Volk’s Electric Railway

In 1860 Doctor Ernst Siemens, founder of the world famous Siemens Company, had developed the idea of a dynamo and demonstrated it as means to power a railway vehicle, in Germany, on a track 600yards long and again in 1879, at a later date he also demonstrated it at the Crystal Palace, in south London. Siemens ideas were later developed for use on the 8 mile long Giant’s Causeway Tramway in Ireland which was Britain’s second electric railway. It would have been the first if there had not been a change in the plans prior to its completion, though that is for another R.o.B article. Britain’s first permanent electric railway was developed by the Magnus Volk who was born in Brighton of German parents. Volk was a keen admirer of furthering scientific development and was well known in Brighton for his electrical work having already worked with electricity in Brighton supervising the installation of electric lights in the town’s sea front pavilion. Its success enabled him to convince the corporation to allow him to build a railway of a mile long with a track gauge of 2 feet from the Aquarium (later named Palace Pier) along the sea front to the Old Chain Pier.

With permission granted Volk set to building the little railway traction current for the railway generated by two 2hp Crossley gas engines driving a Siemens dynamo, generating a 50 volt output which was transferred to two flat bottomed running rails, spiked directly on to wooden longitudinal sleepers, which also acted as insulators. To operate the line Volk commissioned the construction of a 4 wheel carriage having a length of 11 feet and width of 4 feet 6 inches including room for the motors and ten passengers seated on two leather-covered sideways benches. The car was made out of mahogany and looks to have had a very flimsy frame with awnings on the roof and sides and at either end a veranda to aid boarding and alighting of the passengers and also give the driver somewhere to stand. As the current was collected from the running rails the twelve inch diameter wheels on one side of the car had to be made from wood to act as insulators so there was no short circuit through the axle. The motor on the car was 1 1/2 hp and was controlled by the driver using a rheostat (a notched resistor, each notch progressive notch allowing more current in to the motor) with the motor connected to the driving axle by way of a belt. Despite its being basic the car could reach 6mph with a full load.

The little railway was ready for passengers from the 4th August 1883 and was an immediate success with the car running for 11 hours throughout the day, bearing in mind that most of Britain had never before seen such a use of electricity for traction as tramways were still horse operated. Not long after the opening of the line Volk tried to get permission to extend westwards. Permission was refused but he was allowed to extend eastwards from the aquarium to Banjo Groyne (Paston Place). To allow the extension and for changes to the original line to be made, the railway closed in the January of 1884 and was re-gauged to 2ft 9in gauge. At the same time, two new cars were built to cater for the growing traffic on the line which was now about 3/4 mile long with a passing loop halfway along. The new cars were more powerful than the original and again had double ends and ran on four wheel trucks. The new car No.1, taking over from the original now disused car, was delivered for the opening of the extension in 1884. With its larger loading gauge of 5 feet 6 inches and longer length of 20 feet 8 inches it was found that it could comfortably carry 18 seated passengers and another twelve on each of the verandas. When car No.2 was delivered in the summer of 1885 it had similar dimensions to its predecessor though the side windows were different, No.1 having four small ones while car 2 had two large ones, car 1 was changed to the same style as car 2 in 1905, the cars weighed in at 2 tons each due to their solid mahogany construction. Power was provided from a cave at Paston Place by means of a 12hp Crossley gas engine, once again driving a siemens dynamo.

The re-opening of the line was on the 4th April 1884 with a 5-6 minute frequency of service from summer and through winter being provided from the word go. By 1886 problems were developing with the railway that had not been foreseen due to its infant nature. The line was built very low to sea level, literally along the shingle of the beach, with the wetness of the beach causing traction current leakage which warranted Volk changing the means of current collection and return from his original two running rails to an extra 3rd rail laid between the running rails providing the traction current with the current return via the running rails. At the same time Volk decided to lift the railway to a level with the promenade to protect it from the sea, to do this he built a wooden viaduct along the side of the prom and also reduced the track gauge to 2 feet 8 1/2 inches. By 1892 the railway was so busy that two more cars were built at Paston Place works to increase the fleet to four operating cars these new ones being something of an experiment in progress, the two cars seeing various changes through their lives.

