The Liverpool Overhead Railway

This was a major contract for the young company, the E.C.C. provided all of the electrical equipment for the line. On 12th January, 1892, a group of the railway's directors visited the midlands to see how the work in-hand was progressing:

Sir William Forwood, Mr. Barrow (Director of the White Star Line), and Mr. G. H. Hobson, Directors of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, with Sir Douglas Fox, Mr. J. H. Greathead, and Mr. Francis Fox yesterday paid a  visit to Birmingham, to see the carriages for the Overhead Railway and also paid a visit to the works of the Electric Construction Corporation, Limited, to see the progress of the works for the  new railway. They lunched at the Queen’s Hotel, Birmingham, with Sir James Allport, and were accompanied to, and entertained at Bushbury, by Mr. Thomas Parker.

A first and second class carriage. From The Engineer.

A plan view of the coach. From The Engineer.

When the E.C.C.'s construction work was almost complete, a running trial and inspection of the whole line was undertaken on 13th January, 1893. This was reported in the Manchester Weekly Times as follows:

On Saturday a running trial and inspection was made along the whole length of the new line. The railway took over three years to construct and cost £85,000 per mile. Lord Salisbury will visit Liverpool on the 4th February to officially open the line which runs from Herculaneum Dock to Rimrose Wall, Seaforth, a distance of six miles. It uses standard gauge track and there are thirteen stations with another due to be erected at Seaforth.

Mr. Thomas Parker of Wolverhampton has designed and carried out all of the electrical work in the electricity department for the Electric Construction Corporation Limited. That Corporation is under an agreement to put-down and maintain engines, boilers, electric lights, conductors, signals, carriages, switches, and indeed all appliances, and takes the responsibility of the successful running of the concern for two years, guaranteeing the proprietary company to the extent of 3.5 pence per train mile run. The agreement covers depreciation, repairs and several expenses, and indeed amounts to a bond to take over everything but the actual management and collecting of fares. Mr. Parker estimates that at a cost of 2 pounds of coal, a train of two carriages weighing 40 tons, when each filled with 56 passengers, can be carried one mile.

At the Bramley-Moore Dock Depot there are four horizontal compound engines by Messrs. Musgrave, of Bolton, each driving a separate Elwell-Parker dynamo of powerful energy, and capable of jointly working up to 2,000 horse power. The boilers are fitted with mechanical stokers, and there is an arrangement of mechanical coal brokers by which all handling is entirely obviated, the coal being dropped into them from the high-level coal railway. From the dynamos the electricity generated is by means of copper conductors carried through switch arrangements into the railroad, instruments in the shed indicating the electrical pressure upon the road and passing thereto. 

The copper conductors are connected to the outside rail and with a central conductor between the rails in each set, the positive and negative sides of the circuit being thus formed. Hinged conductors of cast iron, sliding upon this conductor make the connection between the motors upon the train and the dynamos at the generating station. The motors are carried by the passenger carriages, and the quantity of electrical energy picked up can be regulated by the man in charge of the train. The same principal is seen in the case of the Blackpool tramway, only for obvious reasons the conductor at Blackpool is below ground, whilst in the present instance it is on the permanent way, and has the appearance of a third rail. The conductor is made of mild steel and its dimensions are about four inches square. 

Although two carriages form a train, these vehicles are so made that any number can be coupled together. They are so coupled as to give a motor at each end of the train, and the motors are connected so as to be controlled from either end by the driver, who will always travel in front, changing ends upon arrival at the terminus, and carrying with him a key, without which the motors cannot be operated. Students of electrical science will understand by which law it is impossible for these trains to travel more than 35 miles an hour. Mr. Parker says that the moment that very respectable speed is reached, the motors, instead of picking up electrical power from the conductors, would at once begin to return power back to the dynamos. The trains make the journey in 29 minutes including the stopping times at the stations.

The inspecting party left Water Street Station shortly after half past one and completed their task in a couple of hours. During the run the train reached a speed of 30 miles an hour. The weather that day was awful and the party were pleased to see that the trains could operate normally under such conditions.

