Posts Tagged ‘railways’

No Electric Trains for Swansea


It was announced this week that electrification of the Great Western main line from London would stop at Cardiff, and not extend to Swansea, despite promises by former PM David Cameron. I’m not surprised at this. Given the state of the Great Western electrifiction – comprehensively messed up by Network Rail – it’s understandable the government will try and cut costs.

While it’s disappointing for Swansea, let’s stop shouting and take a step back. Try and get some perspective.

The city will still get new trains, as the fleet will be bi-mode, i.e. diesel and electric. If the old HSTs were to stay on the line, or the service reduced to a shuttle to Cardiff to connect with the electrics, then the outrage and talk of “betrayal” might have some justification. The wires aren’t going into Bristol either now. Or Oxford.

I’m no fan of Chris Grayling, but his point about the line speed is fair. This line is constrained by geography and has low speeds: Cardiff to Bridgend for example has a maximum of 75 mph with a number of curves. The only possible way around this is to use tilting trains, which as far as I know has never been proposed.

For one train an hour, this was always a marginal scheme. Instead of sulking about this, I think the city council should instead be lobbying for service improvements in the new Wales rail franchise: such as new rolling stock, as well as for the retention of direct trains to Manchester.


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

Lost Branch Lines: The North Pembrokeshire Line


Travel by train today on the West Wales line from Swansea, and after Whitland you will see the high ground of the Prescelli mountains to the north. Even today this is a thinly populated area, with little or no industry. Not the most likely place for a railway, you would think, but if you keep your eyes peeled after the train leaves Clunderwen, after a mile or so an overgrown embankment can be seen heading away from the main line towards the mountains.

This was the former North Pembrokeshire branch to Goodwick, which started life as the Maenclochog Railway, named after the largest settlement in the area. The initial impetus for the line came from the Cropper family who owned the slate quarries at Rosebush, the only industry in the area. The South Wales Railway had opened in the 1850s, and the closest point to the quarries was at Clunderwen. Edward Cropper obtained powers to build a line from Rosebush to the SWR (by this time owned by the GWR) and the GWR agreed to allow his trains access to Clunderwen for an annual rent of £500. Construction of the line began in 1873, and it took three years for the eight-mile route thanks to the difficult terrain. After running parallel with the GWR for a mile, it swung away northwards, falling briefly. After a cutting at Beag, the line then began to climb with increasing severity, culminating in a two-mile stretch at 1:27. It then curved west through a 100 yard tunnel and passed Maenclochog. A further steep climb (which included a stretch at 1:30) took it to Rosebush and the quarries.

The line was officially opened on 19 September 1876, and four passenger trains each way were run, which were allowed 40 minutes to make the climb from Clunderwen (and five minutes less going back down!) Stations were opened at Llanycefn, Maenclochog and Rosebush, and in the first two years, the line was profitable. Extension of the line towards Fishguard was also talked about, and the Rosebush and Fishguard Railway was established to build it. Construction began in 1879, but the company was dogged by financial problems and progress was very slow: several times it had to petition parliament for more time.

By this time, things were not going well at the MR. Even in the early years, the high fee charged by the GWR for the use of Clunderwen wiped out most of the profits, and by 1881, the line was losing money. The company built a hotel at Rosebush and attempted to promote the area as a resort, largely without success. The Rosebush quarries were also in decline, and as the GWR was the only outlet, the company’s position was bleak. The last trains therefore ran on 31 December 1882 and the line closed.

The RFR meanwhile, was still struggling to build its line to Fishguard. After a further petition to parliament for more time, it changed its name to the North Pembrokeshire and Fishguard Railway. Progress was still slow however, and only a mile or so of line had been built. Work finally got underway again in 1892 at the same time as Joseph Rowlands and John Cartland, a solicitor and an industrialist from Birmingham, took a controlling interest in the company. They had ambitious plans to develop Fishguard as port for a rival sea route to Ireland. Rowlands oversaw the completion of the line as far as Letterston and the purchase of the MR, and passenger trains started on 11 April 1895.

