I admire the company’s enterprising PR spirit. But there’s more to this 100th birthday than you’d think reading an @LNER tweet. The current LNER is just five years old, taking over rail services on the east coast main line in 2018. The new operator revived the name of the historic LNER, which was created on 1 January 1923 when some 120 British railway companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’: GWR, LNER, LMS and Southern Railway. Those iconic brands disappeared exactly 25 years later when the railways were nationalised. Yet their enduring appeal led to three of the famous names being revived by privatised-era rail operators: GWR, Southern and LNER. (The reborn LNER scrapped the conjunction in the old name, London and North Eastern Railway.)
It is striking that the aim of the grouping was to make the railways more efficient, and to eliminate direct competition ‘as far as possible’. Indeed, Winston Churchill spoke in favour of nationalising the railways in 1918, but changed his mind by the time the 1945 Labour government nationalised the Big Four as British Railways. The eventual amalgamation created just four groups rather than the seven suggested in 1920.
It’s curious how certain places exert a disproportionate influence on our thoughts. More than 40 years ago I stood on a bridge and took a photo of a railway at Penrhos, near Caerphilly. I have no idea why – not a single train graced the lonely route up the big hill from Nantgarw towards Caerphilly.
Perhaps I sensed the pull of the ghosts of trains past. Penrhos was the site of a mighty battle. Three Welsh railways locked horns on that hillside. The Rhymney was the oldest, opened in 1858 to transport coal from its namesake valley to Cardiff. The later Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport hauled the black gold from the Taff and Rhondda valleys to Newport. But the star of the show was the Barry Railway, the parasite that drew trade from the incumbents to its own, new port of Barry. By 1914, Barry had overtaken Cardiff as the world’s greatest coal-exporting port.
At the start of the 20th century, the Barry Railway set off on an outrageous, audacious venture to steal traffic from its earlier rivals. It blew vast sums on a line that soared against the grain of the South Wales landscape. Its new line spanned spectacular viaducts across the Taff and Rhymney valleys to join the Brecon & Merthyr Railway opposite Llanbradach. The expensive line was closed by the Great Western Railway, which absorbed the Welsh railways exactly a century ago, and the great viaducts demolished in 1937, as my father recorded during his reporting career after the second world war. (The steel was recycled for Britain’s frantic rearmament on the eve of Hitler’s war.)
One of the Barry’s more modest bridges crossed the Rhymney and PC&N lines at Penrhos, just west of Caerphilly, seen in Briwnant’s image above. By the time I took my first photos here in the early 1980s just one double track line remained. Within a year even that route had closed.
Yet the pull of that lonely hillside still captured me. In the snows that followed Christmas 1993, Dad and I drove over Caerphilly Mountain to witness Penrhos, now bleak and rail-less. The pillars of the Barry’s overbridge provided the only evidence of a lost railway. I don’t remember mourning this monument to the loss of South Wales’s industrial might. But I feel it keenly now. Forty years ago, no one thought the loss of king coal was a victory for planet Earth. But let us cling to that consolation.
When the rails left Penrhos, the coal trains from the Rhymney valley were restricted to the later 1871 Rhymney Railway mainline through the tunnel to Llanishen and Cardiff. Lying in my bed in Lakeside, Cardiff, as night became Bible black, I took comfort in the throb of the class 37 diesels as they piloted their black gold cargoes down the embankment towards Cardiff. The diesel song occasionally joined in harmony with City Hall’s bells sounding the hour, and the foghorns of the capital’s still active docks.
The reign of king coal is over. The surviving South Wales rail lines are largely devoted to human not industrial traffic. Some of the lines closed by the malevolent Dr Beeching have reopened in the past 35 years, with more to follow. But Penrhos is unlikely to echo once more to the sound of trains. Any dreams of a resurgence will be confined to small scale models. North of the road bridge where Dad and I parked our cars the railway cutting has been filled in as a foundation for Caerphilly’s expansion.
I’ll end with an image of Penrhos in its twilight days. The photo above shows the Barry viaduct intact, but disused, as a GWR coal train steams up the hill from Taffs Well. Today, the hillsides echo to footsteps and barking dogs rather than panting trains. We can but dream of the days when Welsh steam coal fuelled the world.
We’ve lost a fine writer and observer of British life and politics with the death of Ian Jack.
My spirits always rose on a Saturday when I spotted one of Jack’s beautifully observed Guardian columns. It helped that I’m fascinated by the topics he made his own, such as Britain’s industrial heritage, and the long-lost glories of our railways and maritime traditions. Who else would have linked the disastrous new rail timetables of 2018 with the misreading 153 years earlier of a timetable that caused the Victorian railway crash that ruined the health of Charles Dickens? (In that piece, Jack also highlighted that Dickens was travelling with his lover when their train crashed into the river Beult.)
