Written by Heritage Research Volunteer, Jeff Taylor | December 2021

A goods line down to the Newcastle quayside from Manors Station was agreed in 1845, but not authorized until 28th June 1863 and opened on 1st June 1870.  

The route began at Manors (later Manors East) Station, and access to it was controlled by the Argyle Street signal box.  

Argyle Street signal box diagram 1904

It crossed the east coast mainline and the eastbound coast route, via Wallsend, to reach the Trafalgar Yard (upper yard). Bulk grain wagons were off-loaded at Carruthers Grain Warehouse which was at the southern edge of the yard. The line then proceeded to tunnel 1 (Red Barns) under New Bridge Street, from there into cutting 1, before going into tunnel 2 under Stepney Bank. It then emerged into cutting 2, parallel with and to the west of Lime Street, before entering tunnel 3 under St Ann's Yard. At this point, it crossed above the Victoria Tunnel via an underground bridge, before finally emerging onto the Quayside (lower yard) at Hamburg Wharf to join tracks along the riverfront laid by Newcastle Corporation.

Map showing the crossing point of the Quayside Railway and Victoria Tunnel

Originally the locomotives on the line were steam powered. Unfortunately, when the wind was a westerly the smoke from tunnels 1 and 3 never cleared as both faced west. The gradient was 1/27 - steep for a railway - which in turn meant the steam and smoke were trapped in the tunnel causing the wheels to slip and create breathing difficulties for the crew.

In addition, the sparks from the locomotives chimney were setting fire to the straw packing in the open wagons, meaning the train would sometimes emerge from a tunnel on fire!

North Eastern Railway (NER) who ran the line was always willing to experiment, especially when faced with competition. At the start of the 20th century Newcastle Corporation took over the running of the cities trams and began running an electric tram service from the start of 1901causing passenger numbers on the NER coast route to drop by nearly half. In response NER electrified the coast route from Newcastle Central to New Bridge Street and the Riverside Branch line in 1904. By 1913 NER had recovered its lost passenger numbers.
Electrification of the quayside branch line was the obvious way to overcome the problems the steam engines were experiencing. On 3rd of July 1902 Wilson Wordsell, locomotive superintendent of the NER, advertised tenders for two electric locomotives for use on the quayside branch.

The successful bidder was British Thomson-Houston (BTH), a Rugby-based subsidiary of US giant General Electric, at a price of £4730 for the pair (approximately £594,000 in today’s money). The design for the ‘Steeplecab’ locomotives was developed in the USA and in 1901 a locomotive of this type was successfully introduced on the route between Milan and Varese in Italy. The contract for the quayside railway locomotives was signed on 15th December 1902; a substantial investment by NER.

The specification called for each engine to be able to work 6 goods trains of 16 wagons in an hour (or 4.5 minutes each way) along the ¾ mile branch. The engines were also required to draw a train of 150 tons at between 9 and 10 mph up the 1/27 gradient and a train of up to 300 tons at 14 mph on the level.

The locomotives were to be delivered by 31st December 1903 along with a number of spares - 

  • One motor complete
  • 2 field coils (top and bottom)
  • 1 commutator
  • Brushes sufficient for 8 motors
  • 8 pinions
  • 8 complete sets of motor armature and axle brasses
  • 1 armature complete
  • 2 fields coils (sides)
  • brush holder gear for 2 motors
  • 4 gear wheels
  • 2 gear cases
  • 16 bogie truck journal brasses

Total cost £761 8/-

The locomotives weighed 56 tons each and had a cab at each end to be able to operate in either direction with a crew of two. Westinghouse air brakes were also used. British Thomson-Houston sub-contracted the manufacture of mechanical parts to the British Electrical Engineering Co.

In was common practice at the time for railway companies to order locomotives well before they were needed. The two new locos were initially stationed at Heaton sheds, being used for shunting duties on the Riverside and North Tyne loops when they were converted to electric motive power between March and July 1904. The Quayside branch was not electrified until early 1905. The new locomotives started work on the Quayside branch on 5th June 1905 and were given the original numbers 1 and 2. It was not until April 1948 that British Rail renumbered them as BR26500 and BR26501.

For safety reasons, it was necessary to use two different methods of delivering electricity to the locomotives. A third-rail-pickup was used in the tunnels and cuttings but because of the danger to shunters by having a live third-rail, bow collectors and then overhead pantographs were used in the yards and quayside. The bow collectors had to be pulled down by hand and locked before entering the tunnels, but not before the third-rail was engaged or the locomotive would simply stop. A single headlamp was mounted on the bonnets at either end of the locomotive along with a single whistle allowing the locomotives to work in either direction with each end being named either A or B.