After the junction with the MR, the new line curved away from Rosebush on a falling gradient through Puncheston. It continued to fall for the next four miles to Letterston, which was the line’s principal station. The line beyond here, to Goodwick, took a further four years to complete. From Letterston, this fell at 1:50 to what later became Letterston Junction, which was followed by a further fall at the same gradient for two miles, Manorowen bank. The line opened in July 1899, by which time the company had been taken over by the GWR, who had plans of their own for Fishguard. After this, the line settled into a sleepy branch line existence, with only two or three passenger and goods trains a day. The severe gradients always made it hard to work, and it was soon eclipsed by the new GWR line to Fishguard.

In 1916 the line was closed between Maenclochog and Letterston so that the track could be sent to France for use by the military. After the war, it took the GWR until 1923 to reopen the line throughout. It was not to last, however. Despite several halts being opened in the 1920s, the passenger services were withdrawn in October 1937. The line remained open for a single goods train a day. This left Goodwick mid morning and was allowed a leisurely four hours to reach Clunderwen. If required, the loco would run back to Maenclochog to work a parcels train to Clunderwen, though on this line parcels meant rabbits!

During World War II the line was again partially closed, this time to allow the air force to use it for target practice: several locos were painted white and shot at while the tunnel was also bombed. The remaining train was finally withdrawn in 1949 and the track between Letterston and Clunderwen was lifted in 1952. Goods trains continued to serve Letterston, but in March 1965 these too were withdrawn and the track was soon lifted.

What remains of the line today? The first two miles or so out of Fishguard up to Letterston Junction are still in use by Arriva Trains Wales to Fishguard Harbour. The trackbed is clearly marked on OS maps but I believe parts of it south of Maenclochog are now marshy. Rosebush station platform still exists and is now in a pub garden. The owners have created a display on the platform and the pub contains some railway memorabilia (see

A more surprising survivor is one of the original MR locos, an 0-6-0 saddle tank, Margaret, (named after Edward Cropper’s wife). Although quickly replaced when the GWR took over, the loco not only survives but is still in Pembrokeshire at the Scolton Manor museum a few miles from Haverfordwest.



More Heritage Please


I recently made a trip over the Churnet Valley Railway. It’s a  preserved line close to where I live and runs through some attractive scenery. The only thing that let it down was the use of the public address, both at Froghall station and on the train. Both were used as if on the main railway, including the annoying “please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog of my hatred for these announcements, being both insulting and intrusive. They are bad enough on the main railway, but completely inappropriate for a “heritage” line. The whole point of these is to get a flavour of what rail travel used to be like, not to get a pale reminder of the modern system. Please stop it. It ruins the experience.

Why Stoke City Council is Wrong About HS2


Stoke-on-Trent City Council wants the city to have a station on HS2. It is spending several million pounds of our money trying to persuade the government to re-route the line so it serves the city rather then Crewe. However persuasive the economic arguments may be, they miss one blindingly obvious fact a glance at a railway map will reveal. The reasons for routing the line through Crewe have nothing to do with the size of the town. Crewe is a major railway junction, Stoke is not. That is fact and can’t be avoided, regardless of how much wishful thinking the council employs. It would be better occupied lobbying to get better services from Stoke to connect with the line (start with redoubling the single track route between Alsager and Crewe) and for Stoke to retain a good fast service to London.

Tory austerity has wreaked a terrible toll on an already deprived city. Wasting money on idiotic schemes like this helps no one, especially its hard pressed residents. It’s high time the Council woke up and faced facts.

Rip Off Britain: Rail Fares


Until recently, I travelled a lot by train. This was driven partly by my interest in railways, and partly by not being able to drive. However, since I passed my test in 2010, my train useage has dropped to almost nothing. I quickly found out that even allowing for tax, insurance and petrol, many car journeys are cheaper.

The government is fond of painting rail privatisation as a success story, highlighting the record number of passengers carried. This is surely disingenuous. Such an increase would probably have happened anyway. And it isn’t just passenger humbers that have sky-rocketed. It is undeniable that fares have mushroomed massively to be the most expensive in Europe. Operators say this is to pay for improvements, for jam tomorrow. But they have been saying that for years, and fares continue to rise steeply. And outside of London, I have to question just what some of these “improvements” are, given the now frequent overcrowding.

