Towards the end of the 19th century, the main docks serving Liverpool had been largely completed. Amongst those opened during the mid to late 19th century were Albert (1846), Sandon (1851), Huskisson and Wapping (both 1852), Canada (1859) and Langton and Alexandra (both in 1881). The Mersey Docks & Harbour Board operated an extensive railway network to serve the docks and to provide links through to the main line railway companies that served the city, but the traffic to and from the port ensured that the Dock Road, which ran parallel to the developing docks, was congested both with the road traffic generated and by the numerous rail crossings.
From the middle of the 19th century the concept of a segregated line for passenger traffic was developed; two early schemes, in 1852 and 1877 (when the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board proposed a single-track line) failed but , on 24 July 1888, Royal Assent was given to the Act permitting the construction of the Liverpool (Overhead Electric Railway Co. The company was chaired by Sir William Bower Forwood and was empowered to lease the relevant land from Mersey Docks & Harbour Board. The new line was designed by Sir Douglas Fox and James Henry Greathead, with construction starting in October 1889.
The structure on which the railway was to operate was built using wrought-iron girders raised on iron columns so that the track bed was a nominal 16ft 0in above street level. At Langton, Sandon and Brunswick there were hydraulic lifting sections so that the railway could be raised to permit freight to reach the docks. At Stanley Dock, there was originally a bridge but this was replaced subsequently by a combined lifting and swing bridge to permit access to and from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. In order to pass under the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway’s coal tip branch, the LOR dropped down for a short section on ground level at Bramley-Moore Dock. The power station that fed the LOR was also located at Bramley Moore.
Electric power, then still very much in its infancy, was selected in 1891 largely as a result of the problems that steam might have caused when passing over cargoes of flammable goods when a spark from locomotive chimney might have resulted in disaster. Work on the line’s construction, which included 567 spans, was completed in January 1893 and the line was officially opened on 4 February 1893 by the third Marquess of Salisbury, who was then leader of the opposition having been Prime Minister for most of the period between 1885 and 1892; he was again to serve as Prime Minister between 1895 and 1902.
The line as opened stretched five miles from Alexandra Dock in the north to Herculaneum Dock in the south; from Alexandra Dock northwards the line continued to carriage sheds at Seaforth. When opened there were 11 intermediate stations; these were added to, from north to south, by Langton Dock (opened 1896; closed 1906), Huskisson Dock (opened 1896 at which stage the neighbouring station at Sandon Dock closed) and Nelson Dock (1896). Custom House station was renamed Canning in 1947.
On 30 April 1894 a short extension over the line Seaforth Sands was opened; this was designed to try and encourage residential traffic. The final extension occurred on 21 December 1896 when the line was opened from Herculaneum Dock to Dingle; the latter station was situated in a short tunnel accessed by a 200ft girder bridge that crossed over the Cheshire Lines Committee goods yard.
At its opening, the LOR was the first electric-powered elevated railway in the world; it was also the first line to benefit from the protection of electric automatic signals. Initially, the line was powered at 500V dc but, as part of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway’s suburban electrification scheme on Merseyside, a connection was constructed between Seaforth Sands and Seaforth & Lithersdale over which LOR services operated from 2 July 1905. For a period through to the outbreak of World War 1, the L&YR operated a through service from Dingle to Southport; an additional through service from Dingle to Aintree was relatively short-lived, being withdrawn in 1908 except for two racing days, including the Grand National, at Aintree that continued to operate. When originally built, the third rail, which provided the power, was located between the two running rails; this was relocated to outside the running rails following the connection with the L&YR with the central line being retained for the earth return until the 1920s.
When the lie originally opened it was operated by 15 two-car electric multiple-units — the first EMUs to operate in the world — that were supplied by Brown. Marshall & Co of Saltley, in Birmingham. This company also supplied carriages to both the Ffestiniog and Talyllyn railways and was eventually to become part of Metro-Cammell. Additional rolling stock was acquired in 1894 — a further four two-car units (that were slightly shorter than the original cars — 40ft in length rather than 45ft) — and a further 16 vehicles in 1896; this permitted the operation of 15 two-car and eight three-car trains. The final additions to the fleet came in 1916-18 when additional trailers were acquired to convert the remaining two-car sets to three-car.
As might be expected, given its location, the LOR was to suffer significant damage during World War 2 and the German Blitz; the damage was, however, repaired and the line survived the war. The LOR survived Nationalisation in 1948 as an independent line.
The bulk of the fleet remained unchanged throughout its life but, immediately after World War 2, one three-car set was modernised with the original timber body being replaced by one constructed from aluminium and plywood. This rebuilt set also featured passenger doors controlled by the guard. Following this and recognising that the cost replacement vehicles was prohibitively expensive, the company rebuilt a further six three-car sets.
Apart from the actual Docker’s Umbrella, the LOR also operated a standard-gauge electric tramway. This ran for 2½ miles north from Seaforth Sands station to Crosby. Services were introduced on 9 June 1900 and survived until 31 December 1925, when the company’s lease expired. There had been negotiations with Liverpool Corporation over the possibility of the Corporation’s tramways taking over operation but these came to nothing and the company’s trams were therefore replaced by buses.
One of the problems that the LOR faced was that, being constructed in iron, it was exposed to the corrosive quality of the sea air, a problem that was compounded by the fact that a number of steam-operated lines of the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board ran alongside or underneath the structure. A detailed examination in 1955 found that the impact of the corrosion would necessitate some £5 million of repair work over the next five years. Unfortunately, the company did not have the £5 million — equivalent to more than £120 million at current prices — and financial assistance from Liverpool City Council and the MDHB was not available. As a result, despite considerable opposition and attempted rescue, decided to file for voluntary liquidation and to seek the abandonment of the line. As the railway had been built and was operated under an Act of Parliament, a new private Act had to be obtained to permit closure. Royal Assent to the Act permitting closure was obtained on 2 August 1956 and all services over the line ceased on 30 December 1956. Demolition of the structure started on 23 September 1957, almost exactly contemporaneously with the operation of the final tramcars in the city, and, by the end of the following year, the entire structure had been removed. ‘The time will come when Merseysiders must rue the day when they permitted the City Fathers to throttle the lifeblood of this unique undertaking and in addition to scrap the last vestige of their remarkably efficient tramway system.’ Co commented H. Maxwell Roston, the last General Manager of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, at the time of its closure
Today virtually nothing survives to remind people of this useful form of transport other than memories and film such as that featured in the new DVD. One of the original vehicles is preserved in the Museum of Liverpool whilst one of the modernised cars is stored at the Electric Railway Museum in Warwickshire. In July 2012 part of the tunnel close to the station at Dingle, one of the few physical remains of the line, collapsed. Behind Wapping Dock are a handful of the original iron columns that supported the line; these are built into the dock wall and were cleaned for the 1984 Garden Festival.