During the development of Preston into a major manufacturing Lancashire town a small dock was built on the east bank of the River Ribble together with a warehouse for the import and export of goods. In 1845 with the coming of the North Union Railway a branch line was built from the west side of Preston station down a steep curving gradient with a short tunnel to cross what is now Strand Road to serve the dock warehouse and its associated, and later other, businesses.

In 1882 Preston Corporation acquired the Dock Navigation Company and the railway in order to develop Preston as a major port. The river channel was diverted and deepened, and the Albert Edward Dock of 40 acres was opened in 1892; the railway was extended to serve the docks, yards and warehouses, and at the time of greatest activity there were one and a half miles of quays, and 28 miles of railway track. There was never a passenger service; the line was exclusively freight and was always owned by Preston Corporation. 

Goods which passed through the docks were both coastal and international; cargoes such as timber, petroleum products, fishmeal, coal, china clay, horses, cattle, esparto grass (for paper making), and bananas. These bulk loads were moved by the dock railway system and its 8 steam locomotives. The shunting locos, steam until 1968 and later Sentinel diesel industrial shunters, marshalled wagons into up to 12 trains each day and these were then hauled up the branch line with its fearsome 1:29 gradient via Preston station to the main line south and Ribble Sidings. Notable engines for this work were the old ex LNWR class “G2,” 0-8-0 tender engines, known as “Super Ds” some of which were fitted with steam heating for the substantial banana traffic. Although these engines had a reputation for moving anything on a whiff of steam, they would need all their power to keep the trains moving up the gradient, and when at work could be heard miles away. Heavily loaded trains often had another engine pushing at the rear. One of these engines, 49395, has been preserved in the National Collection and is at present in working order. 

Among the shunting locos was a fireless steam loco named “Duke” for use in the timber yards and the oil terminal. We hear that it was occasionally necessary to dispatch a Preston shunting engine down the Dock Branch as it was known to re-charge this engine when it was short of steam. Interestingly, in view of what was to come, in the late 1930s the Armstrong-Whitworth Co provided a prototype 250hp 0-6-0 diesel-electric shunter for trials on the dock system, and this loco was later purchased by Preston Corporation. Steam haulage ceased in 1968 and was replaced by Sentinel diesels. 

Despite being the first port to use the new system of containerisation, the estuary and the river channel to the dock were continually subject to adverse tidal conditions and silting, and this, combined with the rise of Liverpool and the general decline of West Coast ports as trade and traffic patterns changed, caused operations to become increasingly uneconomic; the docks closed in 1979. Buildings and installations were dismantled and the dock area earmarked for redevelopment to be known as Riversway. However, the Dock Branch was retained to serve the business park, although the track was realigned from its original layout on the north side - the area now occupied by Morrisons Store. An hydraulically operated swing-bridge was erected across the western end of the dock for road traffic and boat access to the marina, and also to allow a limited service for bitumen and tar rail traffic, diesel hauled down the branch, which continued until 1995. 

As you see it today: 

In 1999 the heritage railway at Southport quit its less than adequate site there and moved to Preston with ambitious plans to develop and operate a heritage steam railway appropriate for a Lancashire city. Plans were drawn up for the station, a platform, museum, sheds, workshops and sidings, with a large car park for visitors. The work required substantial re-equipment to national railway standard of the level crossing at the busy Strand Road, and also the three crossings at the dock development. The running track was re-equipped with signal control gear to permit the safe running of passenger trains monitored from the distinctive control tower seen at the Marina entrance.

An important development from the operating and revenue aspect was the resumption in 2004 of the bitumen trains to the Total Fina Elf plant adjacent to the site. These trains are loaded at Lindsay Oil Refinery on the East Coast and travel overnight to Preston via Hebden Bridge three times each week. The train is delivered by main line diesel loco to the Dock Railway sidings near the Odeon cinema, from which our Ribble Rail Sentinel diesel locos of 1968 shunt the tank cars into the Total Fina Elf plant for discharge, processing, and onward distribution by road. 

So freight has returned to Preston Docks; the train trip you can take today still has echoes of the sounds of what once was a busy day to day steam railway at Preston Docks, even if the dock itself is now occupied by small boats, and the steam locos which pull passenger coaches and not trucks are rather smaller than their burly predecessors. We like to think that our passenger coaches give you a pleasant ride to the foot of Strand Road where our line ends, and an opportunity to see the marina and the redeveloped site of the former docks from a new perspective, whether you live locally or have travelled to see us. 

As well as our varied and extensive collection of typical industrial locomotives some artefacts from the former dock system can be seen in the museum, together with historic photographs and a map dated 1957 for comparison with the present layout.

© Ribble Steam Railway 2018

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