3) 1940-2020: Decline, Stagnation & Electrification

As Blackpool’s visitor numbers peaked in the early 1950s and then started to fall, rail passenger numbers declined at an even faster rate.  By the 1970s the network had been cut significantly and stagnation had set in.


War

By many measures, Blackpool had a “good war”. The town was away from most of the action and relatively safe from the threat of bombing.   It also experienced an influx of war-related visitors that to some extent made up for the lack of holidaymakers. 

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Evacuees in 1940 / Public Domain

In the early days of the war special trains brought scores of evacuees from the larger towns and cities that were expected to be bombed.  As in the 1914-18 war, Blackpool became an important centre for military training.  Some of the civil service, notably the Ministry of Health,  also relocated to the resort.    

Although not directly related to enemy action, there was one tragedy in 1941 when two aeroplanes on training flights collided and crashed onto Central Station. Twelve people were killed.


1950s

Initially, the return to peace after 1945 ushered in another prosperous era for Blackpool.  Visitor numbers peaked at 18 million around this time. Yet, the railways, which were nationalised into  British Railways (BR) in 1948, were gradually losing traffic to the motor bus and the private car. 

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Blackpool Central 1952

Nevertheless, with the single exception of Poulton Curve Halt, which closed in 1952, the network remained intact all the way through the 1950s.   In 1959 the railways were still bringing 2 million people to the coast each year. 

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Trains heading for Blackpool pass Salwick on the four-track section between Preston & Kirkham in 1959 / Ben Brooksbank / Creative Commons / 2.0
 

In the late 1950s the first diesels began to appear. Diesel Multiple units (DMUs) began to operate on several local services to the resort and by the 1960s the early diesel locomotives began to be seen on longer distance services

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Fair use

A DMU was involved in the 1961 Weeton Rail Crash when, forming an express passenger train from Colne to Fleetwood, it struck an engineers’ ballast train at about 45 mph. The driver and six passengers died in the collision. Irregular operation of single line working arrangements and misunderstanding of messages sent by telephone were to blame.


Summer of 62

By the early 60s there were signs that decline might be accelerating; both Wrea Green and Moss Side stations closed in 1961.   Yet, a glance at the summer 1962 timetable reveals that, in the “year before Beeching” there were still quite a lot of trains in and out of the resort.

The regular weekday summer service saw about 40 trains heading out of Blackpool Central each day. 6 of these (to East Lancashire or Manchester) used the direct Marton line; the rest went via Lytham.  There were about 14 daily trains to Manchester, 8 to East Lancashire, 4 to Liverpool and 5 heading down the West Coast line, 3 of which went all the way to Euston.  There were shuttles to Preston too.  

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1957 BR Poster / Science Museum / Creative Commons 4.0

Fleetwood had a service of around 12 trains per day, which mostly served Manchester but 2 went to Liverpool. Some of the Fleetwood trains combined at Poulton and carried portions from Blackpool North.  North itself had a service of around 16 trains a day, mostly to Manchester.


Beeching

By the early 1960s visitors were flocking to Blackpool by car. In 1958 Britain’s first section of motorway, the Preston bypass, had been opened to keep the traffic flowing smoothly.

Beeching’s famous report, “The Reshaping of British Railways”, highlighted a problem that would affect Blackpool and other seaside resorts.  It mentioned that summer-only excursion trains were becoming less and less profitable as their market was slowly eroded by road competition. 

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It specifically targeted the cost of the 6,000 or so extra carriages that needed to be maintained just for limited use on services for a few days between June and September.  The recommendation to move away from this kind of traffic, was a big blow to Blackpool with its multiple extra excursion platforms and dependency on the holiday  season.  


Blackpool Central Lost 

A bigger blow was Beeching’s proposal to close one of Blackpool’s termini.  The report suggested that Blackpool North, further from the centre, should be closed and the line from Central be kept. Blackpool town council had other ideas. They knew that Blackpool Central lay on good development land and persuaded British Railways to keep the line into Blackpool North instead. The council then spent nearly a million pounds on buying the site at Central.

