The Black Country’s lost railway network

Posted: May 3, 2016 in Rail, Transport

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A ghost station: Wolverhampton Low Level prior to its 21st-century redevelopment

Most of the post-Beeching nostalgia for lost railways tends to be about rural lines that ran through the middle of nowhere and always lost money – the lines that were always likely to face the brunt of the cuts and, arguably, were never likely to be successful (if we define success for railways as being based around profit rather than social responsibility, of course). But after spending a fair amount of time examining the fantastic Rail Map Online, with its map of every railway line ever built in the British Isles, it’s occurred to me that another great opportunity was lost – the development of urban railway networks.

London, as we know, has an extensive public transport network made up of railway lines (now known as London Overground), London Underground routes and bus services. But it seems to be the only city in Britain that has this. Manchester has recently caught up in the last 20 years with the addition and rapid expansion of the Metrolink network, Tyne and Wear have their successful Metro system also using many old rail lines, and Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow added stations and lines in the same period so that it is at least possible to get around the city by train or light rail. But every other urban area seems to lack similar networks – and with this one in particular, it’s a real lost opportunity.

Viewed as a whole, the West Midlands’ rail network at present is adequate, but nothing more. The Birmingham branch of the West Coast Main Line is a well-used commuter route between Coventry and New Street, and New Street and Wolverhampton. The Cross City Line between Lichfield and Redditch has thrived since electrification, while the Chiltern Main Line serves the south-east of Birmingham and from 1995 saw the extension of services through the Snow Hill Tunnel to Smethwick and Worcester.

However, the situation could be much better, especially for the Black Country, the area to the west of Birmingham including Dudley, West Bromwich and Sandwell. After the Beeching axe had cut away numerous lines, the area was left with two main routes – the line between Birmingham (initially New Street, now Snow Hill) and Worcester via Stourbridge Junction, and the WCML branch between New Street and Wolverhampton. The line between New Street and Walsall also survived but on a meagre service; this has seen been vastly improved and extended to Stafford via Cannock and Hednesford.

round_oak_train-station-1962
Round Oak station, which served part of Brierley Hill

The main casualty was the South Staffordshire Line between Stourbridge Junction and Walsall, which served the towns of Dudley and Wednesbury until 1965. Amazingly (in hindsight), this was kept open as a freight-only line without a passenger service, although in the 1980s plans were made to restore this. However, these never materialised and the section between Brierley Hill and Walsall was closed in 1993, remaining in a mothballed state.

Tentative plans were made to convert it to a new Midland Metro route in addition to the main Birmingham-Wolverhampton line. The benefits are obvious, serving arguably the largest town in Britain without a railway station (because let’s face it, Sandwell and Dudley is nowhere near Dudley, and Dudley Port isn’t particularly close either). To me, though, it makes more sense for it to be a heavy rail line – the problem is it doesn’t go through the centre of Birmingham, which seems to make it hard to justify for the powers-that-be for whom Birmingham is evidently the centre of the universe, and all links to Birmingham-bound lines, such as the “Bumble Hole” Line between Dudley and Old Hill, have also been closed and redeveloped.

Similarly, the Wombourne Branch, which left the South Staffordshire Line at Brettell Line and ran through Kingswinford, Wombourne and Tettenhall before emerging at a triangular junction just north of Wolverhampton, was another closure that in hindsight seems foolish. Passenger services had halted as early as 1932 but the line remained open as a freight diversionary route until 1965. But this area of the West Midlands has seen a large amount of suburban development since and would be an obvious success if reopened.

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The well-preserved station at Tettenhall on the outskirts of Wolverhampton

On the other side of the Black Country, two of the three routes to Wolverhampton closed have suffered different fortunes. The route between Walsall and Wolverhampton was revived in 1998, albeit only with a direct service, but largely withdrawn again in 2008, aside from a single early Saturday morning “Parliamentary train” and the occasional diverted main line service. Meanwhile, the Snow Hill-Wolverhampton Low Level GWR route was a 1970s casualty (against Beeching’s recommendation to retain it), before being largely reopened as a Midland Metro route in 1999, giving Wednesbury at least some kind of rail connection.

Branches linking it with the South Staffordshire Line also closed. The original course of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway (nicknamed “the Old Worse and Worse”) headed north at Dudley, running through Bilston before joining the Snow Hill-Wolverhampton line at Priestfield. There was also a link between Great Bridge and Swan Village which took trains from Dudley towards Birmingham.

