Lost Branch Lines: The Heads of the Valleys Line And Other Observations

January 2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the spectacular, steeply graded line between Abergavenny and Merthyr. When I first travelled in the area in the early 1990s, I had no idea there had ever been a railway here, and on the steep climb up the A465, it seemed unlikely. The Merthyr, Tredegar & Abergavenny Railway (MTA) was promoted by local interests and was incorporated in 1859. The first section, up to Brynmawr (“Big Hill” in Welsh) opened in September 1862, and used parts of an old tramway. The LNWR was keen to tap into the mineral wealth of South Wales. It had already reached Hereford via the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway and had running powers south of there. In 1861, it secured a lease of the MTA, and an extension to Nantybwch opened in 1864. Plans to extend beyond there were opposed by the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, who had plans of their own. To circumvent this, the LNWR built a line jointly with the Rhymney Railway from Nantybwch to Rhymney Bridge down to Rhymney, which opened in 1871. This proved a worthwhile investment as with running powers to Cardiff, the transfer of goods between broad and standard gauge was avoided. The LNWR quickly opened a goods depot of their own in Cardiff. The next extension opened in 1873, to Dowlais, home of the famous ironworks. The LNWR and B & M settled their differences and with a new section of joint line, Merthyr was reached in 1879.

The line was heavily engineered, with severe gradients throughout. Starting from Abergavenny Junction (about a mile north of the present station), the line fell briefly, crossing the river Usk, to Brecon Road station. There was a large engine shed here, which once housed 100 locos. After here, the line started a gruelling seven-mile climb at 1:38/40 through the spectacular Clydach Gorge to Brynmawr. This is the highest town in Wales at some 1200 feet above sea level. The line then crossed high moorland, frequently scarred by industry, and undulated sharply with gradients as steep as 1:35, crossing several viaducts (including an impressive 770 feet long example at Cefn Coed which survives) and a 1040 yard tunnel at Morlais, near Pantyscallog. After Dowlais, it fell at mostly 1:46/50 and passed through a five mile semi-circle to reach Merthyr, some 400 feet below Dowlais.

As the MTA passed along the north edge of the coalfield, several branches were built to better tap into the valleys. The first to open, in 1867, was a 1½-mile line from Beaufort down to Ebbw Vale, mostly at 1:42. This was followed by the extension of the Sirhowy Railway north from Tredegar to Nantybwch, in 1868. After a proposed sale to the GWR fell through, the LNWR leased this line in 1876. In 1869, a branch from Brynmawr to Blaenavon was opened, which was leased to the LNWR straight away. This five-mile line climbed away from Brynmawr at 1:40, to reach a summit of 1400 feet at Waenavon (the highest on the LNWR and I believe the highest standard gauge line in England and Wales), before descending at the same gradient to Blaenavon, home to collieries and an ironworks. Part of this line survives as the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway. Five years later, the line was extended down the valley to Abersychan, where it met the GWR.

The final branch opened in 1905, from Brynmawr to Nantyglo, with the passenger services operated by the GWR. This made the high windswept station at Brynmawr a busy place at times. Indeed, as early as 1882, there were more than fifty trains each way between there and Abergavenny Junction. In 1909, there were more than forty passenger departures, with around thirty of these to Newport, spilt between three different routes. In 1944, the station sold almost 98,000 tickets, twice as many as Swansea Victoria. Not bad for a town 1200 feet up in the hills!

Thanks to the ferocious gradients, powerful locomotives were required. 0-6-2 Coal Tanks were a staple from 1890 on, with sixty or so being based at Abergavenny at one time. Larger 0-8-0 and 0-8-2 types worked heavier trains, and there was also a massive 0-8-4T type, though this proved too long for some of the lines curves. Even so, coal consumption on the route was double that of the rest of the LNWR.

Traffic at the quieter Merthyr end of the line began to decline as early as 1890, when part of the production at Dowlais was moved elsewhere. The ironworks closed completely in 1930: I think it was after a visit here that Edward VIII made his famous “something must be done” remark. Of the thirteen mineral trains that reached Abergavenny Junction in 1909, only one started at Merthyr, though it remained the starting point for most passenger services. There were some through trains, and even a summer Saturday train from Merthyr to Blackpool. Trains were slow on account of the gradients, and typically took about 1½ hours for the 24½ miles.