Rail companies always hide behind the cheap deals available to those who book ahead. This is also disingenuous. The cost of walk on fares have also jumped alarmingly. Just by how much was brought home to me sharply on a recent trip to Manchester. From Stoke, this is a round trip of about 75 miles, and for a day return, I was charged a whopping £17.10! Until recently, if you got a day return, it was cheaper if you travelled after 930am, but such tickets are now also barred for about three hours in the afternoon, so I had to pay top whack. Never again, I’ll drive next time.

I can well understand the environmental arguments in favour of public transport. Sadly, like many things in Britain, it is becoming too expensive. Furthermore, the product offered is generally unappealing. Assuming you can actually get a seat, the chances are it will be uncomfortable, have little or no access to a window and be cramped with poor legroom. And if you have to stand, you have to endure a journey crammed in like cattle. It says a lot about this country that animals being transported have more rights than people. What sort of service is that? To add insult to injury, many if those with seats will have the cheap advance tickets so beloved of operators’ propaganda departments: they pay little and are guaranteed a seat, others get fleeced and have to stand. This is no way to attract people from their cars. It won’t be attracting me from mine anytime soon.

The Clifton Hall Tunnel Collapse 1953


Clifton Hall tunnel lay on the on the Patricroft-Molyneux Junction line, adjacent to Clifton station on the L&Y route to Bolton. It opened in 1850, promoted by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway mainly as an attempt to stymie a rival proposal. By the time of opening, control had passed to the LNWR and it was principally used to serve nearby collieries.

The tunnel – known locally as Black Harry – was 1298 yards long and was troublesome throughout its life. Eight shafts were sunk during construction, none of which were retained for ventilation and none of which were marked in the tunnel. It was bored through unstable ground, mostly clay and wet sand, which made it very wet in places and it was patched many times. After a small amount of mining subsidence, it was twice reinforced with steel ribs made from old rails, and these covered all but 282 yards of the tunnel’s length by 1926. It was in this section that the collapse occurred.

On 15th April 1953, a ganger noticed some bricks had fallen onto the tracks and that more were peeling from the roof. All traffic was stopped to allow repairs, and it was decided to use steel ribs to reinforce the damaged area. Over the next two weeks, further land movements were detected and cracks started to develop. On the 28th April at about 5.35 a.m., the tunnel roof failed directly beneath an old construction shaft. Witnesses in the street above (Temple Drive in Swinton) described a loud cracking noise underground, after which two houses (no’s 22 & 24) collapsed into the ground, killing all five people inside. The side wall of number 26 was also sheared off, but thankfully its occupants were rescued. This house, as well as number 20, was later demolished.

It was soon decided not to reopen the line as it had little traffic. Work to stabilise the tunnel began the day after, and was completed nine days after the collapse. Both sides of the roof fall were firmly packed with ashes, and the tunnel was then filled with colliery waste by the NCB. It was subsequently sealed and both entrances buried and landscaped. The line south of the tunnel was closed immediately and that to the north retained for colliery traffic until 1961.

The official enquiry found that the collapse was caused by “an inherent weakness in the construction of the tunnel”. When the old shaft was examined, rotting timbers were found amongst the wreckage. It was determined that these had been used to brace the shaft when it was filled in after the tunnel was built, and that over time they had corroded, increasing the stress on the walls of the shaft. When they gave way, the full load of the shaft was transferred to the tunnel roof. The enquiry also found that engineers had been hampered by the wartime loss of records relating to the tunnel, including the location of some old shafts.

This was not the last time the tunnel caused problems. In 2007, cracks appeared in a building used by Age Concern. Because of its condition, it was demolished. A few weeks later, a crater appeared next to Swinton Register Office, and the road was closed for several weeks while repairs were carried out. It was subsequently discovered that drilling had disturbed the fabric of the tunnel.

As for the rest of the line, it is traceable on Google Earth for about half a mile south of Clifton, close to the north portal of the tunnel. It becomes visible again south of the A580 and some of it has been turned into a footpath until it reaches Monton Road, not far north of the M602. Beyond there, the alignment has disappeared. On Temple Drive, there is still a gap in the houses, with only a couple of sheds now occupying the site.