With the railways continued success Volk wanted to extend the railway further westwards towards Rottingdean but as the council refused he designed and built a totally novel idea that was to become the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore electric Tramroad. To continue the railway to Rottingdean, Volk would have needed to build an expensive viaduct or embankment at sea level to take the railway over an area of unstable chalk cliff. As he did not like this idea mostly due to the expense he decided he would build the railway under the sea the tide permitting. The idea was so attractive to the Victorians that he soon raised enough finance gaining its act of parliament in the July of 1893 work beginning in 1894. The railway started about 100yards out to sea off Banjo Groyne with the two sets of track with a gauge of 2 feet 8 1/2 inches spaced 18 feet apart, heading in an easterly direction though staying about 60-100 yards from the shore for the 2 3/4 mile length. At the Rottingdean terminus a steel lattice pier about 100 yards long was built to allow passengers access to and from the sea shore. To carry the passengers a platform 50 feet by 22 feet was constructed with four legs 23 feet long to carry it through a depth of water 15 feet deep. At the base of each leg was a small truck with four 30 inch wheels in each. The deck of the car was also the site of lifeboats and lifebelts and could hold up to 150 passengers, the whole weighing in at 40 tons and named ‘Pioneer’. Power for the car was provided by a purpose built power station under Rottingdean pier with trolley standards sited parallel to the railway holding 00 gauge wires with the car receiving traction current by way of twin trolley poles the current to the motors being controlled by standard tram style controls at either end of the car, presumably one of the poles being used for current return.

In September 1896 the Board of Trade which would also take official over-site of the railway as it did railways and tramways inspected the line and declared it fit to open for passenger carrying with the official opening taking place on the 28th November 1896 with local dignitaries taking the first ride from Brighton to Rottingdean the journey taking 35 minutes. The opening to fare paying passengers at 6d (6p) a go was two days later the car soon earning the nickname ‘Daddy long legs’. On the 5th and 6th of December disaster struck when a storm damaged the tramway so much it was closed until 20th July of 1897. ‘Pioneer’ which had been tied up to the pier at Rottingdean had ended up on the sea bed with the legs in the air. Once the tramway was fixed Volk operated services right through the winter of that year. In 1901 Brighton Corporation wanted to extend the groynes but to do this the Corporation quoted the 1893 act stating that Volk’s was obliged to remove the tramway to allow this to happen. This resulted in the tramway being abandoned though it did remain in situ with ‘Pioneer’ roped to an intermediate landing at Ovingdean Gap until 1909 when it was sold to scrap merchants who rapidly removed the car and the track. However all is not lost as with many land railways there are still signs of the sea railways existence in the form of concrete blocks which can just be seen at low tide.

Volk did not lose heart with his projects and continued to ask the council if he could extend the electric railway which was still running well. In 1901 permission was given for the line to extend further eastwards to Black Rock giving it an overall length of 1 1/4 miles. For the extension the car sheds at Banjo Groyne were converted in to a tunnel and station on one side to allow the railway to pass through on to a newly built viaduct taking the railway over the beach. The shed had three stabling sidings in the sea side of the shed while the side closest tot the Groyne housed the platform and another stabling siding which was underneath the platform. To access the siding the platform was hinged and swung up away from the track when the cars were not running. The station not only formed the end of the line from Palace Pier until the Black Rock extension was built but also for a short time after as the Corporation would not allow the cars to traverse the Banjo Groyne for fear of them hitting pedestrians the two sections of line being operated separately until permission was given for through running. Due to the lack of shingle to form the track-bed and gain the height to the prom for the railway the new viaduct was of steel brace construction formed of steel tubular legs and wooden cross lattices at the top to carry the railway, the legs were held in place by thin tubular bars at diagonals. Today there is little sign of the viaduct as it has been buried under tons of stones washed up the beach by the sea a new barrier having been placed closer to the sea to stop the new shingle beach being washed away. The metal viaduct led on to a wooden construction viaduct which carried the railway over the beach to the level ground of Black rock station which is sited on a plateau. When the railway reached its new terminus there was nothing there except the chance for some walks around the chalk cliffs.

