Follow us

The Railway

A brief history of the 'World's Oldest Operating Electric Railway'

On the 4th August 1883 Brighton born inventor Magnus Volk opened a short narrow gauge railway along the seashore between the Aquarium and the Chain Pier. Volk was already well known in the town for having the first house lit by electricity, developing the towns first telephone system, and fitting electric lighting in the Royal Pavilion. To cap these the electric railway proved so popular that he applied to the Council for permission to extend it for 1884.

The agreed extension would run from the Aquarium via the Chain Pier to Paston Place, just a few feet short of the Banjo Groyne. To cater for the expected increase in passengers he widened the gauge from 2ft to 2ft 8½”, and had two substantial 4w enclosed railcars built to run on it.

The extended railway again proved very succesful, and a very ‘railway like’ structure was provided on the site opposite the Aquarium from where the small electric railcars departed at regular intervals to Paston Place.

During the journey the railway dipped down to pass under the entrance to the Chain Pier in the manner of a modern roller coaster before rising again to regain its former level with the seafront. With the permission to extend the railway Magnus had also secured the lease on a building opposite the eastern terminus at Paston Place. This building, that once housed the pumps to supply sea water to the hospital was soon changed into an office and workshop for the railway. Not yet satisfied with what he had achieved Magnus now thought of further extending the line under the cliffs towards Rottingdean.

The Council refused permission for the railway to cross the Banjo Groyne so Magnus decided to build another railway starting from the eastern side of the groyne. This idea developed in to the “Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway”. A single sea-going railcar was built mounted on four 4 wheel bogies, two large electric motors were fitted on the deck to drive two of the bogies by shafts down the hollow legs.

The track consisted of two 2ft 8½” lines with their outer rails 18ft apart. Upon this track the sea-going car made a stately progress through the waves to Rottindean. But the sea can be an unpredictable master and on the night of the 4th December 1896, less than a week after it opened the railway was all but destroyed by a mighty storm. Undeterred, Magnus had it back up and running by July 1897. Extensions to the groynes in 1901 required the railway to be moved in to water too deep for it to operate and it closed in 1902. For a more in depth history of this fascinating but doomed venture please click on THIS LINK.

Following the closure of the sea-going railway the Council relented and gave Magnus permission to extend his railway across Banjo Groyne and on to Black Rock. Beach levels were very different than they are now and most of the extension was carried on trestles and this very impressive viaduct over the beach at Paston Place. The railway could now call upon a fleet of 7 railcars, and with the stations at Aquarium and Black Rock both having a siding, and there being passing places midway between Aquarium and Paston Place and Paston Place and Black Rock, a very intensive service could be operated.

The sea could still prove a dangerous enemy but other than that the future for the railway was looking good.

In the early 1930s the Council decided to build a new swimming pool. The site they had in mind  was near the Palace Pier, and this saw the railway shortened at the western end to accomodate this new pool. However, it was decided to build the pool at Black Rock instead so the eastern end of the line had to be cut back as well.

Nothing remains the same and over the years several changes were made to the station buildings, each one grander than the last, and Paston Place became known locally as ‘Halfway’, a title it retains to this day.

Magnus was born in 1851, and although still sprightly he was unable to take as active a part in the railway as he had. In May 1937 he was on hand to drive the first train out of the new Black Rock station, but it was to be his last public appearance as he died peacefully at home 13 days later. Responsibility for the railway now passed to his son Herman, but not for long, as in 1938 ownership passed to Brighton Corporation by means of the Corporation Transport Bill – just in time for World War 2 and the wartime closure in 1940.

With the fall of Dunkirk the whole of the south of England became liable to be invaded. Soon barbed wire and soldiers replaced the holiday makers, and in many cases civilians were moved out from coastal regions. Volk’s Railway was not spared from the wholesale changes along the seafront. The railcars were removed and taken to the transport depot at Lewes Road, the station buildings at Aquarium and Black Rock were demolished so they couldn’t be used as cover for invading troops. When more room was required at Lewes Road the cars were returned to the seafront and stored under the collonade, which provided at least a small amount of protection from the elements.

With the end of the war in 1945 the Corporation inspected their railway to see what the prospects were like to restore it. Eventually the decision was made to rebuild this very popular asset and upgrade it where neccesary. The mainline was relaid using 50lb rail for the running line and 25lb mounted on insulators for the third rail.

One of the major problems was the the wartime storage, much of it in the open, had taken its toll on the car fleet. Cars 1 and 2 from 1884 were deemed beyond econominc repair and were scrapped alongside the much younger Car 5, the metal body of which was said to have suffered badly from corrosion. It was decided that the remaining cars could be restored to their pre-war condition within the overall budget allocated to the railway, and this work was put in hand.

The pre-war Aquarium Station was destroyed during the war and a new building was required. Fortuntely the Transport Department had a redundant tram shelter and this proved ideal for a station building so it was dismantled and re-erected at the western terminus. At ‘Half Way’ a completely new island platform and passenger access was created about 50 yards west of the old car sheds, which were rebuilt to house all of the cars under cover. At Black Rock a new station was built to replace the war damaged 1937 building. Most of the steelwork for the 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.

The railway reopened from wartime hibernation on the 15th May 1948. It soon became apparent that the increasing  number of visitors wanting to ride was putting a strain on the reduced size of the car fleet. Fortunately Southend on Sea were in the process of replacing the old electric trains that  ran along the pier. This was a  golden opportunity for the Corporation to purchase a couple of 1898 built trailer cars which were fitted with electric motors  and controllers on arrival at Brighton and put into service as Cars number 8 and 9, thus helping to carry the increasing passenger numbers.

