+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘railway’

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.

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.

Countryside

Countryside

Railway

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.

Railway

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.

Church

River

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

Photo post of the week

Ger y camlas

One aspect of moving house, especially if you move to a completely different neighbourhood or another town altogether, is the joy you can have in exploring the new area, finding all the interesting corners and places to go. In the current hospitals-overflowing stay-at-home situation, this is a bit limited; but at least there is exploration that can still be done on foot. In Bristol I was getting rather jaded of all the places I could visit on foot, even when it led to interesting local history blog posts. Now, there’s a whole new set of avenues of local history to explore.

One of the spots I can reach on foot is a quiet, sleepy canal backwater. You can’t even use it as a canal any more; most of the road bridges have been demolished or flattened out (or are roads that didn’t even exist when the canal was in use), so you can’t get any sort of boat under them. It’s essentially a long pond, busy with ducks and moorhens, and with its towpath busy with walkers.

Along the canal

Along the canalbank there are a few surviving hints of its industrial archaeology. Here, for example, is a mid-19th-century boundary post.

Canal boundary

This post must be from some decades after the canal was built, because “MR&CC” is the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company; and the canal company only added “Railway” into its name in the 1850s. The canal—the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal—was built in the 1790s, but within 10 years of its opening some of its main users were looking to replace it with a railway. Not wanting to lose revenue, the canal company agreed to split the railway* midway: the lower half was built by the canal company and the upper by the owners of the Tredegar ironworks, with the dividing line at the nine-mile mark eventually becoming the village of Nine Mile Point. At opening in around 1805, the combined system was the longest railway network in the world, and quite a few stretches of the route are still in use now.

Later on, the split at Nine Mile Point was preserved. The upper section, the Sirhowy Railway, was bought by the London & North Western Railway. The canal company, though, was bought by the Great Western Railway, and some of their signage survives along the canal bank too.

GWR sign

This is a standard design of weight restriction sign—there are other GWR examples along other GWR-owned canals, and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has a North Eastern Railway one.

No doubt I will have a lot more to say about local history in the future. As yet I’m not even sure what questions I want to ask, let alone have started to investigate the answers. At least when I do, though, I’ll be able to enjoy the scenery as I go. Even when I can only explore places I can reach on foot, there is still an awful lot to sit down and look at.

Bench

Mynydd Machen

* A quick terminology note: I’ve used the word “railway” in something of a blanket way here. The railways I’m talking about were built as what are now called “plateways”, with flanged track and unflanged wheels. At the time, in South Wales, they were generally (but not always) called “tramways” or “tramroads”.

See you later, alligator (part two)

In which something, for once, is completed

The bad thing about Lego is that if you’re just going to build the kit out of the box, it costs quite a lot of money compared to the time it takes to build the thing. The good thing about Lego, though, is that you can actually complete a project in a reasonable amount of time. Regular readers of this blog will be aware just how many half-finished craft projects I post about on here, and just how few completely finished ones there are (um, none). The Lego I posted about last week, by comparison, is already done! After three sessions, the kit is complete. I’m still not entirely sure why it merited an “18+” age guidance on the box, but it certainly did include lots of fiddly bits.

Pantograph parts

The ends of the pantograph collectors, incidentally are the same Lego element used for the claws of various dinosaur and other animal kits, but in silver.

Whenever I do Lego, I like to take lots of step-by-step photos, so it’s always very tempting to start posing the minifigs in positions to suit. I’m not sure they knew how to fit a connecting rod, although Lego rods do make wheel quartering extremely straightforward.

Putting the rods on

By now the Lego aficionados will have realised that this is the “Swiss Crocodile Locomotive” set slowly coming together. I don’t have any Lego track easily accessible right now, so I didn’t see any point getting the motor to go along with it; but I would imagine it is always going to be more of a display piece than a usable locomotive. Two flangeless pairs of wheels always seem to ride slightly off the rails, making its wheel arrangement a 1-1-B-1-1 or thereabouts. Still, I think it’s going to be quite a nice display piece for the office, when I have all the furniture in the office sorted out.

At some point I'll do a proper photo without random junk in the background

Even if I don’t have anywhere to put it properly yet, and even if it is only for display, the minifigs wanted to climb aboard as soon as it was complete.

Climbing aboard

In the cab

The hardest thing about building this model? Probably the design of the instruction book. A kit with a lot of brown or dark brown parts, with instructions printed on a black background, is not the easiest read. Still, I didn’t really go too far astray at any point in the build.

Will this lead to more craft projects suddenly being finished? Will there suddenly be a flood of completed work? Well, stranger things have happened. I certainly shouldn’t start any more until there are fewer in progress, certainly.

See you later, alligator

Or, a treat for myself

It’s strange, having a birthday that falls not long after Christmas. For a while now I’ve been past the age of receiving very many birthday presents, so a while ago I deliberately went out and bought myself a present, and put it away, waiting for my birthday. This year, too, my birthday was relatively close to moving house, the strange period in which everything frivolous, everything not house-move-related, has to go into stasis until the move is over. My present to myself was a Lego kit, and last night I was finally able to start to build it.

Last time I built some Lego I turned it into a GIF. This time, I was tempted to go the whole hog, set up camera and tripod and lighting, program the camera into time lapse mode, and create a video of the whole thing. It seemed like an awful lot of effort, though, for something that was supposed to be a treat for myself. Maybe after I’ve finished the model once, I’ll take it all apart, set up a time lapse, and build it again. Still, I did take a few photos. This is the end of Step 1.

