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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘railway’

Flatlander

Or, a trip to the Crowle Peatlands Railway

There are so many preserved and heritage railways in the UK—there must be something around a hundred at the moment, depending on your definition—that it’s very difficult to know all of them intimately, or even to visit them all. It doesn’t help that still, around 55 years after the “great contraction” of the railway network in a quixotic attempt to make it return to profitability, new heritage railways occasionally appear, like mushrooms out of the ground after rain.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, I decided to pop over to Another Part Of The Forest and visit one of the very newest: the Crowle Peatland Railway. It’s still only about three and a half years since the CPR first started laying track; only about ten years since the railway’s founders first conceived of the idea, and less than a year since passengers have been able to ride on it.

The CPR was built to preserve the memory of a very specific, industrial type of narrow-gauge railway, one that is associated more with Ireland than with Britain. The Crowle Peatlands are part of one of the largest lowland bogs in England, the Thorne Moors, on the boundary between North Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. Drained from natural wetland by the engineer Cornelis Vermuyden in the late 1620s, from the mid-19th century the area started to be mined for peat, with a network of railways bringing the peat from the moors to factories at their edges for processing and transshipment. For many decades these railways used horse haulage, but from around 1950 the peat company switched to petrol and diesel locomotives.

Part of Thorne Moors in the early 1950s

This map shows the Moors at around the time the railways started using locomotive power: you can see the lines of railways across the moors, following the drainage canals, making sharp, almost-hairpin corners. Even in the 1980s there were still between 15 and 20 miles of narrow gauge railway across Thorne Moors, remaining in use until peat mining ended around 2000; the newest locomotive on the railway was bought new as late as 1991.

The preserved railway is in the area shown on that map as “Ribbon Row”, west of Crowle, reached along a narrow, dead-straight lane across the flat landscape of the Moors. As soon as you are outside the town, it feels disconnected, remote, outside the normal world entirely. As I drove, in my mirrors, I saw a young deer crossing the road behind me.

To date, the railway has a café with very nice home-made cake. a maintenance shed, and a straight line of track stretching out across the moor. The shed is full of the sort of small diesel locomotives that worked on the moors from the 1950s onwards—and also, a Portuguese tram.

Inside the maintenance shed

I think the loco on the left is Schöma 5130 of 1990; the diamond-shaped plate is the builder’s plate of Alan Keef of Ross-on-Wye, to mark the loco being rebuilt in the late 1990s with a more powerful engine, which you can see here.

Under the bonnet

The newest loco to run on the peat railways was named after a retired member of staff in the early 1990s, shortly after it was built.

The Thomas Buck

The railway’s other locomotive is a Motor-Rail Simplex built in 1967 and abandoned around 1996 due to worn bearings.

The Simplex loco Little Peat

It’s a nice little engine, much less powerful than the newer ones, but I’m not sure what I think of lime green as a locomotive colour.

On a map—if it had made it onto any maps yet—the railway would no doubt appear as a dead straight ine; but on the ground it follows gentle curves and undulations. At 3ft gauge the track feels wide for a narrow-gauge line, especially given the small size of the powered trolley that takes you out onto the moor. On my run I was the only passenger, with a driver and guard to look after me, as we pottered out along the track, surrounded by wildflowers pressing close up to the track, fat bumblebees buzzing close to the car as we went.

The driver looks out at the road ahead

No stations; no platforms; no sidings. No signals other than a fixed distant sign warning that the track will run out soon. Just a single line of track, which stops. Back we go; with me and the guard having the best view this time, although I tried to make myself thinner and not block the driver’s line of sight.

Heading back towards the shed

That photo shows practically the whole railway, with the shed visible in the distance. We trundled back in, feeling far faster than the handful of miles per hour we were actually doing. Retracing our steps, back to the yard.

Coming in to the shed

The Crowle Peatland Railway isn’t somewhere I’ll be going back to again that soon, because for now, I’ve seen all there is to see. But it is a nice little place to visit, a reminder that everyone starts somewhere, and that sometimes a railway is just a stretch of line running out into a field. It’s open and running trains about one weekend a month at the moment, and it’s worth visiting for the cakes. Or, indeed, if you just want to be out in a landscape where the horizon is straight as a ruler, and there are few noises beyond the wind blowing the grass.