He turned wistful memories into compelling copy. Take this example, a childhood memory of a 1950s dining car experience, woven into a column mourning Chiltern Railways’ axing of on-train catering services:
I was too young to remember seeing steam engines on the mainline, but I had a childhood consolation. Just 10 miles from my Cardiff home, I could clamber over hundreds of steam locomotives without anyone telling me to stop. That playground was Barry scrapyard, steam’s graveyard.
At the end of steam in the 1960s, Dai Woodham bought hundreds of withdrawn steam engines from British railways for his scrap business at Barry Island. He intended to scrap them but delayed doing so while he focused on scrapping redundant railway wagons. As a result, railway preservation societies flocked to Barry to select locomotives to restore to operate their lines. Out of almost 300 engines sent to Barry, almost three quarters were rescued from the graveyard, and over half lived to steam again.
On my visits to Barry scrapyard, I was drawn to the ex GWR engines, especially the last monarch, King Edward II, which I saw miraculously reborn in 2011, and the engines that sustained the Welsh coal trade. But 40 years ago today I was enjoyed a spectacular sight. Twenty years of Welsh sea air had revealed the pre-nationalisation (1948) livery of a Southern Railway S15, with the SOUTHERN legend clearly visible. As you can see on the photo I took that day (above) there are actually three logos: the two British Railways lion symbols as well as the Southern lettering.
According to my 1982 diary, I had finished my A level mock exams the week before, so must have taken advantage of a lesson-free afternoon to get the train to Barry Island, before spending time in the sadly-missed Lears bookshop in Cardiff’s Royal Arcade. I bought a book about the Cambrian Railways, the Welsh line graced by some of the GWR Manor class engines I’d just seen at Dai Woodham’s scrapyard.
It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.
I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.
What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.
Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.
Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.
I took a train for the first time in over five months this week. What a contrast to that last journey in March, before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began.
Our short (eight minute) journey from Tenby to Saundersfoot was simple enough. We remembered to take our masks. The Transport for Wales guard challenged passengers who weren’t wearing masks, although the man sitting opposite us remained unmasked as we got off.
Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.
To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.
As we alighted at Saundersfoot station, it struck me that the town was likely to be a decent walk away. So it proved. I was reminded of tales of Victorian travellers leaving their trains at stations with the ‘Road’ suffix on a wild Welsh night not realising they were miles from the town in the station name. A practice followed by budget airlines 125 years later…
I was intrigued to come across this sign on our two kilometre walk to Saundersfoot . ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn’) recalls the infamous flooding of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the English city of Liverpool. Parliament voted for the project, but not a single Welsh MP voted for it. The scandal was a major boost to Welsh nationalism and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) in the 1960s and afterwards.
We finally reached the sea at Saundersfoot. This peaceful town was once a major port, exporting coal from the Pembrokeshire coalfield. We walked through a tunnel that was built for the narrow gauge coal tramway. A lovely mix of industrial history and rural beauty – not uncommon in Wales.
At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.
The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.
I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.
The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.
I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.
To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.
HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.
The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.
I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.
As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.
This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.
Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.
Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.
I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.
I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.
Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster
Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.
The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.
I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.
The scene three days later
The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.
Witnessing the aftermath
Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.
Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill, Gretna Green
The 498 soldiers of the 7th battalion of the Scots Guards must have had mixed feelings as they boarded their troop train at Larbert in Scotland in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. They were off to war as part of the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition. No doubt they pondered their chances of surviving in battle. Yet within three hours, over 200 were dead and a similar number injured in Britain’s most deadly railway disaster at Quintinshill near Gretna Green.
Quintinshill: the inferno
They were victims of a shocking act of neglect by two signalmen and other railwaymen, who failed to notice that signals had been cleared for their troop train even though a local train was standing in its path. The driver of the soldiers’ train had driven Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, but there was nothing he could do to avoid catastrophe as his train swept downhill at high speed into the local train. The 213 yard long troop train was compressed to a mere 67 yards. A third train ran into the wreckage, killing many survivors. Worse still, the coals of the engines set fire to the gas used to light the ancient wooden coaches causing an inferno that consumed the dead and the living.
A local reporter noted the incongruity of the mixing of human cries for help with the ‘sweet trills of the mavis and blackbird’.
Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors
Quintinshill: the verdict
The accident report laid the blame firmly at the door of the signalmen who had forgotten the presence of the local train under their noses in broad daylight, and the fireman of the local who was in the box to remind the signalmen of the presence of the train. The inspector also strongly urged the abolition of deadly gas lighting on trains. (A danger similar to that posed by hydrogen-filled airships.)
Despite its poignant status as Britain’s most deadly rail crash, the Quintinshill tragedy is less well-known than the Tay bridge disaster or the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone crash. No doubt the fact it happened in wartime and involved a troop train ensured its anonymity.
PS: there’s an excellent Facebook page about the century commemoration of the disaster at Rosebank cemetery on 23 May 2015.