A brief history of Volk's Electric Railway

The son of a German clockmaker Magnus Volk was born at 35 (now 40) Western Road, Brighton in 1851. Educated in the town he was eventually apprenticed to a scientific instrument maker but on the death of his father in 1869 he returned home to assist his mother run the family business.

Scientific and engineering events in the wider world were of great interest to Magnus and he was forever experimenting with electricity, telegraphy and telephony. His growing prowess as an inventor and engineer and the fact that he was the first person in Brighton to equip his house with electric light, led to him being awarded the contract for providing the famous Royal Pavilion with electric incandescent lighting. Contacts made during this period were to prove very important with Magnus’s next and most long-lasting project.
Magnus in 1883
To help navigate through Volk's Railway's long and varied history you can jump to various sections using the bookmarks below. At the end of each section you will be given the chance to return to the top of the page.
1883 - 1900 1900 - 1940 1947 - now
1883 - 1900 The first railway, regauging and the extension to Paston Place

Car No. 1 of 1883  At noon on August 4th, 1883 Magnus presented the people of Brighton with his latest creation - an electric railway operating over a quarter of a mile of 2ft gauge line extending from a site on the seashore opposite the Aquarium to the Chain Pier. Power was provided by a 2hp Otto gas engine driving a Siemans D5 50 volt DC generator. The small electric car was fitted with a 1½hp motor giving a top speed of about 6mph.
I have taken the liberty of tinting the original black and white photograph in line with the contemporary press description of the car. Magnus is standing on the left hand platform with the Mayor on the right.
No sooner was the railway open than Magnus sought powers to extend it westwards along the beach to the town boundary. To his dismay the Council turned this proposition down so he reversed direction and succeeded in getting permission to extend eastwards from the Aquarium to the Banjo Groyne. He also secured the rental of the ‘Arch’ at Paston Place to provide workshop and power facilities. Following experience gained from the first line he also decided to widen the track gauge to 2’8½”, and he designed two more powerful and larger passenger cars.
Although the line would run along the seashore it still required a lot of timber trestles to bridge gaps in the shingle, and severe gradients down and up to allow the cars to pass under the Chain Pier. The picture to the right is from the cover of a book produced by Volk promoting his new railway. In the background can be seen the Chain Pier.   Volk engraving
The new line opened on April 4th 1884 using one car. The uprated power plant in the ‘Arch’ consisted of an Otto 12 hp gas engine powering a Siemens D2 dynamo at 160 rpm. This gave an output of 160 volts at 40 amps - more than sufficient to propel the two new cars along the 1,400 yard long line. A station was provided adjacent to the Banjo Groyne, and a loop complete with halt was provided halfway along the track for cars to pass. With the arrival of the second car a 5 or 6 minute service was provided daily summer and winter (excepting Sundays until 1903) - weather and storm damage permitting. It says a lot for Magnus’s fortitude and engineering that this service operated right up until 1940 when the threat of invasion closed the railway for the duration.
This picture shows the original Aquarium Station with two cars in view. The station now boasts two platform roads and somewhat reduced passenger facilities compared with the engraving on the previous page! Aquarium Station
Current was fed to the motors on the cars by using one running rail as the live feed and the other for the return. One wheel of each axle on the cars was fitted with a wooden centre thus preventing a short circuit. Unfortunately leakage to earth caused by the wet conditions - especially where the line dipped under the Chain Pier - caused enough problems for an insulated third rail to be fitted in 1886 offset from the sea-side running rail to provide the live feed with return now allowed through both running rails. At the same time the track was raised throughout its length by means of a wooden viaduct.
Rough seas As this picture shows the sea showed no respect to the raised line, even in mildly rough weather. In 1896, 10 years after raising the track, a storm of gigantic proportions swept away the old Chain Pier and almost financially ruined Volk who had temporarily forsaken his electric railway for a new venture.

In 1890, frustrated at his inability to extend beyond the Banjo Groyne, Magnus progressed a grand scheme for an alternative railway which ran through the sea. Affectionately known as 'the Daddy Long Legs', this is described elsewhere on this site so for now we will concentrate on Magnus's more orthodox electric railway.
 Although there seems to have been constant problems with the fishermen and cabbies who worked alongside the line, Volk's Electric Railway proved very popular proved very popular withe the public and attracted many passengers. To cope with this increase in traffic two new cars (numbers 3 & 4) entered service in 1892, and a fifth car followed in 1897. Although both of these pictures date from the early years of the 20th century they show the railway very much as it would have looked before the final phase of extension in 1901.