A walk in the park

Some South Wales railway history that is still around, but not for long

Back on to my complex and fragmentary sequence of posts about the history of the complex and fragmentary South Wales railway network. It was prompted by news that Network Rail are working on upgrading the Ebbw Vale line to allow a better train frequency than once per hour, by widening the line from one track to two for a few miles around Aberbeeg. Changing the track, though, involves changing the signalling, and changing the signalling will involve getting rid of a little island of 19th-century mechanical signalling that still exists in Casnewydd/Newport. It’s the signalbox at Park Junction, in the Gaer area of the city.

Park Junction signalbox

And there it is, with the signals pulled off for an Ebbw Vale train. This picture is from April 2021. It might not look like much from this angle, but if I swing round a bit, you can see that the box is really quite a grand affair for something that only handles a few trains per hour.

Park Junction signalbox

You’d be right to assume that, given the size of the building, it was built to control a much bigger junction than the handful of tracks in front of it today.

I’ve written before about the Monmouthshire Canal Company building a railway all the way back in 1805, to carry coal and iron down the Sirhowy Valley. This is, indeed, on that 1805 route. When, a few decades later, the South Wales Railway was built from Abertawe/Swansea to Casgwent/Chepstow, it burrowed under the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway at right-angles, and a complex mesh of interconnecting routes slowly developed. This is a map from around the time of the First World War, after the MCC and SWR had both been bought out by the Great Western, so confusingly both railways are in the same colour.

Railway Clearing House map of the area

The Monmouthshire Canal’s railway runs from left to right, the South Wales Railway from bottom to top, and Park Junction is there on the left. Nowadays, most of the tangle of lines heading towards the docks has gone, and Park Junction is at one corner of a triangle, trains to Cardiff joining the main line at Ebbw Junction and those into Newport joining it at Gaer Junction.

I’ve written previously about that purple line running parallel to the yellow one. That belonged to the company which had extended Newport Docks, the Alexandra (Newport) Dock & Railway Company; and they had built a line from Bassaleg, right alongside the Great Western, so that coal trains coming down the Brecon & Merthyr Railway from Bargoed, Rhymney or Bedwas could reach Newport Docks without paying tolls to the GWR. When they were built, the lines ran around the back of the signalbox, which had nothing at all to do with them. You can see this on a more detailed map from around the same time.

Ordnance Survey 25in map of 1916

Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland, as was the one below.

I’ve made that one a clickthrough because it’s quite detailed; apologies for the horizontal line, but the original is split across two sheets which I’ve roughly stitched together. Three pairs of tracks in front of the box, belonging to the Great Western; and the pair behind it, separate, spreading out into a bank of sidings. About five years after this was surveyed, the Railways Act 1921 merged Newport Docks into the GWR, and within a few years they had put in additional connections at Park Junction, between the lines in front of the box and those that ran behind it.

Ordnance Survey 25in map from the 1930s

Look how much suburbia has grown up in those twenty years, too.

The route through Park Junction lost its passenger services in the early 1960s. Ostensibly this was because British Railways wanted to rearrange the platforms at Newport Station in such a way that there was no space for the Ebbw and Sirhowy Valleys services to turn around; of course, if they had really cared about keeping them, they would have been able to find a way to do it. Back then, there was still heavy freight traffic up and down the valley, from the steel works and the mines; and a large marshalling yard at Rogerstone. Over the following years that traffic dwindled away and shrank, but Park Junction signalbox nevertheless survived, opening a bit less maybe, but still there to signal freight trains up the valley when needed. In the 2000s when the line to Ebbw Vale reopened to passengers, a modern signalling panel was put into one corner of the box to control most of the Ebbw Vale line; but the box still kept its mechanical levers and the tracks past it kept their mechanical semaphore signals, as you can see on the photos above.

Now, in 2022, Park Junction is something of an isolated island given that the main line through Newport is all controlled from the Wales Rail Operating Centre, in Cardiff. When passenger services returned to Ebbw Vale, only one track was kept north of Crosskeys, meaning that the maximum service frequency on the branch is the hour that it takes a train to get from Crosskeys to Ebbw Vale and back down to Crosskeys again. To increase the service means more track; more track means more points and signals; and if you’re putting in more points and signals, it makes sense to move on with the plan to put all of Wales’s signalling into the ROC. So, Park Junction will close, some time over the course of the next few months. It’s a shame, but that’s modernisation for you. I must try to get there again to take more photographs before it goes.