Wikipedia (for the accident report), for a fuller explanation and photographs.
Lost Railways of Merseyside and Greater Manchester, Gordon Suggitt, Countryside Books

Cornwall Cut Off


The scenic section of railway along the sea wall in Dawlish is justifiably famous. Scenic though it is, it’s also vulnerable to stormy seas. Just how vulnerable was shown this week. During another period of violent weather, the sea wall collapsed, leaving the rails hanging in mid-air. Network Rail estimate that repairs could take several months.

This is not the only section of railway to suffer flood damage this year. However, it is the only railway to run into the south west, so its closure cuts off Cornwall and large parts of Devon from the rest of the rail network. Good rail links are vital to an area’s economy, so the implications of a prolonged closure are serious. 

There used to be two other railways that provided access to the area, but they both closed many years ago. The first of these shut in 1958 and ran between Exeter and Newton Abbot via Chudleigh. It was a single track branch line, with steep gradients and two tunnels. A short section survives for freight trains, between Newton Abbot and Heathfield, but north of there, large parts of the alignment have been lost to new road schemes. I understand parts of it are also prone to flooding as the line followed the river Teign for some of its length.

The other route was longer and ran between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton. It passed through some sparsely populated country and also had severe gradients, but was laid out as a main line. This was closed as a though route in 1968, but apart from twenty miles between Meldon and Bere Alston, it still exists. The missing miles are largely intact.

I also understand that the Great Western Railway planned to build a “cut-off” line avoiding Dawlish in the 1930s, and even bought land for the purpose. Unfortunately, thanks to the outbreak of WW2, it never got built.

As I wrote in my essay on the Beeching Report last year, one of the report’s aims was to eliminate what it saw as duplicate routes. The Okehampton line duplicated the current line between Exeter and Plymouth so it had to go. It takes very little hindsight indeed to see this as a very short-sighted move. The vulnerability of the Dawlish line was obvious even then: indeed, the Okehampton line was used to divert mainline trains shortly after it was closed when the line through Dawlish was blocked. 

With the current closure at Dawlish likely to be lengthy, I think it’s time that serious consideration is given to reopening one of the closed lines as a diversionary route. It won’t be cheap, but it’s strategically vital. Set this against the cost of probable future repairs at Dawlish, and the possibility that this line may even have to be abandoned at some point. All the indications seem to suggest that violent, unpredictable weather is likely to be more common in future. There is also the risk of rising sea levels caused by global warming. But we shouldn’t wait until then. An alternative route needs to be planned and built as soon as possible. If we don’t do this, large parts of south west England face being permanently isolated from the rest of the rail network. This will force even more traffic onto the area’s roads with serious consequences for the area’s economy and environment.

Riding Up To Woodhead, or Did I Really Do That?


Another piece previously published in “Direct Current”. Wrote this in Málaga at Christmas 2004.

A warm, sunny day in September, the last flowering of another British summer. Stuck as I was in a sweltering office all I could do was look outside enviously. Then I had a crazy idea. A few months earlier, after leaving it to gather dust in a storeroom for years, I had put my bike back on the road. Also, earlier in the summer, I had passed near Woodhead for the first time in twelve years. I had always been fascinated by the railway that used to run there, though had never seen it in operation: a combination of stunning landscapes, unique locomotives and a controversial closure. It was one of the main routes between Manchester and Yorkshire and carried huge amounts of freight. For this reason it was electrified after the war, with a new three mile tunnel being built at Woodhead. Despite this investment, passenger services ended in 1970 and the line was closed completely in 1981.

And so my crazy idea was born. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to go back up there on my bike? I could now ride all the way from Hadfield to Penistone, mostly traffic free as this section of line had been converted to a cycle path. I doubted I would ever do it, but it was a nice idea. And so, to that lovely warm spell in September. The more I looked outside, the more I wished I was outside, cycling down the canal or some quiet lane. Then that great weather oracle, Mr Fish, said the warm weather would be gone by the weekend. Yes, I thought, let’s go, now. So I booked a day off work and checked on the net for train times. Friday morning saw me at Stoke station, helmeted and raring to go (as far as I’m ever raring to do anything first thing in the morning!) I thought back fourteen years to the first time I had taken my bike up there. It was far easier when trains had a guards van. For today, I had been obliged to book spaces on the Virgin trains in advance, and for the other trains it was first come, first served, so there was the real possibility of being left behind.

