Following the curve of Princes Parade, on the north west side of Princes Dock, are a set of rails which are one of the few clues left to the presence of Liverpool Riverside Station.
Today the rails might look odd, as they are constructed like a tramway’s, with heavy stone setts bringing the level of the ground up around the top of the rails. The rails themselves, though you cannot necessarily see it, are heavier than normal tram rails, though they are the same shape, as they are built to carry much heavier loads. The rails were especially built for the network around the docks, owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, and all the rails in the circuit are similar.
These are all clues to the unique history of Liverpool Riverside Station, and the unusual measures taken to keep it competitive.
Liverpool Riverside Station
Liverpool Riverside Station was a railway station owned by the administrators of the Liverpool dock estate, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (MDHB). It was opened on 12th June 1895, and provided a link for liner traffic (cargo, post, passengers) to get onto the intercity rail network without having to first navigate bustling Liverpool itself. The trains to Riverside came across the city using the Waterloo Tunnel from Edge Hill Station.
Before the station existed, anything or anyone disembarking from a liner at Princes Dock would be far from any of the main Liverpool rail terminals – Lime Street, Central and Exchange, for example. Until the late 19th century they were forced to make their own way across town, but with increasing competition for liner traffic with Southampton, a decision was made to remedy the situation, and Riverside was built right next to the landing stage.
In fact, passengers were protected from the elements right from the moment they left the ship, by a glazed roof over the roadway which ran between the station and the river, right up to the large, wide doorways flanked the station as it sat parallel to the waiting ships. Passengers were further treated to an immaculately-kept station with refreshments, booking facilities, and a waiting room all maintained to exacting standards within the two storey building. For more practical purposes, offices of the MDHB and customs facilities were also in that building.
The station did so well to improve the link between liner arrivals and the national rail network that it was chosen to serve arrivals soldiers from the US and the Empire during both world Wars. Nearly 2.5 million passed through its doors.
The landscape of Riverside Station
However, things were not perfect for Riverside Station. The route between Waterloo Goods Station and Riverside shared road space with other vehicles and foot traffic. Coupled with the tight curvature of the railway lines, this means that all of the MDHB lines were operated at walking pace. Between Waterloo and Riverside, a man walked in front of the rail vehicle with a red flag, ensuring the safety of other road users, while another man walked ahead of the train operating Annett’s keys to prepare the swing bridge and points. The steep ascent to back to Edge Hill just slowed journey times even more.
This wasn’t made any easier by the small locomotives in use. The ground around the docks was not strong enough to deal with mainline locomotives (this was, after all, reclaimed land), so at first the only engines light enough to service the Waterloo-Riverside route were LNWR Coal Tank locomotives. These small engines moved trains from the river to Edge Hill station, where carriages could be transferred to larger engines for the onward journey. The small tank engines were more able to take the tight curves than the larger main line trains would have been, but the incline to Edge Hill challenged them, and sometimes both the Webb engines were needed to force a single heavy train up the hill.
Plans were already in place by 1949 to strengthen the infrastructure of the area when a ship hit the landing stage and damaged the station. Once the works to repair the station and strengthen the land were complete, mainline locomotives could finally come all the way to Riverside Station. British Railways trains now ran on the MDHB lines.
Riverside Station’s days were numbered, however. The rise of air travel in the 1960s led to a decline in Atlantic liner traffic. Shipping in general was declining by this point too. In addition, the main line to London was electrified in the 1960s, but this did not extend past Edge Hill, and Riverside Station floundered in a technological backwater. The last train to use the station was carrying soldiers bound for Belfast in 1971, and the station building was demolished in 1990. The trackbed was used as a car park for a decade (and some parts still are), until dockland redevelopments brought buildings to the site in the early 21st century.
But some of the rails of the ‘Riverside Railway’ are still there today, and literally point the keen historian towards the site of one of Liverpool’s most important disappeared stations.
Station Name: LIVERPOOL RIVERSIDE, http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/l/liverpool_riverside/, accessed 19th February 2016
Liverpool Riverside station, about 1914, is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) licence, and is available at http://www.nrm.org.uk/ourcollection/photo?group=Euston&objid=1997-7409_LMS_3143 (link broken as of 18th October 2022).
The Great Floating Landing-Stage at Liverpool Photo: Mersey Dock & Harbour Board, by