Should the Lichfield to Walsall rail line be reopened?

Bridge over the former Lichfield to Walsall railway line at Pipehill. Pic: Dawntreader

Bridge over the former Lichfield to Walsall railway line at Pipehill. Pic: Dawntreader

The Lichfield to Walsall railway line is a distant memory to most, but ever since it closed to passengers in 1965 as part of the Beeching review rumours of its reopening have been rampant.

However, even up until the line was officially closed to the freight services in recent years, no sign of re-instated passenger services has materialised.

But the decision to install a bridge rather than remove the track near the Chesterfield Road development in Lichfield has once again stoked the fire of interest in the line.

Any potential reopening of the line would create interest not only in Lichfield, but in other areas which could benefit from stations along a reopened line – including Burntwood and Brownhills.

But as blogger BrownhillsBob reveals in this guest post for The Lichfield Blog following a post on his own site about the future of the line, the benefits and the appetite for any reopening in Lichfield, may not quite be matched at the other end of the dormant line…

Residents of Lichfield will be well acquainted with the good rail links that serve their city – the Cross City commuter line serves as an excellent link to Birmingham, and the Trent Valley mainline provides services both local and long distance along the West Coast corridor.

There has been much talk about a third line of late, of which you may only be peripherally aware; the South Staffordshire line. Up until 2002, it was a working, truncated freight connection from the  Cross City line to the former Charringtons oil depot on the A5 at New Town – previously it had linked the Black Country to Burton Upon Trent serving stations at Walsall, Pelsall, Brownhills and Hammerwich.

The bridge at what was once Hammerwich Station. Pic: Dawntreader

The bridge at what was once Hammerwich Station. Pic: Dawntreader

Passenger services along the line were once fast and frequent, until all passenger services along the route were axed as part of the Beeching review in 1965. The line remained fully in use as a freight route up until 1983, when the line officially closed between Walsall and New Town; in 1985 tracks were lifted and the line to the oil terminal was converted to a single track.

There has historically been quite a movement to reinstate the line between Walsall and Lichfield for passenger use. Several campaigns have been launched over the years, and transport authorities in both the West Midlands and Staffordshire have expressed support for the move, but regrettably, no money has ever been forthcoming.

The route the line followed – the track bed – is still intact between Walsall and Lichfield, and is classified as ‘mothballed but strategically important’ – this means that Network Rail, the landowners, won’t allow development to encroach upon it. That’s why the bridge over the line at Pipe Hill was rebuilt some years ago, and why new bridges have been added at no little cost, crossing the M6 Toll and new South Eastern Bypass.

Whilst this sensible act shows intent, it doesn’t signal imminent development, which is a tragedy.

Historical timetables for the latter days of passenger operation of the line show that in 1950, with three stops, a train could travel from Walsall to Lichfield in just 24 minutes. The only regular bus service left to cover that journey – the Arriva 61 service – runs through Brownhills, Chasetown, Chase Terrace and Burntwood, and takes a backside-numbing 60 minutes.

The former 991 service that ran directly along the A461 throughout the day has now been neutered to six journeys a day at peak times only. From this, it can be seen that there would clearly be a huge public transport advantage to reopening this line, and should services on it extend over existing lines to maybe Wolverhapton and Burton, valuable commuting links would be formed, reducing road traffic and making commuting between several close, but disconnected population centres viable once again.

I can also see potential advantage in expansion of the service north of Lichfield, with stations near Fradley, and possibly at Barton Under Needwood. Electrification of that route would not be financially viable, so operating a diesel service originating from the Walsall line to connect with the existing electric service at Lichfield city would seem to be a viable option.

With ribbon development of both housing and commercial nature ongoing along the A38 corridor, one would consider better public transport facilities to be imperative to the success of those projects.

An overgrown crossing on the former Lichfield to Walsall railway line. Pic: Dawntreader

An overgrown crossing on the former Lichfield to Walsall railway line. Pic: Dawntreader

Regeneration of this lost transport artery became a step closer in June, with the publication of the Connecting Communities report by The Association of Train Operating Companies which set out an agenda for the reinstatement of lines and services across the country, including the Walsall to Lichfield line. The report sets out solid guidelines and aspirations, but is short on funding, and that’s where I think the project will fall down.

In Lichfield and its’ environs, there is unlikely to be huge opposition to the line reopening, but here in Walsall, some councillors, apparently already fearing a backlash have started badmouthing the project as unlikely and unaffordable. With the current financial restraints facing local authorities, coupled with the historical difficulty that seems to beset any project that crosses the boundary between the West Midlands and Staffordshire, I think that this project is sadly unlikely to come to fruition in the proposed form unless the government takes a hand.

