- 1 Chester Station
- 2 The Railway in History
- 3 Railway Disasters and Other Mishaps in Chester
Chester's historic Station is one of only twenty-two Grade I and Grade II* listed railway stations in the whole of England and one of only three in the northwest region (the others being Carlisle and Edge Hill, Liverpool). An old guidebook describes the Station as follows:
- "Let us first inspect our commodious and convenient STATION. It is situated in Flookersbrook at one extremity of the borough although the suburbs of the town extend much further. The Chester Railway Station presents a noble pile of buildings in the Italian style remarkable for its beauty and grandeur of proportions it is the longest of all the railway stations in England. It is admirably adapted for the purpose of developing all these facilities and conveniences which are the characteristics of the railway system and forms the grand central terminus of all the lines meeting in Chester viz the London and North Western the Chester and Holyhead the Great Western and Birkenhead Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Companies. The station consists of a facade facing the city of Chester 1050 feet long built of dark coloured bricks with dark facings and dressings. The centre of this building which is two stories high contains on the ground floor the usual offices, waiting and refreshment rooms and in the upper story are the offices for the general manager and for the Chester and Holyhead and Great Western companies in which the business connected with the lines is conducted. The number of offices and rooms exceeds fifty. The wings are formed by projecting arcades with iron roofs and are appropriated to private and public vehicles awaiting the arrival of trains. On the inner side of the office buildings a large platform extends which is chiefly used for departing trains and is 750 feet long; this and three lines of railway are covered by an iron roof sixty feet span, which is most elegantly designed; behind this shed, and only divided from it by a series of pillars and arches, is another shed for passenger trains, 450 feet long by 52 feet wide also covered by a beautifully constructed iron roof. The length of line immediately connected with the passenger station is about 15,000 feet, with 36 turn tables and numerous points and crossings."
If you ask a Cestrian what is above the main entrance of Chester Station, they will probably say a clock. However, the clock is actually offset so as to be visible down the length of City Road, at one end of which stands the Station. It was originally located in the centre of the building, where the British Rail logo is now but, when the Queen Hotel opposite was built in the 1860s, it obscured the view of the clock from City Road and it was subsequently moved to its present, rather ungainly, position. The frontage of the station was designed by Francis Thompson.
It is operated by Arriva Trains Wales. Inside the station is a memorial to its builder, Thomas Brassey, a well-known railway engineer (and another Cestrian). He was said to have been an enlightened employer much admired by his workforce, who, remarkably, built the entire station, as well as all the track, sidings and service buildings, in less than a year. A remarkable achievement, especially when compared with the length of time it took to re-lay a few pavements around it in 2007... The station opened in 1848. It used to be linked to the Queen Hotel opposite by a passageway - this can still be seen behind the taxi rank and carries a sign saying that 'carriages and post horses are for hire'. The station is also at one end of the Baker Way - a walking path to Delamere Station.
From 1875, Chester was also served by Chester Northgate station (owned by the Cheshire Lines Committee); however, that station was closed in 1969 and is now the site of "Northgate Arena" (a leisure centre).
Owls, Crows and WW2
If you are waiting on Platform 4, try to spot the two carved wooden owls which may be placed there to 'chase' pigeons away. This is probably a good thing as Chester does have a bit of a pigeon problem. Occasionally, the RSPCA gets phone calls from train passengers who believe an owl to be trapped in the station roof. Chester Station is also the home of a 'murder' of crows - who are bright enough to realise the owls are fake.
A WW2 "Railway Control Centre" once stood in the station car park next to the Queen Hotel. This was a rectangular windowless concrete blockhouse, eventually used to store spare parts by Railtrack contractors. It had a dog-leg airlock at each end with steel gas-tight doors. Inside there was a large rectangular room running the length of the building, and a corridor with smaller rooms along the right hand side. There were no original features remaining apart from the doors. The building was demolished, following a controversy, in 2014.
In March 2007, Chester Station was awarded a grant worth £1.4 million from the Heritage Lottery's Townscape Heritage Initiative for refurbishment. This was long overdue, as station facilities were in a poor state for years. Amongst other things, the grant was used to improve the concourse (dangerously slippery in wet weather), remodel the square outside and add strategic lighting outside to enhance the architecture.
The state of the station has been a regular complaint of readers of the Chester Chronicle. The station lifts were slow and unclean (although the concourse was generally clean and litter-free, unlike the tracks which are full of cigarette butts and crisp packets). As well as the dodgy concourse tiles, the public toilets used to be pretty disgusting, mostly lacking locks, paper, soap and hot water. There is a tiny WH Smith just inside the main entrance, which stocks a limited, range of newspapers, magazines and books. If you plan to buy food for your trip at the station, do it at Smith's - it has a good range of pricey but high quality sandwiches, as well as soft drinks (very expensive).