Middle earth

Or, a trip on a steam train

A while ago—I can’t find the exact post—I set myself a target of having more posts on here filed under Trains than I do under Political. I think I even said the target I was giving myself was by the end of last year. Well, I’m still clearly a long way off that at the time of writing (58 versus 113) but this is an attempt to make amends. Right at the start of the year, you see, I went out for a trip on the Middleton Railway.

Happy New Year on the Middleton Railway

The Middleton Railway is quite an interesting little line, for its history if nothing else. There are various claimants to the title of “oldest working railway” in various parts of the UK, partly dependent on what counts as a railway and what doesn’t. If you insist steam trains have to be involved, then various branch lines around Darlington usually get the prize, as they opened in 1825 with a mixture of steam trains and horses. If you’re happy with horse-drawn trains, the stretch of the Ebbw Vale line between Rhisga and Pye Corner opened in about 1805. Both of these are lines that carry passengers in main line trains today. If you’re happy with railways that are just for freight, there’s a branch line near Dunfermline that might have had trains on it in the 1760s, although its early history is a little unclear. The Middleton Railway, by contrast, has a definite starting date, as the first railway to be authorised by Parliament, in 1758, during the reign of George II. Moreover, and something that is unusual for a volunteer-run heritage railway, it has operated continuously ever since, switching from commercial to volunteer operations in 1960.*

Of course,** none of the railways I’ve listed above really resemble their original form and the Middleton is no exception to this. In the 19th century it ran from Great Wilson St—roughly where the Crown Point branch of Pets At Home is now—and ran down to, naturally, Middleton. The furthest-south point I’ve found on a map was “Bleachground Engines”, on the 1854 six-inch map, nowadays at the very south end of Middleton where Middleton Park Avenue meets the A654. As the crow flies, it’s a distance of about 3.5 miles. The current Middleton Railway runs for about a mile, from Moor Road to the northern edge of Middleton Park. Moreover, the landscape it runs through has changed entirely, the coal mines it was built for all turned into post-industrial green spaces.

Park Halt

Being built purely as an industrial railway, the Middleton didn’t carry passengers at all until its heritage days. The first passenger trains were run using a hired diesel pulling a second-hand Swansea and Mumbles tramcar.*** Later, they needed proper carriages. Those in the picture are the underframes of old 4-wheeled parcels vans, which the Middleton has rebuilt with completely new bodies to give themselves a passenger rake.

The sheds

Behind the scenes, the Middleton has an awful lot crammed onto a very small site, with their workshops packed full of stuff under restoration. I can imagine shunting things to the right place in the workshop is a bit of a pain. If they didn’t specialise in small ex-industrial locos, they’d hardly have room for any. As it is, everything is jammed in rather tightly, with just enough room inside for people to move around them and actually do the work. I have an old friend who works at the Middleton; he managed to arrange for the both of us to have a little tour behind the scenes, and see the locos under repair, those undergoing major restoration, and the next carriage the railway has started to build.

Inside the workshop

Spare loco in the shed

Running round

We had a few round trips, too, shuttling back and forth along the mile of track. The Middleton Railway might be very different to its original intention, and might run now for a slightly different purpose. It’s still a fascinating place to come and visit, and was an excellent way to start the new year.

Inside the museum building

No public access

Wreathed in steam

* The only other heritage railway that can really claim this is the Talyllyn, which opened in the 1860s. The Ffestiniog has never quite closed, having leased out a short stretch of its track for former customers to use, but their claim is a wee bit of a stretch.

** And unlike the railways in the first footnote.

*** Another early railway: the Swansea and Mumbles, also known as the Oystermouth Railway, was carrying horse-drawn passengers from the first decade of the 19th century. It later essentially became a tram line, and closed just before the Middleton became volunteer-run. If you’ve ever visited the Gower, you have likely travelled by car along part of its route. The tramcar which moved to Leeds was sadly destroyed by arson.

On emotional lines

Or, a special locomotive

In the last post I mentioned I’d been up to North West Wales recently, for the first time since January 2020. The first place we headed to, naturally, was the Ffestiniog Railway, and it was bustling with activity: five engines in steam, I think (plus one diesel), several trains shuttling up and down the line. I couldn’t stop taking photos, either on the phone or on the Proper Camera, of every train I saw. And one in particular was special.