The party included Mr. T. Snape, M.P., Sir W. B. Forwood, Mr. George Melly, Mr. J. Barrow, Mr. D. Meldrum (Cheshire Lines Committee), MR. C. A. Rowlandson, Mr. Reginald Todd, Mr. Evanson, Mr. H. J. Brodie, Mr. A. Bare, Mr. P. Higginson, Mr. Thomas Parker, Mr. S. B. Cottrell (General Manager and Resident Engineer), Captain Wilkinson, and Alderman Miles and Broughton, of Bolton. In the evening Mr. Parker entertained the party at the Adelphi Hotel.

The railway during construction. From The Engineer.

Another view of the construction. From The Engineer.

The dip under the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. From The Engineer.

The double curve near the Alexandra Dock. From The Engineer.

The overhead railway, as seen from the pier head. From The Engineer.

The preserved third class motor coach in the Museum of Liverpool.

The interior of the preserved motor coach.


The driver's compartment in the preserved motor coach.

The railway was formally opened by the Marquis of Salisbury on Saturday, 4th February, 1893. This was recorded in the following Monday's edition of the Liverpool Mercury, as follows:

Opening of the Liverpool Overhead Railway

Liverpool is the first city in England to build an overhead railway, and the first city in the world to adopt electricity as a means of working such a railway, and on Saturday last, the formality of opening this unique undertaking was performed by the Marquis of Salisbury. It could hardly be possible to imagine a fitter person than the ex-premier for performing such a ceremony, as he has the reputation of being an enthusiastic student of electricity, and, in addition to that, is one of the two distinguished men to whom for the last twelve years the country has alternately trusted its government.

The party arrived at Bramley-Moore Dock and entered the generating station, which is built in the arches that support the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. All of the vessels in the dock and the surrounding streets were bedecked with bunting, the weather was bright, and the scene was of the gayest description, as equipages and cabs, the picturesque uniforms of the mounted police, the general animation, the large bodies of police under their inspectors, lent no small affect to the ensemble.

The Marquis was accompanied into the generating station by Sir. W. B. Forwood, the Chairman of the Overhead Railway Company, the Mayor, Mr. R. D. Holt, Lord Lathom, Mr. A. B. Forwood, M.P., Mr. Brancker, Chairman of the Dock Board, Sir Daniel Cooper, Chairman of the Electric Construction Corporation, the Rev. Canon Armour, Mr. J. B. Smith, Mr. E. Laurence, Chairman of the Gas Company, and others. Also present at the inaugural ceremony where J. A. F. Aspinall (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway), and Thomas Parker. The station had been arranged for the accommodation of a large number of visitors, and that, although there was no overcrowding, the available space was filled.

The party ascended a platform, speeches were made and the presentation of a small silver inkstand was made to Lord Salisbury, who started the electric current of 2,000 horse power which magically draws the trains over the lines. When the ceremony was over the party accompanied Lord Salisbury to Sandon Station where a specially decorated train was waiting to convey them on the first official trip on the line. The remainder of the party travelled to Clarence Dock Station where two trains were waiting to take them over the same route.

With regard to comfort of the new style of locomotion, it may be said that it is delightful travelling. A handle is turned, and without any visible means of propulsion or attraction, off go the carriages with a smooth and even motion, which can be regulated at the will of the engineer. The carriages are built on the American principle, with a central passage open end to end, with seats back to back transversely. The sides are nearly all window, thus affording an excellent view of the long stretch of docks. The sensation going down the “switch-back”, necessitated by the fact that the overhead railway has to go beneath the high level railway bridge at the Bramley-Moore Dock, is strongly remindful of the form of amusement which was so popular a year or two ago, though in a very much more modified degree, the speed of the train retaining almost uniform regularity. Just beyond the Sandon Station the marquis’s train was seen coming from the Alexandra Dock, preceded by flashes of electricity, thus showing the actual power which moves the carriages.

The train arrived at the Alexandra Dock Station, with admirable celerity the carriages were moved over the points to the down line and a swift journey was made to the Water Street Station, where the passengers disembarked after a most enjoyable trip. His lordship, however, was taken on to the Custom House Station, whence he was driven to the Town Hall where a luncheon was given by the Mayor.

