16 December 2015 16:37

Over the first weekend in December, Storm Desmond brought flooding to much of central Lancaster, including the substation. At 10.30 pm on Saturday, all electricity supplies in the city were lost and stayed off until 6 am on Monday. For the next few days different areas suffered further power cuts.

Walking round the city on Monday morning, (a polite version of) the question on everyone’s lips was "Who on earth decided to put the main substation just next to the river where flooding is inevitable?” After half an hour on the internet, the answer seems to be that it can only be described as a "historical accident".

The land between Caton Road and the river has been used for industry for hundreds of years, originally using water power and, in the 19th Century, steam power. It was an ideal site with the Midland Railway (now the cycle track) to bring in coal and plentiful supplies of water for cooling. In 1865 the Lancaster Railway Carriage and Wagon Company moved into a factory on this site. By the start of the First World War the wagon works had been closed and the site was taken over for the National Projectile Factory which included a power station near the aqueduct where the canal crosses the river.

When the projectile factory was closed in 1922, Lancaster Corporation took over the power station to supply electricity to Lancaster, Morecambe and Heysham. Every sizeable town was “electrifying” and, by the mid-1920s, there were more than 600 local electricity networks each supplied by its coal-fired power station. In 1926 the Electricity (Supply) Act set up the Central Electricity Board which started connecting them together with a 132 kV grid. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the grid was operating as a national system with 9 million consumers.

A 1933 aerial photo of Lancaster shows the power station with three stubby chimneys and a high voltage power line crossing the Lune connecting to a substation.  A photo from the 1950s shows a larger building with a tall new chimney. By that time most houses would have been connected to the electricity network with high voltage cables from the Caton Road site to smaller substations around the town.

Between 1950 and 1975, national electricity consumption quadrupled and hundreds of small local power stations were replaced by fewer large stations, like Fiddler’s Ferry near Widnes. When Lancaster’s power station was demolished in the mid 1970s, all the 11,000 V cables to different parts of the city still came together at the Caton Road substation so this was where the city remained connected to the National Grid. There had been no serious floods in the area for many years and the economy was in recession so it seems unlikely anyone would have been able to justify the expense and disruption of moving the substation. And it has been there ever since.”

In the wake of the power cuts in Lancaster, Professor Roger Kemp reflects on how dependent we are on electricity here.


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