Outside Stourbridge Junction's ticket office, some stout railway workers of a certain age were discussing strikes. They were bored sounding, unhappy, as they debated how long all this was going to go on for. They certainly weren't rabid Communists hell-bent on disrupting the life of good ordinary folk. Pay them what they deserve, eh?
Tuesday, 7 February 2023
I was in Stourbridge for one reason and one reason only: it wasn't Kidderminster. It was a little down the line, it was uncollected, I may as well. There were only three of us leaving the station - everyone else on the train changed to a different platform. There was the blonde girl whose back you can see up there and, behind me, a studenty type with floppy hair and a body like a particularly underfed stick. He smirked as I took the sign selfie, so I darted across the busy road to try and put some distance between me and him.
It was sadly for nothing. It turned out the three of us were all headed the same way and we all walked at roughly the same pace. As a result, we were trapped in lockstep, one after another, her in front, me in the middle, him at the back, and probably all wishing the others would take a side path and leave us in peace. I finally took action, loitering in a side path and pantomiming looking at my phone to allow the student to pass. All this did was put me in third place, but at least the blonde girl would no longer think I was stalking her.
Being a town in the West Midlands, Stourbridge is blessed with a ring road - a proper one this time, that goes all the way round - and which featured a handy little gateway to welcome you. If that didn't give away the fact that this town was in better shape than its neighbours, the fact that one of the planters on the fence was sponsored by Stourbridge Croquet Club confirmed it. This place was posh.
I walked into the middle and became increasingly furious with myself. This was a nice town, with shops and cafes and restaurants and lovely historic buildings, and I was enjoying it. That made me quite angry. Of course you can be pretty when you've got a few bob. Of course your town is able to weather the economic storms when there's plenty of spare cash to chuck about. I wanted Stourbridge to be at least as bad as Kidderminster, but no, it seemed to be perfectly nice. How dare it. By the time I rounded a corner and found a Waitrose I was incandescent.
I always take these trips with the best of intentions. I want to find lovely places, and if they're places you wouldn't expect to be nice, even better. I've been to many a town across the north with a terrible reputation and found it charming and interesting. Liking Stourbridge seemed obvious. It was like thinking the Lake District is "quite pretty".
I reached Nickolls and Perks - a wine merchant founded in 1797; of course I didn't go in, I'm far more of a Bargain Booze kind of chap - and a French bistro-slash-deli and I reconciled myself to Stourbridge being pretty and well-off and thoroughly nice. I walked back to the ring road, because the good thing about ring roads is they're always a little bit shit, and followed it round until I found a pub.
Even then the barman called me "handsome". It was as though Stourbridge had heard that Kidderminster was getting a bad review and was determined to make sure I came away with five stars. I drank my pint, listening to the chat of the locals, letting it mellow, then I headed to the station. The other station.
At the centre of Stourbridge is a large transport interchange. It's the "wrong" side of the ring road, so it's accessed through a network of subways that channel you away from the traffic and then churn you out into a large glass bus station.
Follow the path round the edge, though, and you reach Stourbridge Town station. The main line to Worcester swept past the town to the south. It was decided that the distance from the centre was just that little bit too far, so a branch line was built from Stourbridge Junction. That alone should tell you how much money was swilling round Stourbridge.
A shuttle operation will always be difficult to run and justify and the Stourbridge Town branch was threatened with closure throughout its life but somehow it managed to cling on. Over the years it would get run down, then have an injection of cash, then get run down again. It's difficult to find a reason to keep a line of less than a mile open.
Apologies for the slightly pained expression on this selfie. There was a gentleman loitering by the entrance to the station who had - let's just say issues - and I didn't really want to catch his eye.
One advantage of the tiny branch line - reportedly the shortest in Europe - is you can use it to try out new technology. As such, since 2009, the train car use has been a Parry People Mover. This is a unique class of train, unused anywhere else in the world, that uses regenerative braking to minimise the amount of energy needed. It's all something to do with a flywheel; I've read the explanation about four times and I still don't really get it, but I'm currently suffering with the dreaded lurgey so my brain is a fog anyway. Here is a video of it pulling into the station anyway.
Yes, we're pivoting to video, it's all very 2014.
It is, quite unsurprisingly, tiny. It's like a little Lego train. It doesn't need to be big, of course. The car does the route in three minutes, going back and forth, so there's six trains an hour. You should be able to get a seat.
Our tickets were checked as we boarded and inside it was clean and bright. It was, however, very much like being on a bus. Once we started up, the impression was even stronger. The Parry People Mover was loud. Knowing nothing about engineering, I'd thought it would be virtually silent, like an electric train. Instead it was like being on a minibus.
I wasn't a fan. And, it seems, neither was anyone else. There aren't any other Parry People Movers anywhere else in Britain, and the company was wound up last year. The website is long gone. Now the talk is of replacing it with a "Very Light Rail" route that would take trains from Stourbridge Town, via the Junction station, and then up a disused freight line into Brierley Hill, where it could meet the Midland Metro trams. I'm not entirely sure why you can't just run the trams along the same route - why you have to come up with a whole different technology - but I'm sure there's some perfectly logical reason for it that isn't simply "it might be a lot cheaper" or "we can promise something really hi-tech rather than something that's actually feasible".
The service is neatly interleaved with the proper train line, so as we arrived at Stourbridge Junction we had just enough time to nip across to the far platform for a train back to Kidderminster. I noticed that the station had its own version of whatever we're calling the West Midlands' Attractive Local Feature boards - a WALF?
Wow, the glamour. It turns out Kidderminster has one too, as I spotted when I loitered at the station for an hour waiting for my train home. Even that was better than going back into town. I'm not daft.