The railway company were obviously delighted with the E.C.C.'s contribution to the railway, as can be seen from the following letter, in which the company is relieved of its obligation to oversee the running of the line. It also is proof of Thomas Parker's undoubted skills as a first class engineer and his great skill in project management

The letter received from the railway company.

The letter reads as follows:

The Liverpool Overhead Railway Company
31 James Street

 6th January, 1894

To the secretary of the Electric Construction Company.

Dear Sir,

I am desired by my colleagues to express to you their satisfaction with the manner in which your company has fulfilled its contract for the electrical equipment of this railway.

The machinery has been well and substantially made, it is economical in working, and its efficiency may be gauged by the fact that during the ten months the line has been opened we have run a five minutes’ service of trains, and 96 percent have been on time.

We are now able to relieve you of the charge of our generating station, which we consider has proved its capacity and reliability.

We feel that these excellent results are very largely due to the scientific skill, thought, and untiring industry of your works director, Mr. Parker, to whom we ask you to kindly convey our thanks.

I am faithfully yours, William B. Forwood, Chairman.

The overhead railway. From an old postcard.

Another view of the railway, also from an old postcard.

The railway in 1893. From The Engineer.

The Liverpool Overhead Railway. Part of an article from The Engineer.

The railway is designed for the use of any of the well-known systems of mechanical haulage, but the electrical was ultimately selected, and that which relates to the working of the line by electricity has been designed and carried out by Mr. T. Parker, M.I.E.E., as engineer and manager for the Electric Construction Corporation. On the line, which, as we have already said, is six miles in length, double track, there are fourteen stations, with crossover roads at each intermediate station, and double crossovers at the terminal stations. It is eventually intended to run a three minutes' service, and generating plant bas been provided for this. There are some moderately sharp curves on the line; the maximum being six chains radius. The maximum distance between any two stations is 1200 yards, and the minimum distance 300 yards. The journey from one end of the line to the other will be completed in about thirty minutes, including half a minute stop at all stations. In the first instance rolling stock is only being provided for a five minutes' service. It is hoped that the traffic will be carried with the expenditure of about 7 lb. of coal per train mile.

The generating station and plant occupies a position close to the structure and approximately in the centre of its length. The arches under the existing coal railway have been utilised for the generating station. It is intended that the line shall eventually be extended at each end by a length of 1½ miles, this bringing up the total when completed to nine miles.

The boilers are six in number and of the Lancashire type, 30 ft. by 8 ft., constructed for a working pressure of 120 lbs. per square inch, fired by Vicars' mechanical stokers, the coal supply being drawn from hoppers overhead, into which the trucks on the existing coal railway are emptied. Coal supplied to the various boilers by means of a conveyor, and the feed passes through a Green's fuel economiser, consisting of 384 pipes.

The generating station.

The boilers and steam pipes are covered with Leroy's none conducting composition. The dynamos are driven by four horizontal coupled compound engines, with Corliss valve gear and each capable of indicating 400 horsepower, with 120 lb. steam pressure, at 100 revolutions per minute. The cylinders, 15½ in. and 31 in. diameter, 36 in. stroke. Valves fitted to all cylinders. The flywheels are 14 ft. diameter, grooved for nineteen l¼ in. diameter ropes. Independent surface condensing plant is used, divided into two units, each capable of condensing steam from three of the main. engines, running under full load. The condensing water is taken from the dock adjoining the generating station, and passed through brass tubes. The air and circulating centrifugal pumps are driven by small compound vertical engines, having Ferguson’s patent triangular connecting rods. The cylinders, 7½ in. and 15 in. diameter,12 in. stroke. As auxiliary machinery there are two pumping engines for boiler feed, each capable of supplying four boilers. One engine for driving stoker and conveyor, 10 indicated horsepower, and two small engines for working the scrapers on the economiser. All steam and feed pipes are arranged to give a duplicate service between boilers, engines, and pumps. Arrangements are also made so that the engines may exhaust into the atmosphere in case of water not being obtainable at any time for condensing.

The four Elwell-Parker type dynamos.

