Volk’s Electric Railway, Brighton
A trip on the oldest remaining operating electric railway in the world.
Report by urban75 editor, June 2006
Volk's original railway with the Chain Pier in the background c.1884
Opening to the public on 4 August 1883, Magnus Volk's Railway at Brighton was the first regular electric railway service in Britain.
Originally built to a narrow gauge of 2ft, the track ran along a shingle embankment for the quarter mile or so from the Swimming Arch (near the Aquarium) to the old Brighton Chain Pier.
A year later, Volk converted the line to a slightly wider 2' 9" gauge and extended the route as far as Kemp Town, passing under the Chain Pier in a steep cutting.
The original two-rail electric system was soon converted to an off-centre three rail system (sea washing over the lines caused serious leakages of current), and in 1886 the track was raised throughout its length by a wooden viaduct.
A train braves stormy seas as it runs along the wooden viaduct east of Banjo Grove in this old postcard view. c.1890
A few words about Magnus Volk
The son of a German clockmaker, Volk was born at 40 Western Road, Brighton in 1851 and quickly developed an interest in electricity, telegraphy and telephony.
His passion for engineering and invention led to him being awarded a coveted Gold Medal in 1881 for a street fire alarm system that was still in use in many towns and cities some sixty years later.
Volk (standing on left of carriage) seen at the opening of his railway, 4th August, 1883
After he made his house the first in Brighton to be lit by electric light, local dignitaries were sufficiently impressed to award him the contract for wiring up the Royal Pavilion with the largest electric lighting system in Britain at the time.
As well as the electric railway, he also dreamt up the eccentric Brighton sea railway and added an hydraulically operated ball to the top of Brighton's famous clocktower.
This rose up a mast on the hour, every hour, and then crashing to the base with such volume that local residents complained about the noise.
Train traverses the raised section into Paston Place c.1901
After Volk passed away in 1937, operations were taken over by Brighton Corporation, before wartime forced the closure of all beaches against the threat of a German invasion.
During the war, the two terminal stations were demolished and defence works built around the tracks, leaving the track in a very sorry state by the end of hostilities.
Happily, the Corporation decided to completely restore the line, rebuilding the entire route and re-opening for an all year-round service on 15 May 1948.
Since 1954, the service has been cut back from Easter to the end of September, with management changing from
Brighton Corporation's Transport Committee to their Entertainments and Publicity Committee in 1960 - who still used Magnus Volk's old office.
In its heyday, Volk's Railway carried an incredible one million passengers a year.
Nowadays the one and a quarter mile route can only manage around a quarter of that figure - but that's not bad for a 120 year old railway!
Busy scene at the Palace Pier terminus, June 2006.
Entrance to the Palace Pier terminus, with a metal arch proclaiming the year of opening.
Small wooden station building at Palace Pier.
Driver prepares the tram for the trip to Black Rock.
The line runs right on the beach as you can see from this view.
Reflections from the driver's mirror situated on the platform.
Leaving the Palace Pier terminus.
Crossing the tracks.
Volk's Railway crossing [Sept 2000 photo]
On the way to Paston Place station. Note the disused passing loop to the right.
Paston Place has also been known as Halfway and (Peter Pan's) Playground. Here's the modest booking office.
Passing a train at Halfway.
The line runs straight through the car sheds east of Halfway.
The curiously over-sized (and rather bleak) terminus at Black Rock. Built in a neo-classical style, the single platform station has a small ticket office and toilets, with the remainder of the building hosting a pumping station.