West Lancashire Railway

Southport to Preston

How often, even today, do we hear people bemoaning the loss of the Southport to Preston railway? Whilst we continue to have a reasonable road link with our neighbouring city, the lack of a rail link continues to be a subject of debate.

It is now 50 years since the last train made the 30 minute journey from Chapel Street to Preston. But for 82 years, the West Lancashire Railway provided an invaluable links between the two towns, transporting both goods and passengers.

The West Lancashire Railway (WLR) was first promoted by Sir Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh. Royal Assent was given for construction of the line on 14 August 1871, with authorised capital of £150,000. The first sod was cut at a special ceremony held at Little London, attended by the Mayor, Alderman Squire JP, on 18th April 1873.

From the start the WLR project struggled financially and, although construction started successfully, it stopped abruptly when the contractor faced financial difficulties. A further WLR Act of 1875 authorised the raising of a further £187,500 and granted an extension of time for the line.

The first section opened on 20th February 1878. At this time the line ran from Hesketh Park station to Hesketh Bank and Tarleton. This was soon extended to Southport Windsor Road Station in the south to River Douglas in the north.

Windsor Road opened as the temporary Southport terminus of the WLR on 10 June 1878. It incorporated two large houses and Windsor Road itself crossed over the line by means of a level crossing.

The WLR had tried to negotiate with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) to operate its trains into Chapel Street Station. But negotiations failed, and the WLR obtained an Act to build its own terminus (Southport Central) to the west of Windsor Road. Central station welcomed its first passenger trains on 4 September 1882. After the line to Southport Central had opened a new station called Southport Ash Street was built on the site of Windsor Road.

The route to Preston was completed and services operating by September 1882.

On 16th April 1883, the WLR opened a line from Penwortham to a junction with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway at Whitehouse. A spur also ran from a junction just south of the Ribble Bridge, at what became Ribble Junction, to Middleforth Junction on the new line. This effectively created a triangle south of Preston WLR station which allowed direct running between Southport and Blackburn. The Blackburn service began on 16 April 1883.

From 1 May 1888 a service was introduced between Preston WLR station and Liverpool Central. Trains travelled to Meols Cop then on to the Cheshire Lines Railway, which made losses from the start. By 1896 WLR was effectively insolvent. On 1 October 1896 agreement was reached for the company to be amalgamated into the LYR, which took effect on 1 July 1897.

LYR already had a station in Preston - the joint station with the London and North Western Railway, opened in 1838 - and had no intention of incurring un-necessary expense by operating two stations. They decided to close Preston WLR and lines were diverted via a new spur into the joint Preston station. From 1 May 1901 Southport Central closed and all WLR line trains were diverted into Southport Chapel Street.

Southport Corporation introduced electric trams as far as Churchtown in 1901, and they competed directly for passenger traffic. The LYR decided to extend the electrification that it had planned between Liverpool Exchange and Southport Chapel Street through to Crossens. Live rails reached Crossens by 28th February 1904 and a full public service began on 5th April.

On 1 January 1922 the LYR was absorbed by the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), but a year later that company became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS).

It was reported in 1959 that LMR was considering closure to all traffic of the route between Crossens and Preston before the end of the year. Whilst the line survived this threat, the “Beeching” report of 1963 recommended the complete closure of the railway from Meols Cop to Preston, including the busy electric section between Chapel Street and Crossens, despite the fact that the services carried over two million people per year. The electric line onward via Formby to Liverpool was also earmarked for closure. Despite local protests all passenger services were withdrawn with effect from 7th September 1964.

Although the line south from Hesketh Bank towards Southport was lifted during the early months of 1965, the section between Preston and the River Douglas bridge, remained in situ for another year because it was thought that it might be required to serve a proposed nuclear power station. However Heysham was chosen instead, and the remainder of the line was lifted.

All that remains of the Southport-Preston line after St Luke’s station are the road bridges at Roe Lane, Hesketh Road and Rufford Road. Housing has replaced most of the line, and Norwood and Holy Family primary schools were built on the land that was formally part of the loop between St Luke’s and Meols Cop Stations.

The only station (other than the Preston and Southport termini) to survive the Beeching cuts was St Luke’s. The Preston platform was closed but the Wigan services continued to use the station until its final closure in September 1968.

The line was lost at a time when the railways seemed to be in decline as the motor car became the transport of choice for an increasingly large proportion of commuters. Fifty years on we are seeing a change in attitudes, with increased fuel costs and pressure to use more environmentally friendly forms of transport. In retrospect, the decision to close the Southport to Preston line was premature, leaving not only North Meols, but a large portion of West Lancashire, dependant on road transport.

Stations

Southport Central opened September 1882, closed May 1901 with trains diverted to Chapel Street
Southport Windsor Road opened June 1878, closed September 1882 with trains diverted to Southport Central
St Luke’s opened March 1902, closed August 1968
Hesketh Park opened February 1878, closed September 1964
Churchtown opened February 1878, closed September 1964
Crossens opened February 1878, closed September 1964
Banks opened February 1878, closed September 1964
Hundred End opened July 1878, closed April 1962
Hesketh Bank opened as Hesketh Bank and Tarleton Station, February 1878, closed September 1964
River Douglas opened July 1878, closed April 1889
Hoole opened May 1880, closed September 1964
Longton Bridge opened May 1880, closed September 1964
New Longton and Hutton opened May 1880, closed September 1964
Penwortham (Cop Lane) opened as Cop Lane Halt, April 1911, closed September 1964
Preston WLR Station opened September 1882, closed September 1902
First published as a series in the North Meols Civic Society’s newsletters.