Four Elwell-Parker shunt-wound dynamos, each giving an output of 400 volts and 475 amperes, at 400 revolutions per minute, are used. The magnets are of the double horseshoe type, fixed vertically, divided on the horizontal centre line, so that the top half can be readily lifted off to allow of examination or removal of the armatures. The pulley is carried between two bearings, and a coupling being inserted between the pulley and armature shafts, allows the latter being taken out without taking off ropes, dismounting pulley, or interfering with the set of the bearings. Each dynamo is coupled up through an ammeter to a double pole automatic magnetic cut-out, which also answers the purpose of main switch. All the machines couple in parallel on to omnibus bars, from which the current is taken by underground "armoured" cables to the conductors on the line, a larger automatic magnetic cut-out being inserted, carrying the whole of the current. Multiple contact switches and resistance coils in the shunt circuit arc employed for regulating the electromotive force of the machines.


The conductor, consisting of a steel channel, is carried the whole length of both the up and down lines between the ordinary rails, the latter forming the return circuit. The steel channel is carried upon pot insulators, supported by cross timbers between the longitudinal sleepers. The surface of the steel channel, forming the centre conductor, is ⅞ in. higher than the top of the ordinary rails. At the crossover roads the conductor is bent so as to run parallel for a short distance on each side of the ordinary rails, but leaving ample clearance to prevent arcing across. The current is collected from the surface of the steel channel by means of cast iron shoes loosely hinged to insulated iron strips carried by the bogies. The shoes are made much wider than the conductor, so as to stretch across at the crossover roads from the conductor on the one side to the conductor on the other side of the ordinary rails. A collector is fitted to each motor bogie.

The conductor and the collector.

The carriages, two of which form a train, are in length over end pillars 45 ft.; the width over side pillars, 8 ft. 6 in. The carriages are mounted on two four-wheeled bogies, one of which carries a motor as shown. The centres of the bogies are 32 ft. apart. The wheelbase of the bogies is 7 ft., and the wheels are 2 ft. 9 in. diameter. They carry 57 passengers; 16 first class and 41 second class.

As each carriage is fitted at one end with a driver box and necessary switch and brake gear for controlling the work, there is no shunting at the terminal stations, the driver changing ends. The gangway between the two cars gives a clear passage through for the guard.

The motors on each train are on the leading and trailing bogies. Six incandescent lamps light each carriage, supplied with current from the centre conductor, the same as the motors.

The carriages are fitted with Westinghouse brakes, with compressed air stored in receivers carried under the carriages, and these being charged by an air compressing plant fixed at the generating station at the north end of the line. Hand screw brakes are also provided.

The armatures of the motors are mounted direct upon the axles. Ten revolutions of the axle per minute gives a speed to the car of one mile per hour. The maximum speed necessary to do the journey in the time specified is approximately 26 miles per hour, or 260 revolutions of the motor per minute. The motors are series wound.

The steam engines in the generating station. From The Engineer.

Another view of the steam engines in the generating station. From The Engineer.

Thomas Parker presented a paper on the Liverpool Overhead Railway to the Institute of Civil Engineers on Tuesday 2nd March, 1894. The paper was called “The Electrical Equipment of the Liverpool Overhead Railway”:

The Electrical Equipment of the Liverpool Overhead Railway 
by Mr. T. Parker, M.. Inst., C.E.

The plant was required to run a three-minute service on six miles of double track. In designing it, curves were drawn of the energy required at any point along the line of one loaded train with various accelerations. etc., to meet the timetable service. From these curves the power required at the generating station was calculated, and four dynamos were arranged, yielding 475 amperes at 500 volts and 420 revolutions, or 1,200 E.H.P. in all. The dynamos were of the double-line type, rope driven, with pulley between two bearings, so that the armature could be taken out without disturbing the ropes.

The electrical efficiency of the dynamos was 97.77. The switchboard, specially designed for safety and simplicity in working, was fully described. The main current passed to the line through a main magnetic cut-out, to break circuit at 3,606 to 4,000 amperes. The conductor was of steel, 4 square inches in section, supported on porcelain insulators. There were no feeders, and the return circuit was through the rails, which were bonded. At each station there was a crossover road. The conductor was broken at these points, and the collector bridged across over the main rails without breaking circuit.

