THE HISTORY OF FALLING SANDS VIADUCT
FALLING SANDS IN FIVE SENTENCES:
1. Falling Sands Viaduct carries the SVR over the River Stour and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal between Kidderminster and Bewdley.
2. The viaduct was designed by Edward Wilson, West Midlands Railway engineer, and was built by the Great Western Railway between 1875 and 1878.
3. Falling Sands formed part of the Kidderminster ‘Loop Line’, which linked Kidderminster and Bewdley with the Hartlebury and Stourbridge Railway.
4. Dozens of navvies did the hard work building the 121 metre long, 19.5 metre high viaduct, and some lived and worked in terrible conditions.
5. The first train ran over Falling Sands Viaduct on 1st June 1878 at 8am, so they could catch the 8:25am to Birmingham and Wolverhampton!
THE BEGINNING OF THE VIADUCT: 1841-1878
A VIADUCT OF INDUSTRY: 1880-1914
FALLING SANDS AT WAR: 1914-1945
Everything changed in September 1914 with the start of the First World War, and Falling Sands Viaduct was no exception! The start of the war saw a rise in the demand for coal and stone. Excursions still ran from Birmingham to Tenbury Wells, but due to a lack of labourers, hop pickers and railwaymen, services were greatly reduced. By 1918, there were four trains traveling each way from Highley Colliery and fares for traveling had risen by up to 50% to deter travel. Rifle Range was transformed during the war into a troop training ground and by 1920, the halt had officially closed.
The inter-war years saw a lot of change for the Severn Valley Railway. In 1923, local bus services in the areas were trialed, which had cheaper fares than the GWR and passenger numbers began to decline. However, the Loop Line was still key as an industrial railway and in 1925 the famous Sugar Beet Factory was built in Kidderminster and sidings were laid for trains to take sugar beet across Falling Sands Viaduct on their way to Kidderminster Goods Yard. Hop picking trains expanded to Burton-on-Trent and the Steatie and Porcelain Products was opened in Stourport in 1929 and trade once again boomed for the railway. So much so that the Kidderminster and Stourport tramway closed as a result on 2nd April 1929.
By the end of the 1930s, the Severn Valley Railway were readying themselves for war and when it finally broke out in September 1939, Falling Sands Viaduct became essential to the war effort. A Royal Air Force built a camp at Bridgnorth and WAAF were using the railway to train new recruits on troop and store services. Kidderminster and Bewdley were also key in the early evacuation trains for children from Smethwick in Birmingham. The SVR was also used to transport coal from Highley and Alveley Colliery, soldiers and war supplies from the Smethwick Drop Forgings Factory. In 1943, the US army built bases at Wolverley and Burlish and occupied the barracks at the Rifle Range. By the end of the war, the SVR were running US Hospital trains, bringing over 3,000 casualties from the South coast to Bewdley and Stourport.
But that didn’t mean the railway was safe from attacks. It was attacked twice, first by bombing raids in 1940 and on 16th and 17th May 1941, a series of incendiary devices exploded, damaging the west side of Kidderminster, but the railway escaped unharmed both times!
DECLINE AND CLOSURE: 1945-1980
The end of the Second World War saw the beginning of the end of Falling Sands Viaduct. On 1st January 1948, the British Transport Commission had taken over and the new Midland Red were running bus services between Birmingham, Kidderminster, Tenbury and Hereford that ran earlier than the trains. By the 1950s, freight traffic had declined significantly with the rapid growth of roads and road haulage vehicles. In 1957, diesel units were introduced to replace steam with the only steam locomotives being used in Alveley Colliery.
From January 1963, the Severn Valley Railway became part of the London Midland Reion of British Rail, but that did not save it. On 7th September 1963, the last passenger train departed to Shrewsbury and the railway became freight-only and the line towards Bridgnorth from Alveley Colliery was closed on 30th November 1963. By the time Kidderminster Locomotive Shed closed in 1964, the only remaining railway open was the Loop. But all that collapsed when the last passenger service ran across Falling Sands Viaduct on 5th January 1970. It would be another 10 years before the last sugar beet train ran over Falling Sands Viaduct in 1980 and the viaduct closed for the first time since it was built 102 years earlier.
Falling Sands Viaduct is a major part of the Severn Valley Railway’s past and present, but it nearly didn’t get built at all! Come and explore the fascinating history of an important viaduct.