In the upper picture a steamer takes on passengers from the end of the West Pier while two cars on the electric railway have just negotiated the midway passing loop. The lower picture shows the car sheds and station at Paston Place with the Banjo Groyne in the background.

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passing loop

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1900 - 1940 Extensions to Black Rock, the railway passes to Council control

Following the failure of his Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway Magnus sought permission to extend Volk’s Electric Railway beyond the Banjo Groyne to Black Rock. Finally opened in September 1901 the extension bought the total length of the railway to 1¼ miles.
Crossing Banjo Groyne
As can be seen the car shed now became a tunnel through which cars passed on their way to cross the groyne and head towards Black Rock. Because of the lack of shingle on the eastward side of the groyne a steel braced viaduct was constructed to take the railway over the beach and onto the less spectacular timber viaduct that carried it towards the level ground at Black Rock.
 over the viaduct towards Black Rock
The viaduct seen from the Banjo Groyne. In rough weather waves would break over the cars and drivers wore oilskins.
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The less spectacular timber viaduct.
Black Rock Station was on an exposed outcrop with little to welcome passengers except the possibility of a walk along the ‘White Cliffs of Old England’ towards Rottingdean. This delightful postcard shows a car leaving for the return journey to Aquarium - or Palace Pier as it had now been renamed. The driver is reaching up for the speed control which was fitted on the underside of the roof. Black Rock
With the increased power requirements of the newly extended railway the gas engine powered dynamo was replaced in favour of connection to the town’s mains electricity. A Parker rotary transformer was used to lower voltage to the 160 volts dc that was required by the system. It wasn’t only the power that needed upgrading - the longer line meant more miles per year per car so three new semi-opens joined the fleet in 1901 making a total of 8 cars in all. Over the next 25 years two more cars were added making a total of 10 to handle the million or so passengers the railway carried a year.
Aquarium in 1930s In 1930 redevelopment of Madeira Drive saw the line cut back at the western end to a site opposite the Aquarium. Not so conveniently placed for the pier as the original station the name reverted to Aquarium. 1930 also saw the introduction of a purpose built winter car - the last car built specifically for Volk’s Electric Railway.
And it wasn’t only at the west end of the line that things were changing. At Black Rock the Council decided to build a new swimming pool on the land currently occupied by the VER station. In order to accommodate the new development the eastern end of the railway was foreshortened by a few hundred yards.
The new Black Rock station was opened on May 7th 1937 when the Deputy Mayor and Magnus Volk took joint control of Car 10 for a journey from the New Station. Magnus, by now 85, is shown reaching up to take control of the overhead rheostat while the Deputy Mayor grips the brake wheel. Unfortunately this was to be Magnus’s last public appearance as he died peacefully at home13 days later. With Magnus’s death control of the railway passed to his son Herman - but unlike his father, Herman’s tenure was to be short-lived.   Magnus's last appearance
The 1938 ‘Brighton Corporation (Transport) Act’ had far reaching powers - including taking Volk’s Railway into Corporation control. Initially they simply leased the line and operation back to Herman but on April 1st 1940 they took full control and the railway’s association with the Volk family ceased. It seems odd to think that the Corporation could concentrate on such matters when far more important events were unfolding on the world stage. The threat of invasion caused the closing and fortification of the beaches and the railway ran its last train in July 1940.

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1947 to now The Council rebuilds, post-war boom and decline.

