The freight line between Bescot/Pleck Jct and Round Oak was closed with effect from Monday 22nd March 1993, and the last trains ran on Friday 19th March. When the end came there were still three sources of traffic on the line between Bescot and Stourbridge. The steel terminal at Wednesbury had closed in late 1992, but the spoil tip was still in use right to the end. The site was subsequently used for the Midland Metro tram depot and railway spoil traffic from Bescot was re-directed to the tip at Honeybourne.
The second source of traffic was the steel terminal at Round Oak. This was operated by Round Oak Rail, a private firm. Traffic here consisted of steel, mainly in the form of coil, mostly manufactured at Llanwern (Newport) and Port Talbot (Margam) in South Wales. Round Oak remains open to this day, and still receives trains on a daily basis. Trains must now reach Round Oak from the south, but as all the current traffic comes from South Wales this isn't much of a problem.
The third traffic source was Brierley Hill, a steel terminal operated by British Rail itself. It also handled steel, but mainly in the form of wire and rod. In 1993 most of Brierley Hill's traffic emanated from the Allied Steel & Wire (ASW) plant in Cardiff docks, although traffic from other sources (including imports) was routed through Bescot. Brierley Hill survived the 1993 line closure, and remained open as a steel terminal, with traffic from the north routed via Stourbridge.
Brierley Hill was mainly operated by EWS in the post-privatisation years. It led a chequered existence in the first decade of the 21st century, being closed and re-opened on a couple of occasions. In later years anything coming from northern locations other than Bescot would often run via Camp Hill, go down the Lickey, and run-round at Worcester before reaching Brierley Hill via Stourbridge. For a year or so in 2004/05 Brierley Hill received roadstone from Peak Forest, in addition to the steel from Scunthorpe which was the staple traffic. However the stone trains ceased early in 2005, and in September 2006 Brierley Hill closed again - the Scunthorpe traffic having been diverted to Wolverhampton. There were also a few outgoing scrap trains to Southampton and Cardiff in the mid 2000s, but these never developed into a regular flow. The loss of the steel traffic wasn't the end though, in the second half of 2007 stone trains started running from Croft Quarry (Leicestershire). Initially operated by EWS these trains went over to Freightliner Heavy Haul for their last couple of years. Although they ran sporadically the Croft trains were still operating as late as 2011, but when this flow dried up the terminal closed yet again. That did appear to be the end, and no further traffic had materialised by the end of 2016. It would be a surprise if the terminal is used again, but it's not impossible.
Other traffic referred to in the table below includes 6E58, another steel service originating from the ASW plant at Cardiff. During the final months this was the only train booked to take the direct Wednesbury - Walsall route rather than go into Bescot. Another regular train in 1993 was the china-clay service from St Blazey (near Par) in Cornwall to Cliffe Vale in Stoke-on-Trent. This was a long-standing railfreight flow which had no special reason to use the freight line through Wednesbury, other than the fact that it was the traditional and most convenient route. When the line closed it was simply re-routed to run via Bromsgrove, the Camp Hill line (through Birmingham but avoiding New St), Washwood Heath, Sutton Park and Walsall.
In its final years the line was busiest during the morning, and even at the end there was a reasonable amount of traffic early in the day. Afternoons were normally quieter. As in 1989 the signal boxes were still open Monday to Friday on a two-shift pattern, but although the line was nominally open until about 21:00 the loss of the evening Speedlinks meant that the man on the afternoon turn could often get away early. As can be seen from the table 6V70 was usually the last train of the day in 1993.
It should be evident from the movements recorded below that trains from the south were unable to get into the sidings at Round Oak due to problems with the signalling and trackwork there. Consequently these trains were routed into Bescot where the locomotive would run-round the train and head back south to Round Oak. This arrangement inflated the number of trains through Dudley and Wednesbury. Look out too for the problems involved in getting the final spoil train out of Wednesbury on Friday 19th. This also increased the number of movements that took place on that last Friday.
