My Class 503 Site

A misty morning in August 1984, and I was walking among the weeds of Cavendish Sidings in the Birkenhead docks. A few yards behind me, a silent class 03, and behind it, a few freight vans that would have arrived from East Anglia earlier that morning. That, though, was not what I had come to see. In front of me, the coaches of seventeen withdrawn class 503 units, universally vandalized, a couple of vehicles burned, some already lifted off their wheels. I walked among them, checking numbers off. I felt vaguely uneasy in an eerie silence, broken only by the soft crunch of my shoes. From what I could see, they had not only been vandalized, but stripped: control levers, gauges, even repair books had all been stolen. I had read of a unit, still in traffic, being withdrawn because of the theft of all its brass fittings over one night. 

The units had been introduced in two batches, the first by the LMS in 1938, when the lines to New Brighton and West Kirby were electrified, and the second by BR in 1956, when the former Mersey Railway emus - some of which dated back to 1903 - were replaced. By 1984, replacements in the shape of the unspeakably bland 508s were being drafted in, and withdrawals began. Although I knew their days were numbered, I was unaware so many had been withdrawn, and it was a shock to see them thus in the scrap yard: especially units I'd ridden on only a few months earlier. There were even some units I hadn't yet seen, including some that were stored in the early eighties.

That summer, I'd leave my Gran's house mid-morning, travel into Liverpool on the Northern Line, using the special weekly zone tickets that were available that year for the under 16s, at £1.50, and spend a few hours on 503s. Usually, if you got on one, and stayed on it, it would go to each terminal in succession: West Kirby, New Brighton, Rock Ferry, returning via the Liverpool loop between each. This took about two hours, then I'd return for lunch, coming out again in the afternoon.

Now, it seems incredible that I could ever have done anything like that: a fifteen minute trip in a 508 is more than enough, with their bright unblinking lights, hard seats, and poor window spacing. I can well remember that period, standing on one of the underground stations, wondering how long I'd have to wait before a 503 came. I'd watch the succession of invading 508s come and go with contempt; the excitement as a 503 approached: I always knew one before it actually came into sight, the sound they made was quite distinctive, followed by the two roof-level marker lights, as opposed to the dazzling glare of a 508 headlamp, then one would draw up and squeal to a stop. The doors would rumble rather than hiss open, and shut with a clatter. I'd usually sit at the front, behind the cab, especially if it was a motor coach. The seats were comfortable, and the window allowed a good view out.

The roar of the modern concrete tunnel of the Loop line suddenly quietened as the original Mersey Railway tunnel was entered at James Street. Following the station, my favourite part of the underground, the Mersey Tunnel. It falls at a fierce 1:27, climbing on the Birkenhead side at 1:30. As the unit rattled over the crossovers outside the station, the collector shoes would bounce and the tunnel walls be lit by terrific flashes, while the lights inside the train flickered. As the deepest point of the tunnel passed, the motors could be heard, a high pitched whine, dropping steadily to a deeper hum as the train climbed out again.

I'd long had the ambition to be allowed into the cab of one of the units, but had so far not managed it. I'd peered in through the cab windows at the brass controls: brake, throttle, and the old-fashioned looking gauges. I'd even been into Birkenhead North depot, initially to enquire about a depot permit. I was shown to the supervisors office, and he allowed me a look into the repair shop, which was full of 508s. There was one 503 parked outside, but no others. 

Later that August, a warm day, and my usual roving had taken me to New Brighton. I walked up to the front of the six car train, and got talking to the driver as he changed ends. Most thought me mad when I told them how I just stayed on one train, but he didn't. He seemed to appreciate why I was doing it, especially when I told him I lived in South Wales: the next time I came up, the units would have all gone. 

"Better get on," he said glancing at his watch.

I did so, mildly disappointed. The doors closed, and the communicating door with the cab swung open.

"Do you want to come in then?"

I closed the door behind me as he started the train; I could hardly believe my good fortune as I watched him working the controls and the view of the line ahead. I returned to my seat before Hamilton Square, but that was not the end of it. The driver was relieved there, and he pointed me out to the new man. I didn't expect anything further, and we ran all the way out to West Kirby, and nothing happened. I shrugged, but I'd still actually done it.

I swapped ends as usual, and to my delight, this driver too allowed me into the cab. A longer run this time, and I just stood back and enjoyed it. He asked me to return to my seat in the tunnel sections "in case there were any inspectors about", but he'd let me back in later. Approaching Hamilton Square, I did so, and sat behind the cab for the run under the river and round the Liverpool Loop. At Birkenhead Park, he was true to his word, and I rode in the cab for the trip back to New Brighton.

It was after five by now, and I said I'd have to be heading home for tea. He asked where I was going, and I explained I'd pick up a Northern Line train at Moorfields our way back. Because of that, he very kindly said I could remain in the cab all the way there.

It was an unusual experience through the tunnels, especially under the Mersey, since at that time it had no wall lights: staring out into the dark, a feeling of dropping headlong into blackness...then another train approached, visible first by a collector shoe flash, then the marker lights flashed by like surreal eyes. All too soon, we had entered the concrete tunnel of the Loop. After James Street, I thanked the driver profusely,

"a pleasure," he said,

before I returned to the carriage. What a disappointment to be back on the platform! I watched the people get on and off, then the doors closed, the driver waved, and the train disappeared into the tunnel. I watched its tail lights recede, then I headed up the escalator.

It was certainly a good farewell to the old units, especially since I would be unable to travel on their final service runs, or the farewell railtour, a few months later. But I would have two more experiences of them. Unexpectedly, a month later, I was back on Merseyside, having come up with my mother who wanted to see the Garden Festival before it ended. On the Friday, I went to Manchester for a final trip on the 506s, and the following day, enjoyed my final day on 503s. There seemed to be a lot around that day, I didn't see many 508s. In the afternoon, I just sat on one train, formed of one LMS and one BR built unit. My last run of all was appropriately in the last unit to be built, BRs M28394M, from West Kirby to Liverpool Central. I had the carriage to myself as far as Bidston, and didn't want the journey to end; but of course it did.

The second journey was as unexpected, and more enjoyable. As part of the excellent open day at Birkenhead North in April 1986, the surviving unit, LMS 28690, restored to original maroon, ran a shuttle between Rock Ferry and Birkenhead North, via Liverpool. In the afternoon, I made three return trips, which made me feel really nostalgic. Sadly, that was my only journey on the unit, since it was withdrawn in 1988 due to lack of spares. Several times since then, I have caught sight of it in Birkenhead Central shed, even as late as April 1992. It's a shame it can't be used, but at least it has survived.

In April 1985, I returned to Cavendish Sidings to find them empty, the units had all been cut up. Little to suggest they had ever been there. I looked closer, and there were some relics: a fragment of blue paint with a white "M", a light bulb socket, and most incongruous, a large, heavy fuse. So that was that. I took a last brief look, and walked back up the road to the station.

© Andrew Phillips May 1993
Previously published in Direct Current, The Journal of the EM2 Locomotive Society