The construction of the West Lancashire Railway to link the towns of Preston and Southport began in 1878. One of the major engineering tasks was the building of a bridge across the River Ribble near Penwortham. Work began on this in 1881. To build the bridge piers (the supports that hold up the bridge), cofferdams were first constructed. These are structures that enable work to be carried out beneath the water line. First an area of water is enclosed, and then water is pumped out of the interior to create a dry working environment.
Unseasonably high rainfall and a high tide in the estuary caused a flood in July of the first year of construction. One of the cofferdams was destroyed, and equipment and materials were lost. When a second flood occurred the next month, the workers had prepared beforehand and there were no comparable losses.
The completed bridge consisted of six piers made of Longridge sandstone. Four stood in the river, and the other two stood on opposing sides of the bank. These supported five iron spans, some 45 feet above the river.
On September 1st 1882, Major-General Hutchinson from the Board of Trade took charge of line inspection. A heavy locomotive engine with coaches was driven over the bridge. Then a heavier load of four engines was driven backwards and forwards over it at differing speeds. It was recorded that the bridge deflected by a mere quarter of an inch, well within the safety limits of the day. The line officially opened on 4th September and a day later a special train ran from Southport to Preston to mark the occasion. On 16th September, the line was opened to regular rail traffic.
In July 1900, Preston West Lancashire Railway station closed to passengers and was used to service goods trains only. A little over twenty years later, London, Midland and Scottish Railways took over the line. In 1925, they gave permission for the bridge to acquire a secondary function. This was to carry a large gas pipe over the Ribble. The Preston Gas Company had built the Lostock Hall Gas Works and needed a route for their gas main to reach Preston. The pipe required that the bridge was strengthened with additional stone and iron supports.
In 1965, the railway line was completely closed. With no trains passing over, the decision was made three years later to demolish the bridge. However, the gas pipe was still functional, and so the piers were left in place to continue to carry it over the river. In 1970, an additional high pressure main was added. This was during the time of ‘gas conversion’. Locally produced gas (known as ‘town gas’) that was made from coal was being replaced by ‘natural gas’ from the North Sea. Town gas was a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen whereas natural gas consisted mainly of methane. The latter was seen as a cleaner fuel, and was much less poisonous. A huge infrastructure investment was needed to accommodate the changeover. Today, there is talk of another large expenditure needed in the near future. Natural gas is to be phased out completely, perhaps to be replaced with the more environmentally friendly hydrogen gas. Hopefully then, the gas pipeline and its bridge supports will continue to be used for years to come.
There are other relics of the old railway in the Penwortham region. Readers interested in seeing them are directed to do the Penwortham Heritage Trail Trams and Train Circular Walk. The leaflet is available here. For more on the history of the West Lancashire Railway line see here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Park on the lane leading to the Penwortham Holme car park (the car park is temporarily closed, but there is parking space on the lane).
disused-stations.org.uk/features/ribble_bridge/index.shtml This is an excellent site, cataloguing many of our lost railways.
Penwortham Heritage Trail Trams and Train Circular Walk, South Ribble Borough Council. Undated leaflet, currently available as a pdf from the Visit Central Parks website (see below)
Gas Works Profile A: The History and Operation of Gasworks (Manufactured Gas Plants) in Britain, Russell Thomas (2014) CL:AIRE. This fascinating document is available for free online as a pdf.