Passenger closures began in 1941, when the Blaenavon service was withdrawn, though the line remained open for freight until the 1950s. The Ebbw Vale branch closed to passengers in February 1951 and the joint line from Rhymney to Rhymney Bridge two years later.

The line passed to the Western Region on nationalisation, so what happened next was entirely predictable. As seen, coal consumption on the steeply graded line was high, and freight trains were slow. Coal traffic had begun to decline, and the WR routed all through freight trains away from the MTA in 1954. In January 1958, the passenger service was withdrawn, with the final working being a special on the 5th.

This left the Newport-Nantybwch trains via Tredegar and the Sirhowy Valley, and these ended in June 1960. Part of this line survived for freight until 1970, when trains were diverted onto a former tramway on the other side of the valley. The Nantyglo branch, the last service to use the once busy Brynmawr, survived long enough to see DMUs, and closed in 1962. The final section to close was Abergavenny Junction to Brecon Road in April 1971.

I made two visits to the area in 2007 courtesy of a Freedom of Wales Flexipass. I wanted to visit the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, so caught a Stagecoach service from Abergavenny up to Brynmawr. From the A465, I could see the route of the line in a few places, and there was a viaduct clinging to the curve of the hillside. From Brynmawr, I changed on to the hourly Newport service. I alighted by the Big Pit Museum, then enjoyed a couple of trips on the P & BR, probably the friendliest heritage line I’ve been on. A two car “108” was in use, and the steep climb was clear to see. After ascending in first gear, the return simply used gravity! I got talking to the driver, and he said they were keen to extend southwards to Blaenavon High Level, and in the longer term, further up the hill towards Brynmawr. I wish them every success, and fully intend to return, if only to hear a class 37 on the 1:40!

A few days later, I took the bus all the way to Merthyr. It takes about 1½ hours, comparable to the train, but with the advantage of serving both Ebbw Vale and Tredegar. Beyond Brynmawr, a lot of the alignment has been destroyed by improvements to the A465: Rhymney Bridge station for instance, is now under a roundabout. I returned to Cardiff in a 150 from a rather Spartan Merthyr station: from five platforms with trains to Neath, Brecon, Abergavenny and Cardiff (fifty departures a day in 1920), down to a single platform with an hourly service to Cardiff. Such, I suppose is progress. Still, at least the surviving train service is finally to be improved to half-hourly.

The route of the MTA can still be traced in several places. Most of the viaducts, including that at Cefn Coed, are still standing, while ventilation shafts for Morlais tunnel can be seen in the car park at Pant on the Brecon Mountain Railway. My OS map suggests at least some of the line through Clydach Gorge has been turned into a cycle path. It would be a hard climb, but a rewarding descent!

In 2011, by which time I had a car, I visited Clydach Gorge and walked a section of the trackbed from Clydach to the eastern end of Gelli-felen tunnels. Clydach station is virtually intact and privately owned, and while the trackbed here is now part of NCN route 46, the section through the station and the Clydach tunnels is sealed off. A detour onto what a local man told me was a tramway, takes you to the other end of the tunnels and back onto the trackbed. The Merthyr bound tunnel at Gelli-felen is bricked up, but the other isn’t, with only a few boulders at the entrance. The path detours round it, though I didn’t go any further that way. Need to make another visit, I think…

1: Brynmawr
2: Ebbw Vale
3: Beaufort
4: Sirhowy
5: Tredegar
6: Ponststicill Jn
7: Heolgerrig
8: Pantyscallog

Timetable, September 1957

References & Further Reading:

Lost Lines in Wales, Nigel Welbourn
South Wales Branch Lines, H Morgan
The Origins of the LMS in South Wales, Gwyn Briwnant Jones & Denis Dunstan
Country Railway Routes, Abergavenny to Merthyr, David Edge

Clydach Viaduct, looking west

View from the viaduct towards the former Lime Works

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach tunnels, looking east

MP 7, just west of Clydach tunnel. This has now had a repaint.

Llanelly crossing, looking east

trackbed near Llanelly crossing, looking west

Gelli-felen tunnels looking west

Gelli-felen tunnel looking west

Looking east, Gelli-felen tunnels behind the photographer


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