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 with drivers selling travel tickets was not a success and was not included in the timetable after the 1954 season.

In 1961 control of the railway passed  to  Entertainments & Publicity and from 1962 cars started to appear in a new brown and yellow livery.  Unfortunately the fall in visitors due to the package tour boom coupled with closure of the Black Rock Lido in 1978 saw passenger numbers drop to an all time low.

The development of ‘Peter Pans Playground’ partially restored the railway’s fortunes and the two platform roads at Aquarium and Black Rock helped operationally, and also meant that one car was nearly always in the station, providing valuable advertising. In 1964 the railway succesfully coupled two cars together with the controls duplicated at each end. This two car train could cope with moving larger numbers of people with fewer drivers required to operate the service. This led to the removal of the second platform road at Aquarium and Black Rock, but the respite from falling passenger numbers didn’t last. The decision was taken to keep the railway running until the 1983 Centenary and then review the situation.

Fortunately the 1983 Centenary was a great success with Magnus’s youngest son, Conrad 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  Railway’s engineer. Eric was responsible for bringing a lot of engineering knowledge to the railway and even experimented with both three and four car formations.

The success of the Centenary meant the railway was to survive, although money for new projects and renovations was still short. Due to a ‘make do and mend’ effort the railway continued to operate every summer, although sometimes it was touch and go. It was with great credit to the staff that the problems were kept from the public, but again the future of the railway looked uncertain.

In the 1990s a new storm drain project caused disruption to the eastern end of the line. The 1948 station was torn down and the line foreshortened by another hundred yards or so to a temporary station. For a while this station was connected to the Marina by a road train but the service was unreliable and was eventually dropped. On completion of the work the line was reinstated to the site of the old station where a new platform had been incorporated into the Regency styled pump house. The pictures below show the old Black Rock Station isolated in the weeds not long before it was demolished, the temporary station used during the pumping station build, and the resulting Black Rock Station.

The formation of a supporters Association for the railway in 1995 provided a ready supply of volunteers willing to assist the small full time staff to keep the railway running into the new millenium. During the following years several schemes were suggested to improve the railway but in the end it was always money that proved the stumbling block. One scheme that was to prove very useful in future years was the decision to try out a variety of liveries on the car fleet. These consisted of dark brown and cream, and red and light cream. So for a time there was a chance to see three different liveries in operation. It certainly made for variety.

2006 saw a major deviation in the railway between the west loop and Halfway to make was for a beach volleyball court and other things. The pictures below give and idea of the extent of this work.

Click on each picture for a larger view. The line was originally almost straight from the west loop to Halfway but in 2006 this was altered. The deviation started about 200 yards east of the loop and curved away from Madeira Drive before an ‘S bend’ took it back to run alongside the road for a short distance. The Yellow Wave sports ‘beach’ was on the seaward side of the line at this point, before another ‘S bend’ took it away from the road to  run the line along the seaward side of what was left of Peter Pan’s Playground and into the Halfway platform. The final picture shows a train heading towards Halfway three years after the deviation was completed.

As the noughties progressed the state of the railway started to give concerns again. No matter how hard the staff and volunteers worked the cars were becoming unrelaible, the car sheds at Halfway were propped up with scaffolding and the station at Aquarium was now reaching the end of its life.

In 2015 the Council, with assistance from VERA, put together a bid for Heritage lottery funding, and it was with relief that the news from Lottery HQ was positive and the railway was awarded £1.65m. This would enable the replacement of the condemned works and running shed at Halfway, the provision of a new station and visitor centre at Aquarium, and the professional restoration of three of the car fleet – cars 4, 6 and 10. Work started in 2016 at the end of that season with the demolition of Aquarium Station and the car sheds. The cars remaining at the railway were placed in temporary storage at Halfway. It was hoped that building work would be finished by Easter 2017, but several problems meant the railway was unable to operate until the end of 2017, with a full service beginning in 2018.

It was a great shame to see the old Aquarium Station building demolished. Prior to being transferred in 1946/7 to the railway it had, for many years, been a tram shelter.  The building that has replaced it is certainly different, but there is no doubt that the visitors centre is very popular. Click on each picture for a larger version.

The car sheds were an entirely different matter and had really become life expired. Scaffold poles held the roof in place, there was not a lot of light inside, it was cramped and made all but the smallest job difficult to undertake. It was historic in that it, or a similar building had been on the site since 1885, but it was falling down! Below are some pictures of the demolition and rebuilding – click on the small image for a larger one.

The three cars chosen for complete restoration were numbers 4, 6 and 10. The succesful tender for restoration was won by Alan Keef Ltd., of Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, and all three cars were despatched while work on the new sheds was on-going. Below are a series of pictures taken at the Alan Keef works during the restoration.

With three cars 4, 6 and 10 being rebuilt at Alan Keef Ltd., Car 9 was receiving attention from VER staff and VERA volunteers at Brighton in a temporary shed constructed opposite Magnus’s old office. This involved stripping it right down and restoring any rotten wood. The side beams of the chassis are a sandwich of wood and metal, and these were restored and repaired as needed. When finished the car was painted in the new corporate livery.

With the railway back together it proved possible to operate a limited service using unrestored cars 7 & 8 in early November 2017. The following year saw the newly restored cars in service with passengers enjoying the rides and taking a great interest in the Visitor Centre. The railway is now 140 years old, and has become a great survivor and a tribute to Magnus Volk and all those who have followed him keeping ‘The World’s Oldest Operating Electric Railway’ alive.