Altrincham Car Maintenance Depot and Other Memories
by Mark Sherratt.

I began a 4 year apprenticeship as a fitter/electrician on rolling stock for British Rail at Longsight in 1968.
To get experience of direct current electric traction I was sent to Altrincham in the summer of 1970.  Although the conversion of the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham railway line from 1500 volt direct current to 25000 volt alternating current  was well under way , there was still plenty of work to do on the old trains.
The trains were 3 coach units comprising of a driving motor coach with pantograph  (second class compartments),  non-powered composite coach (first and second class compartments),  and a non-powered  (second class compartment)  driving trailer.   Power  was supplied to the overhead cables by two substations, one at Old Trafford, the other at Timperley.  The Old Trafford sub station had an enormous steel tank mercury arc rectifier, other rectifiers being glass bulb type.  If you have never seen one of these in action I can recommend you search youTube for a film as you will be fascinated.    (During the 1930‘s the locomotive that was to become E 26000 “ Tommy “ was tested on the line).
Each motor coach had 2x2 axle bogies, each axle having a 328 horse power traction motor which were geared for rapid acceleration.   It took 20 minutes to get  to Oxford Road station in Manchester calling at all stations.   This is very surprising, as the motor car alone weighed 57 tons.  At busy times trains ran as 6 coaches with motor coaches at the ends.   A performance like having a type 4 diesel with 6 coaches was obtained.   Passengers in the motor coach were entertained by the chug chug of the air compressor and the whine of straight cut gear pinions. The fitting of straight cut gears was because  they were cheap to make and did not need accurate lining up.  You get the same noise when reversing in your car, their reverse gears being straight cut.   I understand London Underground trains do have helical gears to keep the noise down.
The depot was built on the site of the old Bowden station which closed in 1881.  Some of the roof supports were from this station.  Stabling for stock was provided, each road having  a name such as “3 traps“ (number 3 road with catch points) and the stabling plan was posted on the notice board enabling staff to find a particular unit.   Maintenance staff were  mainly concerned with the motor coaches  which were known by their original 1931 numbers such as 88, 72 and so on.  Car 94 was used as depot shunter and retained its cross arm pantograph and green livery, all other cars having been converted to Stone Faiveley  AC pantograph.  94 was no longer allowed to go on the main line because of  the pantograph having a flat current pick up head, but the a.c. wiring required a curved pan head which could not be fitted to the old pantograph.

Photo: Wallace Sutherland - MLS Collection
An interior view of the car shop taken in 1970.  The single car is probably No 94, which 'lived on its own and faced Manchester'.  Also, note spare wheelsets and a bogie in the foreground.

