Saturday, 10 March 2007


Our lost umbrella

Jan 9 2007

Was there any future for the much-lamented Liverpool Overhead Railway?, asks Peter Elson on the 50th anniversary of its closure.

by Peter Elson, Liverpool Daily Post

A tram waits on Water Street, Liverpool, while a train passes above on the Overhead Railway

AMID the grime and gloom, it was a twin parallel ribbon of gleaming, airborne steel striding along the edge of Liverpool's lengthy waterfront, known affectionately by all as "The Dockers' Umbrella".

The closure of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, 50 years ago last week, prompted me to jokily write in the Daily Post that this was a psychological blow from which the city never really recovered.

But therein was a grain of truth. The Overhead was one of Liverpool's unique features that made this great seaport so special. No other city in Britain had such a spectacular urban transport system with electric trains rattling along some 20ft up in the air above the streets.

The LOR was a true pioneer and preceded similar networks in the US, again emphasising Liverpool's apartness as "Britain's North American city", sharing more in common with places across the Atlantic than others down the road.

Although long gone and still much-missed, what would be the LOR's impact be today had it not been closed on December 31, 1956, when replacing its entire decking (which carried the tracks) was deemed too expensive? Would the heritage era have come to its rescue?

Dr Adrian Jarvis, National Museum Liverpool's former port historian and author of A Portrait of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, says the system pioneered many aspects of modern railway now taken for granted.

"Although under seven miles long, the LOR was epoch-making. It was held in profound affection here because it was so unusual and unique in the UK. It was the world's first electric overhead railway - and Manchester didn't have one.

"By the time of closure, it was a financial liability and had been for a long time. Even back in 1913, the chairman explained its low returns because the huge growth in telephones meant fewer messenger boys using the trains."

But the main issue dated back to the LOR's construction.

An Overhead station in Liverpool in 1893

"The basic problem was that the Overhead was built on the cheap, using the Hobson construction system which was an extremely clever solution, but not a particularly enduring one.

"Its waterproof decking was part of the original parliamentary application - it had to be watertight, hence being nicknamed the Dockers' Umbrella.

"This meant that water lay undrained on the decking, which rusted the steel. Sulphurous smoke from dock shunting engines also rotted the decking's underside. One driver told me that, when he set off, his loco's exhaust literally blasted large lumps of scale on top of him.

"There was not only corrosion but chemical damage, with windborne grit getting into the sleepers and slowly grinding into the decking."

Paul Bolger, local historian and author, who wrote The Dockers' Umbrella, believes that, had the LOR been preserved, it might have been useful today.

"Had the Overhead survived as a privately-run, paying concern, it would have had to close intermediate stations and been highly truncated because of the motor car.

"It might have had a future as part of Liverpool's rush-hour traffic park and ride, with railheads at Crosby and Dingle.

"Built as a system for moving dock labour, the cessation of the traditional docks meant all the support industries went away.

"The city became a huge Polo mint, with everyone housed on the periphery. Survival would have needed a patient owner not interested in profit for a long, long time, but it would have complemented Albert Dock's tourism revival very well."

The tunnel mouth of Liverpool overhead railway in the Dingle

The crunch came in 1956 when £2m was needed for the essential renewing of the decking. Neither its owners, Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, Liverpool City Council, nor the Ministry of Transport were interested in retaining the Overhead.

"I believe the city is partly to blame. The Victorians and Edwardians had a reputation for building solidly," says Bolger.

"The Overhead's life expectancy of 60 years for its cast-iron columns in Liverpool's steam and atmosphere is reasonable, but no funds were put aside by any organisation for its renewal. Yet it was so vital to the war effort and always immed- iately repaired so troop and naval personnel movements could keep going. Ten years later, it was declared sufficiently redundant to be scrapped.

"The management of the LOR is a typical British story. We always blame WWII for bringing this country to its knees, but huge profits were made from the industrial revolution onwards.

"Yet instead of retooling factories, our magnates were too busy gentrifying themselves and building big useless country houses. Winning the war was due to our ingenuity."

