The railway came early to Walsall, but didn’t enter the town itself at first. On May 4, 1837, the first railway line in the area opened – the Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Warrington. The local station, ‘Bescot Bridge’, was near the Walsall to Wednesbury road. From here, coaches ran into Walsall, to the 18th century George Hotel on The Bridge.
In 1847 the South Staffordshire Railway opened a temporary station in Bridgeman Place, linking with the Grand Junction line at Bescot Junction. On April 9, 1849, the Wichnor Junction line to Dudley opened and connected with the Bescot to Walsall section. A magnificent new station building was opened in Station Street.
Walsall Station gradually expanded from one set of up ‘up and down’ lines. The South Staffordshire Railway opened the Cannock line in 1858, increasing passenger and coal traffic to Walsall and the Black Country. In 1859, it was extended to Rugeley, and in 1861, the London and North Western Railway took over the Cannock line and widened Walsall Station to accommodate passing lines through the centre for mineral and freight trains, leaving two loops for passenger trains.
The Wolverhampton Line via North Walsall was opened in 1872 by the Wolverhampton and Walsall Railway, and by then the Midland Railway was negotiating for running rights to Walsall. By the time they were established in Walsall, the station was becoming seriously congested.
It was rebuilt in 1883, with a new main entrance in Park Street and separate booking offices for the LNWR and Midland Railways. The LNWR owned the station itself, and their stationmaster was in control. The old station, extended in the LNWR style, became used for parcels and administration. The lines between Platforms 1 and 2 were reduced from four to three, forming the slow lines with the middle line being the ‘Down Passing Loop’. Between platforms 3 and 4 were the fast lines, with the ‘town’ side of Platform 4 having the ‘Up Fast Loop’ beside it, giving platform 5. Two short bays on the ‘down’ side of the station (toward London) were mainly used for parcel vans, and were known as ‘Cannock’ and ‘Sutton’ bays.
Around 1900, Walsall Station was working to capacity, with approximately 1000 train movements in just 24 hours, and provided jobs for more than 200 guards, porters, shunters, clerks and officials.
In March 1916 a fire damaged the booking hall, but due to the Great War the station could only be crudely patched up until hostilities ceased. The undamaged iron and glass canopy forming the Park Street entrance was retained when an imposing new circular booking hall and concourse were built after the war. Adorned with Grecian-style stone pillars, with leaded roof windows and walls lined with fine oak panels, this beautiful building, opened in 1923 by the LNWR District Superintendent, Mr. J.F. Bradford, is well remembered by local people.
From late Victorian times until World War II, Walsall Station was the hub of the town’s trade, travel and commerce.
The station master was held in high esteem, and was always invited to public occasions. He even had his own rowing skiff for when the station was (frequently!) flooded by Walsall Brook, which was then open behind the station.
However, with the growth of the post-war motor industry, the station’s importance declined, accelerated by the ‘Beeching Axe’ in 1965 which left passenger trains from Walsall to Birmingham only.
Walsall Station was virtually defunct by 1977, when this service became hourly.
In late 1978 the town’s fine, prestigious old station was destroyed in an appalling act of historical vandalism, and replaced with the bland and boring Marks & Spencer’s and the Saddlers Centre shopping mall, opened in 1980. Hardly a fair exchange.
The station now became little more than a glorified concrete passenger halt, rebuilt with a tiny concourse and ticket office accessible via Station Street and the Saddlers Centre.
In the late 20th century, however, rail passenger services underwent a surprising national revival when road congestion began to escalate enormously, and on April 7, 1989, the Walsall to Hednesford service was reinstated under the auspices of Staffordshire County Council, West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, British Rail and local councils along the route.
In 1995, major improvements were made to Walsall station, funded by CENTRO with financial assistance from Walsall City Challenge and the European Regional Development Fund. The station concourse was remodelled and new waiting rooms built, with a large, smart new canopy and glass fronted waiting area now extending over much of platforms 1 and 2.
The resurrection of Walsall’s railway services continued in the late 1990’s and saw the extension of the Hednesford line through to Rugeley and then Stafford, as well as the reopening of the Walsall to Wolverhampton service in 1998.
Today, under London Midland Trains, Walsall Station operates in partnership with CENTRO, Network Rail and Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council. Newer trains have gradually been introduced, offering a pleasanter, more comfortable journey for local people.
Services have had their problems, with the disappearance of the direct Wolverhampton service, though there is regular public speculation on further potential for service expansion, but such developments are a long way down the line, if they happen at all.
It may be a very far cry from the grand old days of railways when the railway was the main transport hub of the town, but in 2011 Walsall Station can at least stand up and be counted once more. It is to be hoped that its future will be even brighter.