THEY turned off the lights, locked the gates and threw away the key to one of West Cumbria’s oldest and greatest industries last Friday - amid tears, anger, disbelief and another blow to the area’s economy.

Steel rail-making is a Workington speciality that goes back 129 years that has gone for good. And so has the famous Mossbay works whose lineage as a producer of iron and steel, and as an employer of thousands, goes back to the cutting edge work of the great Victorian technician and inventor Sir Henry Bessemer.

Workington saw its last piece of white hot steel snaking over the rollers of the Mossbay works on Friday morning as the last steel railway lines came off the production line of Corus Rail.

The remaining 250 men and women, the last of many generations who have manufactured millions of tonnes of track, steel sleepers, clips and fishplates for virtually every railway company in the free world, went to drown their sorrows, to remember the good times and to ponder over a thousand unanswered questions.

And as befits the upholders of a great tradition, they did it with dignity - even though many will struggle to find another job that pays the £10 an hour that Corus pays its multi-skilled front-line production staff.

The irony of the choice of pub for the last goodbyes - Wetherspoon's Henry Bessemer on Oxford Street - was lost on no-one.

Mossbay has never been just another track producer - it has outshone great European rivals like the Austrian company Voest-Alpin Stahl and has consistently led the world in the technology of rail manufacture and has come up with products to meet the demands of the heaviest traffic and the most extreme of conditions.

It has been a colossal overseas earner for Britain since it exported its first rails to the Alabama and Texas Railway Corporation in 1882 and for 30 years has been the sole UK producer of track products - a mantle it has now handed to the Corus long products plant on the other side of the country, at Scunthorpe.

Or has it? The rolling mills of Mossbay works over the years have given birth to as many rumours as it has produced railway lines and on the final day of production, many are questioning whether the new Scunthorpe plant, which has not yet got past the stage of trials, is really ever going to be a volume producer of track products.

Many are wondering whether Corus - a company formed in 1999 by the merger of British Steel with the Dutch metals giant Hoogovens - has a long-term plan to consolidate all of its track production at its other track plant at Hayange in eastern France, whose big advantage over Workington has always been its capacity to roll 80 metre rails - double the maximum length possible at Mossbay.

And in the even longer term, the rumour mill says that Corus will eventually transfer track manufacture to the long established Huta Katowice works in Poland, which the company, along with the Italian Danielli group, helped to privatise six years ago. Polish workers earn a fraction of their West European counterparts.

Corus is putting out the publicity which it wants the world to hear - and it has been doing that since 2000 when it gave assurances, but no guarantees, that Mossbay and the Hayange plant - which Corus bought from the French maker Sogerail in October, 1999, would co-exist to service different markets. The writing appeared ominously on the wall for the Mossbay operation later the same year when the commercial department at Workington was closed and all Corus Rail commercial operations were centralised at the company’s Paris office.

In truth, the future of the Mossbay works as a rail-maker was put in doubt in as far back as 1974 when Workington’s last two Bessemer converters were blown out and steel-making ceased in the town. It meant that the steel for track productions had to be delivered cold from Teesside in ingots (known as blooms)and re-heated in electric arc furnaces at Mossbay - a process which came with serious cost implications.

But rail-making survived for another 32 years, despite the massive cut-backs of 1981 in the iron and steel industry in West Cumbria, which saw the closure of the Beckermet iron ore mines, the end of iron-making at Mossbay and the closure of the bottom plate foundry at British Steel’s Distington Engineering works at Workington’s Chapel Bank, which had just been modernised at a cost of £11 million.

The steel unions ISTC and Amicus, along with the Times & Star, which launched a massive ‘Don’t De-Rail Workington’ campaign in May 2000, influenced the decision to continue with track products manufacture at Workington. And one of the most loyal of customers, Irish State Railways, said from the beginning that it would not lay Corus rails made in France - they had to come from the Mossbay mills because the quality was always matchless.