In Summer 2008 the first signs of the redevelopment were brought into use. The toilets had been heavily refurbished and the old Cafe on the main concourse had been demolished and replaced by a more modern facility, which adjoins the new travel centre.
There are two ATM cash machines inside the main concourse, to the right of the ticket barriers. These are standard bank ATMs, so you will not be charged for withdrawing money, unless using some foreign cards.
The station staff get the thumbs up, being very friendly and always helpful, even at peak periods.
The ticket kiosk was originally located inside the main concourse, on the left. Since Summer 2008 there is now a new Travel Centre located to the far right of the main concourse. This has replaced the 1993 built ticket office and is in an open plan style. There are 4 windows on the main concourse and a fifth located on platform 3a for excess tickets. In busy periods (especially rush hour), there can be a short queue, so it's worth allowing extra time for buying your ticket. There are also ticket machines on the concourse - these are usually working but do tend to give a large number of pound coins in change (not funny when you've inserted a £20 note for a £3 ticket). Also, they do not appear to let you buy an off-peak ticket for Merseyrail in advance, if you try to buy a ticket during the end of peak travel time when the next train is actually an off-peak one.
Since the new ticket barriers were installed in summer 2006, you can no longer access the platforms without a ticket (and as far as we know, the station does not sell platform tickets). If you need to help someone elderly or infirm off/on a train, it's worth ringing the station first to check you'll be allowed platform access (or to arrange for the helpful staff to get the wheelchair ramp ready). That said, the ticket barriers are not always operating/staffed - sometimes, you can walk straight through. But don't count on it.
Direct travel from Chester is limited to a few options. You can get to Manchester via two routes: via Warrington on platform 4 (which takes just over an hour and stops at Oxford Road as well as Piccadilly), or via Stockport and the Delamere Forest (usually platform 5 but sometimes platform 6), which takes around 90 minutes and stops only at Piccadilly. The MerseyRail train from platform 7b will deliver you to Liverpool in 45 minutes: changing at Hamilton Square will get you to the western reaches of the Wirral. The North Wales line (platform 3) will take you as far as Bangor and Holyhead. You'll need to change at Llandudno Junction to get to anywhere else in North Wales that is accessible by iron horse. The last direct route is towards Shrewsbury, which will take you as far as Cardiff or Birmingham.
There is a shuttle train to Crewe. Changing at Crewe is essential for many journeys south, but there are more direct trains a day to London (platform 4) - now taking about two hours.
There is a free CityLink shuttle bus that you can catch directly outside the station to the city centre. Until the introduction of ticket barriers it was neccesary to show a valid rail ticket to board. However this is no longer the case and the service is completely free. There is a black cab rank outside and several bus routes depart for county-wide destinations from the stop across the square outside the Town Crier pub.
Despite their being parking at Chester Station, many people choose to park in the nearby streets, thereby avoiding payment. This is a cause of great inconvenience to local residents, who frequently find it impossible to park within reasonable distance of their own homes.
The Railway in History
From 1841 to 1871 Chester enjoyed thirty economic boom years. The main evidence for this is the extent of migration to the city and population growth, but prosperity was also reflected in a large rise in the number of businesses and in the amount of rebuilding in the city centre. The arrival of the railways reasserted Chester's importance for transport and consolidated its function as a service centre for the region. A limited growth in manufacturing further diversified the economy. In choosing their route through the City, and given the main imperative of creating efficient communication with Ireland through the new port of Holyhead, the railway avoided the City Centre, locating the station in an outlying area of marshy land known as Flookersbrook after the stream that ran through it. The land was occupied only by market gardens and a single row of cottages. Subsequently other competing companies sought to redress this deficiency by proposing a new line to terminate beside the Cathedral in the Kaleyards. Their thwarted ambitions were represented by a line truncated at the now closed Northgate Station (opened 1875), again located on the periphery of the city above the tunnels of those lines leaving the General Station. Between the two stations lay groupings of engine and goods sheds for the many independent railway companies and the railway colony of Newtown.
