An enormous amount changed in the Black Country between 1976 and 1989. The 1980s had seen the de-industrialisation of the area, and amongst the more obvious effects of this were the closure of the steelworks at Bilston (1979), Patent Shaft in Wednesbury (1980) and Round Oak (1982).
There were many changes on the railway as a result, inevitable given the nature of the traffic that the railway carried. The Princes End branch had closed, it lasted only a couple of years once Bilston had gone. Also closed were the remnants of the GWR route through Priestfield, which lasted until 1983, together with the short stub to Swan Village. Further south the Freightliner terminal at Dudley had closed in 1986, although on the plus side Round Oak steel terminal had emerged from the ashes of the steelworks. One consequence of these changes was that Wednesbury was no longer a railway junction, as only the South Staffs route between Bescot/Walsall and Stourbridge remained. There were still sidings at Wednesbury though, serving both the steel terminal and the engineer's tip.
On the signalling front Wednesbury was still the fringe box to Walsall PSB, with track-circuit block (TCB) in use to the north. In the southbound direction the line was still worked absolute block to Eagle Crossing. The level crossings over Potters Lane and Eagle Lane were also still in place. What had changed was that the boxes were now only open for two shifts, Monday to Friday, with the line closed at night. Opening hours were 05:30 until roughly 21:00, the actual closure time varying from day-to-day depending on traffic demands. Shift change was usually at 12:50.
Locomotive variety had inevitably diminished. In 1976 the occasional Western could still be seen on the china-clay, but the last hydraulics went in 1977. Also gone were the Class 40s and the Peaks, but the most visible casualty were the Class 24s and 25s which had once dominated the local trip workings. Class 31s had replaced Derby Type 2s on the London Midland Region, and as a consequence these were no longer the occasional interlopers that they had been in the 1970s. The same was true of Class 37s, which along with the ubiquitous 47s were now the staple power on trains through Wednesbury. Class 20s still appeared, as of course did Class 08 shunters, but there were fewer of both to be seen.
Another change was the lack of any surprises amongst the visiting locos. In 1976 the appearance of something like a Cricklewood Class 25 or a Haymarket 47 in the West Midlands was a noteworthy event, especially so in the latter case. By 1989 there was none of this. I scoured the register for July and August looking for anything that might count as a rare or unusual engine - but I couldn't find a single thing. The closest I came was a Class 58 on Trip 52, in lieu of the usual Class 47/4. This was unusual not because the 58 was rare in the locality, but because it was owned by a different part of the freight business from the one which operated this particular train. Sectorisation of the loco fleet had much to do with this lack of variety, as of course did the reduction in the overall loco fleet and the much reduced number of classes in use.
Needless to say there were many fewer trains in 1989 than there had been in 1976. In 1976 there were roughly four movements an hour on average during the daytime, although night shifts were quieter. By 1989 this figure had halved to two an hour, and in the immediate pre-closure era it would halve again to a little over one an hour. In compensation it was much easier for enthusiasts to get information about the train workings in 1989. The reduction in the number of trains combined with a greater interest in the wagons conveyed meant that most of the regular workings could easily be identified by sight - despite the fact that the locomotives no longer displayed headcodes.
In fact the timetable was now sufficiently predictable that it's a straightforward job to summarise the regular workings below. Ad-hoc specials still ran, but there were just a trickle of these compared with the situation in 1976. So here's a summary of the regular timetabled workings through Wednesbury in the summer of 1989...
There were three block steel trains, and all three were regular daily runners. In the morning there was 6M40 Cardiff - Wednesbury and the 6V43 return working which ran to Margam for some reason. In the afternoon there was a similar 6M12 Cardiff - Wednesbury, which returned to Cardiff as 6V69. These trains called at Brierley Hill for traffic purposes as required, and mostly conveyed steel wire from ASW at Cardiff. The loaded trains could be heavy enough to require a banker from Brierley Hill to Dudley. Both trains were absolute rock-solid Class 37 turns and I don't recall ever seeing anything other than a 37 on them. Locos came from the Cardiff metals pools, and were usually 37/7s. 37/9s also appeared quite frequently, but 37/0s were rather less common.
The other regular working was the 6M51 Scunthorpe - Brierley Hill and 6E29 return working. This train conveyed rod and billet, and was a morning visitor. It would call at Wednesbury for traffic if required, and sometimes took a banking engine for the climb from Great Bridge to Dudley. In summer 1989 it was mainly getting Class 37s from Thornaby's metals pool, but Class 20s from Immingham also appeared occasionally.
Most long-distance Speedlink trains ran in the evening and night, and because the line through Wednesbury closed at 21:00 this rather limited the number of Speedlinks which could be routed via the South Staffs line. Nonetheless a few were booked this way, and all bar one ran in the early evening. These trains included 6M72 St Blazey - Cliffe Vale and 6V70 return. As is well known the main load on these trains was china-clay for the Potteries, although they called at Bescot and could convey other traffic if required.