The tables below list all the movements through Wednesbury during the final week of normal service. Where the loco is shown in grey this indicates that this is the engine that should have worked the service according to the diagrams - but I wasn't able to confirm it. For the uninitiated the four-character train codes such as "6M11" are used to identify particular services. The first character identifies the type of train, the second character the destination (usually defined in very broad geographical terms) and the last two numbers are an arbitrary value to identify a particular service. The significant thing to note here is that codes starting with "0" such as 0T46 are locomotives without a train in tow - "light engines" in railway parlance. On the line through Wednesbury "up" trains ran southbound (towards Stourbridge) and "down" trains ran northbound (towards Bescot and Walsall).
|Trains through Wednesbury on Monday 15th March 1993|
|6E58 Cardiff - Wakefield||06.02||56064|
|6M11 Margam - Bescot||06.17||56038|
|6T46 Bescot - Round Oak||07.26||56038|
|0T46 Round Oak - Bescot||08.09||56038|
|6T50 Bescot - Brierley Hill||08.34||47310|
|6V05 Bescot - Llanwern||10.26||56038||Probably dropping traffic from Bescot at Round Oak and collecting empties there.|
|0M12 Cardiff - Bescot||10.40||56040||Traffic deposited at Brierley Hill on way north.|
|6T50 Brierley Hill - Bescot||12.42||47310|
|6V69 Bescot - Cardiff||13.28||56040|
|0X00||16.22||08xxx||Up direction. Believed to be a shunt-engine turning move from Bescot via Wednesbury and Pleck Jct.|
|6V70 Cliffe Vale - St Blazey||18.48||47200|
|Trains through Wednesbury on Tuesday 16th March 1993|
|Neither 6E58 nor 6V69 ran on this day.|
|6M11 Margam - Bescot||07.31||56038|
|6M72 St Blazey - Cliffe Vale||07.48||47200|
|6T46 Bescot - Round Oak||09.07||56038|
|6T50 Bescot - Brierley Hill||09.48||47330|
|6T46 Brierley Hill - Bescot||10.26||56038||Probably with traffic from Round Oak.|
|0M12 Cardiff - Bescot||10.54||56040||Traffic deposited at Brierley Hill on way north.|
|0V05 Bescot - Round Oak||11.37||56038||For 6V05 Round Oak - Llanwern.|
|6Z67 (South Wales) - Bescot||13.00||Additional steel train, probably ex-Llanwern or Margam, bound for Round Oak.|
|6T50 Brierley Hill - Bescot||13.24||47330|
|6Z67 Bescot - Round Oak||14.37|
|0Z67 Round Oak - Bescot||15.30|
|0Z67 Bescot - Round Oak||16.33||Presumably for the empties out of Round Oak back to South Wales.|
|6V70 Cliffe Vale - St Blazey||18.07||47200|
|Trains through Wednesbury on Thursday 18th March 1993|
|No 6V69 on this day.|
|6E58 Cardiff - Wakefield||05.55||56064|
|6M11 Margam - Bescot||06.25||56053||Carried a headboard.|
|0T84 Bescot - Wednesbury||07.59||31407+31512|
|0F80 Bescot - Gloucester||08.06||56053||The loco had failed and was returning to the Western Region under its own power. The destination is assumed from the headcode, 0F80 being the normal code for light engines to that location.|
|6M72 St Blazey - Cliffe Vale||08.34||47200|
|8T84 Wednesbury - Bescot||09.17||31512+31407||Penultimate rake of empties from the CCE tip.|
|6T46 Bescot - Round Oak||09.37||56060||Fresh loco provided to replace 56053.|
|0T46 Round Oak - Lawley St (?)||10.33||56060|
|6T50 Bescot - Brierley Hill||10.35||47344||Running a bit late.|
|0M12 Cardiff - Bescot||11.21||Traffic deposited at Brierley Hill on way north.|
|6T46 Lawley St (?) - Round Oak||12.04||56060||Details for this are a bit sketchy but it was believed to be a train of steel on container flats originating at Hull and sent to Lawley St in error. Assuming it did originate at Lawley St it would have been the last train to traverse the Pleck Jct - Bescot Curve Jct section of track heading south.|
|6T44 Bescot - Round Oak/Brierley Hill||13.00||37884|
|6T50 Brierley Hill - Bescot||14.03||47344|
|0T44 Brierley Hill - Bescot||14.25||37884|
|0Z26 Bescot - Round Oak||17.26||For the empty flats, which appear to have gone south from Round Oak.|
|6V70 Cliffe Vale - St Blazey||17.46||47304|
In fact there were one or two other movements on the line after it had formally closed. A cable-laying train traversed at least part of the route later in 1993, with Class 31s in charge. Over subsequent years the line began to fall into increasing disrepair. Vegetation slowly began to take over, with mature trees eventually growing on the trackbed. For the first couple of years after closure there was evidence of vegetation clearance on the southbound track, but by the time Railtrack took control all signs of maintenance disappeared. The signalling equipment was removed shortly after closure, and the signal boxes at Wednesbury and Eagle Crossing (Great Bridge) were both subsequently destroyed by fire.
