In the early times of industrialism, the rural Severn Valley became an ideal location for a railway. The River Severn running through the middle of the valley was a prime waterway for transport, and the Coalbrookdale Colliery made it a viable entity for many forms of commerce. As years prior, Trevithick had been experimenting with the steam locomotive, however, it had not yet been universally accepted as standard. The Severn Valley Line would serve as an industrial thoroughfare for almost one-hundred years, and began tourist operations in the early sixties after the Beeching cuts.
Background- A Railway Through Black Country
This area of the Severn Valley is known as “Black Country”, as the fumes from the various industries polluted the air to the extent that a dark smog often covered the area. Being an area of various industries and production facilities, it was a prime location for a railway, and a prime example of which to utilise the recently introduced steam locomotive, already in use on George Stephenson’s Stockton & Darlington Railway.
Early industrialists of the time were utilising the infancy of the railways to their advantage, and devised a plan for the Oxford,Worcester, & Wolverhampton Railway, which was to connect Wolverhampton to Oxford, as a branch of the Great Western Railway. A branch was also considered to link the new Liverpool-Bristol line, which was to be built through the contours of the Severn Valley, thus, the Severn Valley Railway was proposed. The railway was to be called the Oxford & Worcester Extension & Chester Junction Railway. Railway pioneer George Stephenson surveyed the line through the valley, however, the line was eventually not appeasing to parliament, and the plan was not approved.
Seven years later, the plan for a railway through the Severn Valley began to spark interest once more, and surveying of the route begun in 1853 by Robert Nicholson, who had worked closely with Stephenson in the first attempt to construct the railway. Initially, Nicholson proposed the route traversing between Hartlebury to Bridgenorth, which would then extend to Madeley, however, it was decided that the original plan was to be undertaken, as it followed the river, and was key to competing with maritime traffic.
The plan was given its final Royal Assent in 1858, after many modifications to the plan were made, and construction began on this vital link. However, Nicholson had passed away in 1858 before construction of the railway commenced, thus, John Fowler, another distinguished railway pioneer, took his place. After four years of construction, the line opened in 1862, with a celebratory train traveling from Worcester Shrub Hill station, making stops at every station along the route, much to the chagrin of the crowds that had gathered on the platforms. Aboard this inaugural train was Great Western Railway chairman Lord Shelbourne, and many other dignitaries. Upon commencement, the line became the Severn Valley Branch of the West Midlands Railway, which later became a part of the ever growing GWR network. In 1878, the GWR constructed a Birmingham and West Midlands connection for through trains destined for the Severn Valley.
Shortly after commencing operation, the railway began to be a model freight carrier. In 1885, a basin was built alongside the Staffordshire & Worceshire canal, which allowed various commodities such as coal, iron, and steel to be delivered and taken by water to various industries along the river.
The Severn Valley route was built due to the anticipation of the railway working in conjunction with the busy Severn River traffic, however, the operation of the railway introduced a steady decline of maritime traffic. This proved detrimental to the railway, as traffic numbers did not exponentially increase, and one of their main freight thoroughfares was no longer available for interchange. Passenger traffic was later hindered as well, as around the turn of the century, road travel was becoming popular, as well as tramways, which were seen as faster alternatives to the railway. To reinvigorate the competition between the two entities, the railway opened two new stations, Rifle Range Halt and Foley Park, however, these efforts did not prove to reinvigorate ridership on the line.
As people became more interested in road travel, and with car ownership beginning to skyrocket, the railway was left with a dilemma. Buses also cut into the railway’s profits, as they were seen as more versatile for the surrounding communities, as they could travel where the trains could not. Additionally, due to the rural landscape of the Severn Valley, the stations were difficult to reach, as many could only be accessed by ferry or footbridge for those residing on the opposite side of the river. Freight traffic was also hindered by road transport, as trucks began to cut into the railway’s profits, most notably after World War I, as road traffic continually became more commonplace.
