Tuesday 8th November 2016 – Cooch Memorial lecture ‘Volk’s Electric Railway – the Past and the Future’.
Peter Williams, Volk’s Electric Railway Association
Peter’s talk covered the history of the world’s oldest operating electric railway, with some fascinating glimpses into the life of its designer, Magnus Volk, and gave an insight into the major restoration now under way with Lottery Fund support.
Magnus Volk, the Brighton man who designed and built the Volk’s Railway, was a 19th century inventor and engineer. The son of a clockmaker, he set up the first telephone line in the city in 1879 and pioneered the early use of electricity. He brought electricity to his own house in Dyke Road and in 1881 Brighton Corporation commissioned him to illuminate the Royal Pavilion in the same way.
With these projects behind him, on 14 June 1883 Magnus Volk wrote to Brighton’s town clerk seeking permission to lay an electric railway near Madeira Road (now Drive). After some deliberation this permission was granted and on 4 August 1883, after a construction time of only 6 weeks, Magnus Volk’s electric railway was formally opened on Brighton sea front by Mayor Cox. This short demonstration line was very different to today’s operation, being 2′ gauge and 1⁄4 mile long. It ran from a site on the seashore opposite the Aquarium to the Chain Pier. Power was provided by a 2hp Otto gas engine driving a Siemans D5 50 volt DC generator. The small electric car was fitted with a 11⁄2hp motor giving a top speed of about 6mph.
No sooner was the railway open than Magnus sought powers to extend it westwards along the beach to the town boundary. To his dismay the Council turned this proposition down so he reversed direction and succeeded in getting permission to extend eastwards from the Aquarium to the Banjo Groyne. He also secured the rental of the ‘Arch’ at Paston Place to provide workshop and power facilities. Following experience gained from the first line he also decided to widen the track gauge to 2’81⁄2”, and he designed two more powerful and larger passenger cars.
Although the line would run along the seashore it still required a lot of timber trestles to bridge gaps in the shingle, and severe gradients down and up to enable the cars to pass under the Chain Pier.
The new line opened on April 4th 1884 using one car. The uprated power plant in the ‘Arch’ consisted of an Otto 12 hp gas engine powering a Siemens D2 dynamo at 160 rpm. This gave an output of 160 volts at 40 amps – more than sufficient to propel the two new cars along the 1,400 yard long line. A station was provided adjacent to the Banjo Groyne, and a loop complete with halt was provided halfway along the track for cars to pass.
With the arrival of the second car a 5 or 6 minute service was provided daily summer and winter (excepting Sundays until 1903) – weather and storm damage permitting.
It says a lot for Magnus’s fortitude and engineering that this service operated right up until 1940 when the threat of invasion closed the railway for the duration.
Part of the line was built along the sea wall, and Volk had problems controlling voltage loss – not helped by waves breaking over the cars. The passengers were protected but the driver was out in an open cab! The voltage loss problem was solved in 1885 by the introduction of an insulated third rail, but the drivers remained exposed to the elements.
Volk wanted to extend the railway from Paston Place to Rottingdean but the Corporation wouldn’t let him run the railway along the top of the cliff so, in 1892, he obtained permission to run the line along the sea shore, about 400 yards out from the cliff. The line was powered at 500V and an 18’ high vehicle (‘Pioneer’ aka ‘Daddy Long Legs’) was designed to run on it. Because the vehicle ran through the water at high tide, the driver was designated the captain of the vessel. An opening ceremony for this line was held on 28th November 1896. The line consisted of 2 tracks and vehicles (or vessels) could operate at 4mph at low tide and 1mph at high tide.
Less than a week later on the night of the 4th and 5th of December a storm, the like of which had not been seen for many years, destroyed the old Chain Pier, badly damaged the original electric railway and all but wrote off this brave new enterprise. Pioneer had broken from her moorings at Rottingdean, trundled slowly down the 1 in 100 slope away from the jetty and stood exposed to the full force of the storm. By morning she lay on her side broken almost beyond repair.