Developments after closure
Since the line closed four civil engineering projects have required the construction of new bridges, three of which cross over the railway line and one which goes under it.
- The first new bridge was needed for the construction of the Black Country Spine Road between Wednesbury and Great Bridge. The Spine Road opened in 1994 and a dual-carriageway now crosses the line just a few yards south of Eagle Lane via a four-span viaduct. The extensive road works associated with this project saw Eagle Lane itself closed as a through-route to road traffic - it's now a footpath.
- The second project was the opening of the Midland Metro in 1999. This required a new bridge to carry the ex-GWR alignment - now the Metro route - over the South Staffs line at Wednesbury. The original bridge which carried the GWR railway line at the same location had long since gone by the time that the Metro was built.
- Later in 1999 a new road bridge was built at Cinder Bank to take the Dudley Southern Bypass over the railway. The railway alignment was carefully preserved, but the track was removed in the vicinity of these works, and not replaced of course.
- The most recent bridge work occurred at the northern end of the closed section. This involved a new development on the land to the east
(Bescot) side of the South Staffs alignment, just south of where it crosses over the Grand Jct line. This was land previously used by
Bescot Drop Forgings, and Spear & Jackson (previously Elwell's).
These factories were accessed from St Paul's Road, Wednesbury. However this road wasn't suitable for modern lorries, it's narrow and bisects the High School campus. So a new access road was required to link the new development directly to junction 9 of the M6.
This new road needed to pass underneath the abandoned railway, and thus a new bridge was built immediately alongside the existing Wood Green viaduct in 2007. The new bridge butts up against the northern end of the viaduct, and carries the South Staffs alignment over the new access road. In the event the site lay undeveloped until late 2013, when preparatory groundwork commenced. In February 2016 work finally began on the construction of a large Lidl distribution depot.
Up Dudley Siding (UDS)
This is the name for a short stretch of track on the South Staffs route between Pleck Jct and the site of Bescot Curve Jct. During 2012 and 2013 the redundant up and down Dudley lines - not used since 1993 - were relaid to a point underneath the M6 motorway. Here the lines converged into a short shunt neck, via a set of hand-operated points. The purpose of this was to provide a run-round facility for coal trains heading to and from Rugeley power station, saving them from having to go into Bescot to run-round.
Trains would arrive on the (former) Up Dudley line and stop just short of the motorway. The driver would then detach the loco, draw forward into the neck, change the points, and proceed back towards Pleck Jct via the former down Dudley line. When signalled the loco would proceed forward on the down slow line to a point just beyond the Wednesbury Road bridge at Pleck Jct. The driver would then change ends and wait for a dummy signal which controlled a move back onto the up Dudley line via a trailing crossover between the slow lines. After coupling up, the train would eventually depart "bang road" on the up Dudley line, using the same crossover under the Wednesbury Road to reach the down slow towards Walsall.
Although the requirement for this run-round facility had existed for a number of years, its provision was timed to coincide with the Walsall area re-signalling which took place in August 2013. At that point Walsall signalbox closed, and control of all the signals in the Bescot and Walsall area was transferred to the West Midlands Signalling Centre at Saltley. Although the re-signalling went ahead as planned, the Up Dudley Siding didn't become available for use until over a year later - in autumn 2014. By late 2014 coal trains were running at normal winter volumes or better, and for the most part all were using the UDS instead of running-round in Bescot.
However in April 2015 significantly higher carbon taxes became effective for the use of coal in electricity production. As a result the volumes of coal being conveyed to Rugeley - and other coal-fired stations - dipped dramatically. Stockpiles at power stations allowed the continued generation of electricity, but often at reduced output. Any suspicion that normal service might be restored during the winter of 2015/16, when stockpiles had been rundown and demand on the grid would rise, turned out to be wrong. Coal trains ran to Rugeley during that winter, but at much-reduced levels. Typically only one to three loaded trains ran each day, rather than the seven to nine that might have been expected in previous years.
