Black Country Bugle
The railway line that should not have been closed: part 5
THE track through Snow Hill tunnel was severed on November 11, 1968, and lifted during December. Just before the line was severed, John Grabner and John Horsley-denton from the Shropshire Railway Society recalled a visit to the Snow Hill Station signal and control room. By chance a breakdown train was due to pass southbound through the tunnel and John and his friends jumped aboard and so became the last members of the public to travel on this stretch of line. They jumped down in a great hurry at the tunnel mouth and climbed the locked gates of Moor Street Station in order to travel home to Shropshire.
There were plans to have a bus station and car park at the Snow Hill site. As certain BR officials were absolutely determined to close Snow Hill station, they would not even consider keeping the 44 chains Moor Street to Snow Hill section open though this would have enabled the diesel units on the Wolverhampton and Oldbury/ Langley Green services to run direct to Tyseley diesel depot and so save costs and mileage. However, as the Snow Hill tunnel mouth was eventually barred with corrugated iron sheeting, BR routed the empty stock workings from Tyseley diesel depot via Bordesley Junction, Birmingham New Street, Galton Junction and Smethwick (reverse) which added to the costs (as these 9+ mile journeys four times daily were not for revenue earning purposes) and so made the economic case for complete closure even better.
A Railway Correspondence and Travel Society Railtour The Black Countryman traversed the Heath Town spur line into Wolverhampton Low Level on Saturday, November 23, 1968. The three coach diesel unit forming the tour train ran from Birmingham New Street to various goods lines in the West Midlands area including the Curzon Street line. After reversal at Bushbury Junction the train passed through Wolverhampton High Level and reversed into Low Level via Heath Town Junction. After a further reversal the train ran through to Snow Hill. A historic journey, covering all the major West Midlands stations and possibly one of the few times a train from Birmingham New Street travelled to Wolverhampton Low Level and back to
Snow Hill). Wednesbury (ex GWR) goods station reopened on December 19 for distributing steel to local firms.
There was a great community spirit among the staff and users of the single coach trains on the Snow Hill to Low Level line. The ‘hard core of regular’ passengers in the single railcars formed their own unofficial ‘commuters club’ such was the friendly atmosphere on the remaining trains. Some of the regular passengers referred to their trains as ‘the Bubble train specials’. This was evident from the early days of the service. Writer R.B. Arthur when making a journey on the 16.25 Snow Hill to Low Level train in the winter of 1968/9 noticed that the guard did not allow the train’s departure before all his regular passengers were on board. Single unit railcar, No M55017 in the new blue livery, was warm and bright inside in contrast to the cold winter’s day on which he made the journey. There were seven passengers on departure and 24 passengers by the time the train reached Bilston. Mr P.J.W. Holland said, “There was no formal club. This was merely the camaraderie shared by travellers on the few trains that ran towards the end of the line’s existence. Most people knew each other by first names.” When the signals failed and the guard had to walk ahead of the train (as frequently happened) passengers shared their flasks of tea with him. Sometimes on cold winter days the ladies would bring flasks of coffee and soup to sustain morale. When regular passengers did not appear for their usual train it was not unusual for the guard to hold back the train and even walk up the station drive to see if they were running for the train (this happened to me when the buses were delayed by bridge work). One guard in particular was a true star in this respect. When an old bedstead blocked the line the passengers (probably unlawfully) plied out to help remove it.
Another of the regular travellers was David Smith who lived in Wolverhampton
and worked at West Bromwich. He was able to complete his day’s work within the confines of the truncated train service. David used the train because it was faster than the bus and was more comfortable and warmer in the winter. “With the trains consisting of single unit railcars, it was almost like a country branch line, albeit running in an urban area. While the regular travellers were used to the dereliction of the local stations and the amended entrance at Wolverhampton Low Level, these must have deterred potential travellers, particularly ladies. It was quite inhospitable at night.” As a regular user he was asked to join the Snow Hill Line Action Group and he became the first secretary. Geoff Bannister said, “The depressing walk from Wolverhampton High Level to the Low Level Station through a dingy subway together with a chalkboard notice outside the parcels depot directing potential passengers through the yard was not calculated to attract custom for the pay trains.”
Members of staff also did their best to keep the service going. Before the stations became unstaffed, Phyllis Timms was responsible for West Bromwich Station. Although describing herself as a ‘Portress’ her duties according to the local press included being stationmaster, ticket seller and collector also cleaner: BR’S representative in West Bromwich! She said, “People don’t even realise the station is still open. They wait in Birmingham for a bus that takes 45 minutes whilst the train does the journey in only 12 minutes. I do think it is a shame that the station is so run down. Yesterday I only sold 36 tickets.” When there was engineering work, sometimes the single unit stabled at Wolverhampton High Level Station and it reached here by the former Midland Railway spur line to Heath Town Junction.