In the light of day things did not seem quite as bad as they had looked at the height of the storm. The track was only broken in one place, the overhead wire was still intact with only three poles damaged, and the jetty had survived at Paston Place even if the building had gone.
The remains of ‘Pioneer’ were salvaged by Blackmore & Gould of Millwall and placed alongside the Banjo Groyne where it was rebuilt with legs 2ft longer than the originals. After a tremendous effort by everyone concerned the railway reopened on July 20th 1897. Over the rest of the year 44,282 passengers enjoyed taking the sea air aboard Pioneer without the slightest fear of ‘mal de mer’. As with the original electric railway a year round service was maintained.
But however popular the railway might be, it had serious defects which were exacerbated by a lack of money. Pioneer was underpowered for anything other than shallow water – the resistance at high tide slowed it to an elderly walking pace. New, more powerful motors would have cured this but money was tight. The company never recovered from the cost of the reconstruction works so a proposed second car was never going to materialise.
In September 1900, the fate of this part of the line was sealed when Volk was informed that he would have to divert his line into much deeper water to bypass new sea defence works between Paston Place and Black Rock. Such a construction proved beyond the financial means of the company, and in January 1901 the Corporation, following on from their early warning, removed those parts of the track which were in their way.
Following the failure of the Daddy Long Legs venture, Magnus sought permission to extend Volk’s Electric Railway beyond the Banjo Groyne to Black Rock. Finally opened in September 1901, the extension bought the total length of the railway to 11⁄4 miles.
With the increased power requirements of the newly extended railway the gas engine powered dynamo was replaced in favour of connection to the town’s mains electricity. A Parker rotary transformer was used to lower voltage to the 160 volts dc that was required by the system. It wasn’t only the power that needed upgrading – the longer line meant more miles per year per car so three new semi-opens joined the fleet in 1901 making a total of 8 cars in all. Over the next 25 years two more cars were added making a total of 10 to handle the million or so passengers the railway carried a year.
In 1930 redevelopment of Madeira Drive saw the line cut back at the western end to a site opposite the Aquarium. Not so conveniently placed for the pier as the original station, the name reverted to Aquarium. 1930 also saw the introduction of a purpose built winter car – the last car built specifically for Volk’s Electric Railway. And it wasn’t only at the west end of the line that things were changing. At Black Rock the Council decided to build a new swimming pool on the land currently occupied by the VER station. In order to accommodate the new development, the eastern end of the railway was shortened by a few hundred yards.
The new Black Rock station was opened on May 7th 1937 when the Deputy Mayor and Magnus Volk took joint control of Car 10 for a journey from the New Station. Magnus, by now 85, is shown reaching up to take control of the overhead rheostat while the Deputy Mayor grips the brake
wheel. Unfortunately this was to be Magnus’s last public appearance as he died peacefully at home 13 days later. With Magnus’s death control of the
railway passed to his son Herman – but, unlike his father, Herman’s tenure was to be short-lived.
The 1938 ‘Brighton Corporation (Transport) Act’ had far reaching powers – including taking Volk’s Railway into Corporation control. Initially they
simply leased the line and operation back to Herman but on April 1st 1940 they took full control and the railway’s association with the Volk family ceased. It seems odd to think that the Corporation could concentrate on such matters when far more important events were unfolding on the world stage. The threat of invasion caused the closing and fortification of the beaches and the railway ran its last train in July 1940.
In 1947 the Corporation set to and upgraded their new asset. The mainline was rebuilt using 50lb rail for the running line and 25lb mounted on insulators for the third rail. At Aquarium an old tram shelter replaced the rather flimsy pre-war shelter while at ‘Half Way’ a completely new island platform and passenger access was created about 50 yards west of the car sheds and old station. Even the car sheds were rebuilt to allow all cars to be kept undercover.