The origins of the General Station came about as a consequence of the fragmentary nature of early railway development where many individual companies built relatively short lines that only later came to form strategic national routes. The major routes into the station were all completed within the decade from 1840 to 1850. Lines to Birkenhead and a month later the Crewe begain the railway age in Chester in 1840 connecting through to the national rail network and London Euston. In November 1846 the Chester & Shrewsbury line was opened from Ruabon to Chester and by 1848 it was completed through to Shrewsbury affording a direct link from Chester to London Paddington. The Chester & Holyhead Railway was authorised in July 1844, but by November 1846 it was opened only as far as Saltney. Completion to Bangor followed in May 1848, Holyhead the final destination only being reached in 1850 on the completion of the Brittania Bridge across the Menai Straits. The last major line to reach Chester General was the Warrington Line of the Birkenhead Lancashire and Cheshire Railway. This line was authorised in 1846 and opened in 1850. A branch to Whitchurch opened in 1872 and the line to Mold & Denbigh as early as 1849. In November 1846 the Chester & Shrewsbury line was opened from Ruabon to Chester and by 1848 it was completed through to Shrewsbury affording a direct link from Chester to London Paddington. The last major line to reach Chester General was the Warrington Line of the Birkenhead Lancashire and Cheshire Railway. This line was authorised in 1846 and opened in 1850. A branch to Whitchurch opened in 1872 and the line to Mold & Denbigh as early as 1849.
Before the construction of the General Station the area to the immediate west of the present station was occupied by two stations, one for the Chester & Birkenhead and the other for the Chester & Crewe, Chester & Holyhead and Chester & Shrewsbury. Although consideration was given to relocating the General Station closer to the City Centre, it was decided to consolidate the operation about the existing track. In a co-operative spirit that was unusual at this early stage in the development of the railway system, the various companies agreed to pool their resources and for operational and passenger convenience construct a single large station. The four commissioning companies were the London & North Western Railway (now owners of the Chester & Crewe), the Chester & Holyhead (soon also to be absorbed into the London & North Western), the Shrewsbury & Chester (which in the following decade became a part of the Great Western empire) and the Birkenhead Lancashire & Cheshire Junction Railway (a name reflecting the incorporation of the former Chester & Birkenhead). The design was put in the hands of Francis Thompson and Robert Stephenson respectively the architect and engineer to the Chester & Holyhead Company – work commenced in August 1847 and the station was opened within the year on 1st August 1848.
The Station Buildings
The Italianate design chosen was derived from Thompson's earlier work at Derby Station and was the hallmark of the Chester & Holyhead. With the exception of the redundant Mostyn Station, Chester remains Thompson's sole surviving work on this route. Upon completion in 1848 the station was said to be one of the largest in the world, and also with a length of nearly a quarter mile, the longest. The size of the station reflected the requirements of the individual companies who contributed to its construction rather than the likely demand from a small provincial city. The scale of the frontage building which provided office accommodation in 50 rooms was necessary to provide the administrative facilities for the then independent component companies. The length of the station building reflected a track layout which comprised only a single through platform of a length sufficient to simultaneously accommodate two trains travelling in opposite directions. These arrangements allowed Thompson to design a most impressive range of frontage buildings arranged symmetrical about a central two storey building flanked by arcaded west and east wings that provided for road carriage and wagon traffic. Immediately behind the central frontage building lay the single through platform (now platform 3), behind the western wing, reserved for passenger road carriages and Hackney cabs lay four bay platforms (the outer most surviving as the present platform 2). Behind the eastern wing dedicated to goods and parcels road wagons lay three terminal bay platforms (two survive, the farthest being the present platform 1). All platforms and track were afforded shelter by overall train shedding.
Before the late 1880s only relatively minor changes took place to the station including; during the 1860s the widening of the central entrance and relocating the station clock on an alignment with the newly laid out City Road, both introducing an asymmetry to the main frontage; the construction of the link passageway across the Station Forecourt to the Queen Hotel; the infilling of the loggia to the east pavilion and a narrow single storey extension between this area and the passageway. The first significant change to the original symmetrical layout occurred with the construction of the covered passageway between the Station and the Queen Hotel sometime post 1860. Soon afterwards this was followed by the infilling of the east pavilion loggia and the outward extension of the south façade of the east wing between the loggia and the new passageway. The construction of the passageway caused a fragmentation of the views of the frontage building as a whole but also came to define the extent of the forecourt and therefore the principal public approach to the station. It is a single storey structure which is distinguished by a raised covered carriage archway at its centre that allowed access to the service areas of the Queen Hotel and the Station goods and parcels facilities. Architecturally it adopts the style and materials of the Queen Hotel with stuccoed walls, semi circular headed sash windows set within recessed bays defined by simple pilasters. Both link and arch have a low pitched roof of slate, that to the arch being hipped.