Dr Jarvis adds: "Apart from the structural problems, the crucial weakness in the LOR's survival is that the direction of trade has altered and is no longer north-south along the waterfront.

"Permission to recreate a new Overhead in front of the Pier Head's Three Graces doubtless would be opposed, although it predated them by 15 years."

A British first >>>

A British first

THE Liverpool Overhead Railway was an ingenious solution to the problem of rapidly moving labour along a Dock Road which was already choked with goods traffic.

Truly a British first when it was opened on February 4, 1893, by the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, the Overhead boasted electrically-powered multiple-unit trains elevated on stilts above the Dock Road's horse-drawn congestion.

Besides the cargo moving workforce, the LOR was used by ship repairers and a myriad of people taking paperwork between ships, offices and the Custom House.

Prof Peter Toyne, transport expert and former vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, says: "The 50th anniversary of the LOR's closure is important for Liverpool as it was unique in Britain and indicated how go-ahead this city once was in devising rapid transport systems.

"I hope the new Pier Head Liverpool Museum will really showcase the significant history of Liverpool's railways.

"The Overhead would have been hugely expensive to restore and maintain, but it's an important part of British history and must be permanently commemorat-ed.

"Otherwise, it will be simply forgotten."

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Council leader Warren Bradley said that some individual councillors’ behaviour was “appalling” and not fitting of a democratic society.