All went well and I reached Hadfield just after ten am. There was some cloud, but it was sunny and warm. Instead of the broad swathe of trackbed, there were now two tracks, one for horses one for walkers and cyclists, and it was very overgrown. There was a headwind, but nothing too bad and I was able to hold about 9-10 mph up the rising gradient. A marked contrast to 1990 when I was riding along the “B” road from Hadfield: the wind then kept me below 5mph even downhill!

Although it’s only for a few miles, the ascent of Longdendale has to be one of the scenic highlights of England. The flight of reservoirs rising towards the hills, glittering in the sunlight and the moors themselves seemed aglow. There were frequent information boards by the path, mainly about local wildlife but with some snippets about the railway too. I wasn’t convinced some of these were entirely accurate: I thought Crowden station, for instance, had a single island platform, not two. Perhaps I’m being too pedantic…

After two-and-a-half miles, there was a level crossing at Torside. On my first visit, the road signs and some track were left, but now it was unrecognisable: some trees, a gate, the road, then another gate. Indeed, for virtually all the path, there is little to suggest this was ever a railway at all. Beyond here was new territory for me, as I had never walked the entire line on previous visits. And this was the best part. At Crowden, the line runs right along the reservoir. Despite the roar from the A628 on the other side of the valley, it was a peaceful spot, with the gently lapping water. I paused for a few minutes, pleased I was here, not quite believing it. Even as I felt the solid metal of my bike, it seemed unreal, a dream.

A few minutes later, I reached Woodhead, and the top of the valley. It had clouded over by now, but was still warm. I was pleased to see the station platforms still in situ. At last a tangible reminder of the railway. I leaned the bike on a fence and took a well-earned swig of lucozade, content to stand there and just listen to the rushing river Etherow nearby. It seems hard to believe such a little river could be the source of all the reservoirs down the valley. About a hundred yards away was the tunnel with its rather austere concrete portal and simple date above: “BR 1954”. I looked back down the valley, feeling rather pleased with myself.

The tunnel soon reminded me of its presence. Every now and again, a terrific blast of icy air erupted from it. This was so powerful even from a hundred yards away, that the temperature around me plummeted: I could see my breath, and shivered in its cold concrete flavoured breath. It would die as quickly, and the air would be warm again. I walked right up to the entrance and peered through the fence. It was freezing. The ballast had been removed though the steelwork was still secured to the roof. This was a forbidding place. I almost expected to see Moorlocks crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce should I come any closer.

I was glad to escape its icy breath. The fence blocked my way forward so I had to haul my bike up the steep hill to the main road. This seemed to take ages, and I had to wait several minutes for a break in the traffic before I could get over. This was the hardest part of the day. The climb isn’t that steep, but it just goes on and on. I would ride some and push some, dodging an endless procession of trucks as they thundered past. It was grey now, the sun but a memory, but I didn’t mind. I was pleased just to be there. As on my first visit, the moment I crossed into Yorkshire, down came the mist. After the quiet of the path (I had hardly seen anyone since leaving Hadfield), the traffic was a shock. I was relieved to see the Dunford Bridge turning and get away from it. One last push up the hill, then a real pleasure: a long descent as I coasted at about 27mph for several minutes. This culminated in a mad whizz at 32mph on the steepest part just before the village, the cold air roaring past me. I had forgotten just how exhilarating this is, even though it made my eyes water! It was as well I knew where to brake as some idiot had stopped a truck on the bridge just round the last bend!

I parked by the pub and went in for a swift half. Another change: instead of the cosy place with its huge open fire that I remembered, it had been considerably “poshified”, with prices to match. I made it an even swifter half and went and sat near the station site to eat my lunch. I felt a little cheated.