Welsh Pony

This is Welsh Pony, or Merlen Cymraeg, the one engine I was really hoping to see. “It’s Welsh Pony!” I said excitedly, snapping away, sending out photos and so on.

“What’s … so exciting about another train?” came back the replies.

“It’s Welsh Pony!”

Which obviously didn’t exactly cut it as an explanation. “I’ll try to explain more,” I said, “when I’m back at my computer and have time to put it into words. This is a very special engine for my generation of nerds.”

Welsh Pony was built back in the mid-1860s, one of a pair of very similar locomotives built for the Ffestiniog Railway by George England & Co of New Cross, following on from four slightly smaller side tank engines. Three of the earlier engines—Princess, Prince and Palmerston—were rebuilt to be rather more like Welsh Pony and its sister Little Giant, and those five together shared many decades of service.

Welsh Pony

The Ffestiniog’s fortunes started to decline from the First World War onwards. Little Giant was dismantled for spares in 1929, but as the 1930s progressed the railway struggled to fund necessary repairs on the ancient locos. Prince was out of use from 1936, and Palmerston from 1937. Welsh Pony was probably last used in 1940. When the railway closed to traffic in 1946, Princess was the only George England loco still running on the railway.

Welsh Pony

When the railway closed to traffic, the company didn’t shut down. It became the empire of one depressed, gloomy old man, who had worked for the line since he was a boy and had slowly seen it decay and rot away. He didn’t make any effort to save the locos, or the rolling stock, to cover them over or wrap them up or shut them away securely. They stayed where they had been left, many of them outdoors, some like Welsh Pony indoors, all close by the salt-spray of Harlech Bay. They rusted quickly, as the grass grew up around them. When a group of enthusiasts gained control of the railway after about eight years of closure, nothing was close to serviceable, and the enthusiasts had to carefully piece things back together on the tiny amount of cash they had to spare, repairing the most repairable locos and carriages one-by-one until they had the minimum they needed to offer a service. Welsh Pony, abandoned for about fifteen years when the railway reopened, was not one of them.

Welsh Pony

Welsh Pony hung around the railway, parked on various sidings, stored in various sheds. In the mid-1980s it was painted up and put up on a plinth, as Porthmadog Harbour Station’s “gate guardian” loco. It stayed on the plinth, rusting away in the sea air, until the early 21st century when it went back into storage once more. In 2014, restoration work on Welsh Pony finally started. A careful survey discovered that a huge proportion of the surviving fabric was just too rusted, and would have to be replaced. A new boiler was needed, new frames, new cylinders, new rods, but the wheels and valve gear are still original.

Welsh Pony in December 2019, with Prince and Palmerston on the left

The new Welsh Pony’s fire was lit for the first time in June 2020, with the ceremonial event livestreamed to an audience of thousands. Before restoration the boiler had been lagged with wood, and some of the rotting lagging had survived all those years the engine was out of use. When the loco was dismantled some of it was set aside, and was used to light the first fire, another little piece of continuity.

But why is Welsh Pony so special? Why, when I saw it in steam for the first time was I quite so overwhelmed? Well, I guess, for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, Welsh Pony was a fixture, the engine standing mute and silent at the entrance to the car park, a symbol of the railway and yet at the same time something cold, dead and filled with the past. There are many people of my generation who can remember climbing up the plinth and onto the engine, even though you probably weren’t supposed to. It seemed impossible to imagine the rusting machine would ever run again. Even when it was taken down from the plinth and cosmetically restored, tucked back away in a storage shed, it seemed impossible to imagine it would ever run again. To watch it being warmed up, from afar, on a cold morning about a year ago, was a sight we thought might never happen. To see it running, hauling a train again, to be able to see it warm, moving and alive, for personally the first time, felt like an impossible moment.

Welsh Pony

I’m not sure setting out the bald facts like this will help you understand what made me so emotional about it, to be honest. Maybe, along with everything else, it’s a bit of an insight into how my mind works. Hopefully, though, it makes some sort of sense even if you’re never going to have that feeling about the engine—about any railway engine—yourself. All I can try to do, after all, is explain.