At Black Rock a new station was built to replace the 1937 building which had suffered badly during the war. Most of the steelwork for the platform shelters at ‘Half Way’ and ‘Black Rock’ came from wartime defences and aircraft scrap. The ‘art-deco’ style of station was designed to blend in with the architectural style of the Lido at Black Rock.
Wartime storage, much of it in the open, had taken its toll on the car fleet. The 1897 built saloon had been withdrawn from service for dismantling and disposal in 1928, now it was the turn of original cars
1 & 2 from 1884 to meet their end. Worse still the comparatively young winter car had a severe case of the rust worm in its metal cladding and was deemed beyond repair. To fill the gaps two ex Southend Pier Railway trailer cars were purchased in 1949 and converted to motor cars.
The railway reopened from its wartime hibernation on the 15th May 1948 and settled down to post war normality. In 1952 the winter service was suspended to allow some track repairs but was reinstated after repairs were complete. The new, short-lived, winter service had the drivers selling tickets as well as driving the trains and was not a success. Winter services were not included in the timetable after the 1954 season and this has remained the case except in occasional circumstances.
In 1961 control of the railway passed from Transport to Entertainments & Publicity. The new owners decided on a facelift and from 1962 cars started to appear in a new brown and yellow livery with VR and the Brighton crest applied to the sides. Like many other seaside towns, Brighton was feeling the pinch caused by cheap package holidays. This, coupled with closure of the Black Rock pool in 1978, caused the railways passenger numbers to drop to an all-time low – the railway’s star was beginning to fade.
In 1964 the railway introduced 2 car operation whereby two cars could be coupled together with controls duplicated on each car. Not only did this mean that each two car train could cope with moving larger numbers of people, it also halved the number of drivers required to operate the service. This type of operation also spelt the end of needing two platform faces at Aquarium and Black Rock and the sidings were eventually removed.
Although these and other changes, such as the replacement of the old overhead speed control with a new ‘tram type’ controller, were introduced during the 50s and 60s they did little to halt the decline in passenger numbers. With many other calls on the Corporation’s financial coffers the railway could be seen as a bottomless pit of expenditure if it was allowed to be. The decision was taken to keep the railway running at least until its centenary in 1983 and then to see what the future held. The proviso was that as little as possible was to be spent if the line was to survive.
The 1983 Centenary was a great success with Conrad Volk, Magnus’s youngest son, driving the special train. Cars 3 & 4 carried special headboards commemorating the event and a souvenir booklet was produced. The railway had been tidied up for the celebrations and a lot of hard work had been put in to keep things running by Eric Masters who was the engineer at the time. Eric was responsible for bringing a lot of engineering knowledge to the railway and even experimented with both three and four car formations.
The railway’s existence continues thanks to the enthusiastic support of a group of volunteers – the Volk’s Electric Railway Association (VERA) – a fact recognised by John Wood, Chairman of the IMechE’s Engineering Heritage Committee when
he presented the railway with an Engineering Heritage Award in July 2013.
More recently, the Volk’s Electric Railway has received an award of nearly £1.6 million from the Lottery Fund to help rejuvenate the railway. The money will be used to:
Provide a purpose-built heritage visitor centre and ticket office at the Aquarium station, replacing the existing ex-Brighton Corporation tramway shelter that was placed there in the late 1940s.
Create a new depot (running shed) at Halfway with a viewing gallery, new maintenance pits and restoration facilities.
Restore three of the cars, Nos. 4, 6 and 10, to full working order to increase the service capacity.
Develop new learning materials and educational sessions for schools.
Peter said that the work was running slightly behind schedule but they hope to have a formal reopening ceremony in early August 2017. If all goes well, RCEA are planning to arrange a visit in late August which will allow us to see the new facilities and ride on one of the restored cars. We are most grateful to Peter for giving us such an interesting talk and for being prepared to arrange a visit for us once the railway is fully operational. We shall provide more details of the visit nearer the time.