Not much to show yet

It’s a bit hard to tell what it’s going to be after just one step, I suppose. I didn’t get the whole thing finished in one night, but I suspect this is going to be completed much faster than most of my craft-type projects.

Look, cogs

A bit clearer what it is

I do rather like the level of interior detail in this thing, even though a lot of it is likely to be hardly visible in the finished model. At present, it will just turn into something to sit on a shelf as an ornament in my office, but you never know, I might buy a motor to go with it at some point.

It's got controls and everything

The second part of this Lego build is here

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

Cofiwch Abermiwl

Like a train, this post is slightly late

A couple of days ago, it was the hundredth anniversary of a significant event in British railway history. If you’re a train nerd, you’ll know what it was from the title of this post. If you’re not, let’s start with this photo of the Severn Valley in rural mid-Wales.

The Severn Valley just west of Abermiwl

I took that photo a few years ago from the ruined battlements of the 13th century Dolforwyn Castle, and looking at it you could be forgiven for not even noticing the train in the middle of the picture. It’s on its way from Birmingham to the Welsh coast, on the former main line of the Cambrian Railways. Before 1922 the Cambrian was the largest “Welsh railway company”* in terms of route mileage, but not in terms of profit or revenue. Its main line was (and is) more like a long, rambling branchline; single-track, through small towns and tiny villages, from the Marches through to Aberystwyth and the curving coast of Cardigan Bay. That includes the line along the Severn Valley through Welshpool and Newtown, passing under the battlements of Dolforwyn Castle near the village of Abermiwl (or Abermule in its English spelling).

if you look closely you can see the train, its single track threading through fields and past farmhouses. See the white house on the left with the three chimneys? See the railway line passing behind it? A hundred years ago this week, two trains, going in opposite directions, collided head-on at that precise spot. Seventeen people were killed, including Lord Vane-Tempest, director of the Cambrian Railways and High Sheriff of Montgomeryshire.

The significant thing about the Abermiwl crash is that, in theory, it should not have happened. In theory, the single lines of the Cambrian Railways were protected by a “token system”. Without going into too much detail: the rules of a token system state that all trains travelling from “token station” to token station must be carrying a token, an arbitrary “thing” with the names of the token stations engraved upon it. The physical form of the token varies: a baton, for example, or a large key. The Cambrian Railways used “tablets”, metal discs a few inches across. Each section of line has a set of tokens, but they normally sit locked in machines called “token instruments” at each token station. The instruments are electrically wired together in a similar way to a pair of light switches at either end of a staircase, so that if you unlock one token from one instrument, you then can’t take any more tokens out of either, until a token has been locked back into one of the instruments. Ergo, assuming the drivers follow the rule on not setting off without a token—and it is one of the gravest rules in the Rule Book—nothing can go wrong.

On 26th January 1921 a westbound slow train arrived at Abermiwl and handed over its token, for the Montgomery—Abermule section of line. It was booked to wait to pass the Aberystwyth—Manchester express heading in the other direction, but the station staff were collectively unsure whether that would be happening on this particular day, or where the express currently was. In reality, the express was steaming hard in the middle of the Abermule—Newtown section of line, but none of the station staff actually knew that, and only one knew that a token had been issued for it at Newtown. Through something best described as a gruesome stage farce, or a nightmarish pantomime, the Montgomery—Abermule token was passed hand-to-hand among the station staff and back to the loco crew, who assumed it was the Abermule—Newtown token they were expecting, and didn’t look at it to check. Without anyone who knew the location of the express noticing, the slow train set off carrying the wrong token. A mile outside the station, the two trains collided. The station staff, by that point, had already realised what they had done and that the trains were doomed, but were unable to stop them.

The accident investigation report made it very clear just how the event had happened, and “Remember Abermiwl” became a watchword across railways worldwide. In India, it was written in Urdu inside the cabs of locomotives. It became standard practice for train crew to shout out the names of the stations on each token to each other, and pass the token around the cab for everyone to read aloud, so the identity of each was double- and triple-checked at each token station. If you go and visit a steam railway, you can still see and hear that happen, if you’re in the right place at the right time. The peaceful green fields in the photo above had an impact on railway working around the world; and the lesson is worth remembering in other fields too. Avoid passing jobs hand to hand; always make sure everything is clear and agreed. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

If you want to know the full details of exactly how the accident happened, who said what to who, and precisely how the Montgomery token ended up in the wrong place, it is all spelled out in the accident report written by the Board of Trade’s Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, John Pringle. There is a postscript to this, though. Despite the importance of Abermule in railway history, a similar event almost happened in August 2019 on the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. There, the trains saw each other with enough warning to stop before colliding. However, the causes of that event were similar enough that the official government report on the incident includes Abermiwl under the heading “Previous Similar Occurrences”. Remember Abermiwl, indeed. The safest of systems can be defeated if the proper processes are ignored and slowly slip away over time. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

* Technically speaking, the head office and engineering base of the company was not in Wales, but slightly over the border in Oswestry. However, if you were to consider all of the railway companies which had the majority of their track mileage in Wales (including Monmouthshire, let’s not get silly now) as Welsh railway companies, the Cambrian was the longest.