But the watchdog who probably did more than anybody to safeguard steel jobs in the town was Workington’s Labour MP from 1979 until his elevation to the House of Lords in 2002, Dale Campbell-Savours, who reached understandings on the future of the rail mills after the redundancies of 1981.

Even so, 168 Mossbay redundancies were announced in the early part of 2000 - through eventually the number of enforced redundancies was reduced to half that figure. And a huge boost to the plant came in tragic circumstances in October, 2000 when a London-Leeds express was derailed at Hatfield in Hertfordshire and four people died in the wreckage. A crack discovered in a Workington-made length of track exposed huge safety deficiencies in Railtrack operations - particularly in the way it laid track - and a massive investment programme got underway in new track. Mossbay had to work flat out to keep pace with the new order book - and threats against its future disappeared in to the distance. But it didn’t last - and in February, 2005 came the fateful announcement by Corus that it intended to transfer track products manufacture to Scunthorpe by the middle of 2006.

I caught up with some of the Corus Rail workers in the Henry Bessemer on Friday. A small number of them will transfer to Scunthorpe - though in some cases it is just for a couple of years so they reach the company’s pension threshold of 50.

No-one was complaining about the pay and bonuses they have enjoyed over the last eight months - which have produced a tonnage of rails that would normally take a year to complete. And no-one is complaining about the Corus pension scheme, which is one of the best in UK industry.

But there is anger that Scunthorpe is not yet operational while the Hayange plant allegedly struggles to match the quality and the delivery times of Mossbay.

And an oft-repeated allegation is that neither Scunthorpe or Hayange will ever be able to produce the specialist rails that Workington has. Another is that Scunthorpe’s lack of experience at high specification work will soon come home to roost.

Former Workington Town wing star David Beck, 48 of Greengarth, Great Clifton, a father of four, has completed 33 years at Mossbay and will travel to work at Scunthorpe for 13 months to take him up to pensionable age.

He says: “What annoys me is that we are closing to accomodate the French mill at Hayange and the rails from there we have put them under our ultrasonic machine and found them to be just like sponge. There is a definite quality problem from France - and everybody knows it.”

Alan Smith, of Gable Aveue, Cockermouth, father of two and former branch secretary of Cumbria number one branch of the Community Union (formerly ISTC) plans to retire after a lifetime at Mossbay and to concentrate on his work as an Allerdale borough councillor. He says: “We tried without success to win new investment to re-configure the Mossbay plant. Of the eight configurations that were discussed, the most expensive option was £66 million - yet it cost the company £88 million to buy a plant in France, £17 million to bring it up to the quality standards achieved in Workington and then £130 million to take it all to Scunthorpe - that’s £235 million and that is crazy economics. We have lost 250 jobs and they will not come back again - the company chose this moment because because the company’s share price is right and we are making good profits. You never heard a complaint from our customers."

Mossbay train driver David Clarke, 53, of Lorton Avenue, Workington, has been on ther plant for 32 years and he is retiring. He says: “I don’t think that the politicians have done anything for us. It’s a sad day for me and for the whole works.

"There’s a ‘good buddy’ way of working and a good atmosphere down there. I will miss my workmates and I feel sorry for the lads who are having to travel to Scunthorpe to get on to pensionable age.”

Peter Humes, of Mitchell Avenue, Northside, Workington, said: “I feel gutted - even though I will be there until Christmas as part of the closure team. I am not going to Scunthorpe - my mind is made up that I don’t want to leave this area. The writing has been on the wall since 2000 and only Hatfield saved us - but it has ben downhill all the way since then. There are still old signs on the plant - World Leader in Rail Technology. It was still true the day we closed. our rails ARE the best in the world, and we supplied to the world.”