Then in early 2016 it was announced that Rugeley power station would close that summer. Daily coal trains ceased running altogether on Friday 19th February, only a couple of weeks after the closure had been announced. From that point the power station burnt its remaining stockpiled coal, and when that ran out in early June 2016 it closed. Only a handful of trains ran to Rugeley in the period between mid-February and early-June, and most of these were limestone for the flue-gas desulphurisation plant.
So in the end the UDS turned out to be something of a white elephant. Becoming available a year later than expected meant that its useful existence spanned the period circa November 2014 to February 2016. But in reality the normal volume of coal trains only used it in the period November 2014 to March 2015. From April 2015 to February 2016 the volume of coal trains running to Rugeley was low, and wouldn't have presented much inconvenience at Bescot. And by summer 2016 the vegetation had already started to reclaim the newly laid - but now redundant - trackwork. As with the rest of the closed line it looks like nature will take it back again within a few years.
Almost as soon as the line closed there was talk of re-opening in the air. For many years a Midland Metro route from Wednesbury to the shopping centre at Merry Hill (via Dudley) had been planned. This would use, or at least share, the South Staffs trackbed for much of its route. When this page was last revised in October 2016 those plans were well over 20 years old, but beyond some surveying, no work had started.
By summer 2008 the Centro website had quietly introduced the possibility of running tram-trains on the Wednesbury - Brierley Hill route, but the most significant development in subsequent years had been the apparent loss of interest in this route - originally described as line 2 - in favour of extending the Metro a few hundred yards around Birmingham and Wolverhampton city centres.
Railfreight had been in slow decline for many years, but there was a brief period of growth and optimism towards the end of the 1990s following the takeover of most British railfreight operations by EWS (English, Welsh and Scottish Railway). This led to talk of re-opening the line for freight, in large part as a way of bypassing the congested tracks around Birmingham for freight trains running on the south-west/north-east axis. This would make much more sense if it was to occur in conjunction with the re-opening of the Walsall - Lichfield line, which closed as a through route in 1984. However this is another aspiration which isn't going to happen for many years, if ever. In early 2005 the Strategic Rail Authority released a document entitled West Midlands Route Utilisation Strategy (bottom of page 55). This document briefly mentions the line and concludes thus: "The Route Utilisation Strategy does not propose to promote the reinstatement of the Round Oak - Bescot route but confirms the need for the route to be protected for the longer term".
Despite all the talk nothing much happened on the ground. Twenty years after closure the trees continued to grow unchecked, and the local roads got more and more congested - even outside commuting times. By 2016 the requirement for a freight line to bypass Birmingham no longer seemed relevant. The conventional route to the south-west via the Lickey incline was as busy as ever with passenger trains, and the electrification of the Lickey incline to allow electric units to reach Bromsgrove would soon add more trains to that part of the route. However freight traffic was in serious decline, due in part to a massive reduction in the movement of coal referred to above. The number of daytime freight trains on the Birmingham-Gloucester axis could usually be counted on the fingers of one hand.
There seemed to be brighter news on the Metro front, with an announcement in autumn 2016 suggesting that work on the line between Wednesbury and Merry Hill would finally commence in 2017. Evidently the changes in financial arrangements resulting from local government devolution would make the funds available. However closer reading of the relevant documents revealed a slightly different story. 2017 would actually see more preparatory work rather than full-blown construction. Despite the talk of devolution a new business case would still need to be submitted to central government, and the original transport and works orders would need to be re-visited given that they were now more than a decade old. In fact the proposed timetable wouldn't see the actual construction work start until 2021. All being well it was would be completed in 2023. So even if these dates are met it will still be many years before any practical use is made of the route. Indeed if the 2023 date is met then a full thirty years would have elapsed between closure and re-opening.
See the Pleck Jct - Round Oak page for more pictures of how the line looked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, compared with how it looked around 2004. I had originally intended to re-visit each location about five years later, but further vegetation growth made that project pointless. In most places the views would simply have been of scrub or trees, with no trackbed or infrastructure visible.