The construction of a building in front of the arcade linking the western part of the main frontage building to the western road carriage wing significantly affected the character of the frontage as a whole effectively extending the carriage wing eastwards. (To this day, the arcade line remains behind this building despite the demolition of the train shed that it previously supported). This building occupies a prominent corner site, and as with the building of the Queen Passageway to the east came to define the western extent of the Station Forecourt. It provided Post Office accommodation and originally comprised of a single storey, the second storey being added later. As this building blocked the entrance to the west wing for road carriages a widened archway now had to be provided within the street frontage of this part of the building (the present vehicular access to BSP/Station House). 1889 marked the most significant modifications and extension to the station complex. This project included the construction of the north island platform (the present through platforms 4 & 7 and bay platforms 5 & 6) and its buildings, the north train shed, the pedestrian bridge and the scissors cross overs. As the site was occupied by the original goods shed a new facility to the north of the proposed new works was constructed in 1888. This building survived as the Hoole Enterprise Centre, until it was destoyed in the second Lightfoot Street fire. The present overall form of the station is basically still largely as it was when the 1889 rearrangement was completed, with much of this work surviving intact save for the partial demolition of the north train shed following a freight train derailment and fire in the 1970s (see below).
Two years later the platforms at the western end of the station were lengthened almost to Hoole Road Bridge and a further extensive area of coverall train shed added. At this time the station came to extend over 70 acres. Other significant changes included the raising of all of the single storey section of the eastern frontage building to two storeys and the later partial raising at the western part of the frontage building. Although the former is executed to match the original, the latter is a crude addition which detracts from this prominent part of the frontage. In the early part of the 20th century further single storey additions were made to either side of the Queen Hotel passageway (in part today occupied by British Transport Police). These ad hoc additions concealed part of the passageway frontage and contribute to a rather uncoordinated appearance to this part of the frontage. In the late 19th and early 20th century further additions and alterations, mostly of a more minor nature were made to the frontage building including; the addition in two phases of a second floor to the eastern end of the frontage building, the infilling of the east carriage entrance to the west wing, initially with a single storey building which was later to have a second storey added, and the construction of single storey buildings to both sides of the Queen passageway. The inter war years saw the last alteration of any significance to the frontage with the addition of a second storey to a part of the single storey section of the western frontage building.
The downfall in the fortunes of the Station began in 1959 with the demolition of the 1891 train shed and those parts of the 1842 shed over the central tracks and platform 3, and also with the withdrawal of the Whitchurch service over the eastern bay platforms. Further demolition took place in 1967 with the removal of the sheds between the current platform 2 and the frontage building when these bay platforms became redundant with the withdrawal of North Wales branch and main line stopping train services, and the express services to London Paddington. The southern side of the station forecourt developed slowly and never completely.
In 1859, twelve years after the completion of the Station, The Queen Hotel was opened, followed in 1867 by the sister Queen Commercial Hotel. These important buildings flanked the entrance to the new City Road. It was not however until the second decade of the 20th century that the adjoining Post Office Building (now converted to flats) was constructed next to the Queen Commercial so creating something of a square like sense of enclosure to the Station Forecourt. Another buildings fronting onto the forecourt included the "Pavilion Skating Rink", which existed in 1882 (it was used for Salvation Army Meetings which were often so crowded as to block the street and cause people to miss their last train from Chester) and was demolished in the 1960's. The site is now occupied by "Anfields" hardware and glass merchants.
In March 2007, Chester Station was awarded a grant worth £1.4 million from the Heritage Lottery's Townscape Heritage Initiative for refurbishment. In Summer 2008 the first signs of the redevelopment were brought into use. The toilets had been heavily refurbished and the old Cafe on the main concourse had been demolished and replaced by a more modern facility, which adjoins the new travel centre. Since Summer 2008 there is now a new Travel Centre located to the far right of the main concourse. This has replaced the 1993 built ticket office and is in an open plan style. There are 4 windows on the main concourse and a fifth located on platform 3a for excess tickets. Extensive "public realm" improvements in 2008 included new carriageway surfacing, footways & hard landscaping in high quality materials in front of the railway station. Works included planing & resurfacing, construction of footways, kerbing, ducting & drainage and all associated lining, signing & traffic management. One controversial "improvement" was the replacement of the iron lamp stands with modern ones.
Chester was once a major port, so much so that when the Grosvenor Bridge was built between 1827-1833 in order to ease congestion on the Old Dee Bridge at Handbridge, which by the beginning of the 19th century was the only crossing across the River Dee in Chester the Grosvenor Bridge was built (1833) high above the river for shipping to pass to the very short length of river upstream and below the weir. However, when a very few years later (1846) the railway bridge shortly downstream was constructed it was very much lower and reflected the shift from water to rail. By the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves in Chester were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin sea-trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool, as well as the substitution of cheaper cotton for linen. George Lee Fenwick commented:
- "..for a long time [Chester] lay almost motionless upon the great tidal wave of progress which was sweeping past, but at length a movement became apparent, and even ancient Chester.. ..could no longer withstand the onward rush of events. The turning point dates from the accession of Queen Victoria." (A History of the Ancient City of Chester, 1896)
By the 1880's Chester was an important hub in the regional rail network and had three stations. The early rail network favoured North and Central Wales and the Marches and this reinforced Chester's connection with Wales, but, as few lines into south and central Cheshire opened before 1870, weakened links to the parts of Cheshire for which there was better rail access to Manchester, Warrington, Crewe, the Potteries, or Shrewsbury.