By 1901 the line operated 8 cars the newer ones yet again being of a different style. With the heightened usage of the railway it was soon found that the power from the Paston place engines was not enough for the extension and all the cars, so agreement was reached to take power from the Corporation’s electricity mains, the original equipment at Paston Place retained in case of an emergency. To reduce the power from the mains to a suitable 160V dc for the railway a rotary transformer was used. The cars could reach speeds over 8mph but they very rarely did especially when carrying passengers. In 1915 the railway had its first fatality when a young boy climbed over the fence separating the prom from the railway and touched the live rail. Though it was not Volk’s fault he vowed to make the railway safer and placed wooden boards either side of the 3rd rail to make sure it did not happen again though it did sadly in the 1950’s with two similar incidents. The railway continued its service for many years until major changes took place in the 1930’s, with the line shortened at either end due to the local council building new attractions on or near the sites of the railways original termini. The most dramatic alteration was at ‘Palace Pier’, originally known as ‘Aquarium’ from 1883 to 1899, as the council intended to widen Madiera drive along the promenade and also build a swimming baths on the site of the railway station. The 1899 name change of the western station from Aquarium to Palace Pier taking place when Brighton’s new 1722 foot long ‘Palace Pier’ opened to replace the older ‘Chain pier’ which formed the eastern end of the original 1883 railway. The new pier had taken eight years to build work having started in 1891 and completed and ready for the grand opening on the 20th May 1899. Interestingly the Chain pier was destroyed in the same storm that affected the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Tramroad.

Volk received notice to move the railway in the September of 1929 under the original 1883 agreement between Volk and the Corporation. Un-daunted Volk promptly built a new station some way further eastwards and named it ‘Aquarium’ with a short re-alignment of the track to bring it closer to the prom from the original route. This new station was constructed on a gantry supported by wooden joists above the beach the original Palace Pier station having been built on ballast and shale. The In the end the swimming baths were not built at Madeira drive at all but at the other end of the railway at Black Rock though this was not until 1937 and was only open for two years before it was closed for the war. Despite its shortening the railway soon saw increased traffic from both ends when each was opened. When Volk died in 1937 he left his son to take over the railway though the lease on the railway was soon to expire and on the 1st April 1940 the council took over total control of the railway which by this time consisted of three passing loops with wooden station buildings at Aquarium, Paston place and Black Rock with ten cars in operation all of which were 4 wheelers, some still having the original Siemens motors and drive belts though most had tram car motors supplied by the Corporation. He Corporation tramway had closed on the 31st August 1939. However the railway did not last long in council controlled operation as on the 2nd July 1940 the beaches were closed with huge fortifications in place to protect Britain from Germany. The cars were kept in the former street tramway depot in Lewes road with the wooden termini buildings at Aquarium and Black Rock being demolished.

When the war was ended and the country was starting to need a holiday Brighton Corporation resurrected the railway. New track was laid using 50lb per Yard rail for the running rails and 25lb per yard rail was used as the power rail. Other changes and additions were a former tram shelter at Aquarium and a new station at ‘Half way’ just outside the former Paston Place shed, the new station forming an island platform to the west of the original car sheds. At the same time the car sheds were re-built to be big enough to house all of the cars. Sadly some of the cars were beyond economic repair and original cars 1 and 2 were broken up along with the winter car which had been the last purpose built car for the railway. To replace them the Corporation purchased two former Southend pier Railway cars in 1949 which became Brighton 8 and 9, these had started life as trailers on the Southend Pier Railway’s 3 feet 6 inches gauge line and had cross benches. When the Southend Pier railway purchased new trains these were made redundant and were moved to Brighton where they were re-gauged and equipped for motor operation. The other seven cars were restored at a trolley bus depot and were ready for the railway’s re-opening to passengers on the 15th May 1948. The winter services were also re-commenced but by 1954 they were considered to be impractical and were suspended.

With traffic dwindling by the 1960’s, 1964 saw the experimentation and permission to operate the cars as twin units thus giving more passenger capacity for any one journey whilst keeping staffing levels at a low. This also meant however that the termini at Aquarium and Black rock no longer needed there double platform faces so the track was lifted along with some sidings that were once used for the storage of cars for service, and longer platforms were added to accommodate the trains. However a decline was setting in with those that would normally have come to Brighton to holiday going on cheap package holidays abroad, a trend taking place all over the country. By the late 1970’s things were getting to the point where the council was under pressure to spend as little as possible on the railway as monies were needed elsewhere and the railway was seen as a money drain on the rate payers pockets. The council decided to keep it running until at least its centenary in 1983 though what was to be done after that was not entirely known. However the council kept it in working condition but in the 1990’s more change took place with the temporary closure of 100-150yds of the railway to Marina station due to the construction of a new storm drain in the area to Hove. The station was left derelict for sometime while the work took place but today trains have returned over that section of line. The railway still survives today with much hard work by council staff and the Volk’s Electric Railway Association in keeping it going. Obviously the line had its ups and downs but it persevered and today is perhaps one of the most popular and well used of the tourist attractions in Brighton.