I think the cause of better public transport is worth pursuing, and I’d really like to see the reinstated train service return. I think the line will be rebuilt, but probably in the first instance as a freight line; rail freight movement in the midlands is horrifically congested, and demand continues to grow. I can see real pressure for expansion coming from that sector, and maybe passenger utility could sneak in through that particular door instead.

I fear that if we rely on our politicians, they will continue to be long on words and short on actions, and we’ll all be the poorer.

For more information on the fight to reopen South Staffs Railway visit Kevin Ellis’ campaign site.

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Founder of LichfieldLive and editor of the site.

22 Comments

  1. Gastank

    14th August, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Also it would provide the benefits of diverting Cross Country services away from the Cross City line during planned and unplanned disruption south of Wychnor. Plus freight could be routed away from Tamworth at Wychnor Jn to run direct into Bescot. People in Pelsall don’t like it because of their houses backing onto the railway. Bit tough, as it was always a risk to them that the line could re-open at some stage.

    In terms of the bridges I would not read to much into this as the line is still technically operational infrastructure with a 20mph speed limit, as such any works severing it have to be made good to allow continued railway operations. The same has been done close to Junction 8 of the M6 going towards Wednesbury when a development severed the Walsall – Stourbridge part of the route ( that supposedly lol could be re-opened at a weeks notice) and a new bridge was put in. This and the Lichfield part of the route could also form a clear freight route straight through the heart of the WM conurbation.

  2. richard

    14th August, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Don’t worry about the trains. Turn it into a cycle route. Would be a vast improvement on the current Sustrans route – and avoid needing to brave the Muckley Corner deathtrap!

  3. Lorna

    16th August, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I don’t think the leval of demand for the line to be reopened matches the level of investment required to do it – it’s ridiculous! The huge costs, limited environmental benefits coupled with new housing built near the disused line & the motivation for these home owners to maintain value in their properties, why would anyone want the new line to be re-opened?? Is there really any desperate need for Lichfield & Brownhills to be linked by this old railway line? I DON’T THINK SO!! As Richard says, developing cycle lanes would make much more sense, economically, environmentally and socially.

  4. BrownhillsBob

    16th August, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    The business case for it is outlined in the ATOC ‘connecting communities’ report. It’s not a bad case, either. It’s precisely the new housing that would make it more viable, and it would also function as a freight utility, taking traffic off the roads.

    It’s not terribly likely to happen in the immediate future, but that doesn’t mean the project is unviable. As to people living near the line, houses generally increase in value when close to good commuting links. Since the line that runs through Lichfield would show up as existing, a return to use would have no impact on housing searches anyway.

    To Richard, I’d point out that there are plenty of decent routes for cycling, and indeed NCN 5 itself goes nowhere near Muckley corner. I’m a cyclist myself, if you’d like any advice on cycle routes.

    Best wishes

    Bob

  5. Lorna

    17th August, 2009 at 7:33 am

    The business case in the Conncecting Communities Report also makes reference to the Eco Town of Curborough being a reality – which we now know isn’t going to happen. It also describes the full cost of re-opening the line, as a freight line only, as £152 million!!!! (if the entire Lichfield – Walsall line were to be re-opened), & that it WOULDN’T be electrified, so any trains running on it would be STINKY DIESEL, and that we could expect around ONE FREIGHT TRAIN every hour to be running (what sort of return on investment is this??). Not a particularly attractive proposition, either on an economic or environmental basis. The full cost would probably exceed that anyway, as these projects rarely run to budget, and I have read that the line has been designated a Category 2 – with ‘no known transport needs’, along with other various dismantled lines in the country. The fact that new housing has been built near to the line since 1983 (when it was last used as a freight line) does not, in my opinion, make the case for the line to be re-opened at such a considerable cost (compared to £10 million or less for other lines, with far more ‘positive benefits’ being made from them), especially as there are investments being made into new road building with cycle lanes, canals etc in the Lichfield area already, making the Communities Connectable ALREADY within about 10 – 20 minutes, why on earth would re-opening this line make the sort of difference required to make the considerable cost worthwhile? To turn it into a passenger route, would cost EVEN MORE than £152 million anyway! Are there really LOADS of people wanting a train line to run on this old line (closed to passengers since 1965)?…enough to make in excess of £152 million a good investment? Research already conducted has shown there are NO KNOWN TRANSPORT needs now, and the operational plans for developing routes across the West Midlands area has already been laid down in the Route 17 plans for this year. Substantial investment is being made into more sensible projects, which negates the spending required on this particular dismantled line being re-instated.