Much of the traffic on the railway came in the form of coal traffic from the mines at Highley, which rapidly expanded through the turn of the 20th century. In 1915, the Highley Mining Company bought the Billingsley Colliery, which resulted in the rapid expansion of Highley, due to many workers moving to the area, and building a town. Consequently, coal traffic on the Severn Valley Line increased, as wagon loads of coal were transported to various industries.
In the early twenties, the Stourport Power Station was built on the banks of the Severn River, opening up an opportunity for the railway to serve the plant, as it was slated to be coal fired. The station began operation in 1926, and had a 2ft 3 in gauge railway built, served by battery powered locomotives, however, in 1940, the plant received standard gauge trackage linking to the SVR, which allowed for easier transshipment of goods.
Due to the postwar deficit of the “big 4” British railways, and realising the success of the nationalised networks during both world wars, the decision was made to nationalise the railways into a single, publicly run entity. Additionally, it was believed that operating under a single entity would promote ease of management and organisation. With nationalisation came the abolition of many routes not performing financially. As a result, many branch lines were closed, which put the Severn Valley line on the chopping block.
In 1955, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), announced a strike for their workers over a minuscule discrepancy of salary. This caused the temporary closure of many rail services throughout the country, and turned many passengers to road transport as a viable alternative. This hindered the livilhood of many rail lines, especially rural ones such as the Severn Valley, as many customers did not return to the railway, and instead preferred road transport. This, in addition to the British Transport Commission closing underused lines, made many advocates of the Severn Valley Line uneasy.
Shortly afterwards, Dr. Richard Beeching was named the chairman of the newly formed British Railways Board by Edward Marples, who was keen for his interests in road transport. During the Beeching era, the Severn Valley Line was slated for closure in his report “The Reshaping of British Railways”, however, it is important to note that the line had been slated for closure even before Beeching.
In an effort to lessen the operational and financial burden of operating the line, British Railways began implementing diesel-multiple units (DMUs) for passengers services, however, these efforts were made in vain, as shortly afterwards, services between Shrewsbury and Kidderminster were abolished or further limited. Local governments and town councils were outraged at the swift closures, and soon demanded restoration of service, stating that many communities around the railway would be affected, as well as tourism within the area.
However, this did not prove to sway the agency’s decision, as they believed the ridership numbers did not warrant the community’s claims. Little less than a year later, cancellations of service were announced, which yet again caused swift action from many advocates calling for the reversal of their actions. However, revenue passenger services were abolished on the line in September 1963, the only stations remaining in operation were Stourport and Bewdley. Freight and various forms of Royal Mail services continued on the line until December 1963, and track was subsequently removed between Buildwas and Bridgnorth.
After much of the passenger services were abandoned, the only traffic on the line was the passenger service between Bewdley and Kidderminster. Freight traffic was confined to coal trains to the Stourbridge powerplant, however, this ceased with the closure of the plant in 1979.
However, north of Bridgnorth, the dismantling of the line paused temporarily, which gave preservationists a glimmer of hope of saving the troubled railway. In 1965, a meeting was called in the Cooper’s Arms in Kidderminster, resulting in the formation of the Severn Valley Railway Society (SVRS). Upon formation, the group immediately expressed interest in purchasing the line from Bridgnorth and Hampton Loade, which included land, track, and various surviving structures. These negotiations were crucial to the line further south as well, citing the temporary stoppage of track removal at Bridgnorth. The society was successful in their plight, as British Railways agreed to sell it to them for £25,000, thus, fundraising began. The following February of 1967, the society presented British Railways with ten percent of the payment, and later formed the Severn Valley Railway Company Ltd (SVRC), to administer future payments to the agency.
These successes were not met without challenges however, as various obstacles such as the planned bypass road, designated to pass through the southern portion of Bridgnorth hindered the railway’s progress. Simultaneously, the SVRC was negotiating the acquisition of a Light Railway Order (LRO), which would permit the railway between Bridgnorth and Hampton Loade to be operated by the preservationist. However, the bypass route would need to carry the roadway over the railway, which added significant costs to the SVRC. Further hardships for the SVRC occurred when Highley and Alveley closed, which put the financial burden of purchasing the line south towards Bewdley on the society.