Pye in the sky (part two)

Some more local railway history

Last week, I posted a little bit about the history of the railway junction at Pye Corner, just outside Casnewydd/Newport. There, the original route of the horse-drawn tramway opened around 1805 is now a quiet, grassy back alleyway, with the railway that replaced it a few yards away. That railway line, now just a single-track branch, strides over the road into Bassaleg with a complex series of three parallel railway bridges, imposing and monolithic.

Pye Corner bridges

Looking through the tunnel of bridges, you can just about in this picture make out three different ones. In the middle, a stone arch. Beyond it a steel girder bridge and this side of it an arch in blue engineering brick. Three separate phases.

The stone arch is, I presume, the mid-19th-century bridge built by the Monmouthshire Canal Company when the railway line was rerouted from the back alleyway route it formerly took. On the far side: where the bridge was widened by the Great Western Railway, circa 1910 or so, to broaden the line up to Rhisga from two to four tracks. The blue engineering bricks on the nearside? Ostensibly that’s straightforward too—but not as straightforward as I first thought.

I mentioned in the previous post that Pye Corner was a railway junction as early as 1825, when the Rumney Railway was built from Pye Corner up to Rhymney. Now, I’ve said before that the railways of South Wales are complex and confusing, and the Rumney Railway is a case in point. Back in, say, 1860, there were two railways with very similar names, both linking Rhymney to the coast.

The Rumney Railway was the first, built around 1825, and like the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway it was horse-drawn, for its first few years. As you might expect from the name, it served Cwm Rhymni, running down from New Tredegar* along the east bank of Afon Rhymni. Unlike most of the valleys of South Wales, Cwm Rhymni doesn’t take a particularly straight line from mountains to sea, and the Rumney Railway followed the river where it takes a sharp eastwards turn at Bedwas and flows through Machen. From there, the river takes a rambling, meandering route through rolling countryside, past Ruperra Castle and down to the sea just east of Caerdydd/Cardiff. The railway, on the other hand, cut across the narrow neck of land separating Afon Rhymni from Afon Ebwy, to reach the latter at Rhiwderin, and ending by joining the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway about a mile further on. How it crossed the Afon Ebwy to get there will be the subject of a later installment.

The confusion arises from the Rhymney Railway, which came along in the 1850s partly because the Rumney Railway (also sometimes known as the “Old Rumney”) was by the time it turned 30 already something of a wheezing, antiquated and outdated little line, upgraded to steam but still using horse-era track. The Rhymney Railway was built to give Cwm Rhymni a proper, modern railway, and it doesn’t really concern us here save to say that it didn’t stick with the river as the Rumney Railway did: it headed into Caerffili town centre, then burrowed southwards through the hills into Caerdydd with a tunnel over a mile long. The Rumney Railway’s owners were worried they were getting left behind but didn’t have the money to upgrade their line; within five years of the Rhymney Railway opening, they had sold the older line to the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, so that the latter railway could use it as a stepping-stone to reach the sea. They did have the money in the bank to rebuild the Rumney Railway in a modern fashion, and did so, building further connections from Machen to Caerffili.

This doesn’t explain where that brick-built bridge comes from, though. Here’s a map of the railway connections around Pye Corner circa 1914. This is from the Railway Clearing House junction diagrams, which were made to give definitive plans of where railways interconnected and what the distances between junctions were, in order to be able to work out per-mile traffic rates.

Junction diagram

Yellow is the Great Western Railway (the former canal company line), blue is the Brecon & Merthyr, and you can see both companies have their Bassaleg stations. What’s the purple line though? That belonged to the company which owned the local docks, the grandly-named Alexandra (Newport & South Wales) Docks & Railway, or AND&R to its friends. They had wanted the collieries of Cwm Rhymni to be able to get their coal to the docks of Casnewydd, without having to pay any additional charges to the Great Western Railway; so they built a line parallel to the Great Western’s tracks between Pye Corner and Mendalgief, enabling coal trains to come straight off the Brecon & Merthyr and onto the dock company’s own line of route without touching the Great Western.

So that’s who built that imposing blue-brick bridge? Well, maybe. There’s certainly a boundary post still in the ground nearby, marking this off as AND&R land.

Boundary post

That answers the question, surely? Well, maybe not. We haven’t really looked at all of the evidence yet. However, as this post is already getting rather long, the conclusion (insofar as there is one) is sadly going to have to wait for another day.

