Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Tavistock Ho!

(Bere Alston 29.8.1972 copyright Steve Sainsbury/Rail Thing)

News just in is that the Bere Alston to Tavistock line will now be rebuilt. ('And about time'!) I suspect most of you are thinking.

Take a look at the rather dire picture illustrating this piece. I'd only just passed 16 and had only been taking photos for a year is my excuse, but in a way it captures everything about this line. It was a snatched shot taken from the Gunnislake train as it reversed at the station. There are a few passengers on the platform, which shows that even in the nadir of rail travel in the UK this line was still fairly well used.

There's a very evocative final paragraph in the seminal work on these routes - The Withered Arm by T E Roche. The book had described this network of routes, and the sense of shock that a MAIN line could be closed. The author takes a little walk beyond Bere Alston, just a short while after closure, and almost talks himself into believing the line is still open, because the exit to the north is on a curve (as can be seen in the photo above) and nothing seems to have changed. And then he suddenly chances upon the buffers and stares in disbelief at the empty trackbed beyond.

Like the Waverley route the main SR route to Plymouth once boasted a network of branches off it, and these all needed to be closed before the final axe could be yielded. But the Callington branch was different, road services could NEVER replace the trains because of the way the Tamar cut a meandering course, isolating village en route from easy road access. So the line remained, though spitefully the last few miles from Gunnislake to Callington WERE closed. What it meant was that a good few miles of the old main line, from which the Gunnislake line branched off also had to be kept open. Six miles north of Bere Alston was the large and important town of Tavistock, which once boasted two stations, but this short piece of the line also had to close, so fanatical were the axemen of the time. Further on, at Meldon Viaduct, the main line reappeared, freight for a few miles, then Okehampton was allowed a passenger service - but even this was closed (to passengers) in 1972. I was there a few weeks before this stretch of line also closed to passengers, approached from Exeter of course. Freight kept going, and in recent years passenger services have been reintroduced on a few days a year. The line lives on here as well, if currently truncated!

Of course back in 1972 many people seriously believed the railways were finished, a withering rump remaining for those too poor to afford cars. Things have changed completely now, with rail in the ascendent and busier than it's been for almost a hundred years. We feel sorry for those people that are still tied to their cars, and now it's roads that are in decline (terminal this time).

Yet we're stuck with a fragmented rail network, designed for a world that's gone, and we need to get our railways back as quickly as we can, before the roads fail completely. There is the additional problem of climate change or, as it's now being rebranded, climate chaos. We all saw the terrible scenes at Dawlish last winter, when we were hit by ten storms in three months thanks to the stuck jetstream, directly caused by rapidly rising temperatures over the Arctic. We may find that many future winters are as extreme or more so, coupled with rapidly rising sea levels this spells the slow end of the 'alternative' route between Exeter and Plymouth via Dawlish, and the rapid rise of the Okehampton 'alternative'. Whilst we may get away with closing the ONLY route to Torbay, Plymouth and resurgent Kernow for now, and for a few weeks, that won't be acceptable in years to come when the road option is no longer available.

This is the REAL agenda behind the reopening of Tavistock. It may be dressed differently for public consumption, but I think we all know what this is really about. With Tavistock back on the network that gap to Meldon will seem tiny - smaller than the Borders Railway that will reopen next year for example (and through more challenging terrain!) Within a few years no doubt a solid and financed plan to close the link and give the west a second route to Plymouth, Torbay and Kernow will emerge. 

But this is just one reopening. To build resilience and keep our economy moving as the oil age ends we'll need a thousand .....

Monday, 18 August 2014

Rails Around Chichester

(All copyright Steve Sainsbury/Rail Thing, 15.8.2014)

We had a big family wedding last weekend, all centred around Chichester cathedral. I managed to wangle a quick trip to the station and took the photos above.

This whole area is where I grew up and many of my early photos were taken on the Coastway line between Brighton and Portsmouth. I often visited Chichester to walk up the old Midhurst line to Lavant and down the old Selsey Tramway to Hunston. I first visited Lavant in 1971, just a year after the regular sugar beet trains finished, but I do remember track at the station and beyond, where a buffer stop in the long grass marked the end of the Midhurst line. As the years passed the track was lifted as trains only ran as far as the gravel works near Brandy Hole Lane. Eventually even this short stub closed and the track was lifted - when I moved to Bosham around 2000 the line had gone. 

(Both Chichester station 21.8.1986 copyright Steve Sainsbury/Rail Thing)

Lavant 24.6.1976

Above both 15.5.1977 - top shot shows the end of the line by Brandy Hole Bridge. The lower picture shows Lavant, now trackless of course. I never got to photograph the track in situ here.