The A38 roadway continued to burden preservation efforts, as various businessmen successfully formed the Dart Valley Light Railway Ltd, and operated south of Bridnorth, however, due to the expansion of the A38, the line was separated from its terminus. Again seeking its LRO, the SVRC approached the Shropshire County Council and agreed to fund a bridge to bypass the railway. In return, the council would approve the LRO. The council agreed, however, time was of the essence, and sufficient funds needed to be gathered promptly.
Shortly after the merger of the SVRC and SVRS, the LRO was approved and transferred from British Rail to the Severn Valley Railway, giving permission for operation. During this time, British Railways had banned steam traction from the national network, and the SVRC had not paid the full amount to British Railways, thus, services were again suspended. British Railways and the SVRC soon agreed on a figure, and the funds were promptly raised.
With the great successes of their fundraising efforts and increased interest in the railway, the SVRC sought ownership of the section between Alveley and Foley Park Halt. The SVRC’s success caught the attention of MP Sir Gerald Nabarro, who suggested creating a holdings company, allowing shares to be administered. Nabarro was heavily involved, and soon became chairman of the holding company, and later, the owner. The holdings company allowed for the purchase of the section between Alveley and Foley, as shares were issued, and the funds were readily available.
The railway gained admiration from many rail enthusiasts, and was becoming increasingly popular. Thousands began flocking towards the railway, wanting to ride behind their historic steam locomotives. However, due to the A38 bypass road bridge being funded by the railway, the society considered selling Bridgenorth station in order to attain sufficient funds for the roadway construction. This was not undertaken however, as many members of the society rejected the idea. 1973 proved to be a year of growth for the railway as they acquired many new steam locomotives, as well as attained an LRO for the section between Alveley and Foley Park. As well as the addition of various historical structures, such as the signal box at Arley. Further growth was achieved when the Arley loop was again operational, allowing the railway to operate at maximum capacity.
The newly formed railway continued to thrive and grow. With the dedication of the preservationists staff, passenger numbers began breaking records, and the railway gained credibility. According to Michael A Vann’s publication, “The Severn Valley Railway”, he explained that perhaps the greatest boost to the railway was the filming of the BBC’s “God’s Wonderful Railway”, which supplied ample publicity to the railway, and boosted passenger numbers to 180,000 in 1980. The railway was such a vital part of the surrounding communities that the railway now only had to contribute 30% of the funds for the roadway bridge at Bridgnorth, as many of the communities contributed towards the cause.
Further expansion ensued when British Rail discontinued its use of the rail yard at Kidderminster, encouraging the SVRC to purchase the line from Foley to Kidderminster, therefore expanding their services. Negotiations were made with BR and the line was to be sold to the SVRC for £300,000. Shares were distributed for this project, and in just six months, thanks to enthusiastic rail preservationists, more than the amount required was raised.
Upon acquisition, many new structures were built at Kidderminster, including a classic Great Western Railway station, tickets offices, and locomotive maintenance facilities. In short time, steam powered trains were operating through to Kidderminster. Coincidentally, the first year of services that reached Kidderminster marked the 150th anniversary of the creation of the GWR.
The early nineties proved to be a challenging period for the railway, as British Rail sought to auction the Kidderminster yard area that the SVRC was leasing. With time of the essence, the sufficient funds were raised by enthusiasts and preservationists, and the railway was able to purchase the site from British Rail. The ninties were also a time of great expansion of the railway, as the government announced the implication of the Heritage Lottery Fund(HLF), in which preservation groups could receive grants for their causes. The SVRC took full advantage of this opportunity, and submitted various applications to build a car shop that could house fifty carriages. The HLF responded with a grant of 1.75 million for the project.
Steaming Into the 21st Century
The 21st Century was one of broad expansion, as the railway began pondering the idea of constructing a maintenance building and museum at Highley to attract additional visitors. The museum was to be complemented with a gift shop and a cafe. The railway then submitted an application for a grant from the HLF. The railway agreed to match the HLF’s contribution of £4.5 million and construction began promptly.
