South Staffordshire line
The South Staffordshire line is a railway line that once connected Lichfield in Staffordshire, England with Dudley, formerly in Worcestershire. However, it joined the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway's (OW&WR) line just north of Dudley Station, where it, in essence, continued to Stourbridge, in Worcestershire (Dudley and Stourbridge were later to become part of the West Midlands conurbation). The sections from Burton-Upon-Trent to Lichfield City remains open and the south section of Round Oak remains open for freight workings only.
South Staffordshire line
The original line and route
The line officially began at Wychnor Junction, north of Lichfield, and ran through what is now Lichfield Trent Valley. Trains then continued through to Lichfield City itself. From there, a plethora of stations along the route were served. The line continued through to Walsall and a low-level station at Dudley Port. This was technically the terminus of the line but it was connected to the OW&WR's line which ran through Dudley itself from 1860. It went on to serve other stations at the south-western extremity of the Black Country at Stourbridge Junction.
Just before Stourbridge, the OW&WR crossed (and continues to cross) the massive Stambermill Viaduct which is one of the local area's most significant landmarks. It also crossed Parkhead Viaduct just south of Dudley and for several hundred yards passed through Dudley Railway Tunnel.
History and passenger usage
The line was opened on 1 May 1850. This was soon to become part of the London and North Western Railway as far as Dudley station, which, in 1860, was opened as a joint venture with the OW&WR itself later to become amalgamated into the Great Western Railway. This station was built ten years after the original connection, however, and trains on the South Staffordshire line ran from Walsall to Stourbridge fairly early on. Dudley provided a useful change point for passengers from Walsall and Stourbridge to Wolverhampton, though this wasn't utilised to quite the effect the OW&WR had hoped, due to the similar connection at Dudley Port by the SSR with the Stour Valley Line – which today forms part of the West Midlands section of the West Coast Main Line.
To the north of Dudley Port, a link to the Birmingham Snow Hill- Wolverhampton Low Level route was added sometime between the inauguration of the line and the opening of Great Bridge South railway station in 1866. All three of the above – Dudley Port, Great Bridge and Wednesbury – were completed in 1850, and the line was then opened accordingly. All other stations on the route – from Lichfield to Walsall – were in operation from 1849.
Passenger travel existed on this route from then through until 1965 with the fall of the Beeching Axe. Only one station closed in the meantime, Rushall, which was closed in 1909. The OW&WR portion of the line was closed pre-Beeching, in 1962. The line was used as a through route from Walsall right up until the closure of the line on 19 March 1993, mainly being used for freight duties at the Dudley Freightliner Terminal, which closed – despite being far more profitable than Birmingham's terminal – on 26 September 1989.
Traffic on the line, which had been declining since the 1970s largely due to deindustrialisation of the Black Country, continued to slump after the terminal's closure, and decreased the line's viability. During 1992, British Rail finally announced that the line between Brierley Hill and Walsall would soon close. This was despite the recent announcement of plans to utilise part of the line as part of the Midland Metro light rail network, as well as earlier plans in the mid 1980s for heavy rail passenger services to be reintroduced along the whole section of the line to Stourbridge.
The section of railway north of Walsall had already been closed, with the last train using the route on 19 March 1984 and the track being lifted two years later.
The Brierley Hill to Walsall section of the line officially closed on 19 March 1993, nine years to the day that the Walsall-Lichfield line had closed. However, there were a handful of other movements on the line after its official closure, including a cable-laying train which covered the route on 1 July 1993, on its journey from Birmingham to Stafford.
The line from Stourbridge Junction to Round Oak Steel Terminal is all that remains in use, though virtually all of the track on the closed section towards Walsall is in place. Closure of the line from Walsall-Stourbridge has left the Dudley one of the biggest towns in England without a rail connection.
The line today
The X96 bus route between Stourbridge and Dudley roughly follows the course of the old railway line. The bus route crosses over the railway line at several points along its route, such as near Corbett Hospital in Stourbridge, and near the disused Harts Hill and Blowers Green stations.
Very little of the South Staffordshire line is used today, although Lichfield City and the connection to Lichfield Trent Valley high-level remain as part of London Midland's Cross-City Service to Redditch via Birmingham New Street. Freight usage on the OW&WR portion of the route has once again become more common thanks to the Round Oak Steel Terminal.
In terms of infrastructure, nearly all of the trackbed is still intact. The closed section of the line fell into gradual disrepair and decay after it closed in 1993. Most of the OW&WR track between the Blowers Green Road and Highgate Road overbridges was removed in 1999 upon the construction of the Dudley Southern By-pass overbridge, leading up to the buffers at Harts Hill which mark the beginning of the line's closed section.
