A Driver’s Eye View
The Stourbridge branch line has been the source of much curiosity since 1879. The ¾ -mile line linking Junction and Town was built because the Old Worse and Worse (otherwise known as the Oxford Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway) didn’t bring the line close enough to Stourbridge town centre. (The Junction station is actually in Oldswinford).
Plenty has been written about the history of the (supposedly) shortest branch line in Europe, but today it is flourishing under the operation of the “Stourbridge Shuttle”, continuing the town’s proud railway history with innovative “Parry People Mover” Railcars.
I earn my keep driving the service, so if you want to know a bit more about the operation, read on!
The Railcars are Class 139 in railway parlance, and we have the only 2 operational examples. They wear London Midland livery and the staff wear London Midland uniforms. It’s a London Midland (LM) service, but behind the scenes, it is operated by the UK’s smallest Train Operating Company – Pre Metro Operations Ltd, under contract to LM.
Staff are dedicated to the operation. Although trained to the applicable Railway Group standards and the Railway Rule Book, we only operate on this line. It’s a good thing, as we get to know our regulars, and they get to know us – a real community feel!
The service has been operated fully by the Railcars since 2009 (although there were significant trials in the preceding years) and for passengers, many improvements on the previous operation by class 153 units. A higher frequency (mostly every 10 minutes from either end), a flat-level entry for wheelchair and buggy users, a much cleaner/greener operation when it comes to emissions (using a flywheel/LPG system that captures energy when braking to power it back up hill towards the Junction) and overall a cheaper general operation. A Sunday service was also introduced for the first time in many years.
For the statistics lovers, our rolling PPM (Public Performance Measure) is hovering around 99.7% – our service is very resilient and highly reliable! On weekdays, we operate 214 individual journeys every day (normally 6 return trips per hour) with slightly less late evenings, early Saturdays and Sundays. In a typical 4-week period, this equates to 5424 scheduled services. Passenger numbers are growing. From an average of around 34,000 per month when we took the service over in 2009/10, we are on course to top an average of 44,000 per month this year. We have seen significant rises in student use, both for Hagley schools and Stourbridge College / King Edwards students, as well as a rise in the numbers of commuters. Although the Railcars seat 21 passengers for the 3-minute journey, we can carry up to 60 passengers in total including standing passengers. For most journeys throughout the day, however, the capacity is adequate. Longer-term, we’re looking at possibilities for larger Railcars. One frequently asked question is why we can’t couple the two Railcars together for greater capacity during peak-periods. Operationally, we can’t do this, although the two can be hooked up in case of breakdown for recovery purposes.
On the engineering front a small bespoke depot provides for all of the maintenance requirements for the 2 Railcars. Such work varies from routine A and B exams right through to major work such as engine changes and fitting reprofiled wheels to Railcar axles. A truly self-contained operation.
So what’s a typical day like?
Early staff book on at 5am. There is always 2 staff, as required for the operation – good for safety, security, revenue protection and general passenger well being. Once any operational notices have been read, the operational Railcar is checked over prior to commencement of service. This involves a series of checks to ensure the vehicle is fit for service. As the line is a single line operation, we also require a token or “staff”, which we have to obtain from a locked box via communication with Network Rail. We also check in with London Midland’s Control Centre. First journey on weekdays is at 0545 from Junction.
How do we swap the Railcars around?
If one has a problem, or routinely (early on Sunday mornings before a later public service starts), we use the ground frame to change the points, much like our forefathers would have done over the previous 100-plus years! By changing the path, one Railcar can move onto the area near the old signal box, and via communication between the Person In Charge and Driver, we can alter the points in order to move one Railcar behind the other on the single line and back into the depot.
Line speed is a 20mph maximum, which means the 10 minute service can be maintained with a turnaround time of around 60 to 90 seconds at either end. It is literally a continuous operation!
It’s also worth addressing from a passenger perspective why we operate strictly to the LM timetable and appear to depart when some Snow Hill line trains arrive. The “turn up and go” 10-minute frequency is very attractive to our passengers. During the day, Snow Hill lines services to Birmingham are also on similar frequencies. But we also connect with bus services at Stourbridge Town, in the adjacent Interchange. Some of these services run at lower frequencies, and we know that many of our users make connections with bus services. Although many Snow Hill line trains are designed to connect comfortably with The Shuttle, not all do. Add into the mix that some will inevitably run slightly late, even by a minute or so. If the Snow Hill line service is coming in on platform 3 (towards Kidderminster), it will take time for passengers to get across to platform 1 to reach The Shuttle. It is always a judgement for our staff in this situation. If we delay the Shuttle by any more than a few seconds, we start to lose our timetable. More importantly, existing passengers may be making connections onto buses at the Town. And the next journey from Town to Junction will consequently depart late, potentially inconveniencing passengers making onward journeys back at the Junction. It may seem like “only a few seconds” to wait at the Junction, but that can quickly add up to a minute, maybe two minutes. Some passengers may not be as quick as others in making their way to platform 1, some may need to use the lift. So delaying the Shuttle on our high frequency has implications, which is why we operate to the LM timetable. We may hold for a few seconds, but the window of opportunity to do this literally is those “few seconds”.
Both members of staff are qualified drivers. When one isn’t driving, he/she performs Customer Service duties. Ordinarily, we do 1 hours driving at a time, then swap to the other role, although we can swap over whenever we feel like it.
Early shift crews operate Shuttle journeys 5am-3pm. Late crew 3pm-midnight. (Late crews refuel the Railcar after service at midnight and occasionally perform Railcar swaps if required.) Our rota is on a 4 days on/4 days off rota that rolls continuously including weekends and Bank Holidays. (The only days we don’t operate are Christmas Day and Boxing Day). Crews have one 30-minute “personal needs break” and a 1 hour lunch break during shifts, during which another member of staff provides cover. Outside of this cover, that member of staff provides standby cover to ensure continuity of the service.
What of the future?
The Shuttle is operated under contract to LM and thus our service will be under review when LM’s franchise comes up renewal. We will be part of the discussions and negotiations. Longer-term, we’re looking at vehicle capacity and how we can improve the service further. We’re talking with Network Rail to address improvements to ride quality on the line. Pre Metro Operations Ltd is also involved in discussions regarding potential operations at several locations around the UK that are considering a similar light rail operation. Recent local media reports have highlighted plans to operate a new Very Light Rail service between Dudley and Dudley Port, and we are involved in this proposal.
The Shuttle is active in the World of social media too! Our Twitter feed (@SbridgeShuttle) and Facebook page (facebook.com/StourbridgeShuttle) carries details of live service information for both the Shuttle and Snow Hill line services, which may affect our passengers. We also provide information about local Stourbridge area bus services if there are issues. Occasionally, we also give a nod to our local history if we come across any old photos or articles about railways in Stourbridge.