Here too, little reminder of what was. The tunnel gate was open and there seemed a lot of work going on inside, with sounds of drilling. Thankfully no blasts from the icy depths disturbed me here and I enjoyed my lunch in peace. The only sounds an occasional bird, the rustle of unseen water and a jet fading high above. Yes, I thought, I am definitely here. Good isn’t it?

After the drama of Longdendale, the descent to Penistone was something of an anti-climax. At least it was all downhill! The path, however, was of far poorer quality. On the west side, the large grade of gravel used meant a firm, if sometimes bumpy, ride. Here, it was far muddier and even more overgrown. It was especially poor between Hazlehead and Bullhouse, less then a foot wide in places, and I forever had to dodge overhanging branches. Still, at least the demolished bridge that hindered me when I walked this way had been replaced.

There was one more reminder. At Thurlstone crossing, there was still a rail still embedded in the road. Was it genuine, I thought, had the unique class 76 locos really run along it? Then a rather surreal experience. Two chaps on bikes approached from Penistone and asked where they were.

“About three miles from Dunford Bridge,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Where’s that?” said one.

“Yorkshire!” said I. This didn’t seem to mean much to them either, and they rode off.

About half a mile from Penistone, the path changed to tarmac and it started to rain. All too soon, I reached the station and wheeled my bike along the platform. I had arrived, I had actually done it. I had even beaten the weather. I felt really pleased with myself, and after a dull trip home, slept very well that night.

Anoraks over Ais Gill


Another piece from the archives, first published in “Direct Current” in 1999

A cold, wet day in April, around nine am. Crewe station, grey and draughty as ever. My train arrived, a few minutes early, and I quickly crossed the footbridge. A not uncommon event for me on a Saturday, though this time I didn’t descend to platform six for a Virgin train to Preston; instead, I continued to number twelve to the chocolate and cream mark 1s I’d seen as the sprinter from Stoke drew in. A large crowd milled about as I walked along the platform. At the north end, immaculate electric loco 92001 hummed in an adjacent platform, behind it, two venerable class 37 diesels. After a few minutes, all three moved off and set back onto the train. I found my seat, irritated it was on the aisle, and next to the door. The train was also unheated. People began returning to their seats, and the coach was soon full and noisy. It eventually left several minutes late. As usual, I was not sad to be leaving Crewe, but that’s another story.

The Saturday illusion continued as the train headed north along the West Coast Mainline. I watched the now familiar sights slip by, swathed in grey haze: The bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal, Arpley yard, Wigan, then slowing on the approaches to Preston. After a brief stop, the train set off, and I realised that the 37s were working as well. A strange combination, I thought, feeling mild annoyance. It rumbled onto the bridge over the Ribble, and I smiled as I looked down at the park by the river, remembering the walks I’d taken there. Speed picked up through the station, and my smile faded. By now, I’d been bumped and bashed by careless people staggering to and from the bar, most of them leaving the door wide open, something which only emphasised the lack of heating. Worse, the so-called haulage bashers insisted on opening the windows. To add further insult, some man, obviously mates with those sitting opposite, paused to talk to them, waving his pint with carefree abandon, and leaning into my space as if I didn’t exist. It’s fortunate indeed that thoughts don’t kill. Any pleasure in the journey had evaporated.

After Lancaster, where the line passes near the sea, the distant fells to the west were covered in snow. There was a signal box here, looking out over Morecambe Bay to the Furness coast. What a place to work, I thought, not that most of these people would appreciate it. As the train headed into Lune Gorge, the viaduct from the abandoned Ingleton line curving in from the right, this view was confirmed. Despite the fine scenery, all they seemed interested in was talking in very loud voices about loco movements elsewhere. This continued to be the case later as the train headed over the Settle & Carlisle line. How anyone could be so unmoved by such scenery, travelling merely for the locomotives and hardly even glancing outside, never ceases to amaze me.