Once vandals tried to derail a train by putting an old platelayers trolley on the line at the end of Swan Village tunnel. On another occasion when the single unit was being stabled at High Level Station for the weekend it derailed on the points leading to the Heath Town connection causing severe damage.
Mike Doubleday told me that the route soon took on the atmosphere of a rural branch line. “What stood out about the single unit railcar days were the friendly relationships between the train crew and the regular passengers. There was one crew who got to know their passengers so well that they would wait for them if they were late! Travelling with them was an education. Sometimes the conductor guard would have to leave the unit and chase stone throwing children or, with the help of the fare paying passengers remove objects placed on the line. On one occasion it took almost all the passengers and the train crew of the first Birmingham bound service to remove some concrete sewer pipes placed on the line. Apparently a BR spokesman thanked them in the local paper after the press got hold of the story. One conductor in particular, ‘Lofty’ had a passion for collecting the picture cards found in PG tips tea. Each morning as he collected the fares he’d yell out; “Anyone got any swops?” Lofty was the conductor on the last train into Low Level and I remember he sold himself the last ticket from Priestfield into Wolverhampton. Wet weather could sometimes cause problems on the steep climb from Swan Village Station and Swan Village Junction South Signal Box. One day, after slipping several times, the single unit on the last up service to Birmingham could not climb the bank because of the rail conditions and had to return to Wolverhampton, being swopped over with the down train which luckily was a three car diesel set with more power. Even this set was 40 minutes late arriving in Birmingham.”
Something overlooked during the Beeching period was the morale of the staff who had to witness the run down, closure and dismembering of important rail routes. While working at Wolverhampton Low Level for a time in the early 1970s, a former manager told me, “I remember the concern of my boss that working the Birmingham Snow Hill to Wolverhampton Low Level route was ‘spoiling’ good men. Signalmen for example, who had once been used to dealing with upwards of 15-20 train movements per hour were now down to three each way per shift and that soon led to them losing touch. The jobs were also mind numbingly dull. How some of the signalmen kept their sanity I do not know. At Handsworth signal box after the last train had passed in the morning, the signalman had nothing to do until his relief arrived at 14.00hrs but clean the box. It gleamed! Of course this situation led to a blind eye having to be turned to some rules such as ‘no radios’ in the box and this was a concern because however sympathetic managers are, once things like that start to creep in they can be difficult to get rid of, if times change. The picture was one of decay, no chance of developing anything new on the route and therefore no future. If you were concerned about your career development, the Snow Hill route was not the place to be. It had become a backwater. It is true that the line was killed off, or starved to death might be a better way of putting it, but I think that if you consider the climate of the time it was inevitable. The Euston route had been rebuilt at great cost and had to be paid for. The conventional wisdom was that the Snow Hill line’s abandonment would save its operating and maintenance costs and would push custom to the new railway. Flawed thinking of course but BR were at the time in total thrall to the accountants. The electrified route to Euston was where the smart career minded young managers wanted to be. Anyone lumbered with the Snow Hill route would be seen as ‘yesterday’s man’ and too much enthusiasm for it would be severely career limiting.”
Of course if the thinking that led to the Midlands Metro had been around in the early ’70s it might have been different, but the PTE at the time was dominated by bus men who under
When regular passengers did not appear it was not unsual for the guard to hold back the train for them
stood little about rail. It took Phil Bateman (a railwayman) to change that tide. An officer of the PTE once told me that he now wished they’d gone for heavy rail in the first place, apart from anything else it would have been finished much quicker and have more potential for development. If the route ever does re-open it would have to be a ‘through’ one. Running via Low Level and the Bushbury spur line would save a Leamington to the North train 20 minutes rather than the grind round from Bordesley Junction to New Street. In 2004 the fastest journey from Leamington to New Street took 31 minutes. In 1902 the GWR were running from Leamington to Snow Hill in 33 minutes!”
Stafford Road Junction and Oxley South signal boxes closed from March 30, 1969, to be replaced by a new signal box ‘Oxley’ which controls the area. The up and down lines from (nominally) Low Level to Heath Town Sidings were worked as sidings and the line thence to Wednesfield was operated under one train working arrangements. About a dozen private sidings were still in use on the Low Level to Snow Hill line.