There were 311 men, working on the railways in Chester in 1851 and the number had risen to 499 people by 1861 (including five women). That has been estimated at just over 5% of the male labour force. By 1861 the London and North Western and Great Western Railways were the two biggest employers in the city - 100 porters at Chester General station alone and at least 76 railway labourers in the city. The majority, both skilled and unskilled, seem to have come from an existing national pool of labour and had been born outside either Chester or Cheshire, but these (relatively poorly paid) migrant workers added new spending power to the Chester economy.
The proportion of Chester's trade from north and mid Wales grew with the opening of the railways to Shrewsbury and Holyhead. Before the arrival of the railway, industrial Flintshire seems to have dominated the Chester/Welsh trade. The railway to Wrexham and Ruabon gave the Denbighshire coalfield a new lease of life. By the 1870s the Denbighshire trade was beginning to rival that from Flintshire. There was much migration into the area, with the population rising by 65% between 1841 and 1871. The railway into Wirral seems to have increased the peninsula's significance in Chester's trade. The city's influence, however, evidently reached no further than a line running from Parkgate to Eastham. Beyond that the pull of Liverpool and the growing commercial weight of Birkenhead were too strong. The railways also brought more long-distance tourists and customers to Chester, but although the trade from outside the immediate hinterland grew, it remained a relatively small proportion of the total. The railways also helped the development of new industries in Chester by reducing the cost of raw materials and making access to markets cheaper or faster however the city's manufacturing base remained limited.
Chester's engineering sector grew significantly, and the numbers employed in metalworking increased greatly between 1851 and 1871, particularly in the more modern trades. Older metal trades, such as nailmaking and whitesmithing, declined, presumably due to competition from elsewhere, but engineers, machine makers, mechanics, and iron manufacturers leapt in numbers. The new foundries and engineering firms were located in two main areas. The first lay between the canal and the railway around Brook Street, Egerton Street, and George Street, where the most important businesses were E. & B. Johnson, James Mowle, and James Rigg. None was actually on the Canalside itself or had direct rail access, and most occupied restricted sites hemmed in by housing which limited their possibility for expansion. The two railway wagon repair shops in the same area were linked of necessity to the railway:
- The London and North Western Railway had a cramped works between Francis Street and City Road, to which rail access involved crossing the station approach road at street level.
- The Birmingham Wagon Co.'s works occupied a better and more spacious site between Black Diamond Street and the Brook Street bridge. The company's main works was in Smethwick near Birmingham, and the branch in Chester maintained wagons leased to the railway companies and private operators.
The new industrial zone at Saltney was related directly to the arrival of the railway. Though administratively it was only partly within Chester, geographically and economically Saltney was an extension of the city. It developed rapidly into the city's most vibrant industrial area in the mid 19th century and made a large contribution to diversifying Chester's economic base. The trigger for its growth was the opening by the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway in 1846 of a wharf on the Dee adjacent to the railway junction with the Chester and Holyhead line. Industrial development began in 1847 with the establishment of Henry Wood & Co.'s anchor, chain, and general engineering works. The firm had been founded in Stourbridge (Worcs.) in 1786. The Saltney works, on Boundary Lane, had both a railway siding and access to Saltney wharf. A number of other firms followed Wood's to Saltney. Lloyd's Cambrian Chain and Anchor Testing Co., was set up in 1866. By 1870 three oil refineries were in operation, of which the largest was the Flintshire Oil & Cannel Co. at St. David's Oil Works. The others were E. S. Rogers & Co.'s British Oil Works and the Dee Mineral Oil Co., set up in 1869. They mostly processed crude oil produced from cannel coal in the Flintshire coalfield, and were part of an industry which boomed locally from 1858 to the 1880s. The Sal Ammonionic works was operating in Saltney as early as 1843, and in 1856 Proctor and Ryland moved there from Birmingham and opened a bone manure works on the riverside.
