Preston memories of Alstom and GEC Traction

Posted on - 14th September, 2018 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, History, Nostalgia, Preston News, Riversway
The motor assembly team, circa 1999
The motor assembly team, circa 1999

Former employees at one of Preston’s biggest employers are mourning the loss of the company from the city.


Alstom, maker of train parts, was situated on Strand Road in Ashton-on-Ribble, until it closed its doors in July to relocate to a purpose-built Transport Technology Centre in Widnes.

The Victorian factory has employed thousands of local people over the decades. Blog Preston spoke to three former employees to get their memories of working there.

Liz Garmston

Liz Garmston in the 1990s on a works leaving do, and Liz today
Liz Garmston in the 1990s on a works leaving do (left), and Liz today

“I started working at GEC Alsthom in September 1991 as a Clerical Apprentice. I trained for four years in various departments including the Drawing Stores, the Estimating Department and the Quality Department. During my time in the Drawing Stores I met my future husband, Mick Garmston, who was at the time an Electrical Apprentice on the shop floor. In 1992 we started dating and never looked back.

“Sometime in the 1990s, GEC Alsthom merged with the French company and became known as Alstom (without the ‘h’). It was quite an unsettling time for employees with the threat of redundancies. It was especially worrying with whole families working there. At this time I worked as PA to the Quality Director, a French man who was lovely.

“A new Managing Director had been employed to shape the business for the future. He spent £10m on revamping the Preston site and it looked amazing. During this period employees would meet for get togethers at BAE Social Club on South Meadow Lane, where we would all play games on the field. There was a general feeling of wellbeing for staff. I often reminisce with friends about the people who worked there and the characters we met along the way.

Read more: Blow as Alstom announces it is pulling out of Preston

“When I married my husband in August 1998 there were lots of colleagues in attendance. We are both grateful and look back with fond memories of our time at Alstom. It was a fab place to work and with such a busy social schedule it was hard not to be involved in company events.

“My husband left in 1999 when we were expecting our first child as it was an unsettling period. I left in 2003 when we where expecting our second child as I was offered redundancy. We both are very sad that it has come to an end but would like to wish everyone a happy and bright future.”

Keith Cardwell

Keith Cardwell meeting Princess Diana at the factory in 1990
Keith meeting Princess Diana at the factory in 1990

“I started working at the factory in 1969 and held various roles until I was one of 650 people who lost their jobs in 2003.

“The way technology changed during this time was amazing. We went from DC motors, which were as big as a mini, to AC, which were the size of a plant pot. It was much more powerful but much smaller, and this was all down to clever design and engineering.

“In 1989 GEC Traction won the Queen’s award for new technology, and I went along to Buckingham Palace to receive the award. While there we chatted with the Duke of Edinburgh, and he asked us if the company dealt in some sort of medical equipment. We couldn’t keep a straight face but explained we designed and manufactured propulsion equipment for trains. I also met Princess Diana when she visited the factory. She was a lovely woman and fantastic to talk to.

“A lot of politicians used to come to Preston in the 1980s, like John Prescott and Lord Prior. I was campaigning to get the government to put new money into the railways to reduce traffic and carbon emissions, but they didn’t want to know. Thatcher was trying to destroy manufacturing and it was a traumatic time.

Read more: A new blue plaque for Preston and it’s a world first

“Then GEC and the French company Alsthom merged in 1989 on what they called a 50/50 basis, as we were like identical twins. Unfortunately industrial law meant it was easier to get rid of people in the UK than in France, so the UK suffered. They closed Trafford, Birmingham, and Ireland, but no sites were affected in France.

“Even so when it was GEC Alsthom it was a great place to work, with some fantastic people. After being made redundant in 2003 I was taken back as warehouse coordinator in March 2004. I was glad to return, but it was nothing like it used to be. It was really sad to see a 14 acre site with 150 people working there when, at one time, there had been 2,000.

“It’s been a death by a thousand cuts. It’s very sad to see such a great site with so much heritage close. There were some brilliant engineers and people on the shop floor. They used to visit from France and they couldn’t believe how good our equipment was; it was a world-class facility.

“It’s also a shame for Preston as we used to recruit apprentices, and with every job that’s lost another five local jobs are impacted.”

Colin Rogerson

Colin Rogerson pictured right with the gearboxes he built, and his good friend Cliff Scott, who sadly passed away in 1996
Colin (pictured right) with the gearboxes he built, and his good friend Cliff Scott, who sadly passed away in 1996

“Both my parents and my brother worked at GEC Traction, which was one of the factory’s former names. In 1972 my Dad got me a job at GEC as a fitter. I worked on control gear, but I only stayed about six months. I found it difficult to settle into factory work because I was a skilled motor mechanic and wasn’t used to being inside all day.

“In September 1990 I was fortunate to get a second chance at GEC, and I started as a skilled fitter in motor assembly (10 shop). The foreman was a good bloke who had served his time at GEC as a fitter and was promoted off the shop floor, so he was hands on and knew traction motors.

“I’d never made traction motors before, but it didn’t take long to learn how to build one, even though every motor was different. We would be given a contract to build, which could mean 50 to 100 traction motors, and on the big contracts like London Underground, it could be thousands.

“When Trafford Park closed, Preston became the main factory and had a total refurb. There were new office blocks, a state-of-the-art canteen, and we became a full manufacturing assembly cell for traction motors.

“I made some great mates there. One of the lads was a lot younger then me and sometimes cheeky, so I would give him a friendly belt. We got on so well that he used to call me Dad, which the other young lads in the shop also started calling me.

Read more: BAE Systems makes hundreds of staff redundant at Warton and Samlesbury

“There were other lads who were Preston North End and cricket fans, so we went on Deepdale and to away games, and in summer we went to Old Trafford to watch Lancashire or a Test match. On a Monday morning the foreman would leave us to talk about Saturday’s PNE game. My assembly cell became known as ‘the dugout’ – even our manager would come and join in the banter. All this created a bond between us all.

“In summer the company organised inter-department games of football, cricket, crown green bowls and more. At the end of the competition, a presentation night was held at South Meadow Lane BAC Club. All these company activities brought the workforce together. It was a pleasure to go to work.

“In 1998 the company became Alstom, and the first area to go was traction motors – they went to be built in France. We got some bits of electronic work from France, but it was nothing like what we lost, and that resulted in redundancies. It was the beginning of the end. In May 2003, the closure of Preston as a manufacturing site was announced, and 900 people lost their jobs including me.

“While I was at Strand Road I was privileged to work with some wonderful lads, who I remember fondly. Happy days.”

Do you have any memories of the factory? What do you think about it closing? Let us know in the comments below.

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