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The St Helens Canal & Railway Company



The Sankey Brook Navigation was originally established in 1755.  The canal enjoyed a profitable monopoly of goods traffic to and from the St Helens area until the new-fangled steam railways arrived in the 1830s. 
The 1825 Stockton & Darlington Railway and the 1830 Liverpool & Manchester Railway inspired some influential local businessmen and landowners to build their own railway to move coal and other materials more quickly and cheaply than on the canal.

Under a Parliamentary Act of 1830, the St Helens & Runcorn Gap Canal & Railway Company was authorised to build a

16¾-mile line from St. Helens to Runcorn Gap (later to become known as Widnes).

The Engineer was Charles Vignoles (1793-1875).  The line crossed over the Liverpool & Manchester Railway at Sutton near St Helens, and included a cable-worked 1:70 incline 1½ miles long by the cross-over and another cable-worked incline just north of Runcorn Gap.  The world’s first rail-to-ship interchange facility was opened at Widnes Docks on the River Mersey in August 1833 (known today as Spike Island).
In response to this commercial threat the canal was extended from Fiddlers Ferry to Widnes Docks via ‘The New Cut’, opening in July 1833.

The railway company struggled because the canal company reduced its rates and managed to increase the tonnage of freight that it carried.  The fierce competition damaged both companies and the deteriorating condition of the canal (caused by water pollution from chemical and manufacturing factories) led unusually to the canal company taking over the railway company.  The company merged with the Sankey Brook Navigation under the Act of July 21st 1845 and was incorporated as the St. Helens Canal & Railway Company.

The railway was improved and steam locomotives worked along the entire route.  Canal traffic steadily declined, especially after railway branches to Garson Docks, Warrington and Rainford were opened.  However the company struggled to compete against its larger railway neighbours and maintenance was neglected.  It was a relief to shareholders when it was taken over by the London & North Western Railway Company in 1864.

Most of the line's traffic was mineral, especially coal, and little attention was paid to the needs of a passenger service.  In its early years the company's trains were very slow, and a well recounted story is told of a certain passenger who, having missed the train from Runcorn Gap, was told by an official, "Now hurry yourselves — she's not long started, and if you look sharp you'll catch her up!"
The line became extremely profitable and by the late 1890s it was handling 2,000,000 tons of goods and mineral traffic per year, representing almost 15% of total goods tonnage on the L&NWR network. 
For a more detailed history of the railway and its development in later years, please see the 8D Association website which is  dedicated to preserving the heritage of the railways in South West Lancashire and North West Cheshire.
Click on this link:
The St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway | 8D Association


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