  6. Rich

    17th August, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Brownhills Bob – I’m a habitual commuter by bike between Lichfield and Walsall. The direct route via the road obviously includes Muckley Corner. I occasionally take NCN5 but it’s a bit of a mish mash of stuck together bits and pieces – isn’t particularly fast, pleasent or well surfaced. It also includes Abnalls Lane which despite the signs gets used as a rat run and given the blind bends is almost as scary as Muckley Corner.

    I previously lived in Bath and suppose I’ve been spoiled by the fantastic Bath to Bristol cycle path – based on a disused railway line.

    As for reopening the railway line to use it for passengers. I live in Lichfield and work in the centre of Walsall and it probably still wouldn’t be worth me using it as it would be at least 10 minutes cycle or 20 minutes walk from my house in Lichfield to the station – negating any benefits.

  7. BrownhillsBob

    17th August, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Rich

    If it’s your choice to use Muckley Corner, then fine. Myself I’d probably go through Wall and Boat Lane. You post was ambiguous and appeared to suggest Muckley Corner was on NCN 5, which is indeed circuitous and not particularly safe.

    I think a rail link would probably suit different passenger requirements. Obviously, you’re a cyclist and that suits you, just like me, but that doesn’t make the project unviable or unworthwhile.

    Lorna.

    The costs for restorning a passenger link are clear from the ATOC reports, and as you well know, even if Curborough isn’t developed there will be enough development through the Lichfield corridor to support a link in the future.

    ‘Stinky diesels’ as you put it are far cleaner than multiple people using separate cars, as can be seen in the cars queueing up Pipe Hill every rush hour…

    If the line is restored, I’d wager it would be as a freight route firstly, and indeed, one train an hour, and the relief of congestion elsewhere in the network probably would make the investment worthwhile. I know that EWS were pushing for relief of traffic to Birmigham North for years.

    Since your mindset is clearly entrenched, I doubt we’ll ever agree, so let’s leave it there, shall we?

    Best wishes

    Bob

  8. Lorna

    17th August, 2009 at 9:46 am

    That’s fine Bob, I don’t think we will ever agree either! I have read through various documents & you are right about the releif of congestion on the lines & for diversion routes, but these are being sorted out via different projects/investments. The line in question has been out of action for so many years now (25 years in the case of freight travel and alot longer that for passengers!) that the cost to re-instate it for freight alone is REALLY high (as I previoulsy mentioned – you could build a hospital for that price!). The fact that there is no substantial level of demand & really high costs mean that the proposal to re-instate the line is not feasable and it’s not even appropiate. All business development plans will have a number of proposals/options for consideration prior to final decisions being taken re : operational development, but it doesn’t mean they all go forward. After full appraisal of costs and benefits etc, it is clear that this proposaI isn’t going forward – it isn’t even a close thing….I think there is a much stonger argument for making a cycle route out of it (as Richard suggested)..it is clearly not required for either freight or passenger travel. Alot has changed on the landscape since it was an operating line – too much to make reinstating the line a viable option ; it is best to focus on improving the bus services and cycle routes in respect of public transport than starting on an extremely expensive project with little or no benefit.

  9. Rich

    17th August, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Bob – Thanks – Wall and Boat Lane is not a bad suggestion. Sometimes come home via Stonnall which is a nice run but again is obviously more circuitous than the straight run up the main roads.

    Cheers

  10. Brownhillsbob

    17th August, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Lorna

    I find a good rule for the internet is never attempt to debate with posters who randomly capitalise words for emphasis :o)

    Rich

    Personally, I prefer to do Pipe Hill via Claypit lane, up past Aldershawe. If you head down through Ashcroft lane under the bridge beneath the A5, you can either take Bullmoor Lane to hug the A461, or head down through Raikes and Lower Stonnall and up over Castlehill. Depending on where you’re going in Walsall, it’s not too much longer and a much more pleasant journey.

    Best wishes

    Bob

  11. Streethay Swampy

    15th September, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Why not offer the line to a Railway Preservation Society. They could have the pleasure of running trains and provide a valuable service, It could run from Walsall to the Alrewas .or even further on to Burton.