From May 5, 1969, the stations between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton Low Level became un-staffed and passengers were required to buy their tickets from the conductor guards on the ‘Pay’ trains. At Snow Hill Station platform 3 was used by the Langley Green trains and platform 4 for the Wolverhampton trains. A BR spokesperson said at the time, “The two services from Snow Hill are operating at an enormous loss. Some days one taxi would be sufficient to take all the intending passengers.”a one year grant of £365,000 was made by the Minister of Transport for the Birmingham Stourbridge Junction/stourbridge Town, Snow Hill to Low Level and Langley Green services in 1969.
Three steam locomotives hauled by a diesel locomotive travelled from Tyseley on Saturday, July 26, 1969, for an Open Day at Allerton TMD, Liverpool. On the return journey 7029 Clun Castle, 5593 Kolhapur and 5428
Eric Tracey which were in light steam for lubrication purposes were hauled by a class 40 diesel locomotive. The ‘train’ returned in the late evening and they were the last steam locomotives to pass through Wolverhampton Low Level Station at 00.43hrs on Sunday, July 27. 1969. Geoff Bannister, his children and the handful of people there to witness the event. claim the steam locomotives pushed the Class 40 up into the station!
By the end of July 1969 goods traffic through Wolverhampton Low Level had ceased from the Wolverhampton Junction Railway. Cannock Road Junction signal box was closed and the rodding, etc, was removed. Also the down line from Low Level to Cannock Road Junction was lifted. A development scheme for the Snow Hill site was announced on August 6, 1969. It included shops, offices and a 500 place car park. This also involved removing the ornate station frontage.
To facilitate extra traffic of Block oil and coal trains to Ironbridge Power Station, the Bushbury Spur line was re-instated from October 6, 1969. Cannock Road Junction was remodelled to facilitate reversal of the trains on to the Wolverhampton Junction Railway. The line from Stafford Road Junction to Cannock Road Junction and Bushbury Junction was worked as a through siding. As Cannock
Road Junction signal box had been vandalised after closure, the lines were worked here by hand points. The class 47 locomotives employed found the 1 in 75 gradient up towards Wolverhampton Low Level where reversal took place, hard going A passenger on the Wolverhampton Low Level line in the autumn of 1969 found it a depressing experience with weeds sprouting everywhere in the derelict station. The railcar (W55008) in its new rail blue livery seemed out of place on the only rail connected platform with its ‘last gasp’ service on the former GWR trunk route from London to Merseyside. The water crane was still intact with its bag and brazier by the decaying signal box. Shadows of the last days of the Great Central – an almost empty DMU shuffling to and from two former main line stations. “It was pretty spooky when I was there. It was just getting dark with no one around in a big empty station with an empty one-car DMU at one end. Just the ghosts of 100 years of passengers.” The Low Level station was closed for passengers from 9am to 15.45hrs on weekdays. It was such a shame that BR would not provide an hourly service for the public to use as trains and staff were available for this. The weed growth on the platforms led to one commuter to call the ‘Bubble cars’ the Dandelion Express! Birmingham Snow Hill Station, the world’s largest unstaffed halt, was equally derelict but still retained a tremendous atmosphere of a once great station. The magnificent station ironwork, a testimony to the craftsmen of the GWR, made the rail blue single unit railcars look out of place in such a setting. If only more enlightened thinking had prevailed and the station put to better use. If only we had kept the station as it was rather than have the concrete building of today, ironically, even better used than its predecessor.
Lifting of the Priestfield Junction to Dudley line commenced in the autumn, the lifting train only got access to the line by having the connection at Priestfield Junction reinstated. From October 23, 1969, demolition work commenced of the Snow Hill hotel building and further track lifting took place in parts of the station so that parts of the station could be used as a car park. Demolition of the main part of Snow Hill Station, the booking hall and concourse commenced on November 3, 1969. An extra 550 car parking spaces were provided for Christmas shoppers. Rubble from the demolition was dumped by the tunnel entrance promoting fears that it would be unable to re-open for the proposed rapid transport network. While old posters remained on the station walls still standing, they referred to the progress being made on the LMR electrification and the timetables displayed were from 1968/69 and not the current times. Another poster gave details of West Midlands lines proposed for closure. The former GWR 1914 built clock on platform 7 was sold for £125 to a farmer who met his wife there 33 years before.
Along the Low Level to Snow Hill route Goods yards were still in use at Handsworth and Wednesbury and around 12 private sidings were still rail served. At least nine signal boxes were still in use to control the route. Both platforms at Wolverhampton Low Level Station were still in use and the track work was complete with the exception of small sections under the road bridge, south of the station. Track at Snow Hill Station was still intact except for tunnel and colour light signals still blazed away on tracks that had not been used for months.
It was pretty spooky, just getting dark with no one around in a big empty station, just the ghosts of 100 years of passengers