Supervisor Brian McAllister, of Lorton Avenue, Workington, has completed 40 years. He said: “I am brokenhearted and that goes for everybody here. There may be laughs but there are tears inside. Steel has been the heart and soul of Workington and that is the way it should have continued - we have ben badly let down. Dale Campbell Savours fought v hard but I saw our MP reading a poem on Border Television, but to me he showed no fight at all. We made the specialised rails and I heard Alastair Darling say when he was in Cumbria that this county needs to develop the specialist skills - we had the specialist skills. There are rails like the U69 which Hayange just can’t make - and I doubt if Scunthorpe will. .Our hope was that Mossbay would do the shorter rails and the special rails while Hayange would do the longer rails.”

Brian Carruthers, of Northcote Street, Moss Bay, has put in 29 years service and followed his father Jack, who was a pipe-fitter’s mate, onto the works. He said: “I am taking my pension but I need another job. This has been a big happy family.What we were looking for was investment. We have bent over backwards to comply with the way the management in everything and we have worked very very hard to try and save the plant.”

[b]Stephen Chigwell of Meadow Vale, Seaton, was one day short of 27 years service last Friday and is now looking for a job. He has three children aged two, four and six.

He said: “I need to retrain but the emphasis has been lately on getting up production so much that re-training has taken a back seat. The Trades Hall Centre for the Unemployed in Workington have been really excellent but I don't yet have the qualifications I need in maths and English up to the standards you need to get in to places like Iggesund. The money at Corus has been good - but where are the well paid jobs now?”

Rail inspector Kevin Baker, 48, of Frazer Street, Workington has 32 years service and is in the enviable position of walking out of one job and in to another - at the Sellafield nuclear plant - which will pay him more money. He said: “You could say I am one of the lucky ones but I am not happy because I always thought I would retire like my dad Bill as a steelworker and that’s what I wanted. He started at Mossbay in 1957. This is a terrible day for Workington.”

Derrick Routledge, of Maryport, who helped supervise the production of the very last piece of rail, is almost the last of a family dynasty of steelworkers, which dates back to 1898 when grandfather Jim Routledge joined the workforce.

Derrick, who finished his career as the number one rolling mill supervisor, is not quite the last in the family line because one of old Jim Routledge’s great granddaughters and Derrick’s niece, Annette Glaister, is still employed in the commercial offices Corus Rail, and will remain part of the closure team until Christmas.

Derrick has completed more than 20 years’ service in two spells, his father Thomas completed 50 years at Mossbay and patriarch Jim, a trade union leader, completed 47 years.

Derrick, 63, of Sycamore Road, Netherton, was hoping to continue until he was 65 but the closure of the plant meant he took redundancy and slipped into retirement at the same time.

“It’s the end of an era and the end of an industry which has enabled a lot of people to enjoy a life which has meant holidays and new cars,” he said. “The money has been good and the pension scheme is one of the best and there are not many jobs which pay £10 an hour.

[b]“A lot of the people at Mossbay have been there since they left school and have not known anything else but the people round me worked very hard and always as a team who supported each other.

“I used to handle some of the problems and sometimes I felt like Marjorie Proops. Although it will take time to get the steelworks out of the system, these people will be able to integrates in to any other job.

“There was a lot of sadness when closure came. Men don’t show their emotions easily but there were tears and there were hugs, and a lot of the team did not want to be part of media coverage of the closure. They were going through enough without being made to feel as though they were in a goldfish bowl.”

Derrick worked at Mossbay first from 1958 to 1962 and then had a series of other industrial jobs before rejoining the company as a stockholder in 1988. His rise to a management position has included appointments as bloom controller and sleeper mill foreman.

He doesn't want to add to the criticisms of decisions taken at the boardroom level of Corus, but he like a lot of others, is now wondering where all the specialist railway lines are going to be made, because Hayange has tried and failed to produce one of Workington’s main ‘specials’ and Scunthorpe is going to produce only two standard sections.

As a thank you to the final members of the workforce, Corus has presented each with a Sekonda wrist watch, a commemorative chrome-plated piece of rail section on an inscribed oak plaque and a DVD of the history of the iron and steel industry in Workington.