For nearly five decades, the Severn Valley Railway has graduated from relative obscurity to a prominent position in British railway preservation. Nowadays, the initials SVR are not solely part of the specialist jargon of keen railway enthusiasts, although the line is still happily invaded during the popular enthusiast weekends.
Increasingly, the general public has visited the line, thanks partly to extensive TV coverage, which has ensured that very few weeks pass without Severn Valley steam trains appearing on TV screens across the nation.
The SVR is a full-size standard-gauge railway line running regular steam-hauled passenger trains for the benefit of visitors and enthusiasts alike between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire, a distance of 16 miles.
The journey is full of interest, as the route follows closely the meandering course of the River Severn for most of the way on its journey between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth. One highlight of the trip is the crossing of the River Severn by means of the Victoria Bridge - a massive 200-foot single span, high above the water which, incidentally, features in the film 'The Thirty-nine Steps' with Robert Powell in the leading role.
There being few roads in the Severn Valley, some of the views are only visible from the Railway. The scenery is varied and largely unspoiled, punctuated by the quaint 'olde worlde' charm of country stations, each one giving ready access to local villages and riverside walks.
A remarkable feature of the Railway not readily appreciated by visitors is that it is very largely run by unpaid volunteers, with a paid staff of around 70 people responsible for administration and commercial activities, plus regular track and rolling stock maintenance. Throughout the year, volunteers appear on the Railway to perform many tasks, including repairing and repainting stations, reconstruction of viaducts and bridges, and rebuilding locomotives and rolling stock not to mention the operation of the trains !
Many of the trades involved require training. This is provided by professionals who give their time free of charge. The volunteer atmosphere is friendly, and more people are always needed.
The Severn Valley Railway was in the transport business as a through route for 101 years, from 1862 until 1963.
Today's Severn Valley Railway Company is principally in the leisure, tourist and education business and began operations in 1970 from Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade, extending services southwards to Bewdley in 1974, then to Kidderminster in 1984. The Severn Valley line was built between 1858 and 1862, and linked Hartlebury, near Droitwich, with Shrewsbury, a distance of 40 miles. The important intermediate stations were Stourport-on-Severn, Bewdley, Arley, Highley, Hampton Loade, Bridgnorth, Coalport, Ironbridge, Buildwas, Cressage and Berrington.
The original Severn Valley Railway, which borrowed locomotives and rolling stock, was absorbed into the Great Western Railway in the 1870's, and in 1878 a link line was constructed from Bewdley to Kidderminster. This enabled trains to run direct from the West Midlands industrial area, although most Kidderminster to Bewdley trains continued through via the Wyre Forest line to Tenbury Wells or Woofferton. At Buildwas Junction. Severn Valley trains connected with services from Wellington to Much Wenlock and Craven Arms. The Severn Valley line, though providing an essential service for the development of the district, was never financially successful. During Great Western days the pattern of services remained similar, with usually four passenger trains per day in each direction over the whole of the line, and a few more on the section south of Bridgnorth. Freight traffic, mostly of an agricultural nature, and coal traffic from the Highley area were the principal sources of revenue. The advent of the motor lorry in the 1930's spelt disaster for freight, though the line was strategically useful in the Second World War.
After nationalisation in 1948, passenger traffic started to dwindle, largely as a result of the family motor car. Certain economies were effected in the British Railways era, firstly with the introduction of single-unit diesel railcars, and later with diesel multiple units on some of the services, though certain steam-hauled trains survived to the end. The line was closed to through passenger and freight services in 1963 and the track north of Bridgnorth was dismantled. A few passenger services continued to link Bewdley with Kidderminster and Hartlebury, and coal traffic survived south of Alveley Colliery, though these activities were discontinued in 1970 and 1969 respectively. That might have spelt the end for the Severn Valley Railway, but for the arrival of ourselves, the preservationists !!!!
The preservation of the SVR dates from 1965, when a group of railway enthusiasts formed the Severn Valley Railway Society at Kidderminster. Initial efforts succeeded in raising 25 per cent of £25,000 purchase price for the closed 5-mile section of the Severn Valley line from Bridgnorth to Alveley. By 1967, the first rolling stock, an engine and four coaches, had been received. The next three years were spent in restoring the line to operating condition, and obtaining the legal authority, a Light Railway Order, from the Department of Environment, gained only after experiencing considerable difficulties. The section from Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade was opened for public passenger services in May 1970 and the remainder of the purchase price was paid shortly afterwards.
Following the closure of Alveley Colliery in 1969, and cessation of Bewdley passenger services in 1970, a campaign was mounted to raise a further £110,000. £74,000 was spent on purchasing the railway from Alveley through Bewdley to Foley Park, near Kidderminster, where an end-on connection was made with British Railways. Spearheaded by the late Sir Gerald Nabarro MP, the fund raising was successful, and after a huge effort by the Severn Valley Railway's engineering volunteers, the line was reopened, at first to Highley in April 1974, and one month later to Bewdley.
The 2 mile section from Bewdley to Foley Park, though bought by the Severn Valley Railway in 1974, was for a decade only used on special occasions, mainly by steam trains on Enthusiasts Weekends, by British Railways diesel units on peak Saturdays and Bank Holidays, and by British Railways diesel locomotive hauled excursions.
The British Sugar Corporation sidings at Foley Park became disused in 1982, and in 1983-4 over £370,000 was raised by share issue, £80,000 of which was used to fund the purchase of the stretch of line between Foley Park and Kidderminster Junction. The balance of the money raised was used to develop the former railway goods yard site in Comberton Hill, Kidderminster, to form a new SVR passenger station know known as 'Kidderminster Town'. The new section from Bewdley to Kidderminster Town was opened to passenger services on 30 July 1984.
Now two Company's make up the present Severn Valley Railway, that is Severn Valley Railway (Holdings) PLC and The Severn Valley Railway Co Ltd. They set in motion plans to consolidate the line purchases made and develop the 16 mile route into a major national and international tourist attraction. The line now carries approximately 250,000 passengers annually.
The construction of a boiler repair shop at Bridgnorth ensured that the necessary facilities were available for major locomotive restoration and, at Bewdley and Kidderminster carriage restoration, maintenance and repair facilities were set up.
In 2003, with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a carriage storage and maintenance building was erected at Kidderminster with a carriage washing plant added shortly after. Kidderminster Town Station was completed in 2006 with the addition of a glazed concourse canopy and a purpose build refreshment room and hospitality facility.
2007 proved to be a difficult year for the SVR. The opening of The Engine House, the new Visitor & Education Centre at Highley should have been the high point, but massive storms in June and July damaged the line in a total of 45 separate locations delaying its opening, and closing the line between Bewdley and Bridgnorth for several months. Following the storms, work was immediately put in hand to repair the damage with the Railway planned to reopen fully between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth in early 2008 followed shortly afterwards by the long awaited Visitor Centre.
Incidentally, to complete the record, the railway land north of Bridgnorth has been long since sold, and there is now no possibility of Severn Valley trains reaching Ironbridge and Shrewsbury ever again.