Black Country Bugle
The railway line that should not have been closed: part 8
MEMBERS of the West Midlands Economic Planning Council protested at the proposal to withdraw the train service because there would be genuine hardship caused to regular travellers who would take longer to reach their places of work and road congestion was already a fact of life in the West Midlands area.
The only way to keep the line open would be for ratepayers in the region to pay a heavy subsidy
Assistant Secretary of the RDA stated, “It can be said that the present users travel by rail because they appreciate and value its comfort, safety, reliability and time saving. To force 250-300 rail travellers on busy accident prone urban highways will cause them unreasonable and unnecessary inconvenience, anxiety and difficulties. It is clear that in exercising their preferences for the rail line many passengers are prepared to put up with the present minimal train services and the dismal stations rather than suffer greater difficulties travelling by car or bus. The community cannot afford to lose rail lines and passenger service which in future years will be an absolute necessity to overcome the increasing road congestion.”
Commuters from Kidderminster and Stourbridge faced having to travel into Birmingham New Street Station and then catch a bus to their place of work. The representative of the WMPTE stated that they would not increase the frequency of the No.79 bus service at peak times to cater for displaced rail passengers.
Many rail users were worried that if the train service was withdrawn the replacement bus services were slower, less reliable and have extended journey times at peak hours. Rail user H.S. Walker said the replacement bus service would take almost twice the train time at least. 28 minutes train and 54 minutes by bus plus delays and waiting time. I.C. Morton said his present journey from Priestfield including rail travel and walking time took 35 minutes. The bus replacement would make his journey take 50 minutes and it would also cost more. Miss R.S. King who travelled from Bilston to Wolverhampton said she would face an extra 40 minutes travelling per day if the line closed. She did not wish to queue for buses in all weathers. Mr Spencer, travelling from Wolverhampton to Winson Green, took 25 minutes by train. Travelling by bus would mean he would have to leave home 45 minutes earlier and change buses en-route. Miss J. Harris who travelled from Bilston to Winson Green objected to the closure because her journey of 18 minutes by train was to be replaced by possibly two bus journeys taking at least 24 minutes longer for the overall journey. If the closure went ahead she felt the continuation of her employment would not be feasible: “I regularly undertake the journey from Bilston to Winson Green. I travel on the 08.22am train arriving at Winson Green by 08.40am. Within a few minutes walk, I am at work. The bus service can take up to 57 minutes because of traffic congestion. Normally I leave work at 4.25pm and catch the 4.32pm train that arrives at Bilston at 4.50pm and enables me to reach home at 5.05pm. One night I had to use the bus to return home and arrived at 6.40pm.”
Mrs Degville, travelling from Old Hill to Winson Green took just over 25 minutes by train. The replacement bus service would cost 32p more per day with an increase of travelling time of 50 minutes. She objected to the increased time, fares and difficulty and the inconvenience the extra walking would entail. Another passenger from Smethwick West Station to Hockley was fearful of the number of expensive bus journeys she would have to make when the line closed (It stayed open continuously for freight traffic until and after the opening of the Jewellery Line to Stourbridge Junction and beyond). J.C. Roberts travelled from Solihull to Moor Street and Snow Hill to Swan Village. His present journey including walking from Moor Street to Snow Hill, which took 63 minutes. Alternative travel would increase this to 75 minutes. He went on to say, “Over the last 7 years the service has considerably deteriorated with the result that the journey which used to take me 41 minutes now takes over an hour and the fare has doubled. Another traveller from south of Moor Street was N.H. Midgley, who travelled from Knowle to Bilston: “My present journey requires two rail trips of 30 minutes and 25 minutes. The alternative rail/bus journey totals 95 minutes. Prior to 1965, my complete train journey took 57 minutes and has steadily increased. I am disgusted at the service and the impossible alternative suggested by BR for my daily journey. I have no choice but to either change my employment or move nearer to work.” J. Cox stated that the alternative bus services for his journey from Priestfield and Hockley would increase his travelling time by about an hour a day plus costing 16p extra. R. Grice told the committee of recent bus journeys that caused delays, frustration and discomfort. One passenger from West Bromwich would have had to use three bus services to undertake the journey he presently made by train. Snow Hill Line Action Group was represented at the hearing by John Holland. Initially there was a dispute over whether Mr Holland could represent the views of passengers since the Action Group objections had been signed by David Smith who was unable to attend. Mr Holland was able to demonstrate he had also placed an objection in his own name and therefore the enquiry was not able to prevent him speaking. The view of the chairman seemed, visibly, to change on one particular seemingly innocuous issue. Mr Holland was able to state that the buses, proposed as an alternative were incapable of catering for the luggage needs of the passengers aiming to continue their journey. This and the admission by the PTA of the intolerable delays on the alternative 79 bus route were the over-riding issues that appeared to convince the chairman of hardship.
