The first electric railway locomotive was demonstrated in Berlin in 1879 by Werner von Siemens (1816-92) and is now in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The first public electric railway began to carry passengers along the sea front at Brighton on 4 April 1883, and still operates. It was built by Magnus Volk (1851-1937), the son of a German clockmaker, who grew up in Brighton. It has been subjected to many changes but since 1940 has been controlled by Brighton Corporation and since 1995 has been supported by a voluntary body, the Volk’s Electric Railway Association (VERA), which collects memorabilia and restores vintage vehicles. A recent grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund is enabling a programme of upgrading which will be completed in 2017.
Trains usually run every summer from shortly before Easter until the end of September. The 610mm gauge railway extends 1.6 km from Aquarium station near the Palace Pier to Black Rock near the Brighton Marina, with an intermediate ‘Halfway’ station where there is a viewing area. The line works on a third railway system at 110 volts direct current, and at peak times can operate a 15 minute service. Four cars are usually operational but two older examples dating from the 1890s are currently under restoration.
Magnus Volk was also responsible for one of Europe’s most extraordinary railways, the Brighton and Rottingdean Seaside Electric Railway on which am electrically-powered vehicle with a cabin 13.7 m X 6 m was carried between 60 m and 100 m from the shire on 4.7 m long legs running on two 825 mm tracks mounted on concrete sleepers morticed into the bed rock. The line extended 4.5 km from the centre of Brighton to Rottingdean, a village 4.5 km east. The appearance of the carriage gave it the nickname ‘Daddy Long Legs’(der Weberknecht; le maringouin; el tipula). The railway opened in 1896 but was closed in 1901 because Volk could not afford alterations that were necessary to enable a sea defence system to be completed. The carriage was scrapped and the lines taken up but some sleepers can still be seen at low tide.