The South Staffordshire Railway was initially completed from Wychnor Junction (where it joined the Midland Railway's line from Birmingham to Derby) to Walsall in 1846. By 1849, the line had been extended to Dudley. The short branch connecting Sedgeley Junction to Dudley Port High Level on the Stour Valley Line was finally opened to through traffic in 1854 (after some difficulties with the Railway Inspectorate because of the cramped site at Dudley Port High Level). The Midland Railway and the London and North Western Railway were shareholders, seeking to prevent the Great Western from encroaching further on their territories and for a time the railway was leased to John Robinson McClean. The London and North Western Railway bought McClean's lease in 1861 and finally bought out the other shareholders in 1867.
Cheslyn Hay and District Local History Society has a short history here and Rail Album has some details of the early locomotives here. There's an extended history of the railway in 'The South Staffordshire Railway - Volume 1' published by the Oakwood Press (ISBN 978 0 85361 700 6) containing a treasure trove of photographs.
2. Rules for Working the Dudley Incline
During his researches at local archives, my friend Ian has found 'The Rules for Working the Dudley Incline' from around 1872. The gradient from Great Bridge to Dudley Port Low Level was around 1 in 240, steepening to around 1 in 60 for the final stretch to Dudley. Working this incline presented an operational challenge throughout the line's long life. Trains stalling on the gradient delayed the service but the biggest risk was of trains or vehicles running away downhill.
Here's a summary of the instructions:-
Ascending: When ascending, drivers and guards were instructed to ensure that there was a 'Break' (brake van), with a Guard in charge, at the rear of every train. Goods trains exceeding ten loaded wagons were also required to have a 'Breaksman' able to operate further brakes if required. Where Goods Trains were provided with an Assistant Engine, this was to be behind the brake van. Each 'Passenger Van' was to carry two wooden 'Spraggs' and each 'Goods Van' six wooden 'Spraggs'. I assume they meant brake van in each case. The spraggs were used to scotch the wheels to prevent running away. There was also an instruction that Goods Trains must have a margin of at least 15 minutes before a passenger train is due before being allowed to leave Great Bridge.
Descending: Goods Guards were instructed to pin down one handbrake on every fifth wagon before leaving Dudley. Passenger trains were to have a brake van for every eight carriages, with a extra man in charge as far as Dudley Port. The signalmen at Dudley, 'Sedgley Junction' (note spelling) and Dudley Port were to keep spraggs ready for use. The Porters at Dudley Port were also required to have spraggs.
These rules were written in a time when passenger vehicles were simply coupled together and the handbrake in the brake van (or vans) was the only brake available on the train. Freight vehicles were usually provided with a lever-operated handbrake worked from the ground but going up inclines, only the locomotive brake and the handbrake in the brake van were available. If a bank engine was provided, this provided further braking effort in addition to 'pushing power'. Going downhill, trains would stop at the top of the incline and pin down brakes on a proportion of the train which would hopefully be sufficient to allow the driver to keep the train under control. The train would then stop at the bottom of the incline to release the brakes - a time-consuming process. Some of these practices were still in use in the 1960s.
By the end of the nineteenth century, matters were somewhat improved: at least all passenger trains were required by law to have an 'Automatic Brake' on all vehicles. This brake could be applied throughout the train by the Driver, the Guard or (through the Communication Cord) a Passenger. In the event of a train becoming divided, the brakes would be automatically applied on both portions of the train.
But, even in the 1950s, the majority of freight trains comprised wagons coupled together with individual handbrakes on the wagons worked from the ground and no brake operative throughout the train. A guard's brake van with a handbrake was provided at the rear of all freight trains, except on specially-authorised sections of line where short-distance movements might be allowed without a brake van. In an attempt to allow freight trains to run faster, some wagons were being fitted with 'Automatic Brakes'. Initially, these brakes were vacuum-operated but British Rail moved towards air brakes with the demise of steam traction. Since only the minority of the fleet of wagons received Automatic Brakes, only the most important freight trains were 'Fully Fitted'. As a halfway-house, the brake force available to the driver could be increased by having a proportion of the wagons fitted with the Automatic Brake and marshalled immediately behind the locomotive. This was called a 'Fitted Head'. There's more about braking systems in the article MIC - Brakes.
In the period when I visited Sedgeley Junction, most of the freight trains were controlled simply by the locomotive at the front and the brake in the Guard's Van at the rear. Banking assistance up to Dudley was provided on all but the shortest freight trains. To provide additional braking, descending trains might stop at Dudley to pin down wagon handbrakes, requiring a second stop at Great Bridge to release these brakes. Some of the 'through' goods trains were provided with a 'Fitted Head' and trains like the block oil train to Soho Pool were 'Fully Fitted'.
3. The 'Third Line'
In the time I knew Sedgeley Junction, the Up Loop extended from Sedgeley Junction to Dudley East and, with significant freight traffic tackling a gradient of around 1 in 60 up to Dudley, the usefulness of the 'Third Line' in managing freight trains sharing the route with passenger trains was obvious. The third track extended downhill from Sedgeley Junction to serve Palethorpes' loading shed. On the few occasions I walked the line between Sedgeley Junction and Palethorpes' sidings or Dudley Port Low Level, I'd noticed that the formation for the Palethorpes' siding nearest the running line seemed to carry on beyond the stop block near the loading shed.