In their official report to the Minister of Transport, the Transport Users Consultative Committee stated that there had been convincing evidence that the alternative bus services were having difficulty even at the present time in coping with traffic conditions at peak times. The addition of displaced rail passengers at these times would aggravate an already critical situation, and would result in hardship to all concerned. Apart from the extended times of travel, waiting, extra walking and the frustration of rush hour congestion, many displaced rail passengers would have to bear a not inconsiderable increase in fares. There were no adequate alternatives for rail travellers from the Kidderminster direction to the Winson Green/hockley areas. They could not ignore comments made by objector, I. Jenkins, who quoted a statement from the Minister of Transport made in January 1964 whilst refusing consent to a rail closure: “But if the roads are very busy, buses can’t compete. Road traffic is so thick at times that the buses take four or five times as long as the trains. That is real hardship, so my consent was refused.” The committee was unable to suggest any means of alleviating the hardship that they considered would be incurred by the implementation of BR’S proposal to close the line. They also informed BR and the Department of Transport of the importance that the PTA and PTE attached to the retention of the railway formation at this stage in time.
The RDA issued a press statement acknowledging the TUCC’S ‘pleasing decision’ to support the retention of the Snow Hill train services: “British Rail’s second application to close Snow Hill train services has again been rejected by the TUCC. In both instances, the strong objections to closure made by RDA have been thoroughly vindicated and accepted by the TUCC. We conclusively proved hardships of journeys increased up to five fold in each direction and gave examples of users who would even have to give up their jobs if the lines closed.”
Despite the TUCC stating the report would cause much hardship, Alderman Sir Francis Griffin, Chairman of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority said that the TUCC’S report would not alter the position: “The only way to keep the line open would be for ratepayers in the region to pay a heavy subsidy and I do not see why they should.” The WMPTE stated that for every shilling paid by the small number of existing passengers, 13 shillings is paid to BR.
In response J.P. Ward, West Midland Area Representative on the National Council for Inland Transport said, “First it must be said the PTA will not have to pay the full cost of railway services within the area on January 1, 1972, only a proportion. Secondly, Alderman Sir Francis Griffin attempts to justify the PTA’S negative policy, by saying that none of the local authorities concerned opposed closure, but this was surely reprehensible, because the individual objectors included many residents from Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Birmingham. In these circumstances it is the duty of their councils to assist these citizens at the public enquiry, instead of leaving it to voluntary organisations such as the NCIT, RDA and Snow Hill LAG.”
Only a month or two earlier when the Cambrian Coast Line came up for closure, the Welsh local authorities, which have nothing like the resources or finances of the West Midland towns made an impressive defence in the interests of their residents. If train services are important in this sparsely populated area, they must be more so in the West Midlands that has traffic congestion throughout the year and not just in the summer months.
It took John Holland 30 years to obtain a copy of the full TUCC report, only obtaining a copy from the Strategic Rail Authority as they were not available from the National Archives (Minutes of the TUCC Hearing were never distributed. They had remained a government secret for 30 years). He felt there were a number of inaccura
cies and as probably the only surviving eye witness to the whole TUCC proceedings he testifies that conditions were imposed on BR and they were left in no doubt about them. They were to maintain the formation of the line. When BR’S spokesperson asked for how long, the chairman responded, “Until they are needed.” BR asked again and said, “That could mean forever.” The Chairman said, “Yes. Exactly.”
The Snow Hill Line Action Group held a public meeting at Wood Street Baptist Church, Bilston, on Tuesday, September 14m, 1971, to mobilise further opposition to the discontinuation of passenger services. “Help Save your local railway!” Unfortunately, although the two railways were entirely within the West Midlands Passenger Transport Area, because of alleged poor patronage and heavy financial losses, the Passenger Transport Authority, while wishing the line would stay open, would not give financial support to continue the train services and they were scheduled to end on March 6, 1972 much to the disappointment, frustration and sadness of their loyal passengers. In a press statement the WMPTE claimed to have fully considered all factors affecting a decision on keeping open these passenger services. “For every shilling paid by the very small number of existing passengers, a subsidy of about 13 shillings is paid to British Rail,” claimed a spokesman. Following the termination of Grant Aid under the Transport Act, Birmingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton Councils declined to give financial support for the retention of the train services although Wolverhampton Council gave support to the Action Group. The Action Group believed that the line was closed because of a deliberate campaign of misinformation. The PTA however, expressed the view that the railway formation of both lines should be retained until the feasibility or otherwise of the use of the routes for Rapid Transport was determined.
Regarding alleged loss on the Snow Hill line earmarked for closure it should be remembered that no economies of scale were made during the five year period between 1967 (downgrading the line as a through route) and 1972 (complete closure). The route was left intact as a fully signalled main line to express railway standards, complete with all the signalling and staff rosters which this entailed. Hardly surprising then that the line was deemed to be losing money and this gave the LMR authorities ample scope with which to force through the closure. Mr Holland offered help to local people objecting to the possible closure of Birches and Bilbrook and Codsall Stations. Writing on September 29, 1971, he said, “We shall offer them all the help we can and they may benefit from the experiences we have had.” During October, the month BR wanted to close the line, one correspondent made a tour of the line. He reported: “Passengers accessed the Birmingham Snow Hill Station via the Livery Street entrance, a portion of the wall having been removed to facilitate this. A section of platform 1 was filled in and trains used bay platforms 3 and 4. Track remained in platforms 1 and 2 within platform limits. The old Goods Yard at Wednesbury was known as Wednesbury Steel Terminal. The Down goods line from Wednesbury to Bilston remained intact to serve J Norton (Metals). An Esso Depot was in use at Priestfield with 25 tanks being present. Traffic was worked via Wolverhampton Steel Terminal (formerly Walsall Street Goods) and out via the Stour Valley Line. At Wolverhampton Low Level Station the down bay line was filled in to give the passengers access to the south end of the down platform. The old booking hall still with the GWR coat of arms on either side of the Train Departure board. This board contained the latest BR posters for Freightliner, Red Star and Sealink.”