The railway also brought industry to Saltney on its own account. The Shrewsbury and Chester Railway established its locomotive and carriage works there in 1847, and after the company was acquired by the Great Western in 1854, the latter moved its standard-gauge carriage and wagon works from Wolverhampton to Saltney. The Victoria Waggon Co. was also operating at Saltney by 1860, though it had closed by 1870. Furthermore the goods yards at Mold Junction became the main concentration and distribution point for roofing slates from the north Wales quarries. Saltney's population grew from 554 in 1841 to 1,901 in 1871 as a result of the area's industrial development.
"Parry's Railway Companion" for the Journey from Chester to Holyhead (1848), opens it's description of the journey with a description of the station:
- This grand central terminus station for all the lines meeting at Chester,—the London and North Western—the Chester and Holyhead—the Shrewsbury and Chester—the Chester and Birkenhead—and the Cheshire Junction Railways, — was designed by Mr. Thompson, the celebrated architect, of London, who planned the Derby station. It is admirably adapted for the purpose of developing all those facilities and conveniences which are the characteristics of the railway system. The length of this elegant building is 910 feet; the elevation is in excellent taste, and presents an imposing appearance; the centre range having two stories, of great architectural beauty, flanked by handsome towers 40 feet high. At each wing there is an arrival platform, for terminal trains, when journeys end at Chester, 250 feet long and 14 feet high. The principal departure platform, towards the main through lines from London to Holyhead, is 703 feet 6 inches long and 19 feet wide. This magnificent erection will also include a first-class refreshment room 41 feet by 25, a second-class refreshment-room 30 feet by 25, a first-class ladies' room 25 feet by 30, a first-class waiting-room 25 feet by 20, a kitchen 30j feet by 16, an electric telegraph office 20 feet by 15^, a parcel office 30J feet by 25, and a post-office 25 feet by 10.
Sources and Links
- Chester Station on Wikipedia;
- Chester Station at English Heritage;
- Train times for Chester;
Railway Disasters and Other Mishaps in Chester
Dee Bridge Collapse
In late 1846, the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, later to become part of the Great Western Railway, first carried traffic. From Saltney Junction, access was gained to Chester via the Chester & Holyhead Railway. This latter line was carried over the River Dee, in the same place where it crosses today, by three 98-foot spans of cast-iron girders resting on stone piers. Both the bridge and the line had been designed by the great railway engineer, Robert Stephenson. The design was not unlike that of the Tay Bridge, which collapsed some thirty years later.
On 24 May 1847, the driver of the 18:15 Chester-Ruabon train noticed something was amiss as his train, crossing the span of the bridge closest to Saltney, began to vibrate strongly. The driver boldly opened his throttle to clear the bridge and no sooner had he reached the bank than the bridge collapsed into the Dee, carrying away his unfortunate fireman, who was dashed against the stonework of the bridge and killed. The death toll included a guard, two coachmen and a few passengers (sources vary). Sixteen people (sources again vary) were badly injured, which is surprising considering that the whole train, except the engine, fell into the swirling waters of the tidal River Dee.
Curiously, Stephenson himself had inspected the bridge for safety earlier on the very same day. He had noted that hot coals falling from passing trains could set the wooden parts of the bridge structure alight and had ordered that the bridge deck be covered with tons of track ballast to prevent the oak beams supporting the track from catching fire. Undoubtedly, this massive loading of the structure with crushed stone contributed to the disaster.
The brave driver, whose name was Clayton, had just seen his fireman slain, but not only drove his train to Saltney to summon help, yet then recrossed the bridge on the other track to warn oncoming traffic. Stephenson's bridge design was condemned by the inspector of railways as being too weak and generally unsound. The Official Inquiry (one of the first formal inquiries into a structural failure) stated:
- "The train passed safely over the first and centre openings or arches, and the engine appears to have reached the middle of the third opening, or within about 50 feet of the end of the bridge before the driver felt any sinking. When he did feel it, he states, that he instantly put on his full steam, and by the momentum succeeded in clearing the bridge with his engine, and dragging the tender up with him. The stoker who was upon the tender was thrown off upon the land, and killed. The carriages, with all the passengers, were precipitated into the river, a depth of 36 feet to the surface of the water, which, at the time of the accident, was about 10 feet deep in the middle. The tender, having got off the line, was dragged up, rubbing hard against the parapet wall at the end of the bridge, as is evident from the stone-work of the wall being much disturbed; and was left standing upright at about 50 feet from the water's edge, and three feet off the rails; the engine having broken away from it, and proceeded with the driver (the only individual that escaped) to the next station."
Nowadays, it is possible to cross the river at this point by a footbridge (this has steep steps at either end) and L. T. C. Rolt (d.1974 - writer of "Red for Danger: A History of Railway Accidents and Railway Safety" (1955)) first gained his interest in trains while 'spotting' them from the trembling wooden footbridge as they passed on the far more sturdy replacement of the original bridge. Rolt was born in Chester and there is a commemorative plaque for him on the bridge by the canal dry dock.