* I’m not entirely sure where its original top terminus is. The Rumney Railway is particularly poorly-documented, so I’m not sure anyone is entirely sure quite where its original top terminus was.

Pye in the sky (part one)

Or, some pieces of railway history

For a few months now, I’ve been threatening to start writing a long series of blog posts about the railway history of South Wales, starting in Newport and slowly radiating outwards. The question, of course, is how to actually do that in a format that will be interesting and engaging to read in small chunks; and, indeed, for me to write. The “standard” type of railway history comes in a number of forms, but none of them are particularly attractive to the casual reader. Few go to the point of setting out, to a random passing non-specialist reader, just why a specific place or line is fascinating; just what about its history makes it worth knowing about. Moreover, not only do they tend on the heavy side, they are normally based either on large amounts of archival research, large amounts of vintage photographs, or both. Putting that sort of thing together isn’t really an option for me at present, especially not for a blog post.

So why would I want to write about the railways of the South Wales valleys in any case? In general, if you’re a British railway enthusiast, you probably think of the South Wales valleys as a place where GWR tank engines shuffled back and forth with short trains of passengers or long trains of coal. If you’re a specialist, and like industrial railways, you might remember it as one of the last areas where the National Coal Board still operated steam trains, at places such as Aberpennar/Mountain Ash. There are two things, though, that you probably only realise if you’re a specialist. Firstly, if you include horse-drawn railways and tramways, the South Wales railway system was the earliest and densest complex railway network in the world. Horse-drawn railways are often completely overlooked by enthusiasts, for whom railways started with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. Partly, I suspect, because unlike later periods there aren’t many good maps or any photographs of most of the horse-drawn railways of this country. Although horse-drawn railways do appear on tithe maps, in most cases they are not very clearly marked and resemble a road more than anything else.

Secondly, the 19th century history of the growth of the South Wales railway network was intensely complex and entangled, and the later domination of the area by the GWR was by no means a foregone conclusion. Through the 1850s and 1860s there were a number of factions at work: on the local level, horse-drawn lines trying to modernise and make their railways part of the national network; newer steam-operated lines each serving a single valley and without any scope for a broader outlook; and nationally, the large London-based companies trying to gain “territory” and a share of the South Wales industrial traffic. In 1852 two directors of the London & North Western Railway, Richard Moon and Edward Tootal, said:

[A]ll the Narrow Gauge Lines [standard gauge] of South Wales are at present detached: & divided into separate & small Interests:- Again they are at present at War with the Broad Gauge.

(memo to LNWR board quoted in The Origins of the LMS in South Wales by Jones & Dunstone)

I’ll come to the reason why Moon and Tootal were investigating the railways of South Wales in a later post; but that, hopefully, sets the scene a little. South Wales didn’t become a GWR monoculture until, paradoxically, after the GWR itself ceased to exist. Through all of the 19th century, South Wales was a maze of twisty little railways, all different, many of them with very long histories.

All of which, if you’ve read this far, brings us on to a fairly ordinary-looking back lane behind some houses, in a fairly ordinary suburb of Casnewydd/Newport.

An ordinary back lane

You’ve probably guessed this is actually some sort of disused railway. It is; but it’s a disused railway that, paradoxically, is actually still in use. This is the trackbed of the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s tramway; its exact date of building is a little unclear but it was started around 1801 and open for traffic in 1805.

I’ve written about the Monmouthshire Canal Company before, as a good chunk of the Crumlin Arm of its canal has been semi-restored, albeit not in a navigable state. The canal was built in the 1790s, following the valley of the Afon Ebwy/River Ebbw down as far as Tŷ Du/Rogerstone where it cut across north of Newport to reach the Wsyg/Usk.

The canal’s enabling Act of Parliament permitted anyone who wanted to use the canal (within a few miles radius) to build their own horse-drawn feeder railway linking them to the canal. This included the Tredegar Ironworks, in the Sirhowy Valley; the only sensible way they could reach the canal, however, was to build their railway all the way down along the Sirhywi until reaching the confluence of the Ebwy and Sirhiwy in Risca. The canal company built a matching line, roughly parallel to their canal for much of its length but running around the south side of Newport. The picture above is part of this line, near the modern day Pye Corner station.