Reporting about the Crick Venturer rail tour organised by the West Midlands Branch of the RCTS on Saturday, October 30, 1971, the writer stated that: “the former Great Western main line from Wolverhampton
Devotees of the Great Western and all it stood for were heartbroken at the way events had turned out
Low Level was joined at Handsworth Junction and the darkness seemed to emphasise the death throes of this route as we proceeded cautiously into a deserted unstaffed halt that once was Snow Hill Station.”
On January 1, 1972, the responsibility of providing local rail services passed to the West Midland Passenger Transport Authority. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the Snow Hill lines although the WMPTA protected the track
bed for future use. The Department of the Environment informed the TUCC on January 28 that the line would close. The official notice dated February 1 contained no message of regret to the loyal commuters.
BRB transport Act 1962. Withdrawal of Passenger Train Services. The Secretary of State for the Environment has given his consent to the BRB’S proposals to discontinue passenger services. The London Midland Region hereby give notice that the above Passenger Train Services will be withdrawn and the Stations closed on and from Monday, 6th March, 1972.
Before reaching his decision to close the services, the Minister of Transport stated he had considered the social and economic issues and he even consulted the Regional Economic Planning Council for the West Midlands in accordance with Section 54(1) of the Transport Act 1968. Amazingly, although the organisation chosen to advise him on these matters informed him that the closures “would cause considerable hardship which they can suggest no means of alleviating”, the Minister stated that refusal of consent to the closures would not be justified and in view of the existing alternative passenger transport services, it would be unnecessary to specify the provision of additional services as a condition of that consent. Passenger Eric Farrow who used the line for 15 years to travel to Bilston would have to go by bus. Edward Simpson from Wolverhampton
claimed the A41 road was so congested that he could not understand why the trains should stop. Another group of ladies were concerned about the extra bus fares required when the trains ceased. Jack Ward of the NCIT requested that the line be kept in as good a condition as possible after closure so it could be ready for when re-opening came. He went on to say, “The costs for the present skeleton service were almost as high as for a full service, using the units and train crews throughout their shifts.” No wonder devotees of the Great Western and all it stood for were heartbroken at the way events had turned out. One local paper said that it would be a merciful release for the Snow Hill lines as they had suffered from a long illness, bravely borne. Regular passengers were disappointed and could not comprehend why the lines had to close. Three young bank clerks, Linda Fulland, Jenny Wilkes and Andrea Gill wondered how much more they would have to pay by bus. A regular passenger of eight years could not understand why BR had decided to stop station and lighting repairs as the passengers by their custom were paying for the facilities that were not in good working order. Other passengers were worried about road congestion and extended journey times.
On February 16, Robert Edwards MP asked the Secretary of State for the Environment that in view of the inconvenience and hardship which would be caused to passengers by the withdrawal of the Snow Hill line trains would he refuse consent to the closure. The Secretary of State replied that consent to the closure was given on January 24.
Five years on since the full service of 1967, the Birmingham Post and Mail staff photographer returned to Snow Hill to record the last rush hour on platform 4 at the old Snow Hill
Station on Friday, March 3, 1972 the last day for the Commuters Club. Loyal to the end, the good crowd of passengers leaving their single unit railcar expressed their disappointment that not enough was done to promote their service and so keep open the link from Snow Hill to Low Level and Oldbury. Despite the sad occasion, most of the members of the Commuters Club managed a smile for the photographer as they rushed on to work, although there were one or two pensive faces as the lives of all the group would change for ever from the following Monday. Guard Bill Small was one of the staff on duty. The Wolverhampton Express and Star carried a feature about the line on that Friday. This was illustrated by a single unit railcar at Snow Hill Station with no one around and a picture of passenger John Bancox from Codsall, who had used the route for 40 years, talking to Conductor-guard Tom Mason. The paper interviewed former Birmingham Snow Hill Stationmaster Walter Taylor (1957 to 1960) who said Snow Hill was one of only four stations on the Western Region where the SM wore top hats and morning coats (Paddington, Bristol Temple Meads and Cardiff General were the others). He recalled the days when ‘Railways were Railways’. He was proud of Snow Hill and was sad that it was going to be closed. Unfortunately the paper did not have readers’ letters protesting about the closure and although the paper gave the times of the final trains on the Saturday it did not mention the line in its Saturday edition.