A number of fences have been placed along closed sections of the SS line in a bid to clamp down on anti-social behaviour which had been occurring.
In about 1990, the signal box in Dudley (closed during 1988) was destroyed by arsonists, as was the signal box at Golds Hill crossing after the line closed. Another signal box on the active line which controlled access to the Kingwinsford branch and the sidings at Brierley Hill, was burnt down in November 2001.
Three bridges have also been built over the line since its closure. In 1995, a four-span viaduct was completed over Golds Hill crossing to carry the new Black Country Spine Road; construction of this road had started by the time the last trains used the line. Later in the 1990s, a new overbridge to carry the Midland Metro near Potters Lane in Wednesbury and another to carry the Dudley Southern By-Pass. The bridge carrying Tipton Road over the line was rebuilt in 2005, and a new overbridge was built in 2006 to carry the line over a new road on an industrial development north of Wednesbury town centre.
Resignalling work was undertaken on the stretch of track approaching Walsall from Bescot Junction and the M6. Starting in 2012 the work was due to be completed in 2013. This section of the line is being re-opened to be used by trains to and from Rugeley Power Station in order to avoid using Bescot TMD.
By November 2012, the Walsall end of the line has been completely cleared of vegetation – subsequently the line was relayed as far as the former Bescot Curve Junction to provide a run-round facility.
On 18 November 2012, an engineering train ran on the Walsall end of the line, the first train to run on any of the closed section of the line for nearly 20 years. Although re-signalled in August 2013 with the abolition of Walsall PSB remedial work meant it was not brought into use until the following year, with the first coal trains believed to have utilised it in October 2014. However, Rugeley power station closed down in 2016.
In early 2017, work began to remove the old track and the extensive vegetation in preparation for the re-opening of the line between Wednesbury and Brierley Hill, which will be utilised as part of the Midland Metro tram network and will also be used by goods trains between Brierley Hill and Walsall, although the first trains and trams are not expected to use the line until at least 2023.
Future re-opening of the line has been suggested several times in many different forms.
In the 2000s the plan for Line 2 of the Midland Metro, which would diverge at Wednesbury and follow the route of the South Staffordshire line was put forward. It was planned this would be a single line venture. Any stops on the route (which would occur around the points of the old railway stations) are likely to be doubled as passing places. The Midland Metro plan was actually formulated back in 1992, a year before the line's closure. There were also plans afoot to reinstate the line to Walsall as a single freight line (frequency of trains along this route would never warrant a double line) to allow a quicker route to Bescot TMD, which is currently only traversable by means of a lengthy run through Cradley Heath, diverging at Galton Junction and then later at Soho East. One plan put forward was that of Railtrack in 1997 – which suggested passenger services may be laid on once more. This was part of a plan to give the Merry Hill Shopping Centre its own heavy rail link. These plans never came to fruition and are unlikely to – although it is clear[who?] that a heavy rail link would make the centre far more attractive to those from far afield. The line was first designated as a possible Midland Metro route as long ago as the late 1980s, when the whole line was still open but around the time that closure plans were first considered, with a view of having trams running by the mid 1990s.
In March 2011, the business plan for the re-opening of a route from Stourbridge to Walsall, was handed to Network Rail, with work planned to start by 2014, subject to approval and securement of funding. The new plan is for tram-trains to share the line with freight trains, cutting overall construction costs. A quarter of the projects £268 million has already been found, with the owners of Merry Hill Shopping Centre, Westfield, pledging £36.5 million. A decision from Network Rail was expected in the late summer but as of September 2011, a decision had not been made and the project stalled. Centro were later quoted as saying that the project could be completed in stages with Wednesbury to Dudley first, then secondly on to Brierley Hill with Stourbridge being completed last. This would mean less initial outlay as Centro were having trouble raising the £268 million to fund the project. This would allow building to take place when funds became available.
In January 2012, plans surfaced to run a passenger service between Stourbridge Junction and Brierley Hill, with stations being re-opened along the OWWR, including Brierley Hill. The service would be operated by railcars built by Parry People Movers, who built the Class 139 units which run the Stourbridge Town service.
In October 2016, a Dudley Council chief confirmed the plan to re-open the line between Wednesbury and Brierley Hill had received government backing, and work is set to begin in 2017.
In September 2017, the new franchise operators, West Midlands Trains, plans to restore disused railway lines including the South Staffordshire Line which would be an extension of the existing Birmingham to Stourbridge Junction service which it plans to extend to Brierley Hill in the future.
The Connecting Communities: Expanding Access to the Rail Network suggested reopening of the Walsall-Lichfield section for passenger services with new stations at Pelsall and Brownhills which identified the line as viable for reopening but nothing has become of the scheme so far.
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