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The site of Blackpool Central after closure / 70023venus2009 /Creative Commons 2.0

At the end of the 1964 season Blackpool Central closed for good.  It was the biggest station in Britain to close at  that point.  1.5 miles of platform and 34 parallel sidings were lost.   Even on the last day there were 55 departures. Beeching got the blame for the closure then and often still does today.


Blackpool South Continues

Perhaps reflecting the fact that the closure had not been a railway decision, Central’s services did not immediately move to Blackpool North; they were kept at Blackpool South instead. Several sidings were retained to the north of Waterloo Road Bridge to enable the station, which soon had just two* platforms,  to function as a terminus. 

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 OS Map of Blackpool South (1969) showing the lifted lines to Central & Kirkham / Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland / Creative Commons 4.0

Even though it was much further from the centre, Blackpool South now hosted up to 30 trains a day including the direct services to and from London Euston and Manchester.

Services on the Marton line also briefly continued from Blackpool South, but the line was closed in 1965. Its track bed eventually became part of the new M55 linking Blackpool with the expanding motorway network.

(*two of the original four platforms were lost when the “Marton line” closed)


Fleetwood’s Demise

Although not mentioned by Beeching, Fleetwood was hit by several blows in the early 1960s: in 1961 the last regular ferry to the Isle of Man sailed; in 1964 the local train service between Fleetwood and Blackpool was withdrawn, and  in 1965 rail lost the port’s fish traffic, which until then had still comprised of 5 daily trains (2 of them for London), to road.

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 OS Map of Fleetwood (1969) showing Wyre Dock station / Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland / Creative Commons 4.0

Fleetwood closed in 1966 and Wyre Dock, which it was claimed was closer to the town, was then renamed Fleetwood.   The big shock came in 1968 when the whole line from Poulton to Wyre Dock (by then Fleetwood) was not listed for retention under the new 1968 Transport Act regime. 

The line closed to passengers in 1970 causing the loss of the stations at Thornton Cleveleys and Burn Naze in addition to the terminus.   Freight trains continued to serve the ICI Chemical works at Hillhouse until 1999.


Reorganisation & Stagnation

In 1970 train services in the Fylde were finally reorganised.   The line from Blackpool South through Lytham St Annes, once the main line, now became a branch line.  Lytham St Annes, which once had fast  frequent trains to Manchester, Liverpool and even London, was left with an hourly shuttle service to Kirkham. 

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St Annes before demolition

Work soon began on demolishing a lot of the buildings along the line with Ansdell and St Annes going first.   In 1972 Central station, which had been a bingo hall since closing back in 1964, was also finally demolished.   

Blackpool North now became the town’s main station.  Although almost as soon as the move was competed, the main station buildings, train shed, and platforms were decommissioned and demolished. 

In 1974 the station was relocated (slightly further away from the town centre) to the site of the  excursion platforms, where the old 1938-built canopy was refurbished, and new buildings added. 

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Blackpool North 1977 / Ben Brooksbank/ Creative Commons 2.0

Electrification came to Preston in 1973 as part of the West Coast main line wiring project from London to Glasgow.  Blackpool had at one time also been part of the plans, but cost considerations had led to the idea being abandoned.  Direct services to the resort from Euston were now forced to change locomotives at Preston, with a diesel taking over for the last 18 miles of the 220-mile journey. 


The 1980s

Despite the new M55 motorway and the provision of a lot more parking in the town, much of it on old railway land,  Blackpool’s annual visitor numbers, began to decrease rapidly.  They had been around 16 million in 1970; by the year 2000 they had fallen to 10 million.

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The railways began to stagnate too.  Under sectorisation, apart from the  through trains to London which were operated by Intercity, Blackpool’s railways came under the Regional Railways banner.   Towards the end of the decade the original 1950s DMU trains began to be replaced by a new generation of Sprinter and Pacer trains.  The former a bit of an improvement; the latter certainly not. 