Above I said that paradoxically, this is a disused railway that is still in use. The reason for that is: a line built for horses to draw trains at walking pace is not exactly suitable for use by powered trains at much higher speeds. A secondary reason is that in many cases the new “rail roads” were the best road in the area, became heavily used by pedestrians, and started to have ribbons of houses built along them in the same way that public roads do.

Tithe map

This is the tithe map for the photo shown above, from around 1840. As you can see it’s hard to see the difference, in this map, between the railways and the roads; but a “public road” has already been built around the other side of the buildings that have grown up along the railway, so that people don’t have to walk on the railway to get to them.

When this map was made, the railway had already been using steam engines for around fifteen years or so. Not long after, the company decided its trains needed a better line of route here, so a new line was built, parallel, only a few tens of metres to the west. That line is still in use today as Trafnidiaeth Cymru’s Ebbw Vale Line, although it’s seen many changes over the years.

I was going to segue into the later railway history of the Pye Corner area at this point, because there’s plenty to discuss. Indeed, as far back as the mid-1820s there was already a railway junction there, and on the tithe map above you can see the second line striding off to the left of the map. It’s technically no longer a railway junction. There are still two routes here, but they come together and run parallel rather than actually joining. As this is already turning into something of an essay, though, that will wait for a later day.

Unexpected

I deliberately didn't post this yesterday in case you thought it was an April Fool

Talking about trains: regular readers will be aware that occasionally over the past few months I’ve been banging on about the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, a curious little Welsh concern that until 1922 operated two stretches of railway line. One from Brecon to Merthyr—actually, to Deri, a small village between Dowlais and Bargoed—and the other from Rhymney to Newport. The latter was originally built as a horse-drawn tramroad in the mid-1820s and its southernmost few miles are the last part of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway still in use, now just as a freight branch to serve Machen Quarry. In included probably the oldest viaduct on the railway network, which I’ll write more about another day. Occasionally someone proposes reopening it to passengers, together with the disused line from Machen to Caerphilly, but nothing ever happens about this.

I say “still in use” but the Machen Quarry line is very much only still in use in the hypothetical sense; trains along it are few and far between. Because of this, I was slightly surprised to drive past Rhiwderin station the other day and see a train, stopped, in the disused railway station.

Why was there a train standing still in Rhiwderin station, when it closed getting on for seventy years ago? Well, first, a bit of explanation. The level crossing at Rhiwderin is of the “locally monitored” type. That’s to say, it works automatically. There are signals for the trains, which normally (when the crossing is open to road traffic) flash red. As a train approaches, it hits a switch to operate the crossing. The lights flash, the barriers come down, and the flashing red train signal changes to flashing white. What do I suspect happened? Well, when I drove past, the barriers were most definitely up. Presumably, the first train in many months had hit the switch to operate the crossing, nothing happened, so the train had stopped at the flashing red signal until someone could come along to make sure everything was properly safe.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But surely now, if you have a train on a crossing, nobody is going to drive themselves into the side of the thing are they? It’s bloody huge, is what I’m saying.

Really, you would be surprised. It is certainly not unheard of, for a car to drive into the side of a train that was already blocking the road. Not wanting to risk that happening, is entirely understandable. The interesting thing here is that this train was on its return trip, heading away from the quarry towards Stoke Gifford marshalling yard (or, for non-train people, the sidings next to Bristol Parkway station). Heading up to the quarry, the level crossing must have worked as designed; then on the way back, nothing happened. If I was a rarely-used level crossing myself, I could definitely understand.

I was half-tempted to pull the car over, get the camera out and start taking photos of this train stopped in a station that closed over sixty years ago. There was already a guy leaning over the fence by the level crossing, though, watching the world go by and watching the train very much not going by. Another random (me) turning up with a camera was, no doubt, the last thing the people trying to get stuff moving again actually wanted. Still, I’ll have to keep an eye on the timetables now in case trains start to appear regularly on the stub of the Brecon & Merthyr again, just in case I will have chance next time to pop out with the camera as they pass.

The railways of your dreams

Or possibly those of my subconscious

A few months ago now, I wrote something about the sheer number of different railways that interest me enough to want to build models of them. It’s a fairly long list, to be frank, of ideas and concepts that I’ve considered over and over to, for one reason and another, very little concrete result.