  12. Simple Simon

    15th September, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    I suspect the cost to make the line useable and safe would be out of the reach of any such society – we are talking several million pounds….over £100 million is the figure given in the document Brownhills Bob referred to for a line about 5 miles long….as viable as launching a rocket to mars..the most sensible option would be for a cyclling route to be made out of it

  13. BrownhillsBob

    15th September, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    On the contrary, when you actually look at the amount invested in the Rugeley Eastern Bypass, for instance – over 22 million, for no financial return whatsoever, rail projects like this look quite attractive. Bear in mind that nobody has suggested going out and rebuilding the line tomorrow, the earliest would not be within 10 years, when the transport situation in the country will be vastly different. The most viable future for the line will be as a freight congestion relief route, which is needed now, and within the next ten years will be a priority. Increasing demand for railfreight, coupled with the difficulty of constructing totally new routes will likely see more disused trackbeds re-enter use.

    The alternative is more roads, I’m sure you’ll welcome more of our green belt going to projects like the M^ toll…

    Best wishes

    Bob

  14. Ben

    8th January, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Some pics here that may be of interest to some! I followed this with interest when I lived in Lichfield and was intrigued to see the new bridge going in near Waitrose over Christmas after all the years the line has been dormant. I’m all for it reopening even though I don’t live there anymore!

  15. Ben

    8th January, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Link is from my name above for those not familiar with the site (like me!)

  16. Steve

    2nd May, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    The line will open, it’s just a matter of when.
    Don’t buy a house by a mothballed rail line if you get annoyed by trains.

  17. Jon

    31st May, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Personally I’d love a safe, off road cycle route to take the family on. If marketed and resourced properly, like the Tisssington Trail is, it would be a great asset to the region. I think we’re missing exploting an environmentally friendly tourist attraction.

  18. RonC

    19th July, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I think the region could have the best of both worlds by reopening the track as a single line and providing a cycle lane along side.

    I also think that the service between Walsall and Burton on Trent should be reintroduced with a new station at Alrewas to serve the National Arboretum.

    Since the service was withdrawn in 1964 many new housing developments have since been built along this route and I am sure that if the service was re-instated it would be used.

  19. Streethay Swampy

    19th July, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Perhaps we should start pushing our elected councillors on this matter (yet again) If enough public support could be mustered someone may take notice

  20. Vance Wasdell

    7th August, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    In response to streethay swampy,I was elected to Hammerwich Parish Council in May 2007 as an independent, in my election address I made very clear my support for re-opening the Walsall-Lichfield line and feel this is the main reason I defeated a tory.Many tories still live in the world as viewed by Dr.Beeching and will always support plastering the green belt with tarmac and oppose any rail developement,if any one really wants to influence local decision making do what I did put it to a public vote,I look forward to seeing more pro-rail independent candidates in the local elections in May 2011.

  21. Adam

    19th November, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    On balance, I’d probably be against re-opening the line for a passenger service on the grounds that there would be little demand for it. I make this argument because of the withdrawral of the daytime services on the 991. I find it suprising that the line has been classifies as having ‘no known transport needs’ because it could be used as a freight route which would allow long distance freight trains to by-pass the Birmingham area, if it is re-opened along with the Walsall to Stourbridge line. On the other hand, if there was a 2 trains per hour service from Lichfield Trent Valley to Birmingham New Street with stops at Lichfield City, Brownhills, Palsall, Walsall and Tame Bridge Parkway, that would make the Brownhills and Palsall areas more attractive to commuters and would have a possitive effect on local house prices if commuters can get to Birmingham in less than 30-40 minutes. But even then, I doubt there is a strong business case for this. There is already a 4 trains per hour service from Lichfield to Birmingham that takes just 40 minutes (I guess Lichfield to Birmingham would take around 50 minutes if trains ran via Walsall), there is little demand for a Lichfield to Walsall service (as shown by the 991) and there are already reasonable quality rail services with in driving distance of the Brownhills-Palsall area at Walsall and Blake Street. The North Walsall area could be made more attractive to commuters simply by making improvements to local bus services and re-locating Bloxwich station so that the vacant land next to the level crossing can be used for a park and ride. This would be far cheeper than the £152million needed to re-open the Walsall – Lichfield line. I suggest the line doesn’t get turned into a cycle route so that the cost of re-opening it can be kept to a minimum if there is a business case for re-opening the line some time in the future as a by-pass line for freight trains.

  22. Dave Cresswell

    15th January, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Vance Wasdell can I draw your attention if you didnt know already to our South Staffs Railway Group Website.  http://www.southstaffsrail.co.uk

    You will see me around Hammerwich Station quite a lot as Im the one posting the pictures on that site and part of a small group with aims of re-opening the line in the future.