Not all was well during the first decade of the 21st century, as in 2007, a major rain storm caused a severe washout in various sections of track that caused over £3 million of damage. The railway received much aid from various grants and fellow preservation groups. While repairs were being performed, the railway was non-operable for nine months, with service resuming March 2008, which coincidentally, was the same day that the new engine house was opened in Highley. The efforts of the preservationists to restore the railway to operating condition was recognised nationwide, and coincided with a royal visit, as well as receiving various awards praising their efforts.
This paved the way for further projects which included a footbridge at Highley, allowing visitors to cross the tracks without having to use the grade crossing. Perhaps the most controversial new project the railway was planning was the revamp of Bridgnorth station, which many believed would compromise the historical integrity of the railway, as these new structures were to resemble modern architecture. As a result, a Conservation and Heritage Foundation was formed, whose mission was to not allow monetary restrictions to compromise the historical integrity of the railway. This was carried out in the form of various grants for projects planned throughout the railway. These projects were to be facilitated using original GWR drawings and architectural design in order to create a stark replication of a classic GWR station.
Today, the Severn Valley Railway continues to attract hundreds of thousands annually, and inspire rail enthusiasts, both young and old. Only time will tell what monumental achievements the railway will experience in the unforeseen future.
Mainline Steam Locomotives
|Port Talbot Railway||0-6-0ST||813|
|GWR||5700 Class Pannier||0-6-0PT||7714|
|SR||Bulleid Battle of Britain Class||4-6-2||34027|
|BR||Ivatt Class 4||2-6-0||43106|
Shortline and Industrial
|Longmoor Military Railway||WD “Austerity”||2-10-0||600|
|Manchester Ship Canal Railway||N/A||0-6-0T||686|
|Rugby Portland Cement New Bilton Works||N/A||0-6-0ST||2047|
|Name / Owner||Wheel Configuration|
|Catch Me Who Can||0-2-2|
|Steam Locomotive Trust||2-6-2|
|GWR||5101 Clas Large Prairie||2-6-2T||4150|
|GWR||4500 Class Small Prairie||2-6-2T||4566|
|GWR||4900 Class Hall||4-6-0||4930|
|GWR||5101 Class Large Prairie||2-6-2T||5164|
|GWR||5700 Class Pannier||0-6-0PT||L95|
|GWR||4300 Class Mogul||2-6-0||7325|
|LMS||5MT Black Five||4-6-0||45110|
|BR||Ivatt Class 2 “Mickey Mouse”||2-6-0||46443|
|LMS||Fowler 3F “Jinty”||0-6-0T||47383|
|Original Owner||Builder||Class||Wheel Configuration||Number|
|B.I.P Chemicals||Ruston & Hornsby||165DM||0-4-0||319290(Operational)|
|British Sugar Corp||Ruston & Hornsby||165DM||0-4-0||D2960(Operational)|
|Patent Shaft Steelworks||Ruston & Hornsby||165DE||0-4-0||D2961(Operational)|
|British Rail||English Electric||08||0-6-0||D3022(Operational)|
|British Rail||English Electric||08||0-6-0||D3201(Operational)|
|British Rail||English Electric||08||0-6-0||D3586(Operational)|
|British Rail||English Electric||08||0-6-0||D3802/08635(Stored)|
|British Rail||English Electric||08||0-6-0||08896(Stored)|
|British Rail||English Electric||09||0-6-0||D4100(Operational)|
|British Rail||English Electric||09||0-6-0||09107(Restoration)|
|British Rail||English Electric||11||0-6-0||12099(Operational)|
|British Rail||BR Swindon||14||0-6-0||D9551(Operational)|
|British Rail||Birmingham RC&W Ltd||27||Bo-Bo||D5410(Restoration)|
|British Rail||Beyer Peacock||35||B-B||D7029(Overhaul)|
|EE Lease to BR||English Electric||50||Co-Co||50031(Operational)|
|EE Lease to BR||English Electric||50||Co-Co||50035(Operational)|
|EE Lease to BR||English Electric||50||Co-Co||50044(Operational)|
|EE Lease to BR||Engish Electric||50||Co-Co||50049(Operational)|
|British Rail||Swindon||52||C-C||D1015(Operational, Single Engine)|