- Dee Bridge Collapse on Wikipedia;
- A detailed discussion of the disaster;
- A reprint of a paper on the disaster;
- A first hand report on the disaster;
- Peter R Lewis, Disaster on the Dee: Robert Stephenson's Nemesis of 1847, Tempus Publishing (2007) ISBN 978-0-7524-4266-2
- A review of Peter Lewis' book - contains links to further information;
- Dee Railway Bridge at "Heritage Locations";
Sutton Tunnel Disaster (1851)
On 26th. April 1851 the Manchester Guardian was advertising "Day Excursions" to Chester Races. The result was that 4,000 people arrived at Manchester Victoria Station on Chester Cup Day eager to travel to the races on this new route and there were problems assembling sufficient rolling stock to provide for this unexpected number of customers. All trains started late. The 7:45am, with 2 locomotives and 38 carriages arrived at Chester at 11:30 (over 2 hours late). It was clear to all that the trains were grossly overloaded - travellers on one train, of 50 carriages, had to get out and walk up an incline because the locomotive was incapable of moving the weight of the passengers.
Despite the cold weather on the 30th April 1851, the Roodee was crowded with over 18,000 as never before. The big race proved to be one of the most exciting ever seen, with 28 starters: the favourite being a horse called "Rhesus", at 4 to 1. The second favourite was "Italian" and other fancied horses included "Black Docter", "Hesse Hombourg" and "Russborough". After three false starts, they got away at the fourth attempt. Although Rhesus and Italian were always handy throughout the race, Nancy and Black Docter managed to establish themselves at the front. Then, on the run in, Hesse Hombourg and Rhesus put in a strong challenge; but somehow, Nancy and Black Docter managed to stay ahead to the winning post, with Nancy a neck ahead of the "Docter".
The Manchester people left the races smartly as they wanted to make sure they got home. By 6pm, the Station Master, one John Critchley, estimated that Chester Station was teeming with some 5,000 people. The first train was immediately filled, with people climbing on the carriage roofs, but they were ordered down "sternly" by Robert Lewis Jones, the Manager of Chester General Station. A second train left with some 430 passengers. The train departed and the crowd surged across the tracks to another standing in a siding and bearing a notice "Manchester via Warrington" on its side. This was quickly filled with some 900 passengers in only 18 small carriages. The train left the siding at about 6.50 pm hauled by the locomotive "Druid". It was assisted up the Hoole incline from Chester station by another locomotive, "No. 16", driven by David Evans, pushing at the back.
No. 16 returned to Chester to collect its own train and the train pulled by Druid made "good speed" to Frodsham where some passengers left it. Shortly after leaving Chester, it began to rain, and for George Allen, Druid's driver and Thomas Leach, his fireman, on the open footplate, it bacame very uncomfortable, but they were accustomed to this, having both worked on locomotive footplates for a number of years. The rain turned to sleet, and Druid's driving wheels had started to slip. From Frodsham station to the Sutton Weaver Viaduct there is an uphill gradient of 1:240 and the fireman and a local platelayer sanded the rails. Despite this the train made only slow progress, even on the level viaduct. Beyond the viaduct the tunnel also had an uphill gradient of 1:264 and it was a struggle to keep the train moving.
By this time the train hauled by No. 16 had left Chester with only 430 passengers and was catching up with Druid's train. By the time it arrived near Sutton tunnel it was only 55-64 m behind it. Druid's guard, Henry Blackford, signalled to the following train to come behind and push his train. This it did, but then No. 16's wheels also began to slip. In the middle of the 2 km tunnel the two trains came to a halt.
By now the next train, pulled by "Albert", had arrived in Frodsham station and it was allowed to leave two minutes later. At this precise moment, the two earlier trains were just entering Sutton Tunnel, but Henry Jones, the Station Master at Frodsham, had no means of knowing this. This was 14 minutes after No. 16's train had left and 24 minutes after Druid's train; the company's rules allowed trains to pass intermediate stations at intervals of five minutes. There was no formal signalling system in those days Henry Jones allowed William Dixon, Albert's driver, to leave without giving him any warning about the trains ahead of him.Albert's train entered the tunnel at 15–20 miles per hour. The driver noticed a lot of steam in the tunnel and stated that he slowed, but his train collided with the rear of No. 16's train. The guard from No. 16's train walked back with a red light and stopped the next train on the viaduct. Five people had been killed outright and four died later. Between 30 and 40 people were injured. About 1,600 people were crowded inside the tunnel in complete darkness. The Government Inspector Capt. R M Laffan, described:
- "A scene of fearful confusion ensued: 1,600 passengers found themselves crowded together in perfect darkness: while some of them were endeavouring to procure themselves a light from the engines, the noise of another train was heard approaching and led all parties to dread a second collision."
