The Altrincham Gas Works tramway is one of those lost sights of the late 19th and 20th century – a road-going light railway. In the early 21st century we are more used to electric trams rather than steam-engines travelling the tracks down suburban roads. One might expect to see such a sight in industrial towns with heavy industry, but for 14 years a short stretch of light railway connected the Altrincham Gas Works with Altrincham Station. These days Altrincham is a leafy middleclass suburb, so to discover that it had its own light railway comes as a surprise.
There were three gas works sites in 19th century Altrincham. The earliest was a private works established in 1844 behind the Market Tavern in the Old Market Place to provide lighting for the immediate area. In 1847 that was taken over and production moved to a site east of the town on Moss Lane, opposite Stamford Park. A third gas works was established by the Manchester, South Junction & Altrincham Railway in the sidings at Altrincham Station, providing gas for carriage lighting. The Altrincham Gas Works at Moss Lane prospered and by the 1890s the increasing demand for gas meant that easier access to a larger supply of coal, a core material in the production of ‘town gas’, had to be sought. Thus, a light railway, or tramway, was established under the Altrincham Gas Act of 1893, to take coal from the station to the gas works. This was a single track of standard gauge that cost £1,820 to build, and connected the gas works via Moss Lane with the existing railway sidings at Altrincham Station. It was in operation by 1895 and initially was horse-drawn.
This tramway ran eastwards from southern end of the sidings at Altrincham Station for roughly a third of a mile (c. 500m) to the gas works, where a further series of sidings ran around the site. The construction of the tramway enabled the ‘rude and rough track across the muddy moss’ to be replaced with a more formal road, now known as Moss Lane, paved between the rails with stone setts. The line entered the gasworks from the south-west, passing a weighing machine and an associated building on the western side of the track. It then threaded its way between two gas holders before branching north and eastwards towards two process buildings. Three turn tables gave extra flexibility for the coal wagons accessing these buildings.
The tramway line underwent several phases of development in the early 20th century. By 1908 there was a short branch, no more than c. 50m long, running north from a small turntable on Moss Lane to a yard west of the present Balmoral Road. Here was a weighing machine and water tank west of the branch line, which had a set of points accessing a short section of track, presumably to ease manoeuvering wagons and engines around this part of the site. The branch was abandoned by 1936-7. This is now occupied by Jewson’s building yard. At the Altrincham station end the tramway sidings were doubled with the addition of a second set of tracks, presumably to aide shunting, by 1936-7. At the Altrincham Gas Works end two new loop lines had been added at the eastern end of the site, along with a fourth turntable which gave access to these new loops by the north-eastern corner of one of the process buildings. A loco shed was built, with its own access line, in the middle of the site. Internal rail access to a building on the northern side of the site was, though, abandoned. By 1951 a further tramway loop had been added giving access to a third process building at the eastern end of the gas works site.
The tramway was originally horse-driven but as demand for gas rose, so the need for coal increased. To cope a steam-powered road wagon, built by Sentinel of Shrewsbury in 1924, was employed from 1933 to pull the coal trucks. Demand and production, though, continued to rise, and in 1943 a steam locomotive was purchased from Peckett & Sons of Bristol as additional motive power. This was Peckett’s W/No. 2034, a ‘Yorktown’ type 0-4-0ST, and the new tank engine was named ‘Arthur E Potts’, after one of the company directors. A second locomotive was purchased in 1947, a four-wheel vertical boiler engine built by Sentinel (W/No. 9375).
The Altrincham Gas Works was nationalised in 1949 when it became part of the North West Gas Board. Re-organisation saw the ending of gas production at Altrincham in June 1957, and with it the closure of the light railway in December of that year. The Moss Lane site became the headquarters for the North West Gas Board (opened in 1965), and although the rails around the works were removed in 1958 as part of this re-organisation the two gas holders survived. The whole site was decontaminated and redeveloped as housing in the early 2000s, removing any industrial archaeology remains. Altrincham Station sidings closed in October 1966, but as late as 1978 some of the tramway tracks for the light railway could still be seen south of the former Depository building.
There’s an article on the history of the line and its limited rolling stock By Malcolm Millichip and Douglas Robinson in the April 2000 edition of the magazine ‘Railway Bylines’. Furthermore, Altrincham History Society have published in their Journal various articles on the three gas works in the town. The National Gas Archive in Warrington holds primary material on the Altrincham Gas Works, the John Rylands Library on Deansgate in Manchester holds material in the Stamford Archives (the Stamford Estate owned the land on which the 1847 works was built), and the Trafford Local Studies Library in Sale holds images and oral reminiscences of the light railway. However, there is no proper archaeological study of the line.
Bore Hole data from 2006, ahead of the construction of the current ice rink, showed foundations up to 1.7m deep in the area of the tramway sidings west of the Depository building. Walking the line of the tramway during lockdown in June 2020 showed that a band in the middle of Moss Lane is crumbling away along much of the tramway route and suggests that some of the tracks may survive under the tarmac. There are also some stone setts in the south-eastern corner of Jewson’s building yard, where in the early 20th century the short northern branch of the tramway entered the site. The site of the Altrincham Station railway sidings, and the western terminus of the gas tramway, are due for redevelopment in the next few years, so it is possible that more archaeology will come to light at this end of the tramway. It would be good to be able to remind Altrincham of its more obscure but significant railway heritage, when trains ran down the middle of the road.