of New South Wales, Australia, where one, number 5, former Mersey Railway number 1 The Major, is preserved at the New South Wales Rail Transport Museum, Thirlmere, New South Wales. Three other 0-6-4T (nos. 2, 3 & 6) and all seven 2-6-2T locomotives (nos. 10-16) were sold to the Alexandra (Newport and South Wales) Docks and Railway between November 1903 and January 1905, becoming their nos. 6-11 and 22-25. All ten passed to the Great Western Railway in January 1922, and were withdrawn between January 1923 and May 1932.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] I.C.E. Minutes of Proceedings: Paper No. 2165. “The Mersey Railway.” by Francis Fox (of Westminster), M. Inst. C.E.
  2. Walker Brothers, (Wigan) Limited, General Catalogue, c.1902
  3. Liverpool Daily Post - Thursday 21 January 1886
  4. 'Beyer, Peacock - Locomotivee Builders to the World' by R L Hills and D Patrick, Venture Publications, 1982, 1998