The tunnel at 1 mile 154 yards long has only one ventilation shaft. The shaft was used to free some victims from the tunnel after the accident. Fortunattely for those trapped there was no fire, otherwise this could have become one of the worst railway disasters ever. Quintinshill rail disaster, Britains worst, only killed around 226.
The inquest on the dead was held in the Red Lion, Preston Brook, from the 3rd May until the 12th. The foreman of the jury was a Dr. Wilson from Preston Brook - Agent for Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory - and a verdict of "Accidental Death" was eventually returned. They added a rider to this, however, putting "great blame" on the Executive Committee of the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Company, and they criticised their officers and servants for "want of prudence and discretion". Captain Laffin was critical of the secretary of the company, the locomotive superintendent, the three drivers, two of the guards and the Frodsham station master, but in particular he blamed the executive committee of the railway company. He made six recommendations: a station should be built at each end of the tunnel and that the stations should be connected by an electric telegraph; two guards should be provided on each train rather than one; the locomotive stock and number of carriages should be increased; a more efficient staff should be engaged; all passenger carriages passing through the tunnel should be provided with lights; the interval of five minutes between trains should be increased. The stations were built. At the Frodsham end the station went first by the name of Runcorn, then Runcorn Road, and finally Halton; it is now closed. At the other end was Norton station, which has been replaced by Runcorn East station.
Chester General Fire
On 8 May 1972, another potentially serious accident happened at Chester General Station when a freight train carrying, just behind the engine, a large quantity of the light naphtha cut, "Gas-oil" (c.105 tons), together with kerosene (c.35 tons) and even more petrol (c.45 tons) had a brake failure and ploughed into the station (today's platform 5) at speed. Close to 200 tons of volatile hydro-carbons have a potential "explosive" equivalent to around 800 tons of TNT or 0.8kT (~5% of Hiroshima), but depending on the kinetics of ignition, are generally not as catastrophic. To put the potential into context, a 1-2kt TNT explosion can be heard hundreds of kilometers away and damage buildings and windows over a large area, a typical modern nuclear weapon, with a yield of a thousand times the Chester wreck (800kt) would vaporize the structures directly below it and produce an immense blast wave and high-speed winds, crushing even heavily built concrete structures within a couple of miles of ground zero, and causing fatal burns out to about ten miles.
The driver and a second driver travelling in the cab as a passenger, jumped clear from the runaway train at the last second after frantic efforts to stop it. The collision partly demolished the station restaurant on what is nowadays platform 4. The resulting fire could have been catastrophic, but was brought under control by Firemen before the explosive content of the train could wreak havoc.
Nearby disasters include the October 1996 Lightfoot Street Fire and the 1861 Queen Hotel fire (see below) illustrated famously by Chester artist Randolf Caldecott
Queen Hotel Fire
- "built in the Italian style upon a beautiful piece of ground with sumptuous furnishings, a beautiful garden and offering the quietest and most spacious first class Hotel in Chester" (21st July, 1860).
The following year, in December 1861, the hotel was gutted by a major fire. Apparently, back in 59/60 the builders had put a wooden joist through one of the chimneys and over the course of the following years this slowly burned away until it could ignite the entire building. Randolph Caldecott's illustration of the Queen Hotel fire (his first published work) shows not only how major the fire was, but also shows the latticed "observation towers" that were not rebuilt after the fire.
Nowadays, the Queen has all the fire precautions that one would expect of a major hotel, so the disaster of 1861 is very unlikely to be repeated. The "Victoria" statue of the queen was erected in 1963 to replace the old one. Messrs H. A. Clegg, stonemasons on the Chester Sealand Industrial Estate, were commissioned by the hotel to provide a new statue and this was produced by T. G. Murphy who had worked for twenty five years sculpting at Liverpool Cathedral. He studied postage stamps to gain an idea of the Queen's features. The statue cost £350. The roof of H. A. Clegg and sons had to be removed to get in the two ton of stone needed for the statue. It had to be removed again nine weeks later to get the statue out.
- Queen Hotel at English Heritage;
Lightfoot Street Fires
The first and second Lightfoot Street Fires occured in 1996 (when Pickfords went up in smoke) and 2010 (when the Enterprise Center followed).
Train Operating Incident
In 2013 Virgin Trains suffered a "Train Operating Incident" at Chester (that's a train crash in English). Fortunately, there was only a slight injury to a single passenger.