Bromsgrove's railway heritage
17:15 23 March 2010
There is good news for the people of Bromsgrove. Network Rail has booked weekend line closures from April to October 2011. This gives a window of opportunity to modify the track and build platforms for Bromsgrove's new station.
When the new station is in place, Network Rail plans to extend the electrified cross-city line from Lichfield between Barnt Green and Bromsgrove. For those long-suffering commuters of Bromsgrove who work in Central Birmingham this should bring an end to the cattle truck commute. There will be adequate trains, frequent services (three per hour) and reduced damage to the environment. Trains produce less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than cars, and electric trains less than diesel, even allowing for the power station.
Bromsgrove's station was opened in June 1840, making it 170 years old. It was built on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, which avoided Worcester, to provide a direct route to the port from the manufacturing Midlands.
Railways were cutting edge technology in 1840. The first main line railway had only been opened in 1830. Bromsgrove was on the Birmingham to Bristol turnpike. As the rich began to use the railway, coaching inns closed and coaches were taken off the road. The railway gave citizens easy access to Birmingham, Cheltenham and Gloucester. But ordinary people could not afford railway travel. Gladstone's Railway Act of 1844 introduced penny-a-mile travel. It was only intended to allow labour to follow work, with a large luggage allowance.
In 1846 the Midland Railway bought the Birmingham and Gloucester. It was to provide links to the South Coast, North and Scotland.
Regular fish trains linked Bromsgrove with the North Sea ports. Fish were packed in wooden crates with ice. Part of the smell of the steam age station was fish, which merged with steam, coal, oil and ash. Cheap coal was brought to Bromsgrove by canal before the railway.
Bromsgrove was a centre of nailmaking. Nails were made from iron rods in a brick hearth filled with coke and blown by bellows. The nail shops were at the back of homes in lower High Street, Worcester Street, Hanover Street, and St John's Street. The nailers were dependent on the nailmaster for iron and coke and sold him the nails to purchase more materials.
Nailmakers wages didn't increase in 90 years in the 19th century, despite seven major strikes in nailmaking. The nailers were working in a sweated industry. The conditions they endured with their families were described in newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s. Nailmaking machinery produced much more cheaply than could be achieved by hand and the trade finally died in the 1950s.
The nailmasters probably benefited from the railway more than the nailers. Iron and coke could be brought in by rail and nails moved to markets all over Britain.
Fairs and circuses
Bromsgrove, as a market town, had a flourishing fair. The midsummer fair would see horses arrive and depart by rail, in the special vans provided.
Circuses travelled by train. After arrival at the station they paraded up New Road. The elephants walked, free of their elephant vans. The lions were in cages, the horses led by halter. The Big Top would be dismantled for transport. Canvas was folded, poles split in sections and all loaded into railway wagons.
In 1874 the Midland railway abolished Second Class and allowed Third Class passengers on its expresses. A huge step forward for ordinary people. The Cheap Trains Act of 1883 introduced workmen's tickets. Daily rail travel became affordable.
However, daily travel to work was wasteful of railway resources. These were only used for a couple of hours in the morning and evening. Too much of this, and road competition, meant British Rail made losses and led to the Beeching cuts of 1962.
Beeching and his disciples brought the station near closure in the late 1960s. But it was rebuilt with a single platform for both directions and space for only three carriages.
In 1990 it acquired a second platform and a footbridge. The southbound platform could take four coaches and services were increased. During the 1990s more passengers came back to the railways as road congestion increased and the three carriage limit at Bromsgrove created cattle truck conditions at busy times.
When the new station is in place, better connections to Worcester and Cheltenham will ease travel to the south west, south Wales and the Thames valley.
In steam days a train which was too long for a platform stopped twice to allow all the passengers on and off. The Victorian station at Bromsgrove was adequate for trains which stopped twice.
Nowadays, health and safety legislation forbids this, except in a few places where it has been done continuously since steam times. Otherwise complex electronic protection is needed to prevent passengers stepping into a void.
This is why Bromsgrove is stuck with three carriage trains northbound until a new station can be built. The overcrowding is terrible and travellers are forced on to grossly congested roads.
The northbound platform was built at the end of the 1960s. It is squeezed between the freight loop points and St Godwald's Road bridge, rebuilt to serve a housing development.
The new station is planned for the old goods yard area and it is hoped it will take six carriage trains.
Steam on the Lickey Incline
The section of railway outside Bromsgrove is famous for being the steepest mainline gradient in Britain. The Lickey Incline rises at 1 in 37 for two miles from Bromsgrove to Blackwell. Steam always struggled with the gradient. In 1840 there were hill-climbing engines imported from the USA. In 1845 Great Britain was built in Bromsgrove works. There were always many small shunting engines banking from Midland railway days. In 1919 the Midland built a special large banker for Bromsgrove, which became known as Big Bertha. This lasted to 1956, uneclipsed by a double engine banker imported from the Sheffield area, in 1949. After 1956 a standard freight engine was used.