An emotional journey as British main line steam travel gasped its final breath.
The only smoke to be seen in Liverpool Lime Street came from the vertical exhaust of a multiple unit. At platform five stood seven coaches without motive power and a crowd of enthusiasts waited at the head of the coaches, peering expectantly into the tunnel. They stirred as a train came slowly into view, but relaxed again when it proved to be yet another diesel multiple unit.
The departure of the Locomotive Club of Great Britain special was scheduled for 11.45am on Saturday, April 4th, 1968, but the station clocks already showed this hour when once again, there was movement far up the tunnel. This time, wisps of steam could be seen and the Stanier Black Five idled its way down the bank towards the waiting coaches.
It came almost apologetically, as if not sure whether British Railways would allow it to enter the station, but as it came nearer, it was evident there was someone who still cherished it. It had been freshly groomed for its appearance and its number stood out clearly – 45305. It was coupled to the waiting coaches and with only a few moments for photographs, was anxious to be away.
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It climbed the bank from Lime Street more slowly than the electric locos and the diesels, but as it reached the top of the bank and passed its few surviving contemporaries at Edgehill sheds, it gained speed. It followed the main line through the Liverpool suburbs and passed the engine sheds at Speke, where only two or three engines were in steam, many others standing derelict and rusting.
Shortly before Runcorn, it left the main line and took us past small abandoned stations, vast deserted factories neglected sidings. The train crept through Warrington, passing the Manchester Ship Canal and then onwards through more deserted stations… Latchford, Thelwall, Lymm, and many others. Progress along these seldom used lines was slow and cautious, giving opportunities for enthusiasts who had gathered with their cameras, as if brought by some secret bush telegraph.
Just before Stockport, the Black Five joined the main line from Euston to Manchester Piccadilly and stopped for water, allowing time to look at the engines in steam at Stockport sheds, perhaps for the last time, since these sheds would be closed within the month.
We advanced onwards through Stockport and over the long ageing but substantial viaduct straddling the valley, and then quickly through the Manchester suburbs and towards the approaches to Manchester Piccadilly. Rumour had it that British Railways would not allow steam locomotives into their newly decorated Manchester Piccadilly Station and sure enough, when the engine was almost at the head of the platforms, it turned away towards Oxford Road Station as if spurned.
Then it was on once again through more abandoned stations, Seedley, Weaste and then, surprisingly, one still open, Eccles, almost as decayed as those abandoned. The only evidence to show it was in use were the nameplates that graced its walls. At Eccles Junction the train once more diverted, passing the Patricroft sheds. There were very few engines here and those that remained looked forlorn and uncared for. As the train continued on towards Wigan came more abandoned stations and now abandoned branches too – the line to Bolton with the track taken up, and then, further on, a spur, where not only had the track been removed but already the very embankment was being erased by giant earthmoving machinery.
Outside Wigan, with its deserted engine sheds in view, the Black Five once again stopped for water. There were locomotives here but only diesels; the giant D200 idled by, almost an antique itself and living only on past glories. Then it was on into Wigan Station, where we waited patiently sipping British Railways’ coffee whilst a diesel multiple unit bound for Southport came in, picked up its Saturday afternoon trippers, and then moved on.
Our train was to follow the diesel to Southport and our driver gave it ample headway before proceeding. It became plain that the line ahead was clear, for here the rhythm of the train changed appreciably as if the locomotive was relieved to be in open country and on a line that was still served by passenger trains. The Black Five pulled more briskly, the sun shone, the country became greener and the locomotive padded on, throwing back small wisps of clean white steam as if it was as contented as its passengers.
At Burscough Bridge the train made a scheduled ten-minute stop for photographs. Everyone flocked out of the carriages and jostled for position to photograph 45305. The driver, fireman and two bowler hatted officials stood importantly on the footplate pretending to be disdainful of the attention but secretly, I suspect, rather proud. Much film was exposed before the whistles blew and everyone flocked back to the train. One enthusiast confided he thought that we had been travelling at something in excess of 62 miles an hour along the stretch between Wigan and Burscough Bridge and certainly the pace had been brisk.
Onwards we sped to Southport and past the long abandoned engine sheds before joining the electrified commuters’ line that runs from Southport to Liverpool; through the pleasant residential area where the line was flanked by large comfortable houses, golf courses, sand dunes and pine woods. The locomotive was clearly anxious to show its paces once again but this time I suspected that a stopping electric train was running ahead of us and several times the train was slowed by signals.
Soon we were back in the inner Liverpool suburbs and plunging down into a deep and gloomy cutting, the walls running with slime and sides of the track lined with debris and junk hurled from the densely packed dwellings above. We passed more abandoned stations deep in the cutting and then the junction at Edge Hill.
Now the train was venturing down the long steep tunnel towards Riverside Station, built by the London and North Western Railways for the benefit of its boat train passengers. Emerging from the tunnel down in the dock area, the train caused quite a stir. A hastily summoned policeman held up the traffic as we passed over an ungated level crossing and here a crowd of photographers and enthusiasts awaited the train’s arrival. We were then across the level crossing and over the slender Princes Dock Bridge, along rusted lines and then into the still smart and well kept Riverside terminal, now so seldom used.
Once again, enthusiasts flocked from the train to take photos of the locomotive as it ran round the train to pull it back up to Edge Hill with the engine running tender first. This was to be the piece de resistance, past the enthusiasts with their cameras once more, past the vast warehouses and docks and then up into the tunnel with a rush. For those of us who had been at the rear of the train, the engine having run round us was now only a few yards away and we could hear its immensely powerful beat as it thundered up the bank.
In the tunnel sparks flew past us and with them the faintly sulphurous smoke, which seeped in through the windows and brought back memories of so many steam-hauled journeys. As the Black Five neared the top of the bank she was flagging slightly but emerged triumphantly from the tunnel and behind us, the smoke and steam that she had expended billowed out from the tunnel mouth.
Close by Edge Hill Station we stopped and 45305 was uncoupled once again to run round the train and join it at the head. Unrestrained, she roared off down the track to find the points that would enable her to rush past us on the adjoining track and then again at the head of the train. Coupled once more, she took us on the final short stretch of our journey, back down the damp and grimy cutting and proudly and finally into Lime Street Station.
Once back into Lime Street, the enthusiasts emerged from their coaches to commune again with the engine, and if possible, have some small conversation with her driver and fireman. No one seemed to want to leave the engine and I found myself standing close to her trying to absorb as much as I could of her appearance and the very atmosphere of steam.
When I came close I could smell the sulphur from the smoke stack, the hot oil and the coal dust and hear the sizzle of steam within the cylinders. The driver, too, seemed to be saying some form of farewell; for it might be the last time his locomotive would stand at a passenger platform with an admiring crowd around his engine.
Some anonymous electric or diesel locomotive silently and colourlessly moved off, the seven coaches and the Black Five stood alone at the platform and then, smoothly and effortlessly, the driver opened the regulator and 45305 drew quietly up the platform and out of the station. She drew out as efficiently and smoothly as she had done all day; one of the last of her line and a direct descendant of those locomotives that had served us all so well for close on a 150 years. She was a worthy representative of her breed; no dirty smoke, no steam leaks visible anywhere, hardworking and efficient to the last. She climbed the bank and up into the tunnel, disappearing quietly out of sight.
This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Best of British.