Compared with what I had been used to at Longsight, this depot belonged in a different age.  No canteen, the mess room was in an old coach, no doubt pensioned off when the electrics started.  No showers, and bonus payments which were written in a book dated 1931.   A lathe was provided to turn shafts,  bearings and commutators, but there did not appear to be other power tools.  One thing I never saw at any other depot I worked in was that a clerk rigourously supervised clocking off, no sneaking off early here.  Due to the poor bonus payments, apprentices were offered Saturday morning and Sunday overtime.
An overhead electric crane was provided which allowed bodies to be lifted off the bogies, which were then rolled out ready to be taken apart and worn parts rebuilt.  A number of spare wheels and axles of different wheel diameters were in storage should a replacement set be needed.  Bodies were taken to Horwich works on accommodation bogies for overhaul.  Workshop heating was a wood burning stove which must have been not far off useless in cold weather. Apparently  apprentices were not allowed in winter due to the cold. Crane driver Aubrey came in early in the morning to get the office stove working so the offices would be nice and warm for the clerical staff when they came to work.   The workers had to put up with the cold!
On the first day, I was introduced to John who was overhauling the traction motors for the last power car to be overhauled,  number 88.  The body had returned from Horwich works freshly painted in BR blue.  I suggested we made a special case of 88 by painting wheel rims white, a red buffer beam and burnished buffers.  Unfortunately, moral was pretty low as no one knew where the future lay and my idea did not get off the ground.  It would probably have been vetoed anyway by the management with their corporate livery only policy.  The first job was to dismantle the motor by  removing the gear pinion which allowed the motor end plates to be removed.  At advanced depots this was dead easy, using a hydraulic pump, but not here.  A clamp was placed around the gear with a screw which when tightened up on the armature shaft pulled the pinion off.  To speed things up a sledgehammer was aimed at the clamp which with a good thump helped things along.   No prizes for guessing who got the hammer, but it worked.  Removing end plates release bearings, brush gear and the armature.  Electricians  then overhauled armature, field coils, brush gear  and  commutator.
Worn  bearings needed attention. These consisted of a brass casting with a white metal insert which took the load. This type of bearing was something I had never seen before. The white metal was recast  and these were then ready to be turned to size. Apparently the lathe was second hand in 1931 so it could not accurately turn bearings any more, it being necessary to scrape them to remove any high spots to provide a smooth bearing surface. I was now well out of my depth, simply given a scraper and engineers blue liquid to paint the shaft.  By rubbing the bearing over the shaft the blue showed any high spots  which needed to be scraped off. So I began scraping, with the staff looking on  expecting me to make a right mess of it and having to re-metal the bearing and start  again. My first efforts were as expected, poor, but I soon got the hang of it and became quite proficient at it.  It was a wasted skill though. The only other time I saw a white metal bearing was on my transfer to Crewe works in 1971 and sent to the tender shop where bogies were overhauled.  The class 20’s had white metal bearings, but these were accurately turned to size with no scraping required. On rebuilding the motor the bearings  had to be force filled with oil soaked  fabric.   Handling this resulted in beautifully soft hands but I worried about dermitis as a there had been an outbreak of this terrible desease at Longsight about a year previously. The motors were then placed on a test bed and run for a few hours to ensure bearings did not overheat.
My favourite unit, 88 was badly damaged when it hit the open door of a unit travelling in the opposite direction and was taken out of service.  Another unit was struck by lightning and burnt out.  The set was parked up in a siding in Knutsford in front of houses, the owners of which were not pleased.
After lunch I usually worked with Len checking pantograph heads for wear.  This item slid along the overhead contact wire collecting the electricity.  The pantograph head had a series of carbon strips which  needed replacing when worn out, the strips being softer than the copper contact wire.  In the depot yard the wire was high up allowing you to climb up onto the  roof, using steps on the front of the cab to carry out the inspection with the power switched on.  I did not like this at all as I had signed a piece of paper in 1968 promising not to go above footplate height without the power switched off but apprentices do as they are told.  Today, the Health and Safety people would have a heart attack!  Why this work could not have been done on Sunday morning when no electric trains ran until lunchtime and the  power was switched off, I do not know.

Photo: Wallace Sutherland - MLS Collection
An exterior view of the depot.  The red warning sign on the overhead structure advised staff of the contact wire when working on the roof of a carriage.

As an aside, my son is a motor vehicle technician and tells me you are not allowed to fool around with apprentices any more, no “go to the stores for a long stand“, “get some red oil for a tail  lamp“, “find a glass hammer“ and so on.  It was all good fun and part of growing up.  I have been told that in steam days an apprentice would be sent in the tender tank to retrieve the filter, fitters then banging on the tender side which terrified the poor lad.  Sometimes the lad would panic and expand in size and become unable to get out. He had to remain with his head stuck through the access hole until he calmed down and regained his normal waist diameter!
Another job for me was when a motor bearing overheated and the white metal melted.  The motor had to be dismantled and melted, metal chunks recovered.  To assist in this task there were some small access covers that had to be removed with a hammer and chisel resulting in some very sore fingers where I missed the chisel  and thumped my hand.  The bits could then be removed but they were very sharp and this required great care.
I stayed through the summer and was sent back to Longsight in the autumn.  You may be surprised that I really enjoyed my time at Altrincham and felt sad when I rode with John on the last 1931 built train from Manchester in 1971.  Units were taken to Cornbrook sidings and then I think they went to South Wales for disposal.  The depot and sidings were demolished and the area now has housing on it.
The public though were tricked by BR, being told “new trains on Monday"!   What they got were 10-ish year old class AM 4 units (Alternating current Multiple unit Type 4)
John transferred to Bury Car Shops on their electric trains.   We were to make contact many years later when I became a lifting equipment inspector.  That depot is now part of the East Lancs preservation society, the 1200  volt, 3rd rail system becoming Manchester Metro tramway.  Regrettably, John has been promoted to the great engine shed in the sky.
My time with BR lasted until 1988 when my job was transferred into the private sector and I was lucky enough to follow it.  I then did a lot of my old BR work for an insurance company with a massive pay rise, but that’s another tale .

Photo: Wallace Sutherland - MLS Collection
A study of unit front ends.

Photo: Wallace Sutherland - MLS Collection
A general view of the depot.  Note the roof access steps on the cab front of No 72.

Last update January 2021. Comments welcome: