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The Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJAR) was a suburban railway which operated an 8.6 mile route between Altrincham in Cheshire and London Road Station (now Piccadilly) in Manchester.
1849 The Manchester London Road to Altrincham line opened on 20 July 1849; the South Junction portion from Castlefield Junction to Ordsall Lane was completed on 1 August 1849. In September 1849 the southern terminus was extended a short distance beyond Altrincham to Bowdon.
Following the consolidation of the smaller railway companies in the mid-19th century, the MSJAR passed to joint ownership by the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR). Frequent disagreements between the two owners resulted in the appointment of a full-time independent arbiter to resolve disputes and ensure the day-to-day functioning of the railway.
The MSJAR owned its own coaches, but the haulage was provided by locomotives belonging to both the LNWR and MSLR companies. The MSJAR steam trains were unusual in retaining three classes of passenger accommodation well after most other British companies had dispensed with second class.
On 3 April 1881 the original stations at Bowdon and Altrincham were closed and replaced by a new station located between the two called Altrincham and Bowdon, at the location of today’s Altrincham Interchange.
Also in 1881 the terminus at the other end of the line at London Road was rebuilt as a curved island platform connected to the main-line station via a footbridge. This arrangement survives today as the busy Platforms 13 and 14 at Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station.
In the early part of the 20th Century, the MSJAR steam trains came under increasing competition from electric tramways, which by that time ran the whole way from Manchester to Altrincham and closely followed the route of the railway. Various electrification proposals were studied to counter this threat, although it was only after the 1923 Grouping that concrete action eventuated. Following Grouping, ownership and management of the line was taken over by a MSJAR Committee, representing both the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) and the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). The LNER was particularly interested in the electrification of main-line railways and in 1928 a government report had recommended 1500 V DC overhead as the national standard system. No railway in the UK was electrified with this system at the time, so the decision was made to use the short, self-contained MSJAR as something of a proving ground.
Despite the LNER’s enthusiasm for electric traction, the LMS was the company responsible for installing most of the new electrification infrastructure on the line, while twenty-two new 3-car electric multiple units (EMUs) were built for the line by Metropolitan-Cammell to an LMS design. The new rolling stock was wooden frame construction and a conservative design, with individual compartments throughout (without corridors) and offering both first and third-class accommodation. The electric multiple units were all based at a new depot, located just south of Altrincham and Bowdon station on the site of the original MSJAR Bowdon terminus.
The new trains began test runs in 1930 and on Monday 11 May 1931, the London Road to Altrincham local service became fully electric. Coinciding with the electric service, new suburban stations were opened at Dane Road and Navigation Road. The station formerly called Old Trafford Cricket Ground (which had opened only for matches at the nearby Lancashire County Cricket Club, or Manchester United football ground) was opened full-time and re-named Warwick Road.
The Altrincham Electrics provided a faster, more frequent service than the steam trains they had replaced, and resulted in an 89% increase in patronage on the line within the first five years. The new electric service also stimulated further suburban housing development close to the line, and provided an early example of today’s marketing taglines when the railway’s publicists dubbed the initials MSJ&AR as Many Short Journeys and Absolute Reliability.
As well as local trains, the Altrincham Electrics also provided express services at certain times of day, making use of a four-track section of line between Sale and Old Trafford. Some of the all-station electric trains ran only between Manchester and Sale, while steam-hauled passenger and goods trains also used the MSJAR to travel to destinations beyond the boundaries of electrification at either end of the line. Passenger trains ran from the ex-Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) line from Chester to Manchester Central, diverging from the MSJAR at Cornbrook Junction. There was also a local service from the ex-LNWR line from Warrington Arpley, via Lymm which terminated at Manchester London Road.
The success of the MSJAR and the reliability of the 1500V DC distribution encouraged the LNER to pursue further electrification. These projects were disrupted and delayed by World War II, but in 1954 the first main-line electric railway in northern Britain, was completed from Sheffield to Manchester via the Woodhead route, using 1500 V DC overhead. This line approached Manchester London Road from the east and although it was equipped with the same electrification system as the MSJAR, and had its own fleet of 1500V DC suburban EMU’s (later to be classified as Class 506), the two electric lines were never connected at London Road and the two types of EMU never ventured onto each other’s territory.
