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Crewe station

Crewe station is one of the most historic railway stations in the world. It was the first to be built independently of the need to serve a town. It was the first to have its own railway hotel (The Crewe Arms, 1838, still in use). It was the first to be completely rebuilt owing to the need for expansion. It was the first to form a junction between more than two companies. It was the first to have a completely independent railway system built around it, to ease traffic congestion.

The story begins on 4 July 1837, with the opening of the Grand Junction Railway. The purpose of this railway was to link the four largest cities of England by joining the existing Liverpool and Manchester Railway with the projected London and Birmingham railway. The line, which was the first long-distance railway in the world, ran from Curzon Street Station in Birmingham to Dallam in Warrington, Cheshire, where it made an end-on junction with the Warrington and Newton Railway, a branch of the L& M.

Conceived as a through route, the GJR was not interested in serving towns en-route. Wolverhampton, for instance, was by-passed by half a mile because it did not lie on the intended route, and no central station was built for several years, instead a small station at Wednesfield Heath (now Heath Town) was deemed to suffice. But a station was built in the parish of Monks Coppenhall in Cheshire, at the point where the line crossed the turnpike road linking the Trent and Mersey and the Shropshire Union Canals. Since the land was bought from the Earl of Crewe, whose mansion stood nearby, the station was called Crewe. At this time there was no town at this point, only a few scattered dairy farms.

As soon as the station opened it was seen to be at a useful point to begin a branch line to the county town of Chester. A locomotive depot was built at the station, to serve the Chester line, and to provide banking engines to assist trains southwards from Crewe up the Madeley Incline, a modest gradient which was a challenge to the small engines of the day.

By 1841 the Chester line was seen as a starting point for a new trunk line to Holyhead, to provide the fastest route to Ireland, and the importance of Crewe as a junction station began to be established. This was given further endorsement when the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, a separate undertaking which had hoped to build a wholly independent line linking the two cities, shorter than the GJR, decided that it would be uneconomical to compete with that line over the greater part of its length, and decided to divert its own line to meet the GJR at Crewe. Teething squabbles between the companies delayed the running of through services for a while, and the M&B had to build a temporary station of their own, part of which survives today as an isolated platform next to the North Junction, at the start of the line to Manchester.

In 1842 the GJR decided to move its locomotive works from Edge Hill in Liverpool to Crewe, siting the works to the north of the junction between the Warrington and Chester lines. To house the workforce and company management the town of Crewe was built by the company to the north of the works.

In 1845 the GJR merged with the London and Birmingham and the Liverpool and Manchester railways to form the London and North Western Railway Company, which until its demise in 1923 was the largest company in the world. The new company extended the existing lines to Holyhead, the Warrington line to Lancaster and Carlisle, the Manchester line to Leeds, and built a new line to Shrewsbury to join the Shrewsbury and Hereford lines which provided connections to South Wales. The North Staffordshire railway built a line from Stoke, joining the LNWR from the South East. Crewe was therefore the centre of a wide-ranging railway network, and freight-handling facilities grew up to the south of the station.

To cope with the increase of traffic , the station was rebuilt in 1861, the buildings facing each other on the present platforms 5 and 6 dating from this time. At the same time the works was extensively redeveloped and enlarged, and the town also considerably enlarged, under the leadership of John Ramsbottom, a Stockport man who had become Locomotive Superintendent for the whole company. Locomotive construction, hitherto divided with Wolverton (on the L&B) was concentrated at Crewe. Ramsbottom also built a steelworks, the first in the world to make large-scale use of the Bessemer process, as only the LNWR required enough steel to keep a Bessemer plant continuously occupied. He also introduced mass-production techniques, whereby as many parts as possible were identical between one engine and another.

Ramsbottom retired in 1871 and was succeeded by the legendary Frank Webb, a colourful and controversial figure who was known as 'The Uncrowned King of Crewe'.

By the 1890s Crewe junctions had become so busy that a survey revealed 1,000 trains passing within a 24-hour period. Since half of these were freight trains which did not need to call at the station, the company decided to build a completely separate four-track railway line passing to the west of the station, joining the existing lines beyond the north and south junctions, burrowing beneath them and avoiding them completely. This huge undertaking also included a vast marshalling yard to the south of the station at Basford Hall, a revolutionary 'tranship shed' which allowed fast transfer of freight from wagons to road vehicles under cover, and the increase in the size of the passenger station by one-half again.

In 1923 the LNWR became part of the London, Midland and Scottish railway group. Crewe remained the centre for locomotive construction. In 1938-39 the signal boxes at North and South Junctions were completely reconstructed as massive concrete structures to withstand air raids, and remained in use until the resignalling project in 1985 -- the North Junction signalbox can now be visited as part of the Crewe Heritage Centre. In 1948 the LMS was nationalised as British Railways London Midland Region. These changes had less effect on Crewe than the reduction in station use caused by the end of steam traction on Britain's railways. Trains did not need to stop to change locomotives, and many smaller branch lines had closed, which resulted in fewer trains terminating at Crewe. In 1985 the entire track layout was modernised, simplified and reduced, eliminating a vast array of points and crossings and allowing 80 mph running over the North Junction. At the same time all but one of the 1902 extension platforms were taken out of use.