When Falling Sands Viaduct was built, railways were run very differently to now. It all started in 1841, when the Midlands had three major railways: the London and Birmingham Railway, the Grand Junction Railway and the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. Industrialists in the West Midlands were unhappy about the high tariffs they had to pay on the current railways and decided to support a Great Western Railway line from the West Midlands to Oxford. This railway became known as the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway and it would have stations at Stourbridge, Kidderminster, Droitwich, Worcester and Evesham. The railway was agreed by the GWR in 1845, but the Bewdley landowners did not want to be left out of this new venture, so they met potential railway promoters, and what happened would lead to the creation of Falling Sands Viaduct.
They met in the Guildhall in Bewdley on 27th August 1845 to drum up interest for a link between the OWWR and Bewdley. There were two proposals for a railway link to Bewdley: one from South Wales to Hereford and Worcester via Leominster, Tenbury and Bewdley and one from Shrewsbury to Hereford. It was decided that a line would be built from Shrewsbury to Worcester via Bridgnorth and Bewdley. Two survies were carried out on the route along the Severn Valley Railway, one in 1846 and another in 1849. The line was proposed to join the OWWR at Hartlebury and, after successfully raising £350,000, work began on the railway in 1850, with Thomas Brassey overseeing the contract. The line was opened in stages between 1852 and 1853 and the OWWR opened Kidderminster station on 1st May 1852.
But, by the 1860s there was still no link to Bewdley and since the opening of a new railway, so OWWR Engineer, Edward Wilson, prepared a plan to link the towns by creating a new line at the end of Sanbourne Viaduct in Bewdley, running through a tunnel and a viaduct crossing to join the OWWR south of Kidderminster. The line was authorised on 1st August 1861 to be constructed as a Loop Line, connecting Bewdley and Kidderminster to Hartlebury. But, 1866 saw a stock market crash and delays in starting work, so the GWR looked for an alternative line from Bewdley to Kidderminster via Cookley and Wolverley. It looked as though Falling Sands might never be built!
In October 1866 the new GWR Chairman, James Milne, gave another chance to build the Loop Line in a new plan by Michael Lane, the GWR Chief Civil Engineer, which was opposed by the Mayor of Kidderminster. Once again, Edward Wilson returned with plans and trial sections for a new line. But, the railway was saved by the London and North Western opposing this plan in favour of the Loop Line. On 12th June 1873, the committee ordered the completion of the Loop Line and Falling Sands Viaduct. Construction finally began in early 1875, after another year of delays! Construction took longer than was expected and with great cost. In March 1876 two Navvies, Matthew Jones and Henry Phillips, were killed. The first public train left Bewdley soon after 08:00 on 1st June 1878 for Kidderminster to connect with the 08:25 to Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
After the construction of the Loop Line and Falling Sands Viaduct, the Severn Valley Railway continued to blossom and expand. Birmingham merchants began flocking to the area and built warehouses in Kidderminster for wool, timber and grain and the railway expanded their warehouses and goods yard. The Great Western Railway also continued the railway’s expansion by bringing iron and steel up from South Wales and coal from the newly opened Highley Colliery across Falling Sands Viaduct to Birmingham. Railway services began to spring up for the miners traveling to Highley, Kinlet and Borle from Kidderminster and in the 1890s, new hop picker trains ran across Falling Sands to Tenbury Wells from Birmingham.
The SVR continued to grow into the 20th century with new branch lines extending the railway into Cleobury Mortimer from the Tenbury Wells branch-line, extending to Dhustone mines and stone works. However, the railway was about to enter a time of fierce competition! In 1898, a tramway was opened between Kidderminster and Stourport, which attracted customers that previously used the branch-line on the Loop Line because it meant they didn’t have to change at Bewdley or Hartlebury. In 1900, the successful of this tramway urged the British Electric Traction Company to build another tramway between Kidderminster and Bewdley and it looked like the Loop Line would struggle.
But, there was hope with the introduction of passenger services. In 1904, the GWR received a complaint about the lack of services on the line and proposed a new summer timetable that introduced a new steam rail-motor, which would run along the triangle of the Loop Line. This turned out to be so popular that the proposed tramway between Kidderminster and Bewdley was abandoned and new halts were built at Foley Park and Rifle Range. From this, the railway began to flourish again, with the extension of through-trains from Birmingham by the LNWR and Bewdley sold 20,000 more tickets in 1913 compared to 10 years earlier.