It was only recently, studying the 1902 Ordnance Survey Map for the area based on a survey in 1885, that the explanation became apparent.
On the above map, the South Stafford line runs from top right to bottom left, crossing the Stour Valley line almost at right angles. Just clear of the aqueduct where the Birmingham Canal Navigation passes over the South Stafford, there's a facing connection to the Third Line, and a signal box to control it. So that was the explanation for the extended formation! Ian tells me that, from his library of old documents, the signal box at Dudley Port Low Level was open in 1908. On weekdays, the box closed between 10.15 p.m. and 5.45 a.m. At the weekend, the box closed from 8.15 p.m. Saturday to 5.45 a.m. Monday. Apparently, station staff worked the signals for any stopping trains when the signal box was closed. This signal box does not appear in the February 1909 and subsequent Working Timetables, so we assume that from this time Up freights had to struggle on to Sedgeley Junction before they could leave the main line. At least Palethorpes' benefitted from a nice siding to themselves.
3. Signalling Changes at Conygree Siding
The connection to Conygree Siding was another oddity when I knew Sedgeley Junction. It was only accessible to Down trains but involved blocking both the Up Main and Up Goods when in use. Early maps revealed that there had once been access to Conygree from the Up Goods as well and the extensive sidings at the time formed a triangular connection with the South Stafford Line.
During his researches at local archives, my friend Ian located a fascinating drawing detailing the proposals for signalling changes at Conygree Siding during the 19th century. The sketch was prepared by the L. & N. W. R. Signal Superintendents Office at Crewe in July 1887 and the document then spent the rest of the year being circulated around interested persons - the Signal Superintendent, Traffic Superintendent, Locomotive Superintendent, Mr. Neele, Mr. Harrison, Mr. Calkwell and, finally signed for the Chairman on 11th January 1888. The cost estimate for the work was £59! I've sketched the main features:-
The connection to the Down Main with a ground frame next to the trap points is exactly as I remember it but the connection to the Up Goods with its own ground frame had been removed at some point. The connection to the Down Main had been protected by an adjacent stop signal which was to be moved towards Dudley as part of this work. Near the connection to the Up Goods, the plan shows two parallel signal posts each originally carrying two fixed distant arms. The two splitting Down distants (reading to Dudley Port High Level and Great Bridge) were to 'come out'. The two Up distants, applying to Up Goods and Up Main were to remain. Note that the Up Goods distant carried a ring to indicate a less-important line. At 'A' there are to be two parallel posts. There's a fixed splitting distant for Dudley Port High Level on the left. The post on the right carries a stop signal (presumably Dudley's Down Starter) which is to be slotted by Conygree, with a fixed splitting distant for Great Bridge below. This slot, later controlled from Sedgeley Junction, survived as a means of protecting the connection to Conygree until the end. Distances next to signals will be from Sedgeley Junction signal box.
There's a little more on L&NWR signals here.
Note that the L&NWR drawing uses the spelling 'shewn', 'Coneygree' and the singular 'Siding' (although the note regarding the slot uses 'SDGS').
4. Addition of Signalling Detection at Sedgeley Junction
Ian also located a drawing in Local Archives detailing the proposals for adding signalling detection at Sedgeley Junction.
Mechanical interlocking of lever frames ensured that, for instance, the signal lever could only be moved when the point levers had first been set appropriately. A later refinement where the signal 'read' over facing points was to route the wire to operate the signal through a 'Detector' next to the points, ensuring that the signal arm could only move if the points themselves were lying correctly.
The scope of these changes was to add facing point detection to the Up Walsall, Up Dudleyport and Down home signals. The sketch was prepared by the L. & N. W. R. Signal Superintendents Office at Crewe in April 1894 and the document then spent the rest of the year being circulated around interested persons - the Signal Superintendent, Traffic Superintendent, Locomotive Superintendent, Mr. Neele, Mr. Harrison, Mr. Calkwell and, finally, the Chairman signed on 7th December 1894. The cost estimate for the work was £32! I've sketched the main features:-
The layout of the junction was rather different then from when I knew it, incorporating both a single slip and a double slip. This may explain the multiple spaces in the frame which intrigued me during my visits, if we assume that the remodelling to remove the single slip and double slip removed the need for a number of levers which, rather than being painted white and left as 'Spare', were taken out and converted into 'Spaces' (Section 4 of the post Sedgeley Junction - Signalling Alterations 1964 lists the spaces as 3,5,6,9,11-14,26-28,33-34,37 and 40).
The Up signals also show the arms in a second, and in some cases third, position. This is the way of representing 'Slotting'. From consideration of the layout of Conygree described in section 3 above, the slots appear to be operated from the ground frames controlling the Down Main and Up Goods connections at Conygree, as shown in the table below:-
|Signal||Down Main Ground Frame Slot||Up Goods Ground Frame Slot|
|Up 3rd line home||Yes||Yes|
|Up Main to 3rd line home||Yes||Yes|
|Up Main to Up Main home||Yes||No|
|Up Dudley Port to 3rd line home||Yes||Yes|
|Up Dudley Port to Up Main home||Yes||No|