Saving Volk’s Railway: Our New Project Management Service

  • | Andy Bramwell

As part of Donald Insall Associates’ emerging cultural heritage and project management service, we were delighted to be appointed to project manage the conservation and regeneration of the world’s oldest electric railway in December 2015, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The £2 million “Saving Volk’s Railway” project in Brighton consists of a new station and visitor centre, a new conservation shed and workshop, interpretation, signage and restoration of three historic carriages.

Volk’s Railway was established in 1883 by pioneering electrical engineer Magnus Volk (1851-1937) and runs the one mile length of the east sea front, from Aquarium Station near the Palace Pier to Black Rock Station near Brighton Marina. Volk was an engineer and inventor, who built Volk’s Electric Railway as a visitor attraction. He also built the short-lived Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway which featured the amazing “Daddy Long Legs” vehicle, allowing visitors to ride on an elevated platform above the sea.

The railway passes the famous Victorian cast iron arches on Madeira drive, which are now on Historic England’s ‘Buildings at Risk Register’. This current project forms part of an initiative to improve Brighton’s east sea front and safeguard its Victorian heritage.

The site is within Volk’s Railway SNCI (Site of Nature Conservation Interest) and close to the Brighton to Newhaven Cliffs Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) — planning will require consideration of the local ecology, including preservation of sea front plants and animal habitats. Volk’s railway is owned and managed by Brighton & Hove City Council and largely run by volunteers; with track engineering and train repair work carried out by the extremely resourceful Volk’s Electric Railway Association (VERA).

The HLF grant of £1.6 million was given to fund construction of a visitor centre and ticket office at the Aquarium station, a replacement depot and workshop with viewing gallery at Halfway, the restoration of cars 4, 6 and 10 (built in 1901, 1910 and 1925 respectively) to full working order and the provision of new educational material about the railway. The new station and multi-purpose visitor centre will provide a welcome area for visitors and passengers, along with a new ticket counter and indoor area to view and wait for trains. The exhibition area will include both static and interactive displays telling the story of Magnus Volk and his revolutionary railway, an activity and learning space for schools and groups, event hire, a café with indoor and outdoor seating and staff/volunteer facilities. The buildings have been designed by ABIR architects of Brighton, and are a contemporary interpretation of traditional sea front buildings, clad in zinc and rubber.

As Project Manager, we are working closely with our client Brighton & Hove City Council as well as VERA and ABIR’s design team to develop both buildings to tender stage, oversee the tender process and contract administration during the construction phase. We are also managing the contract to restore the three historic carriages being refurbished by Alan Keef Ltd of Ross on Wye. We are responsible for programming and planning all work activities to ensure work starts on site in August 2016 to achieve an opening in time for the Summer 2017 season.