A Brief History of the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd 1845-1945

The following is a slightly updated re-work of a history which has been in circulation within the company for many years, written by C G Wallace. My updating only consists of changes in tense, since he was writing in 1945, and in the cutting out into their own files, of the brief information on subsidiary companies.

The history from 1945 to the present day is my responsibility so any errors, omissions etc are entirely to be laid at my door, but I hope it is informative and complete in essentials.

Family Tree

Table of Contents

Joseph Wright before 1845
Joseph Wright at Saltley
1902 Rationalisation
Vickers and Cammell Laird
1945 to the 70s
Up to today
GEC Alsthom
ALSTOM

Joseph Wright, a London coach builder of Gough Street, Gray's Inn Lane, who in the early part of the 19th century was a contractor for the Royal Mails and the owner of most of the stage coaches then running between London and Birmingham, was the founder of the "Metropolitan" company. He was a man of outstanding ability and foresight and must have watched the birth and the early development of the railways in this country with intense interest. He realised that the era of the stagecoach was drawing to a close and he began in the early 1840s to devote his energies to the manufacture in his London works of railway carriages, utilising to the full the skill and experience of the coach builders already employed by him. As early as 1844 he obtained a very wide patent (No. 10173) in respect of improvements in railway carriages, detailing carriages with 4, 6 and 8-wheeled bogies, embodying ideas which were absolutely revolutionary and, in fact, in many respects in advance of actual practice for some 50 years.

As the railways grew the demand for rolling stock was such that Joseph Wright decided to build a new factory in the provinces where he would have unlimited space at his disposal. He must have been familiar with Birmingham as his coaches made the journey by road so regularly and it would also interest him as being the terminus of the London and Birmingham and the Manchester and Birmingham railways. It was served also by the Grand Junction Railway, the Birmingham and Derby Junction railway and others, and its central position and proximity to the coal and iron districts would make it additionally attractive. He decided therefore to build his factory in this area and in March 1845 was able to lease some six acres of land at Saltley - then a charming old world village on the outskirts of the town - and in the meadow lands the Saltley works were begun.

It must have been an ambitious project, for we read that the factory contained "the newest and most expeditious mechanical appliances" and consisted of "workshops, offices, a wharf and other buildings and included "engines, boilers and other machinery".

He was assisted in his business by his sons Henry and Joseph, and traded as "Joseph Wright and Sons, Railway Carriage and Wagon Builders and Contractors of Saltley Works, Birmingham", with a London office at 8, Adam Street, Adelphi, and it would appear that after becoming established at Saltley he disposed of his works in London. It is interesting to note that in their earliest advertisments the firm displayed the Royal Crest which no doubt Joseph Wright had been entitled to make use of at his London Works as the builder of Royal Mail coaches.

The business prospered and by 1847 Henry Wright had obtained a leasehold interest in adjoining land at Saltley covering substantially the remainder of what became the Saltely Works site of approximately 50 acres, the freehold of which was subsequently (by 1945) held by the Metropolitan Company. New shops were constantly being erected and in 1853 the original works, already known as the Saltley Old Works, were let to the London and North Western Railway Company whilst Joseph Wright and Sons continued their business in the new works adjoining. At this time the works were employing some 800 people.

A few years later, in addition to having built rolling stock for practically all the home railways, the firm had successfully completed contracts for Egypt, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Spain, Italy, South America, India and Australia. Much of it of the very highest class and described as being "considered marvels of skilful construction and tasteful decoration". Another interesting point is that as early as 1858, the firm, to meet the wants of railway companies, colliery owners and others, adopted the system of leasing wagons and had no fewer than 1300 wagons at work upon the various railways.

In 1859 Joseph Wright died and the business was continued by his son Joseph in its original name until 1862 when the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd was formed with a nominal share capital of 100,000 and acquired the whole of the undertaking.

The "Old Works" remained in the occupation of the London and North Western Railway (where they built and repaired their own rolling stock) until 1870 when the Metropolitan Company purchased the unexpired leasehold interest and so became the owners of Wright's original works. The London and North Western Railway company, on vacating Saltley, moved to Wolverton which was geographically more conveniently situated for their purposes.

