Monday, 9 June 2008

9:17 a.m. to Birmingham

It must have been in the 1950s that I started to travel from Wolverhampton to Birmingham on my own. Steam still reigned supreme and the express passenger trains featured a parade of Black 5s, 'Jubilees', rebuilt 'Scots' and 'Patriots', with a sprinkling of various new B.R. Standard Classes. Trains to Birmingham were normally routed along the Stour Valley Line through Dudleyport, passing a succession of signal boxes that I was later to become familiar with. The 9.17 a.m. departure, however, had a special attraction. It was an 'All Stations', formed of non-corridor stock and normally hauled by one of the good-looking 'Fowler' 2-6-4T which did some sterling work around the country. The train originated at the exotic-sounding Silverdale, which I eventually learned was in the Stoke-on-Trent area. The real 'clincher' was that this train was routed to Birmingham not via the Stour Valley line which most trains took, but via the 'Old Road', through Bescot.

The first main-line railway in Britain was the Liverpool and Manchester (opened 1830). Birmingham was first joined to London in 1838 by the London and Birmingham Railway (see my blog). The Grand Junction Railway was planned to link these two early lines, forming the start of the railway network. Because of delays in the completion of the London and Birmingam, the Grand Junction Railway opened in 1837, before the London line.

The Grand Junction started from Curzon Street, adjacent to the London & Birmingham line, and headed north through Bescot, missed Wolverhampton, then continued through Bushbury, Stafford, Crewe, Warrington and joined the Liverpool and Manchester at Earlestown. Later, when the Stour Valley Line linked Birmingham and Stafford via Wolverhampton, the Grand Junction route was often called the 'Old Road'.

So, part of the attraction of the 9.17 a.m. was to ride on 'the road less travelled', look at the lines of freight locomotives at Bescot Motive Power Depot and marvel at the extent of the sidings in Bescot Yard, which boasted hump yards on both the Up and Down sides of the main lines. Later in the journey, we passed the junctions at Aston and the Motive Power Depot. Aston M.P.D. was on a very cramped site, but provided passenger locomotives for trains leaving Birmingham. The double track then became quadruple through Vauxhall & Duddeston and there was the excitement of Curzon Street Goods, the flyover, Grand Junction, Proof House Junction (with an impressive L.M.S. gantry signal) and finally the steep descent and passage through the smokey tunnels to reach Birmingham New Street Station.

New Street was effectively two interconnected stations side by side. The London & North Western side comprised a reasonably straight set of platforms serving the low-numbered bays and through lines on the Up side, by this time roofed by nondescript platform canopies replacing the wartime damage. There was then a cobbled carriage drive and, beyond this, the higher-numbered Midland platforms, sharply curved but still retaining the old train shed. The whole station sat in a hole with two double-track tunnels leading south to Proof House Junction and two double-track tunnels at the other end of the station serving diverging routes. The tunnel curving left was the Midland Line to Bristol, straight ahead lay the murky and damp New Street north tunnel taking the Stour Valley Line of the London & North Western to Wolverhampton and Stafford. There were still parcels sidings and a fish dock so there was always a station pilot either fussing about or gently simmering. Very often, the pilot was an L&NWR 0-6-2 'Coal Tank' - a real survivor. At the time, I never imagined I'd one day drive the sole remaining example of this class, but, it came to pass. There was always some movement with 'Fives', 'Jubilees', 'Patriots' and 'Scots' on the expresses and an assortment of tanks, '2P' 4-4-0, oh, almost anything on secondary trains.

As time went on, diesel multiple units proliferated and larger locomotives often took the expresses - 'Britannias' and 'Princess Coronations'. Eventually main-line diesels replaced steam and, later, the whole area was electrified at 25 kV a.c. but I treasure the period I experienced before the demise of steam. Would that I had been more diligent in recording the passing scene - my only defence is that I was young and just could not imagine that it would all be swept away.

The original 'straight shed' at Bescot M.P.D. survives, although derelict. This picture is from my collection West Midlands Railways which shows the modern railway in the area.