Fragility and ambition
Described as a mix between an ‘open-top tramcar, a pleasure yacht and a seaside pier,’ the deck was fitted out with a 25ft 3″ x 12ft 6″ ornate saloon (complete with leather upholstered seats, potted plants, and curtains) and a promenade deck slapped on top that had an adjustable sun awning.
Each leg hosted a bogie housing four 33″ wheels encased in steel plates, with one bogie on each side being driven – via a shaft and worm gear arrangement – by two General Electric 25hp electric motors.
The other two legs carried the brake rodding to the remaining two bogies, with all bogies fitted with scrapers to push aside seaweed, stroppy crabs and shingle from the track.
As the Pioneer travelled over the sea, UK law demanded that a trained sea captain be at the helm (or available at all times), and the tram be fitted with a lifeboat on the back and a number of lifebelts around the edges.
On 28 November 1896, after costing £30,000 to build, Magnus Volk opened his new wonder railway through the sea with an official ceremony at the Brighton terminus.
The public service commenced two days later, and unsurprisingly the railway was initially a great success with large crowds flocking to the terminus at Paston Place to patiently await their turn to experience a ride through the sea.
However, disaster was to strike on 4 December 1896 when a severe gale wrecked both the Paston Place terminus and Pioneer, after it had broken loose from its mooring at Rottingdean Pier.
Undeterred, Volk rebuilt Pioneer (with taller legs) and built a new smaller landing stage off the Banjo Groyne, enabling the service to be resumed on 20 July 1897. A request stop was opened at Ovingdean Greenway Gap using a rather fragile sloping wooden landing stage.
On 20 February 1898 the Prince of Wales took two trips on the railway, but for the general public, a ride on Pioneer was only accessible for those wealthy enough to pay the 6d fare each way.
An hourly service was provided from Rottingdean in the summer, although short trips from Banjo Groyne became increasingly popular due to a journey along the full length of the line and back taking up to 1½ hours to complete at an average speed of only 6mph. At high tide the car would crawl at a walking pace and for some the journey could become quite tedious.
Breakdowns were also common, causing the timetable to be suspended for weeks on end, whilst bad weather also brought the service to a halt. However, there was no denying a journey on Pioneer was a unique and unusual experience, especially when it was ploughing through a high tide of 15 feet of water.
Unfortunately, the life of the Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway was to be all too brief. During the summer of 1900, the service had to be suspended when the track was damaged by the scour from the construction of two concrete groynes, built to prevent erosion of the cliffs.
Then on 1 September 1900 Brighton Corporation gave Volk two months’ notice to relocate the track at Kemp Town southwards to make room for groyne extensions. Volk suggested building a new terminus at Black Rock, and extending his shore railway to it, but this was rejected.
In February 1901 the Borough Surveyor removed a section of the track and the service was suspended. It was officially abandoned the following year. However, in compensation, Volk was given permission to extend his Volks Railway to Black Rock.
The elegant Pioneer was tied up at the Ovingdean landing stage, where it was left to die a slow death until it was removed for scrap in early 1910. The pier at Rottingdean had been removed by December 1911.