Six years later in 1902 the first step in the rationalisation of the rolling stock industry was made when the Metropolitan Amalgamated Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd was formed with a share capital at 1,500,000 to take over the business of the Metropolitan Company and to amalgamate with the following well known rolling stock companies: -

The Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Co Ltd

Brown and Marshall's Co Ltd

The Lancaster Railway Carriage and Wagon Co Ltd

The Oldbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Co Ltd

In the same year, in order that they might have their own source of supplies for the building of rolling stock, the amalgamated company acquired the whole of the assets and undertaking of the Patent Shaft and Axletree Company limited of Wednesbury, an important firm of iron and steel manufacturers having their own rolling mills and producing plates, bars, sections, switches and crossings, wheels, axles, etc and having a high reputation as bridge builders.

The object of the amalgamation of 1902 was to centralise the rolling stock industry and to focus in one great concern the skill and experience of many firms, and in order that this might be achieved the personnel and businesses of the absorbed rolling stock companies were gradually transferred to Saltley and the factories closed down.

In 1919 Vickers Ltd acquired the shares of the Metropolitan Company. In the same year Cammell Laird and Co Ltd of Sheffield and Birkenhead commenced the manufacture of railway rolling stock at the National Ordinance Factory at Nottingham which they had managed during the Great War on behalf of the government and which they shortly afterwards purchased. Concurrent with this new ventureCammell Laird obtained a controlling interest in The Midland Railway Carriage and Co Ltd of Washwood Heath, Birmingham one of the foremost rolling stock undertakings in the country and four years later acquired the control of the Leeds Forge Co Ltd of Armly, Leeds, with its railway carriage works at Newlay, and its subsidiaries the Newlay Wheel Co Ltd and The Bristol Wagon and Carriage Works Co Ltd. Shortly afterwards, in 1927, the Metropolitan Company purchased the business of the Blake Boiler Wagon and Engineering Co Ltd of darlington and tranferred it to Saltley.

In 1929 Vickers Ltd and Cammell Laird & Co Ltd merged their rolling stock interests to form the then great undertaking Metropolitan-Cammell Carriage and wagon Co Ltd with its head office at Saltley. The share capital being held by the parent companies in equal proportions.

Of the companies comprising the Cammell Laird group at that time, the Midland Railway Carriage and Co Ltd was the oldest. It had been formed in 1853 for the purpose of purchasing railway wagons and letting them out to hire to private owners but it began to build rolling stock itself in 1864 when works were acquired in Landor Street, Birmingham. In 1877 the Abbey Works in Shrewsbury were purchased and production at both works continued on an ever increasing scale. In 1907 the company purchased a freehold site of some 51 acres at Washwood Heath, Birmingham for the erection of new works to cope with demand for rolling stock of a heavier type than that for which its existing works had been designed. The new works were begun in 1909 and completed in 1912 and the businesses at Landor St and Shrewsbury were transferred to the new premises which became the Midland Works of the Metropolitan-Cammell Co.

C G Wallace
June 1945

Charles Galbraith Wallace
Born 1st April 1895
Joined Cammell Laird & Co Sheffield 1st May 1918
Transferred to Midland Works 21st March 1927
Transferred to Saltley Head Office 17th December 1928
Started as a Cashier and by 1949 was Joint Company Secretary

Following World War 2 substantial orders were completed for wagons for many overseas clients in South America and Africa as well as work for British Railways and a train for the Royal Tour of South Africa was built at Old Park Works.

The 1949 order for London Transport District Line was the first involving the use of aluminium body shells.

From then on a steady stream of orders from London Transport provided a good base workload. During the 1950s orders were completed for railways in Brazil, Jamaica, Egypt, South Africa and India in addition to the Kowloon and Canton Railway of Hong Kong with whom a Metro-Cammell were to have a long relationship in future years.

Many coaches and diesel multiple units were supplied to British Railways during the late 1950s and the Pullman Fleet which included the Blue trains were completed during 1959/60.

In addition to these coaches, multiple units and locomotives, many thousands of mineral wagons were also built in fact between 1945 and 1970 the company estimated their output at, "nearly 100,000 vehicles of over 400 different types"

However, over this period of sustained high output, international industrial development together with reductions in home market demand as orders were fulfilled, led to the necessity to reduce capacity and in 1962 Saltley Works were closed and eventually the whole enterprise was concentrated at the Midland Works offices at Leigh Road, Washwood Heath. By the end of the decade even the Old Park Works at Wednesbury had closed. Throughout the 1960s activities at Metro-Cammell continued to be busy and added the supply of containers to its already wide portfolio. By 1970 Metro-Cammell had rationalised production and began to specialise in the supply of rapid transit vehicles.