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Pacer at Blackpool South / Martin Lee / Creative Commons 2.0 

In the early 1980s  the whole of the South Fylde branch line was reduced to single track and the  remaining buildings at Blackpool South  were finally demolished and replaced by a shelter.

On the positive side, the line’s shuttle service was extended from Kirkham through Preston to Colne.  The old station at Moss Side reopened in 1983 and a new halt to serve Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach was created in 1987.


Privatisation

When British Rail was privatised in 1997 the franchise for the operation of most of the services into Blackpool  was won by First Group; it operated under the brand name “First North Western”.  In  2004 the franchise passed to Serco Ned who operated under the name “Northern Rail”. 

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Northern Rail 158 at Blackpool North / El Pollock / Creative Commons 2.0

The town was also served by services operated by Trans Pennine and by Virgin trains who won the first West Coast intercity franchise.  Virgin withdrew from Blackpool in 2003 but returned over 10 years later to operate a single daily return train to Euston. 

In 2016 Arriva Rail North took over from Northern Rail and traded as “Northern by Arriva”.   They were supposed to continue until 2025 but various issues meant that the government stepped in and a new company, “Northern Trains”, run by the Department for Transport’s “Operator of Last Resort” took over.


Electrification

In November 2010 it was announced that the line  between Preston and Blackpool North would finally be electrified, and semaphore signalling would be replaced.  The eight curved platforms at Blackpool North were replaced by six straighter ones.  The project was much delayed but finally completed in May 2019. 

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Arriva 319 at Blackpool North / Phil Richards / Creative Commons 2.0

Today, Blackpool North has direct hourly Northern services to Manchester, Manchester Airport Liverpool, Leeds, and York and four trains a day to London Euston operated by Virgin’s successor Avanti West Coast.   Meanwhile, Blackpool South has hourly services to Preston, sometimes extended to Ormskirk or Colne. 

Newer electric and diesel trains are slowly being introduced on the local trains, but a lot of services in 2020 remain in the hands of 1990s-vintage Sprinters and second-hand Class 319 electric trains from the south.


Future

The new electrified line has brought new impetus for growth and there are plans for a new station at Cottam near the site of the old Lea Road.  There are also proposals under consideration for a passing loop on the Blackpool South line to increase frequency.

The Poulton and Wyre Railway Society have had ambitious plans to reopen the line from Poulton to Fleetwood for some time; recently the project has attracted interest as part of the government’s initiative to reverse some of the Beeching cuts.  

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Poulton-le-Fylde Junction (Fleetwood Branch diverging) / Dr Greg / Creative Commons 3.0

After years of decline, Blackpool’s fortunes as a resort also seem to be reversing. Visitor numbers have started a strong rebound.  A new development is planned around the site of Central station and the tram system is being extended to Blackpool North. 

It may be that, at long last,  both the town and the railways that serve it have a brighter future.

Back to “Railways around Blackpool

 



Station List (1940-2020)

NB – All station names are the current or final ones.  Opening dates in bold indicate a station opened with the line itself.

North Fylde (Preston to Fleetwood / Blackpool)

Cottam

Proposed

 

Salwick

1842

OPEN

Closed 1938-40

Kirkham & Wesham

1840

OPEN

 

Poulton le Fylde

1896

OPEN

 

Thornton Cleveleys

1927

1970

 

Burn Naze

1908

1970

Last Freight train 1999

Wyre Dock

1885

1970

As “Fleetwood” from 1966

Fleetwood

1883

1966

 

Poulton Curve

1909

1952

 

Layton

1867

OPEN

 

Blackpool North

1846

OPEN

Rebuilt 1974

South Fylde (Kirkham to Lytham / Blackpool)

Wrea Green

1874

1961

 

Moss Side

1846

OPEN 

Closed between 1961 and 1983

Lytham

1863

OPEN 

 

Ansdell & Fairhaven

1903

OPEN 

 

St Annes-on-the-Sea

1873

OPEN 

 

Squires Gate

1931

OPEN 

 

Pleasure Beach

1987

OPEN 

 

Blackpool South

1903

OPEN 

 

Blackpool Central

1863

1964