My subconscious evidently thinks that that long list isn’t enough, because last night I awoke from a dream that a magazine article had inspired me to build an American-set model railway (or model railroad, I suppose). It was based on the concept of a “double terminus”: two lines meeting from opposite directions, built by different companies, without through trains per se but with traffic interchanged.

To be honest, it’s quite an interesting concept. There are a few examples in Britain I can think of. Halesowen, in the West Midlands, was a rather strange station where the GWR and LMS met from opposite directions. Brecon was a slightly more complex example: the Neath and Brecon Railway met the Brecon and Merthyr Railway end-on, with through trains from the Cambrian Railways, and with the Midland Railway using the whole thing as a route to reach Swansea. After 1922 this all became a lot quieter. The ultimate example is probably Wells, which once was served by three separate railways approaching from three different directions, all of them rather meandering and quiet branchlines.

In a way my subconscious was right: America is somewhat more fertile ground for this sort of concept. Britain suffers from its relative lack of railway companies, particularly from 1923 onwards; there would be many more cases of this sort of thing if it weren’t for earlier amalgamations. I said Brecon became a lot quieter: the companies sharing the station both became part of the Great Western Railway, and the Midland’s successor, the LMS, had its own route into Swansea and didn’t need to pay tolls to its competitor to get there. Brecon’s station became a dozy, sleepy place as a result, losing its railways completely in 1962.* Similar things happened elsewhere, or had happened already. Nevertheless, there were always going to be places where different railways or just different ways of working met. Another Welsh example is Nine Mile Point, an entirely arbitrary place whose existence I’ve briefly touched upon before. In 1805 the Tredegar ironworks wanted to build a railway to Newport, but the Monmouthshire Canal didn’t want to lose their income; they agreed to compromise by building half of the railway each, with the dividing line being at the ninth milepost from Newport. For one reason and another the canal company ended up asking the Great Western Railway to buy it out (and the results can still be seen); and the ironworks-founded Sirhowy Railway ended up owned by the London and North Western Railway. Nine Mile Point became a “frontier”, and lasted as such into the 1960s. It’s interesting to speculate how much the Sirhowy Valley suffered by comparison with the valleys either side, through having its railway divided in that way, but of course it can only ever be speculation.

I’m not going to add “random dream-inspired American railroad” to my list of models I might one day build, but it has at least sparked off a bit of thought and imagination in my mind, and led to this blog post at the very least. I’m going to finish it off with a photo of somewhere I might more plausibly build a model of one day.

Rhiwderin

This is the former Rhiwderin station, at the far end of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway from Brecon. It has a properly-scenic model railway feel to it, with the station building, the level crossing (replacing an earlier bridge), a Victorian village school next to the station, and a row of worker’s cottages behind the school. The terraces and the school were built for the workers at a tinplate factory which was built alongside the railway here but had already gone bankrupt by the 1870s. As a model it looks very attractive, with all of the parts in place just so; but it would also be fairly boring to operate as a railway, with trains heading back and forth but not much else going on. That’s the problem with real places for model railways: they rarely combine both an attractive appearence with interesting things going on. Maybe the railways of your dreams have their advantages after all.

* Nothing to do with the infamous Richard Beeching, before you ask; he didn’t publish his report until the following year.

Photo post of the week

Signs that spring is on the way

Work has stolen and sapped all of my energy this week. I’ve still found time, though, to go out walking; and although the weather has been bitterly cold there are signs that spring is coming. The trees are full of songbirds, too.

Pylon

I’m entranced by this fallen electricity pylon, lying on its side battered and derelict, its structs bent and broken like some ancient reptilian fossil. My own local beached plesiosaur. I keep watching it from different angles; I really should come by with the Proper Camera.

Mynydd Machen

Similarly, I keep watching Mynydd Machen from different angles. I can see it from my window; sometimes invisible, sometimes flat and two-dimensional in mist, sometimes so bright and bold I could reach out and pick it up. On the wide-angle phone camera, though, it always looks small and disappointing.

Railway line

There will naturally be a proper railway history post at some point; I just need to put it together and decide exactly what I want to say, other than “this railway is much older than all those fancy modern upstarts like that one from Manchester to Liverpool”.

Grey cat

And finally, all cats are grey, as The Cure once upon a time said.