The 1970s saw the company deliver units to London Transport for the Piccadilly Line and the District Line, for the home market with products for Glasgow and Tyne and Wear and for two distinct clients in Hong Kong, the newly formed Mass Transit Railway Corporation and the main line Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation. Both of these customers also contributed strongly to the continued success of Metro-Cammell through the crisis years of the mid 80s.

The crisis was in effect a radical re-structuring of the business from manufacturing to final assembly and in hindsight completed a move away from manufacturing that began with the closure of Saltley Works in the 60s. The changes were precipitated by the loss of a number of orders through 1984 including those for Singapore and London's Docklands and resulted in the loss of nearly 80% of the total workforce.

The only work going through the factory at that time were 6 Battery Locomotives and 2 prototype Central Line trains, both orders from London Underground. Immediately prior to this, through 1983, 84 the company participated in the Maglev project, building three single car vehicles, and also built other, single car People Mover units under license from Westinghouse of America for Gatwick and Atlanta airports. The prototype Class 151 was also built around this time.

However disastrous the crisis may have seemed for the future of the company the fact is that by the end of the decade the new operation was successfully employed providing more vehicles for both clients in Hong Kong, a second tranche of the '83 tube stock for the Jubilee Line in London and work for British Rail on the East Coast Main Line MkIV coaches and 156 multiple units.

GEC Alsthom
In 1989 the parent Laird Group sold their transportation interests and Metro-Cammell became part of the new Anglo-French Power Generation and Transportation Group GEC Alsthom an immediate consequence of which was the involvement with the Eurostar Channell Tunnel project.

Under the banner of GEC Alsthom but still referencing the Metro-Cammell name the company continued into the 90s with successful bids for a share in the supply of Class 465 units for Network Southeast and the subsequent supply of the Class 466 two-car variants in 1991. This was followed by orders to re-equip the Jubilee Line and Northern Line for London Underground with a total of almost 1000 cars, and an order for 7 x 4 car units for Sweden to operate a shuttle service between Stockholm and the Arlanda Airport.

In 1992 the ill-fated Nightstock project was started. Unfortunately only half of the vehicles were completed before the project was abandoned. The completed vehicles and all other available materials were eventually sold to Canada but only after a numbers of years spent in storage at Kineton.

As the privatisation of British Rail began to gather momentum the company recognised the opportunities that were becoming available and in 1994 split the Customer Services department from the main build activity to create a Railway Maintenance Services business catering for Maintenance and Renovation work and a little later supported this with a parts provision business called Partslink.

The second half of the 90s was particularly busy. An order for 53 Pendolino tilting trains was awarded to the company by Angel and Virgin Trains. With the associated maintenance contract this was 1 bn worth of business and was easily the most complex train built to date.

ALSTOM
In June of 1998 GEC Alsthom decided to float the company on the stock market and changed its ownership arrangements from 50/50 Anglo-French to 100% French. To highlight the differences the name was changed to ALSTOM (without the H) and at this point the name Metro-Cammell disappeared and the Washwood Heath plant became simply the ALSTOM UK Assembly Facility.

Around this time Washwood Heath launched its generic train concepts under the titles of Juniper for EMUs and Coradia for DMUs. After initial market successes with orders for Gatwick, Scotrail and South West Trains for Junipers and with First Group for class 175 and class 180 DMUs a combination of poor performance and declining market activity in the UK meant that no more orders were received.

On Friday June 20th 2003 ALSTOM announced that no more new build work would be carried out on the Washwood Heath site after the completion of the 53 x 9 car Pendolino units in July/August 2004.

Pendolinos were still on site for various reasons until March 2005. The last vehicle built, 68810, left the site on 11th March as the ninth car in train 390010, and the last train 390016 left the site on 22nd March after being returned for some attention to paintwork.

In the middle of March 2005 the West Coast project announced that it would move off the site that year. The rest of the staff, who were engaged on Maintenance and Renovation work would be moved to the ALSTOM Power site at Rugby. Thus by the end of 2005 the site was completely vacated by ALSTOM.

Towards the end of 2006 ALSTOM announced the sale of the UK Renovation business, which included production sites at Springburn in Glasgow, Wolverton near Milton Keynes and some engineering staff at Rugby, to Railcare Ltd.

The Washwood Heath site itself seems to be the subject of re-development plans by its current owner. The red brick Leigh Road offices have already been given planning permission.

GEC Alsthom history 1989 to 1998

ALSTOM history 1998 -

Back to Table of Contents


Home Page Rolling Stock People Other Things Family Tree News Maps Memorabilia