It was necessary that the cars should be of the double-bogie type; it was, therefore, difficult to design motors to give the power necessary on standard bogie frames. Finally a type was adopted, as patented by Mr. Eickemeyer, which gave complete satisfaction. The motor occupied the front half of the bogie-truck. The weight of the magnets was taken off of the axles by adjustable springs, and the magnets were kept in horizontal position by a lever arm fixed to the bogie-frame. Each car was complete with motor and switchgear to run independently. Two cars were coupled together to form a train.

Either the driving or trailing motor could be plugged out of circuit at will. A Westinghouse air-brake was attached to the car, also the usual hand-brake. The stations were lighted by 50-volt glow-lamps, run off accumulators fixed at the station and charged from the main dynamos.

The efficiency of I.H.P. to E.H.P. on the line was taken with carefully calibrated instruments in the presence of the Engineers. The tests extended over 3½ hours. The mean value of seven tests of No. 1 Engine gave 88 per cent. I.H.P. to E.H.P. Curves were given of the power consumed during an experimental run of one train completing 51 miles in 24 minutes, 57 seconds, and 23 minutes, 47 seconds, with stops of 25 seconds at each station. The power required was 44.4 I.H.P. and 46 E.H.P. respectively. To compare this with actual running, curves were given from daily log-sheets showing the effects on the generating station of the alteration to the train service. The advantage of a large number of trains in pulling down the maximum current per train was apparent. With seven trains this was twice, and with twelve trains only 1½ times the average current per train. With twelve trains running, the average demand for power continuously was 37 E.H.P. per train.

A comparison of coal used when the train service varied was given. During April and part of May seven trains were running at one time, and the coal used was 22.5 lbs. per train mile. From June to October there had been a 5 minute service from 9 a.m. to 5-30 p.m. The coal used per train mile for the four months of June, July, August and September, was 17.8 lbs., or making allowance for charging batteries, say I7 lbs. per train mile. The price of the Lancashire slack, which was used till the latter part of August, was 5s. 10d. per ton, but since that date, owing to the strike, the price for coal from various sources had varied up to 17s. 6d. per ton. Under the agreement the contractors had to run the service of trains for 3½d. per train mile, on a full service of 2,400 miles per day, but as only five and one eighths miles of line were open, they received 4d. per train mile, and for current to charge lighting batteries, 7d. per Board of Trade Unit. Figures were given of the actual working costs for July, August and September, 1893, which were 3.44, 3.70, and 4.07 pence per mile respectively. The increased cost of running for August and September was fully accounted for in the item of coal, and as the railway company had not employed as frequent a service as at first anticipated (this being only 1,350 miles per day) the figures showed most favourably, it being evident that, with coal at an average value, the line could be run at a cost well within that guaranteed by the contractors.

The paper was a great success, and Thomas was awarded a George Stephenson Medal and a Telford Premium for his efforts. This can be seen in the following transcript of the letter that he received from the institution:

Sir, I am instructed to inform you that the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers has awarded you a George Stephenson Medal and a Telford Premium for your paper entitled “The Electrical Equipment of the Liverpool Overhead Railway”. The formal presentation will take place at the first ordinary meeting of next session on the second Tuesday in November, when it is hoped that you will be present to receive the premium awarded to you.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, James Forrest, secretary. 

To Thomas Parker, Esq., M. Inst. C.E.
Manor House

Thomas received a letter of congratulation on the award, from his friend Thomas Bantock, J.P.

Merridale House,
5th June, 1894

My Dear Mr. Parker,

Allow me to congratulate you on the award of the Stephenson Medal by the Society of Engineers.

I hope you may long be spared to receive the Honours you will be sure to earn in the future and may your wife and family share in the joy that awaits success.

Yours Truly
Thomas Bantock, J.P.

Tho. Parker Esq., J.P.
Manor House

Thomas's Stephenson Medal.

Courtesy of the library and archives of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, at Coalbrookdale.

The opening ceremony of the Liverpool Overhead Railway. The group L. to R. is as follows:
Thomas Parker; Sir Douglas Fox, joint engineer; Francis Fox, younger brother and partner of Douglas; James Henry Greathead, civil engineer.

One of the locomotives in operation. From 'The Engineer' 24th November, 1911.

Return to the
previous page