In common with most railway routes, passenger traffic on the MSJAR declined significantly in the 1960s as travel patterns changed and more people had access to private cars. As a result, the Altrincham Electric express services were withdrawn, along some of the rolling stock and many of the goods trains using the route. The quadruple section of MSJAR track was reduced to conventional double track in 1963 and Manchester Central station closed on 5 May 1969, with trains from the ex-CLC Chester and Warrington lines being diverted to terminate at Oxford Road.
In the 1950s, British Railways chose 25 kV 50 Hz AC overhead in place of 1500 V DC as the standard for all future main line electrification outside the south of England. In September 1960 the first stage of the electrified West Coast Main Line opened between Manchester and Crewe, using 25 kV AC system. At the same time, London Road station was extensively rebuilt (including the MSJAR platforms) and was renamed Manchester Piccadilly. From 15 September 1958 all Altrincham trains were cut back to the bay platform at Oxford Road to allow the reconstruction to proceed at London Road. The short section between Piccadilly and Oxford Road stations was converted to 25 kV AC, and on 21 September 1960, suburban services from the Styal and Stockport lines began to use Oxford Road as their city terminus.
Despite years of providing many short journeys and absolute reliability , by the late 1960s the Altrincham Electrics were approaching forty years of age. Rather than replace them with new rolling stock operating on the non-standard 1500V DC system, the decision was made to withdraw the trains and convert the whole Altrincham line to 25 kV AC. The last 1500 V DC train was the 23.35 from Oxford Road on Friday 30 April 1971. Altrincham depot closed and all the 1931 rolling stock (provisionally assigned to Class 505 by British Rail) was withdrawn from service.
On Monday, 3 May 1971, a 15-min interval service was introduced from Altrincham, running through Manchester Piccadilly to Alderley Edge and Crewe. The unique 40-year-old, three-car Class 505 Altrincham Electrics were replaced by 12-year-old, four-car Class 304 25 kV AC EMUs, based at Longsight depot. Two of the 1931 stock centre trailer cars were retained and are now undergoing restoration at the Midland Railway Centre in Derbyshire. However none of the motor coaches were preserved, and there is now no main line 1500 V DC overhead infrastructure remaining in the UK.
Following conversion in 1971, the AC services on the Altrincham line continued relatively unchanged for the next twenty years.
From the mid-1970s, the Greater Manchester PTE took a proactive role in promoting and providing financial support for local train services in Greater Manchester. In November 1976, a bus/rail interchange was opened in the forecourt of Altrincham station - the first purpose-built interchange in the Greater Manchester area. Bus schedules were revised to connect with trains to and from Manchester, new vehicles were assigned to the bus routes and the services were promoted with a special Interlink branding. Some trains were diverted to terminate at Hazel Grove when the suburban electrification was extended to that point in June 1981.
In the 1980s the four-car Class 304s were reduced to three cars during a refurbishment programme, and first class accommodation was eliminated. In 1984 a small number of refurbished Class 303 EMUs, formerly used in the Glasgow area, were deployed in the Manchester suburban area and these also appeared in service on the Altrincham line. In 1988, the original section of the South Junction line between Castlefield Junction (adjacent to Deansgate station) and the Victoria to Liverpool Lime Street line, was revitalised by the opening of the Windsor Link to Salford Crescent. The Windsor Link allowed trains from Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road to reach the lines to Wigan, Bolton and Preston and opened up many potential destinations (both local and long distance) for trains from the south side of Manchester. Full exploitation of the Windsor Link depended on conversion of the Altrincham line to Metrolink operation, which freed up many train paths along the congested section between Deansgate and Piccadilly.
Residents in Manchester in the early 19th century must have marvelled at the prospect of a railway - an elevated railway - coming into and through the heart of their city. Today, familiarity has all but rendered the viaducts and bridges invisible.
In the city centre, the MSJ&AR had two miles of brick-built viaducts with no less than 224 arches, and some handsome iron bridges. The latter have been recently enhanced by a paint job which does justice to their elegance and quality of foundrywork, but who gives them a second glance?
The cast iron bridges in Photo 1 are close to Knott Mill Station, and were made by E. T. Bellhouse and Co, while the one in Photo 2 is slightly further west, and was from the foundry of W. J. and J. Garforth