For the run over the S&C, some of the loudmouths moved to another part of the train, so I was able to get a window seat. And some peace. It soon became apparent that all was not well at the front end. Speed was stuck at about 40-45 mph, increasing only on the brief downhill stretches. Apparently, there was a multiple control fault, so only the front loco was able to provide power. Shortly after Armathwaite, the line emerged from a tunnel onto the side of a wooded gorge, the river Eden far below. I had completely forgotten about this place, my memories dominated by the more dramatic scenery further south. Passing Appleby, I noticed the rusty connection to the Warcop branch veering in from the left, out of use now for about ten years. Indeed, my last trip over the S&C had been to traverse the branch, and may even have been the last passenger train. I remember it creeping all the way to the buffer stop, headed by a soon to be withdrawn class 47, then clambering out even though there was no platform (would that be allowed now? I think not!) Of course, I had no camera!

At Ormside, the “Long Drag”, the infamous fifteen miles of 1:100 rising gradients began. Speed immediately began falling, and was soon at around 30mph. At Kirby Stephen, there was a sprinter train which had been damaged in the recent landslip parked in the siding, one end covered up. After Birkett tunnel, the line began to cross Mallerstang Common. I’d read the name in the guide earlier and it sounded familiar. Now, as I saw it again, the memory rushed back: standing at the door of an old 1950s carriage in 1988, looking down from the ledge on which the line is perched. The valley falls away steeply, then rises sharply up to the long, flat top of Mallerstang Edge, today lightly dusted in snow. At its foot, the narrow grey of a road, the single lorry looking smaller even than a Matchbox model; no more than a flea on an elephant set against the Titanic mass of the moor above it. Even here, there were trees, though still largely bare. Primroses provided small colour on this monochrome day. The skies, grey white, heavily pregnant with something, which soon emerged: hail, then snow, then rain, then all at the same time!

Then the summit, complete with new signs, though the signal box long gone, 1169 feet above sea level, the highest mainline railway in England. There’s no immediate fast descent, rather, the line undulates and remains at over 1000 feet for the next ten miles. The tunnels and viaducts, once perhaps seen as an intrusion, and an attempt to tame the landscape, now seem as much a part of it as the fells themselves. A harsh, windswept place it is, so bleak and forsaken, yet beautiful because of it. Beautiful despite the vicious winds, snows and torrential rain, that can melt away into sunlight as quickly. Beautiful for the massiveness that renders the individual, human, car or train, utterley small and insignificant; yet this isn’t oppressive, quite the reverse.

Sweeping through Dent, the line curves dramatically to the right. In the distance, two further viaducts – Arten Gill and Dent Head – then the northern portal of Blea Moor tunnel. Over a mile long, and a very wet place. The brakes went on past the signal box, as the main descent began, 1:100 all the way to Settle Junction, over fourteen miles away. The train paused at Ribblehead, so I moved forward and alighted. There’s a good view of the famous viaduct to the north, dwarfed by Whernside above. It was raining and hailing, with a sharp wind, yet I was in no hurry to be back on the train; I simply gazed about me, enjoying being here.

Inevitably, the descent of the “drag” was something of an anti-climax. Thanks to the loco fault, we were now some twenty minutes late. However, there was another photo stop at Hellifield – now magnificently restored after years of dereliction – and our departure was retimed to 1520, almost forty late, so as not to clash with a stopping train after Clitheroe. By now, I had become bored, and wanted to be home. The lateness also made me anxious about my connection at Crewe.

Slowly through Clitheroe, and back into sunlight at Blackburn. Speed picked up after here for the first time in ages as the train headed down the three mile 1:99/101 bank to Bamber Bridge. I smiled at the familiar sight of a long traffic queue at the level crossing, and at the dark, uninviting subway under the line (though “sewer” would be more appropriate when it rains, as I can testify). Shortly after, the main line was regained at Lostock Hall, and we were given the fast line, and even allowed preference over a sprinter at Euxton.

And so back to Crewe. Fortunately, a clear run into the station (makes a change), a mad dash through the crowds to platform one to the single carriage train for Stoke. It was stopped a considerable way along, so I broke into a sprint, convinced it would leave as I reached it (this has happened). Luckily, the conductor saw me coming, so I was spared this humiliation, and the boredom of a wait of over an hour. I’d no sooner found a seat – the thing was packed, why do single cars always get rostered for busy services? – than the doors were closed and it was off. Phew! I returned home via the off licence and takeway. After all, it was a Saturday!

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