The origins of the bridge at Sharpness lie in the early 19th century. The Severn & Wye Railway was authorised by parliament on 10 June 1809 as the Lydney & Lidbrook Railway. The following year, on 12 June, a change of title to the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Co was authorised. Construction of the Lydney Canal and the associated plateway commenced.
The line opened from Lydney to Lidbrook via Mierystock Junction (near Serridge Platform) along with a short branch to Churchway (north of Cinderford) as a horse-operated 3-foot 6-inch gauge tramroad. Further short branches followed and, in 1847, the South Wales Railway agreed to operate the line and, six years later, obtained powers to supply motive powers.
In 1868 the line was converted to broad gauge through the laying or an additional line alongside the tramroad from Lydney to Wimberry but, due to a dispute, broad-gauge operation did not commence until 19 April 1869. The line’s broad-gauge career was, however, shortlived, and between 1872 and 1874, both the broad gauge and tramroad sections were relaid to standard gauge.
Other work at the time included the construction of the ‘Mineral Loop’, which opened in 1872 and the passenger branch to Coleford. Passenger services first operated over what had been, until this point a purely mineral line, from Lydney to Lydbrook on 23 September 1875.
The Severn Bridge Railway was promoted jointly by the Midland Railway and the Severn & Wye Railway. Authorised in parliament on 18 July 1872, the railway was intended to facilitate the movement of coal from the Forest of Dean coalfield to the newly enlarged docks at Sharpness.
Construction of the 4,162-foot bridge began in 1875; costing some £200,000 to construct, the bridge was some 70-feet above the high water level in order keep the shipping channel to Bristol and Gloucester docks clear.
The iron for the bridge came from the Hamilton Windsor Iron Works and funding for the project came from, inter alia, the Midland Railway and the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal. The Severn Bridge Railway and the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Co were merged pursuant to an act of 21 July 1879 to form the Severn & Wye & Severn Bridge Joint Railway and the line from Sharpness to Lydney Town opened on 17 October 1879.
However, financial problems leading to bankruptcy resulted in the Midland and Great Western railways acquiring the company for £477,300 in 1885, with the railway officially becoming a joint venture on 1 July 1894 as the Severn & Wye Joint Railway. Apart from the main line from Lydbrook (where there was a connection with the Midland’s line from Monmouth to Ross-on-Wye) to Lydney, Sharpness and Berkeley Road, the SWJR also had passenger branches to Coleford (opened 9 December 1875) and to Cinderford (opened 2 July 1900) as well as the ‘Mineral Loop’ (opened to avoid the necessity of reversal at Serridge for freight traffic; passenger services went through to Cinderford and reversed) and a number of mineral branches.
At opening, the S&W&SBC possessed eight locomotives, four coaches and 26 wagons. After the MR/GWR take-over, the Midland handled the track maintenance and the rolling stock passed to the GWR. After 1885 the GWR provided the locomotives, with coaching stock from both of the railways appearing over the line. The opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886 had a further detrimental effect on traffic, but the bridge remained a useful diversionary route in the event of problems in the tunnel.
In 1910 the pattern of services saw seven return workings per weekday from Berkeley Road to Lydney Town, of which three ran to or from Lydbrook Junction. In addition to these services, there was a single morning service from Cardiff to Sharpness and a return afternoon working; according to the timetable these could be extended to or from Berkeley subject to advance request being made. In all, there were four return workings per day between Lydney and Lydbrook Junction, plus a further two that operated between Lydney and Cinderford only (three on Thursdays or Saturdays). There were four services to Coleford per day and five from Coleford with an additional service in each direction on Thursdays and Saturdays. There was no Sunday service on any of the lines.
The line’s joint status remained after the Grouping in 1923 but the deterioration in the economy during the late 1920s saw passenger services withdrawn from the main line from Lydney to Lydbrook Junction and on the Coleford branch on 8 June 1929. The SWR station at Cinderford remained open for passenger services via the Great Western route from Bullo Pill until these were withdrawn on 3 November 1958.
The timetable from 1939 shows that, following the withdrawal north of Lydney, that there were effectively eight services per day in either direction. The timings, however, varied. Six trains operated on each day, but there were an additional two that were described as Saturdays only and two others that were either except Saturdays or except Saturdays and school holidays. The single journey time for the 8¾ miles from Lydney Town to Berkeley Road was just over 25 minutes.
In 1948, the line passed to British Railways with service in the latter days being normally in the hands of ex-GWR ‘14xx’ 0-4-2Ts or 0-6-0PT.
Closure of the line came in a slightly unexpected way. On 25 October 1960, the bridge was hit by a tanker. One of the piers and two spans fell into the river and passenger services from Sharpness to Lydney Town were suspended. Initially, it was hoped that repairs could be effected but further damage the following February resulted in the decision to abandon the bridge; the remains of the structure were demolished in the mid-1960s. Passenger service from Sharpness to Berkeley Road were listed for closure in the Beeching report and were to be withdrawn on 2 November 1964.
North of the River Severn, the lines that once formed the Severn & Wye Joint’s network gradually closed as freight traffic declined. The final section, from Lydney to Parkend, closed on 7 May 1976 and this section now forms the preserved Dean Forest Railway. The preservation group hopes, eventually, to extend northwards to Speech House.