Electric locomotive at the exit of tunnel 3 onto the quayside at Hamburg Wharf

In 1906 they were fitted with heaters as the crew had complained about the cold in the cab. The engines were also completely overhauled and found to be in excellent working order, however there were three cases of the bow collector (trolley) on the bonnet being damaged by the crew forgetting to take it down in time before the locomotive entered the tunnel. The bow collector was replaced by a pantograph on the roof in 1908.

Electric locomotive on the quayside

The maximum load on the branch was limited to 160 tons including a 20-ton brake van which was at the front of the train going down and at the back coming up, as the incline was 1/27 some of the wagons hand brakes were pinned down during the descent.

The locomotives were initially stabled at Walkergate before a fire in 1918 when they were moved to the newly opened electric sheds at South Gosforth. For the journey to the sheds, they travelled by a 600 volts DC third-rail the same as the passenger lines.

A steam shunting engine was used in the lower yard and on the tracks laid by Newcastle Corporation along the quayside wharves.

Lower yard steam shunter on the quayside at Horatio Street

Pilot class J71 could pull 55 tons, J72 could pull 80 tons, and sometimes a J73 was used which could pull 120 tons, operating in the lower yard to transport the wagons along the quayside. This engine was shunted up and down the quayside railway by the electric locomotives at the start and end of each day. One of the J72 engines, number 69023, survives to this day and is still being used on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

J72 steam loco number 69023 on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

In 1957 author Ken Hoole, who wrote numerous books on the NER, took a ride on the Quayside Railway as a guest of driver Stevans and his mate. Ken describes the ride from the Trafalgar yard at the top of the line, travelling downhill, with the locomotive at the back of the train and the brake van at the front.

When the train gets to tunnel 1 (Red Barns) the pantograph is pulled down just after engaging the shoes on the 3rd rail then proceeds downhill to the lower yard. Upon reaching the lower yard the train stops, the brake van is detached and runs into its own siding. The pantograph is raised and the train then drops the wagons into another siding from where they would later be taken out onto the quayside wharves by the steam shunters. The locomotive then picks up a string of empties left by the shunter bringing them from the wharves and moves without fuss to pick up the brake van and moves effortlessly at a steady speed of 12 mph to the top yard again after dropping the pantograph just before entering tunnel 3.

The locomotives worked on a rotational basis, one week on and one week off, with the other being a backup. They recorded only two breakdowns in almost 60 years of working before being replaced by Class 03 diesel shunters on the 29th February 1964.

Electric locomotive at the Trafalgar Yard in the early 1960s shortly before being replaced by diesel locomotives in 1964

After the electric locomotives were replaced by the diesels, they were temporarily stored at South Gosforth sheds until 7th January 1965 when they were moved to the old Midland rail sheds at Hellifield, North Yorkshire. From here the decision was taken to return BR26501 for scrapping at Choppington, Northumberland. It was decided to preserve BR26500 initially by sending it to Leicester Railway Museum. When the museum closed in 1975 it was transferred to the National Railway Museum, first at York and then Shildon in County Durham where it presently resides.

The Quayside Branch Line closed on 16 June 1969. The railway was in use for ninety-nine years and its eventual demise reflects the changes in the Quayside and Ouseburn themselves from shipping and industrial use to one now of housing and leisure facilities. The northern portal of tunnel 2 was removed when the Metro system was constructed in the late 1970s. The cutting above Lime Street was filled in in 1977 and the tunnel at the quayside bricked up and landscaped over in the 1990s. Only the Red Barns tunnel remains as a metro overrun facility. Maybe with more imagination and forward planning it may have been incorporated into the metro system itself, who knows.

Miscellany for the electric locomotive aficionado

4 x 160 horsepower engines were fitted, 1 to each axle. The wheels were of 3’ diameter. The wheelbase of each bogie was 6’ 6” giving a total wheelbase of 27’. Each motor was geared to its axle at a ratio of 3.28:1 with a quoted tractive capacity of 335 tons. At 14 mph the weight on each axle was 14 tons. Height over the pantograph when lowered was 12’11”, raised 15’ 9”. Length over the buffers 37’11”


  • ‘The North Eastern Railway’ by Cecil J Allen,1964
  • ‘The Electric Locomotives of the North Eastern Railway’ by Ken Hoole,1988
  • And with special thanks to the librarian at North Shields library.