Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Brecon & Merthyr Railway’


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.


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

More bits of countryside

The ongoing February, which feels as if it is the longest month of the past 12, is sapping my writing energy. Hopefully the oncoming spring will sort that out: today I saw my first queen bumblebee of the year flying purposefully around the neighbourhood looking for a spot to start her nest. This post is something of an appendix to the previous, with a few more photos. I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera.




I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera, which is why regular readers might spot some similarities. At some point I will tell you much, much more about the history of this particular railway, but not today.


It was built in the 1820s, as a plateway; I suspect that low wall on the right was put there in the 1890s when it was widened from single to double track.



Hopefully as the weather warms and the seasons change, my writing energy will come back too.

Photo post of the week

Or, a change of scenery

Regular readers might have noticed that the site has been quiet since the weekend. It’s been quiet because I’ve been somewhat busy moving house: one of the most stressful things you can do in life, or so everyone always says. The previous post was written whilst I was surrounded by removal men trying to pack everything up into well-padded boxes. A strange experience, sitting in a corner of your front room trying to keep yourself occupied as all around you all your stuff is picked up and handled and wrapped and boxed away.

So now, the move is complete, the furniture is rearranged and at least some of the stuff is unpacked again. Everything is still a little bit topsy-turvy, though. Unpacking, I found books I thought I’d got rid of years ago; it turns out they were lurking in the cupboard under the stairs all along.

The full story of the move will have to wait until another day, partly because I have little energy at the moment for writing it down. Today, though, I did have enough energy to go for a wander in the new neighbourhood. It was pouring with rain, and after taking a few photos my phone screen became so wet it didn’t really respond to touches any more; but here are a few.

View from a hilltop

View from a hilltop

Level-ish crossing

Fast river

Too much to choose from

Or, why are there so many different trains in the world

Yesterday I said that having more blog posts about trains than about politics would be a good target to aim for by this time next year; and regardless of how frequently I post here overall, that’s probably still a good rule of thumb to aim for. So today, I thought I’d talk about model trains, and how I end up never building any.

I’ve always wanted a model train of some kind, ever since I was small and had a Hornby “Super Sound” trainset with an allegedly realistic chuff, generated by a sound machine wired in to the power circuity. However, there have always been a few problems with this, aside from the perennial problems of having enough time and space for such a space-gobbling hobby. There are two fundamental ones, at root: firstly, I am perennially pedantic, and secondly, I just like such a broad range of different railways and trains that it would be extremely hard to choose just one to stick with as a project. Given the first point, I would always want anything I build to be as accurate as I could make it; given the second, I can never stick with one idea for long enough to build enough stuff to practice the skills sufficiently and be a good enough model-builder to achieve this. Whilst drafting this post in my head, I tried to think just how many railways I’ve been interested in enough to start working out the feasibility of some sort of model railway project. It’s a long list.

  • Some sort of rural German branch line (I did actually start buying stock for this)
  • A fictitious narrow-gauge line in the Rhinogydd, in Ardudwy (again, this has reached the stock-acquiring level)
  • Grimsby East Marsh or somewhere else in Grimsby Docks
  • Something inspired by the Cambrian Railways’ coast section (although the actual stations are mostly fairly unattractive, apart from possibly Penrhyndeudraeth)
  • Woodhall Junction, on the Great Northern
  • Bala Junction (ever since I saw a plan of it in a Railway Modeller years and years ago)
  • Wadebridge (come on, who doesn’t like the North Cornwall Railway)
  • North Leith on the North British Railway (at 1:76 scale, you could do it to exact scale and it would still fit inside a 6 foot square)
  • Something fictitious based on the idea that the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway had actually finished their planned line east of Lincoln, which was always a wildly implausible plan in the real world.
  • The Rosedale Railway (although in practice this would probably be very dull as a model)
  • Moorswater, where the Liskeard and Looe Railway and Liskeard and Caradon Railways met (ideally when it was still in use as a passenger station, although that means before it was connected to the rest of the railway network)

Even for a modelling genius, or the sort of modeller who can produce an amazing, detailed landscape, then immediately packs it away in a box and starts working on the next one, that’s a lot of different ideas to vacillate between. And some of these would require just about everything on the model to be completely hand-made: Moorswater, for example, would have to have fully hand-made track, stock, locomotives and buildings in order to even vaguely resemble the original. With something like Woodhall Junction or Grimsby Docks most of the place-specific atmosphere is in the buildings rather than the trains, but even so, getting a good range of location-specific locos and stock would be difficult.

Just lately, there’s been another one to add to the list: I read a small book I picked up about the Brecon and Merthyr Railway, and was intrigued. I quickly found it had an intriguing range of operations, reached 1923 without ever owning any bogie coaches, and standardised on using somersault signals. The large-scale OS maps that are easily available (ie, those in the National Library of Scotland collection) show some very intriguing track layouts, its main locomotive works at Machen was an attractive and jumbled mix of 1820s stone and 1900s corrugated iron, and it even had some halts on the Machen-Caerffili branch which were only ever used by trains in one direction. However, on the other hand, the small book I picked up seems to be practically the only book ever written about the line, with very little information available easily about it. I suspect I’d end up writing a book about it myself before I got around to building anything.

I am going to try to build more models, and hopefully the more I build, the better they will get and the happier with my skills I’ll become. I’m going to have to try to stick to one and only one of the above, though, and try not to get distracted. That might be the hardest part.