The long career of the ‘502s’

London, Midland & Scottish Railway crest

Crest of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company (picture courtesy of Flickr user akrabat, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

By 1914, Liverpool's rail network had already benefited enormously from the foresight of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway company, which had progressively electrified its suburban lines from Liverpool Exchange station to Southport and Ormskirk. The electric trains were a significant improvement over the steam-hauled carriages they replaced, and passengers were quick to take advantage of the higher speeds and increased frequency of the electric service.

In 1923, the L&Y was absorbed into the new London, Midland and Scottish Railway company (LMS). Locally there was little immediate change, and by the late 1930s the original electric trains were looking dated. Passengers grew increasingly dissatisfied with the ageing rolling stock, leading to calls in local newspapers for new trains.

The 502s arrive

Picture of Class 502 at Southport Chapel Street

In the early British Railways era, a 502 stands at Southport Chapel Street. (picture courtesy of SERA Archives)

In August 1939, the first of a new batch of LMS-designed Electric Multiple Units was delivered to Meols Cop works for commissioning. Despite the disruption caused by the outbreak of war, all units were in service by 1941 with most of the ex-L&Y cars being withdrawn. The new units consisted of 39 3-car sets, with additional 2-car units (with a driving cab at one end only) used to strengthen the busiest workings.

The new trains were built using the most advanced standards of the time. Notably, they were equipped with automatic sliding doors, controlled by the guard, instead of the manually-operated slamdoors which were still the norm elsewhere on Britain's railways. Each motor car had four 230hp motors supplied by the English Electric Company. The units had a top speed of 70mph, which was easily achieved on the gentle gradients of the Southport and Ormskirk lines. The comfortable interiors and modern interior design were in stark contrast to the elderly L&Y units they replaced.

The British Railways era

Picture of Class 502 interior

Interior of Class 502 driving trailer coach. (picture courtesy of Jason Lovell)

In 1948 the railways were nationalised with the LMS being absorbed into the London Midland region of British Railways. Under BR, the units were designated Class 502.

The post-war years saw a marked decline in the fortunes of the railway, as competition from cars and other road transport increased dramatically. In 1963 Dr Richard Beeching published his now-infamous report “The Reshaping of Britainís Railways”, which proposed the closure of 6000 miles of railway. An early victim of the cuts was the 502-operated shuttle service to Crossens, which closed along with the rest of the Southport-Preston line in 1964. Locally, one of the most contentious proposals was that the electrified Liverpool-Southport line should close, while the Ormskirk line would have its stopping passenger trains withdrawn.

Both routes were reprieved, although some service reductions did take place. Frequencies were reduced, while the off-peak Ormskirk service was often worked with just 2-car units. Some 502s were rebuilt and reformed as 2-car sets to permit this.

Merseyrail and the “Link”

From 1968 the new rail blue livery was applied to the trains, along with the now familiar double-arrow symbol. This was followed in 1971 by the appearance of a new brand name — “Merseyrail”. This was the name used by the newly-formed Merseyside PTE for the services they jointly administered in partnership with BR. It was also the first step towards the creation of the integrated rail network that exists on Merseyside today.

Picture of Class 502 at Moorfields

In 1979 a 502 arrives at the new Moorfields underground station with a Kirkby service (picture courtesy of Geoff Cryer)

Throughout the 1970s much work took place below Liverpool city centre. New tunnels were excavated to connect the ex-L&Y routes with the former Mersey Railway terminus at Liverpool Central. This new route (The “Link”) opened on 2nd May 1977. The former terminus at Exchange was closed, trains from Southport and Ormskirk now running into the new underground station built nearby at Moorfields, before continuing on to Liverpool Central.

The final years of the 502s' careers saw them appearing on new parts of the network. From 1977 they appeared at Kirkby, working over a newly-electrified part of the Liverpool to Bolton line, while in 1978 they commenced operation on another extension to the network: the former Cheshire Lines Committee route from Liverpool Central to Garston. These routes were grouped together as Merseyrail's Northern Line.

Decline and Withdrawal

Unfortunately, the new routes took their toll on the 502s. The 1 in 30 gradients on the Link were much steeper than anything these units had previously encountered. A test on Leeds Street Bank (where the line climbs from Moorfields to join the original route, just south of Sandhills) was carried out with a 502 accelerating from a standing start on the gradient. The motors reportedly gave off enough heat to fry an egg, and consequently an order was given that all trains must have a clear run from Moorfields.

The increased frequency meant that the trains were being used more intensively, with inevitable consequences for maintenance and reliability. The units were also suffering from corrosion, with some of the worst victims being scrapped early, leaving the rest of the fleet to soldier on.

The beginning of the end for the 502s came in 1978, when the first class 507 unit was delivered from BREL's York works. Over the next two years the 502s were progressively withdrawn, the final examples surviving until the end of September 1980. The last run of all was a farewell tour on 4th October 1980.

The 502s notched up nearly forty years of service, and in recognition of this, a 2-car set was claimed for preservation.

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