Roger: This is not a good report for us is it Warren?
Fireman:Well Roger we’ve got to put it into perspective really haven’t we and remember where Liverpool was and that’s not thinking back 10 years. Liverpool has come an awful long way. The people of Liverpool were asking for lower Council Tax and the Liberal Democrats have delivered that and they also wanted better services and you look at the services that are now delivered by Liverpool City Council. If we look at the most vulnerable either elderly or the Children’s Services the social care we are now delivering at a level that Liverpool has never delivered before. We also look at the bread and butter your schools, your sports centres, your libraries, One Stop Shops in communities, our parks, we’ve got 13 green flag parks. It’s like a new home to me when you get an old dilapidated derelict building you’ve got to bring it up to a standard and I think Liverpool City Council under the Liberal Democrats have certainly done that and I am certain if we did a survey of people in the City do you want Liverpool City Council to sit on £20m worth of reserves or do you want the City Council delivering front line services that affect the most vulnerable and people’s lives in the City. I think that they would vote with their feet and say that we support the policies of Liverpool City Council. We’ve got to look at the financial regulations put in by Government and if you want my opinion about this Roger it is purely political.
Roger: Well come on, you know the Audit Commission is not a political body
Fireman: Well with respect Roger and I would beg to differ on that
Roger: Well how can it be a political, it’s an independent organisation?
Fireman: We can say everything is independent to a certain extent but you know you look at what we’ve got at the moment in Liverpool and we’re delivering top quality services.
Roger: But the problem with this is that you’ve got an overall score rating of 2 which was adequate performance into 05, overall score in 06 was 2 which is adequate performance.
This year it is down to 1 below minimum requirements inadequate performance.
Fireman: Based around financial regulations…
Roger: Yes I’m talking about the financial…..
Fireman: Laid down by government. I mean that’s what you’ve got to remember. Don’t try and muddy the waters and say oh this is about Liverpool City Council and their overall performance. It’s not. You look at the issue that we’ve done about achievements. Liverpool scoring 3-4 on achievement at the moment through the Audit Commission.
Roger: I didn’t know that.
(EDs: Pitiful, just pitiful.)
Fireman: And we do seem to always go to the negatives when we’re looking for something like this.
Roger: The District Auditor was pretty negative about you wasn’t he and…
Fireman: No, I have got to say Roger I would love to have £50m in reserves. I would also love not to have to put additions of £7m into adult social care and £2-3m into children’s social care. The facts are we have got to do that because of the pressures that are on Liverpool at the moment.
Roger: So are other Councils….
Fireman: I’m not willing as Leader of this Council to take away care to the most vulnerable to allow it to sit in reserve. I am not willing to do that and I will go to the stake on that the people of the City. Liverpool now is only one of a handful of Councils up and down the country that is providing moderate care to the most vulnerable people in the City. Now to give people an idea of what moderate care is that is home care. These people who’ve got no family to support them and require a visit in the morning or a visit in the evening to make sure they’re ok to help them to take the pills, to make sure that they’ve got the food. Most Councils up and down this country have removed that care. Liverpool City Council is still allowing our most vulnerable people our sort of care. Now is that wrong, is that wrong?
Roger: Now no one would argue that’s wrong but everyone. But many people are affected by housing. Housing is really poor isn’t it. I mean you are so poor you’ve had to hand it over to a different group to run it.
Fireman: Well with respect Roger, with respect, you’ve got to know what the Housing Corporation have done and in partnership with the Government again it’s easy to say it’s the Council, in partnership with the Government we’ve tackled head on through the Pathfinder areas of the inner core of the City some of the housing inefficiencies of the City. That hasn’t happened over the last five years that’s happened over 30 or 40 years. The problems in Norris Green in housing were prevalent 30 or 40 years ago and weren’t tackled. As an Authority we’ve challenged what wasn’t tackled and we’ve challenged it head on and I opened a couple of weeks ago with Flo Clucas and Marilyn Fielding with Cobalt Housing the first phase of Norris Green. We’ve transformed that area and its got houses for sale and social housing in Norris Green that people are seeking to live in now. We’ve got in a core Edge Hill, Kensington, Kirkdale the same issues that have been there for 30 or 40 years that we’re tackling now hand in hand with the Government. I’m not taking the credit for it and the Government isn’t. We’ve got a schools’ programme that is second to none. Liverpool’s young people are now achieving at the national average. I want it higher than national average to give new opportunity but again I’ll say I’m not going to suit accountants’ financial regulations in London and leave £millions sitting in reserve while we have still got the challenges Liverpool has got and I think people you know.
Roger: Do you think it was a mistake to keep Council Tax down or freeze it over the past few years?
Fireman: Well isn’t it ironic Roger how last week John Healey said how Liverpool is charging £101 a head...
Roger: Because its inefficiencies….
Fireman: Well we have taken £150m worth of inefficiencies out of our budget over the last 10 years. We’ve kept Council tax down which is exactly what Government policy is and is exactly what John Healey is saying. Councillor Joe Anderson is saying something completely different to the people of Liverpool that he will put taxes up to build reserves to put in reserve well again this administration this Lib Dem administration is not going to tax for the sake of taxing to leave money sitting in reserve. We will build up the reserves over a period of years and then we will be able to tackle some of the other issues that we’ve got to do. We recognise the health inequalities. To improve health inequalities we’ve got to have a real stable economy offering real opportunity and raising the aspirations in them poorer communities. You cannot do that leaving millions and millions of pounds laying in reserves and this administration will continue the robust financial management that we’ve done. We’ll carry on delivering…
Roger: If it was that robust we wouldn’t have this problem of £20m overdrawn on Capital of Culture.
Fireman: Roger, lets put things into hindsight. We are still delivering front line services. We are still…
Roger: It’s about £20m overall that we’re short this year – now that’s not robust management
Fireman: But Roger we are going through a budget setting process. Every Local Authority up and down the country is in the same process as us. I remember reading about Wirral being £50m short. Other Local Authorities. I meet the core city leaders who are £40-£50m short exactly the same as Liverpool . And let’s not forget I haven’t come on here to knock the Government I’ve come on here to say that I believe we’ve got a robust financial programme in place that is going to deal with the shortfall. We’ve delivered year on year but I’ll say again I am not going to allow millions and millions of pounds to lay in reserve. Cut front line services to the most vulnerable and then say that’s acceptable. Nor as Leader of this Council am I going to allow Council Tax to go through the roof again which will drive the inability to bring further investment into this City. While the Lib Dems have been in control we’ve brought Council Tax down, we’ve brought renewed confidence and we’ve brought real investment that will bring opportunities to the most vulnerable and I think that is the most important and I think the people of this City will stand full square with us on that. I’m proud of what we’ve delivered in this City over the last 10 years and Capital of Culture is part of that."