Only the most unobservant users of the Piccadilly Line will not know the name Metro Cammell. “England Metro Cammell 1973” is emblazoned on a steel floorplate under every set of doors on every carriage, thus:
It has taken me thirty years of casual acquaintance with this industrial brand before finding out more about it.
The story of Metro Cammell is the story of the British railway industry itself, from thrusting Victorian trajectory to pathetic late 20th Century demise: the story, in fact, of British manufacturing. The company finally closed its doors in 2005, having been taken over by French energy and transport giant GEC Alsthom some years previously.
But first, the name. It was the result of the merger, in 1929 of a division of Cammell Laird and Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company Ltd. hence Metro Cammell.
Metro Cammell had its origins deep in the pioneering times of the early railways, when a kaleidoscope of operators, engine manufacturers and carriage makers grew out of nothing to take advantage of the revolutionary new mass transport technology. Many of these companies were fierce rivals who nonetheless could not operate successfully without each other and over the next century and a half there were myriad mergers and takeovers. (Read, for example, Christian Wolmar’s absorbing and amusing account in The Subterranean Railway of the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway in the early days of the London Underground).
And so with Metro Cammell. From the late 1830s, Joseph Wright and Sons of London created carriages for the London and Southampton and the London and Birmingham Railways. They moved their operation to Birmingham in 1845. Various mergers in the early 20th century saw them emerge in 1926 as the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company Ltd. During this period they also manufactured hundreds of tanks for the war effort in the first world war. Then in 1929 the company merged with the carriage division of Cammell Laird, becoming commonly known as Metro Cammell thereafter despite subsequent corporate ownership adjustments.
From this time, in addition to bus coachmaking and more tank building during the second world war, the company manufactured carriages for the railways of the world: USA, Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil, Jamaica and Egypt among them.
The company was still successful during the 1980s and 1990s both before and after the GEC Alsthom takeover in 1989. The name Metro Cammell disappeared forever in 1998 when the owners floated the company under the name Alstom. The early 2000s saw orders decline to the point that the last carriages were manufactured at the Washwood Heath site in 2004, at which time the organisation continued as a maintenance-only business. Washwood Heath was shut at the end of 2005 and the remaining Alstom operations continue elsewhere, a pale shadow of the once-mighty Metro Cammell.