With a stable international situation again established the Corporation set to and upgraded their new asset. The mainline was rebuilt using 50lb rail for the running line and 25lb mounted on insulators for the third rail. At Aquarium an old tram shelter replaced the rather flimsy pre-war shelter while at ‘Half Way’ a completely new island platform and passenger access was created about 50 yards west of the car sheds and old station. Even the car sheds were rebuilt to allow all cars to be kept undercover.
Black Rock in 1948 At Black Rock a new station was built to replace the 1937 building which had suffered badly during the war. Most of the steelwork for the platform shelters at ‘Half Way’ and ‘Black Rock’ came from wartime defences and aircraft scrap.
The 'art-deco' style of station was designed to blend in with the architectural style of the Lido at Black Rock. As an be seen later the canopy at Halfway was constructed to match this style as well. Unfortunately the building used at Aquarium did not match this rather unique style.
Wartime storage, much of it in the open, had taken its toll on the car fleet. The 1897 built saloon had been withdrawn from service for dismantling and disposal in 1928, now it was the turn of original cars 1 & 2 from 1884 to meet their end. Worse still the comparatively young winter car had a severe case of the rust worm and was deemed beyond repair. To fill the gaps two ex Southend Pier Railway trailer cars were purchased in 1949 and converted to motor cars. These became numbers 8 & 9 in the Corporation’s fleet and are seen in action right. Car 9
And so the railway reopened from its wartime hibernation on the 15th May 1948 and settled down to post war normality. In 1952 the winter service was suspended to allow some track repairs but was reinstated after repairs were complete. The new, short-lived, winter service had the drivers selling tickets as well as driving the trains and was not a success. Winter services were not included in the timetable after the 1954 season and this has remained the case except in occasional circumstances.
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In 1961 control of the railway passed from Transport to Entertainments & Publicity. The new owners decided on a facelift and from 1962 cars started to appear in a new brown and yellow livery with VR and the Brighton crest applied to the sides. Like many other seaside towns Brighton was feeling the pinch caused by cheap package holidays. This, coupled with closure of the Black Rock pool in 1978 caused the railways passenger numbers to drop to an all time low - the railway’s star was beginning to fade.

The development of ‘Half Way’ into Peter Pans Playground gave an added impetus to the fortunes of the railway and the trains were very busy. Cars still ran individually but operational regulations allowed the cars to follow each other line of sight. Having two platform roads at Aquarium and Black Rock certainly helped with the operation and also meant that one car was always in the station providing valuable advertising for the service.
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In 1964 the railway introduced 2 car operation whereby two cars could be coupled together with controls duplicated on each car. Not only did this mean that each two car train could cope with moving larger numbers of people it also halved the number of drivers required to operate the service. This type of operation also spelt the end of needing two platform faces at Aquarium and Black Rock and the sidings were eventually removed.

Although these and other changes, such as the replacement of the old overhead speed control with a new ‘tram type’ controller, were introduced during the 50s and 60s they did little to halt the decline in passenger numbers. With many other calls on the Corporation’s financial coffers the railway could be seen as a bottomless pit of expenditure if it was allowed to be. The decision was taken to keep the railway running at least until its centenary in 1983 and then to see what the future held. The proviso was that as little as possible was to be spent if the line was to survive.
{short description of image} The 1983 Centenary was a great success with Conrad Volk, Magnus’s youngest son, driving the special train. Cars 3 & 4 carried special headboards commemorating the event and a souvenir booklet was produced. The railway had been tidied up for the celebrations and a lot of hard work had been put in to keep things running by Eric Masters who was the engineer at the time. Eric was responsible for bringing a lot of engineering knowledge to the railway and even experimented with both three and four car formations.

So the railway survived beyond its centenary - it even survived a brief period of time when it was renamed ‘Volk’s Excursion Railway’!

In the 1990s a new storm drain project caused great disruption to the eastern end of the line. The 1948 station was torn down and the line foreshortened by another hundred yards or so to a temporary station. For a while this station was connected to the Marina by Dotto Train but the service was unreliable and was eventually dropped. On completion of the work the line was reinstated to the site of the old station where a new platform had been incorporated into the Regency styled pump house.

Volk’s Railway survives as the oldest operating electric railway in the world - it wasn’t the first but it is certainly the longest lasting. There is something about Victorian eccentricity that arouses the imagination. There is no doubt that Magnus Volk was a very clever man and through the trials and tribulations of operating an untried electric railway in a hostile environment he has earned a place in British folklore.

Elsewhere on this site you will find more information on the history and technical details of the Cars, the changes to the route since 1883, plus details of train times, fares and the latest news.

The Railway is supported by a growing band of enthusiastic people under the banner of 'The Volk's Electric Railway Association' (VERA). Membership of this august organisation will kepp you in touch with what is happening on the line and give you the opportunity of helping to keep Volk's Railway alive for future generations.

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