Crewe Heritage Centre – Exploring Britain’s Railway History

Arriving at Crewe onboard one of East Midlands Railway’s class 156s from Derby, I ventured out of the station for what was, despite numerous trips to, from and via Crewe, the first time. With my destination not mentioned on any of the directional signage out on the street, I was in the hands of Google Maps and thankfully, after a walk of about 15-minutes, arrived at the gates of Crewe Heritage Centre.

A totem style sign at the entrance to the Heritage Centre. Tucked behind a Tesco, the entrance is rather inauspicious.

Located on the site of the former London, Midland and Scottish railway yard, part of the larger Crewe works, the Crewe Heritage centre is bounded by the diverging West Coast Mainline (WCML), and Chester line. Opened in 1987 by Queen Elizabeth II, the Heritage Centre has acquired numerous exhibits over the years and now has a collection of locomotives, carriages and units along with multiple historic signal boxes.

The main area of the Heritage Centre, excluding the exhibition hall, is sort of ‘V’ shaped, with the right hand ‘arm’ running parallel to the WCML having the entrance at the top, the left hand ‘arm’ running parallel to the Chester lines and Crewe North Signal Box located at the Apex. After paying my entry fee (a very reasonable £5) I decided to start my explorations in the furthest corner of the site, the far end of the left-hand arm. Almost hidden away at the far end of this area there is not one, but two former signal boxes, Crewe Station A box and Exeter West box, both of which were moved to the site since their respective closures.

Looking towards Crewe Station A box with 43081, 1023 and the Mk3 DVT in the foreground

Crewe Station A box was, as the name suggests, formerly located at Crewe station itself, between what was then platform 1 and the ‘down through line 1’ and controlled these lines along with the adjacent Horse Landing Sidings. Closed in June 1985, the box operated an ‘absolute block’ system on its lines and was connected to the North Junction box with a bell and direction selector. In Winter 2010 Crewe A box was reconnected in this manner to the North Junction box, allowing volunteers at the heritage centre to demonstrate how the boxes interacted.

Exeter West box has a slightly more troubled history during retirement with the Crewe Heritage Centre being its third home after unsuccessful spells at Bristol Temple Meads and the Swindon Heritage Centre. The box was originally built by the Great Western Railway in 1913 and controlled the western end of Exeter St. David’s station, with an upgrade to a larger frame of 131 levers in 1959. The box remained in use at Exeter in 1985 when the signalling in the area was replaced by colour light signals controlled electrically by a new box in Exeter. After closure, the Exeter West Group moved in and carefully dismantled the box piece by piece, allowing reconstruction at Crewe to begin in 1991.

Manchester Metrolink Tram 1023

Heading back towards the centre of the site, the section area alongside the Chester line retains numerous sections of railway, including a connection to the mainline and so is home to the vast majority of the Heritage Centre’s collection of locomotive, carriages and units. Whilst most of these exhibits would be classed as ‘Heavy Rail’ there is one temporary resident from a nearby tramway. Manchester Metrolink Tram 1023, a AnsaldoBreda T-68 was one of the original vehicles operating on Metrolink and was replaced in 2014 by newer Bombardier Trams. Eventually 1023 will find a new home at the Heaton Park Tramway, however it is temporarily at Crewe until Heaton has space for it.

Along with 1023, this section of the Heritage Centre is also home to two Class 43 HST Powercars, 43018 & 43081, both of which were constructed on the site the Heritage Centre now stands, having been productions of British Rail Engineering Limited at Crewe Works. Prior to retirement from mainline passenger duties, 43018 was operated by GWR and based out of Laira Depot in Plymouth, whilst 43081 was operated by East Midlands Railway immediately prior to its retirement and is significant as it was the 8000th locomotive to have been built in Crewe Works.

43081, the 8000th locomotive built at Crewe Works

Along with the famous class 43s, there are a number of other locomotives and rolling stock based at the Heritage Centre, although some weren’t there during my visit. 37108, a class 37 built at the English Electric Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows, spent most of its working life in Scotland, with a few ventures into the North of England and wasn’t officially retired from active mainline service until 1998, some 35 years after being released from the foundry. 87035, a class 87 constructed in Crewe Works for inter-city operations on the adjacent WCML, wasn’t onsite during my visit, having been moved by road to the nearby Basford Hall yard to allow its traction motors to be donated to the still operational 86101 and 87002 to allow them to continue operating heritage services on the mainline.