There were three other workings. One was 6V80 Bescot - East Usk, a long-standing Speedlink service which for many years had run to Severn Tunnel Jct until that yard closed in 1987. In the mid-80s this train could get almost anything, Peaks and 47s were probably most common, but I remember a spell when it was regularly in the hands of Class 20s. I've also seen a Class 40 work it at least once, but by 1989 this was all history of course.
The remaining two workings were both northbound trains. The load conveyed by 6M29 Taunton - Bescot included products from the cider factory, and in 1990 it would be extended to run to Warrington Arpley.
In 1988 6M17 had been a Tavistock Jct (Plymouth) - Bescot train, and there was also a 6E82 Gloucester - Whitemoor. However by the summer of 1989 these trains had been amended such that 6M17 was a Gloucester - Bescot and 6L82 was a Bescot - Whitemoor. A year later further rationalisation of the Speedlink network saw 6M17 abolished completely, with any remaining traffic probably being conveyed by 6M29. 6L82 still ran in summer 1990 though.
Back in the summer of 1989 6M17 wasn't booked to arrive at Bescot until 21:09, and was therefore likely to be the last train of the day through Wednesbury. On a few days it's a no-show in the register, which probably means it was running late and diverted from Stourbridge to reach Bescot via Cradley Heath and Galton Jct.
All these Speedlink trains were usually worked by Railfreight Distribution (RfD) Class 47s based at Tinsley, although RfD Class 37s could occasionally substitute.
There was only one long-distance engineer's working booked through Wednesbury in 1989. This was the 9M01 Gloucester - Bescot and 9V01 return working. In early 1989 this train was still getting Class 50s from the Western Region Engineer's pool, but by the summer Class 37s from Cardiff's departmental pool had taken over. The timetable still showed this as a vacuum-braked train, one of the few remaining in the West Midlands.
9M01/9V01 was booked to run on Tuesdays only, but its appearances in the summer of 1989 were a bit erratic. On Tue 4th July it ran as 7M01/8V01; on Tue 11th July it was a no-show; on Tue 18th July there were no trains at all (industrial action); on Tue 25th July there's a 7V01 in the register, but no M01 (ran via Galton Jct perhaps?). On Tue 1st August it ran as 8M01/9V01 hauled by 37230; on Tue 8th August it ran as 8M01/8V01 hauled by 37146; and on Tue 15th August it was a no-show again.
The basic pattern was that each of the remaining terminals had its own trip working, and was visited once in the morning and once in the afternoon. It wasn't uncommon for the morning return working and the afternoon outward working to convey no wagons, with the other legs conveying the bulk of the traffic. The tables below give a better indication of how often this happened
Trip 19 covered Wednesbury and Bloxwich, and in the summer of 1989 it was worked by a Class 08. In 1988 this trip had been worked by a single Class 20, often with the same loco sticking for several weeks. I believe that the change to an 08 was some sort of cost-saving measure, although it didn't last long. In particular Class 08s could struggle with the heavy Cargowaggons then used for Bloxwich traffic, and I believe the maximum load was four.
Trip 42 covered Brierley Hill and Pensnett and was worked by an RfD Class 47. By 1989 Pensnett traffic was on the wane, only the bottled water traffic remained I believe.
Trip 52 covered Round Oak. The main consist of this trip was imported steel on Freightliner flats from Lawley St, although there was a significant amount of steel moved in conventional wagons too. The loco was usually a Crewe-based Class 47/4, reflecting the fact that this diagram started at Saltley. The October 1989 and January 1990 revisions saw the morning and afternoon Round Oak trips incorporated into the Bescot-based T50 diagram. In compensation T52 gained some work in the Birmingham area - it still made morning and evening visits to Bescot but no longer visited Wednesbury.
There were also a couple of Bescot-based engineer's trips which worked as required, and frequently visited Wednesbury in the course of their duties. They were usually powered by Class 20s from Toton's departmental pool. These trips were the closest you'd get to old style unpredictable target workings. Their visits to Wednesbury would occur more often on Mondays and Fridays, bringing loaded spoil trains early in the week and returning the empty rakes later in the week so that they were available at Bescot for weekend engineering trains.
So that's the basic train pattern, but how did it pan out on a day-to-day basis? The following tables show all the trains through Wednesbury in the week starting Monday 10th July. There are only four tables because no trains ran on Wednesday 12th due to a strike. Despite the industrial action the remaining data gives a reasonable idea of the volume of traffic at Wednesbury in 1989, although Thursday 13th does look to have suffered a little from the knock-on effects of the strike.
We're lucky that just as in 1976 one of the regular signalmen in 1989 recorded the loco numbers. As a result we have the loco details for the morning shift, and we can make some fairly safe extrapolations for the afternoon trips as these would almost always have used the same engines. In the daily tables I've shown loco numbers in white where they're recorded in the register, or where there's no doubt about them. In situations where the loco number is unrecorded, but can be reasonably extrapolated, it's shown in grey. Loco numbers shown in this colour are courtesy of Jeff B, from his own observations of the trains in question.