To the south, another loss to the network was the town of Halesowen. This was previously served by two branch lines which joined at the station: the joint-Midland/GWR branch from Longbridge via the spectacular Dowery Dell Viaduct, and the short GWR branch from Old Hill. The whole line closed in 1964, but scheduled passenger services had been withdrawn early: in 1919 from Longbridge and 1927 from Old Hill. Halesowen today has a population of 24,000; the closure of the line leaves a big gap in West Midlands rail network coverage.

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Dowery Dell Viaduct, one of only two lattice girder trestle viaducts built in Britain

Finally, two lines that aren’t in the Black Country but fit the West Midlands network are also missed: the Harborne Branch from New Street to the suburb of the same name was another early loss to passengers in 1934 due to bus competition, but would surely by much more appreciated today, while the Camp Hill Line south-east of Birmingham city centre links the ex-Midland line, the Chiltern Main Line and the WCML, serving as an important freight route, but does not have a suburban service of its own despite local campaigns in King’s Heath and Moseley.

The fact is that while the West Midlands’ rail network isn’t terrible, this all surely proves that it could be so much better. Considering Birmingham is meant to be the second city of England, it pales into comparison to that of Manchester and Glasgow.

What might have been…
West Mids proposedThe badly-drawn map above is an illustration* of a potential West Midlands rail network that covers all corners (black being current passenger routes, blue being potential passenger routes, red being current occasional passenger/diversion lines that would stay as such, and purple being potential occasional passenger/diversion lines).

* I’d call it an artist’s impression, but as you can tell, I’m not exactly an artist…

The lines we’d try to persuade Beeching to keep open in a bizarre time-travelling exercise:

– the South Staffordshire Line (plus the third side of the triangle for the Stourbridge Town Branch)

— Stations at Brettell Lane, Brierley Hill/Round Oak, Harts Hill, Blowers Green, Dudley, Dudley Port (Low Level) and Wednesbury Town

— Services from Stourbridge Town/Junction to Walsall; some services extended to Kidderminster and Worcester to the south and Stafford to the north

– the Snow Hill to Wolverhampton line

— Stations at West Bromwich, Swan Village, Wednesbury Central, Bilston Central, Priestfield and Wolverhampton Low Level

— Services from Birmingham Moor Street to Wolverhampton Low Level, including extension of Chiltern Main Line services from London Marylebone, and some Bournemouth-Manchester services

– the Wombourne Branch

— Stations at Bromley, Pensnett (for Kingswinford), Wombourne, Compton and Tettenhall

— Services from Stourbridge to Wolverhampton (either Low Level or High Level)

– the West Bromwich-Dudley Port Low Level link

— Allows services from Birmingham Snow Hill to Dudley via West Bromwich

– the “Bumble Hole” Line (Old Hill-Blowers Green)

— Stations at Old Hill High Street and Darby End

— Allows services from Birmingham Snow Hill to Dudley via Smethwick Galton Bridge

– the Dudley-Priestfield link

— Stations at Tipton Five Ways, Princes End and Bilston West

— Services from Stourbridge to Wolverhampton Low Level via Dudley (or simply from Dudley to WLL)

– the Walsall to Wolverhampton line

— Stations at Pleck, Darlaston and Willenhall

– the Sutton Park line (Water Orton-Walsall; currently mostly freight-only)

— Stations at Saltley, Castle Bromwich, Penns, Sutton Park, Streetly and Aldridge

— Services from Wolverhampton to Birmingham New Street via Walsall and Sutton Park

– the Halesowen Railway (Old Hill-Longbridge)

— Stations at Halesowen and Rubery

– the Camp Hill Line (currently freight-only)

— Stations at Hazelwell, King’s Heath, Moseley and Camp Hill/Balsall Heath

— Services from Birmingham Moor Street/Snow Hill to Birmingham New Street via Halesowen and King’s Heath

– the Harborne Branch (New Street-Harborne)

— Stations at Hagley Road and Harborne

— Services from Birmingham New Street to Harborne; acting as an extension of services approaching BNS from the east (e.g. from Coventry, Walsall or the Camp Hill Line)

These would all be part of a wider West Midlands Metro network, with branded services extending as far as Stratford-upon-Avon in the south, Leamington Spa and Coventry in the south-east, Nuneaton in the east, Stafford in the north, Shrewsbury in the west and Worcester in the south-west – essentially a combination of all London Midland and Chiltern services in the West Midlands and more on top.

Alas, with many of these routes being built over, it’s unlikely they will see traffic again. Even the protected route of the South Staffordshire Line is far more likely to see trams than heavy rail trains, which feels like a cheap bandage solution rather than actually dealing with the problem.

Images used in the spirit of fair use

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