47192, a class 47 that was another product of Crewe Works, was also offsite at Crewe Diesel Depot, having moved there by rail for body work repairs and a full repaint. Despite two of the ‘headline’ locomotives being offsite, there was still plenty to see with the Heritage Centre’s class 03 shunting locomotive hidden around the back of the exhibition hall and a selection of Mk3 coaches (and a Driving Van Trailer) scattered amongst the other locomotives.

One of the Crewe Eagles, a symbol of the works

One thing that I’ve realised whilst writing this post that I hadn’t realised at the time is that the Heritage Centre’s collection is very much full of items with a significant link to Crewe. The majority of the locomotives and rolling stock were either built at Crewe Works or saw service in and around Crewe, with 03073 being the only exception I can find, having been built in Doncaster and operated across the network to the eastern side of the Pennines.

Having explored the collection adjacent to the Chester line, I was mainly left with the two headline exhibits of the Heritage Centre, the APT and Crewe North Junction Signal Box. Both are clearly visible from passing trains and are symbols of the Heritage Centre. Crewe North Junction Signal Box, as mentioned above, is located at the apex of the junction between the WCML and Chester line and during its operational life controlled all movements to the north of the station, across these lines along with the lines to Manchester. Constructed in 1939 to withstand the bombs of the Luftwaffe the signal box is a significant structure, with walls that are 15 inches thick and a roof that is even thicker at 18 inches. The box remains on the site it was throughout its working life, having passed over the Heritage Centre following its decommissioning in 1985, and very similar to as it was upon its retirement, with an extension to the ground floor to facilitate a café, shop and audio-visual room.

The signalling diagram within Crewe North Junction signal box

Adjacent to the signal box is the remains of Spider Bridge, a footbridge that connected the Crewe Works with the north end of the station which also carried a tramway allowing for parts to be transferred from the works to waiting trains. Unfortunately, despite a ramp at the works end of the bridge, there were only steps at the station end, resulting in parts having the be carried up and down from the bridge and eventually leading to this method of transfer being abandoned. Eventually the bridge was demolished in 1939 during the construction of the new North Junction signal box, with the remains lying unloved until restoration in 1987 as part of the town’s heritage festival. In 2020 the remains were awarded a ‘Red Wheel’ by the National Transport Trust, officially recognising the structure as the last remaining section of the Crewe Works Narrow Gauge Railway.

The star of the show at the Heritage Centre and the final stop on my explorations is the Advanced Passenger Train or APT. Given the project was seen as the future of Britain’s railways, there is very little left, with just five passenger cars and two power cars of the prototype version (APT-P) at Crewe, and the four cars of the experimental version (APT-E) at the National Railway Museum’s Locomotion in Shildon. With an innovative tilt system, the APT can be seen as an ancestor of the Pendolinos that race past on the WCML, as British Rail sold the patents for the tilt technology when the project folded to Fiat Ferroviara with a derivative used by Alstom in the class 390s.

Crewe’s APT-P

After many years of development with limited success, the change in the political landscape caused by the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party resulted in British Rail pressing the three prototype units into service. Unfortunately, the subsequent media circus and front-page coverage over every problem the trains encountered resulted in them being withdrawn after a month and by the time of their reintroduction the class 43 HSTs had become the backbone of the network. The APT project was abandoned and the APT-Ps saw a year of service between London and Glasgow before being withdrawn again in the winter of 1985/6, with two of the sets being broken up.

Despite the perceived failure of the project, the APT did pave the way for new technologies in passenger trains with the tilting technology being introduced in multiple countries after further development by Fiat and the development of electrification that came alongside the project having been used in the class 91s that still run along the East Coast Mainline. An APT-T was also holder of the British Railway Speed Record for more than 20 years until it was claimed by a Eurostar train on HS1. It took 25 years until upgraded infrastructure allowed Pendolinos to match the APT’s service timings and the APT still holds the record for a journey from London to Glasgow, having completed in 3hrs 52minutes. In June 2021 a Pendolino attempted to claim, and failed by 21 seconds, a record set by its ancestor 27 years earlier.

Originally the APT was launched with much fanfare, however its second introduction was almost secret

I enjoyed my trip to the Hertiage Centre although the weather dampened by visit somewhat. For some reason the café and shop based in the ground floor of North Junction signal box were closed and there was limited shelter elsewhere on the site. However, for a fiver, it was definitely worth the trip and I’ll definitely be returning to see some of the locos that were ‘on tour’ and I’d certainly recommend heading to Crewe to spend a few hours exploring some fascinating parts of Britain’s railway history.

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