The other branch from Chichester was the Selsey Tramway, a Colonel Stephens' line, and often claimed to be the most ramshackle of them all, which is saying something! The top shot must be very near the line's opening, or possibly the opening day itself, when the line took delivery of  its lovely new carriages. The bottom shot is more typical, with one of the petrol railcars waiting for passengers. Both lines from Chichester closed to passengers in 1935. There are often rumblings in the city and Selsey for the tramway to be reopened, it would be a most useful (and cheap to run) line today. The line north to Midhurst would be a spectacular 'heritage' line, cutting as it does through the South Downs and serving the racecourse at Goodwood. It may well be that both lines reopen in the coming decades, and Chichester regains its status as a junction.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Bristol's secret heritage line

Henbury from across the water.

Street running.

The Ruston (called The Bug on the railway).

Double slip.


Portbury on shed, repositioned for work!

Tracks and cranes.

(All pics copyright Steve Sainsbury/Rail Thing 6.8.2014)

It was my birthday today (again). Normally we go on a rail trip but the weather forecast for today was so awful we went to see the first showing of the new Inbetweeners film instead, followed by a trip into Bristol for a meal and many cocktails at Las Iguanas. The weather was actually fantastic, the forecast rain coming through overnight rather than in the morning and as we came out of the restaurant we decided to go for a walk along the harbourside.

Soon I thought I heard a diesel horn but put it down to the cocktails. Then across the water we saw activity on Bristol's secret heritage line, and it was indeed a diesel shunter. The two steam locos, Henbury and Portbury, were out too. I'd never seen the harbour line operating other than on occasional weekends. Problem was it was the other side of the water. Luckily, being an honorary Bristolian now, I knew there was a ferry up by the SS Great Britain that would get us across. Amazingly there was a ferry waiting and we quickly made the short trip across the water. We followed the railway along the street section and I just caught the Ruston diesel pass and then vanish up towards the Create Centre.

We chatted to a couple of the blokes working on the line to get the story. Henbury was just out of ticket and they'd been cleaning her boiler out. Same with Portbury who will now be pulling the trains for a while. The locos also needed repositioning so that Portbury would be at the front of the loco shed, with Henbury behind. Luckily we also got to see the two steam locos in the shed and I got to take a few photos.

The Bristol Harbour Railway is a real gem, but seems little known outside of Bristol. It links three major tourist attractions (one of national importance) - the SS Great Britain, The M Shed (free Museum of Bristol) and the fantastic Create Centre, which looks at sustainability, climate change, peak oil etc, all the stuff that's so important now. It's not a long line but it has a lot of variety including a fair stretch of street running, a harbouside stretch, a 'country' stretch, a run along a river and some urban bits as well. Highly recommended! Passengers also get to sit in open wagons ...

For those of you interested in disused lines there are plenty of them on both sides of the harbour and at each end of the Harbour Railway. The current terminus of the railway at Create is only about 300 metres from the (soon to be reopened to passengers) line to Portishead. You won't be stuck for things to do and see if you visit!

More info

The Bristol Harbour Railway is a preserved railway in Bristol, England operated by Bristol Museums Galleries & Archives. It runs for about a mile along the south side of Bristol Harbour, starting at M Shed (the former Bristol Industrial Museum(51.4483°N 2.5969°W)), stopping at the SS Great Britain, and ending at B Bond Warehouse (home of the Create Centre), one of the large tobacco warehouses beside Cumberland Basin (51.4466°N 2.6213°W).

The original Bristol Harbour Railway was a joint venture by the GWR and sister company the Bristol and Exeter Railway, opened in 1872 between Temple Meads and the Floating Harbour. Its route included a tunnel under St Mary Redcliffe church and a steam-powered bascule bridge over the entrance locks at Bathurst Basin. In 1876 the railway was extended by 12 mile (0.80 km) to Wapping Wharf.
By Act of Parliament of 1897, the GWR was authorised to make an eastwards connection between the BHR and the Portishead Railway, and then create the West Loop at Ashton Gate which would face south towards Tauntonand Exeter Central. This connection would allow a doubling of BHR rail access capacity to the Great Western main line. In 1906 this authorised extension was constructed, with new branches from the south via the Ashton Swing Bridge were built to: Canons Marsh on the north side of the Floating Harbour; and to Wapping via a line alongside the New Cut.
The Temple Meads connection was closed and the track lifted in 1964 (the bascule bridge engine survives in Bristol Museums). The Canons Marsh branch closed the following year, with the Canons Marsh goods shed is now the home of Explore At-Bristol, a hands-on science centre. The Western Fuel Company continued to use the branch from the Portishead line and Wapping marshalling yard for commercial coal traffic until 1987.
In 1978, the preserved railway was established as an element of Bristol Industrial Museum using locomotives built in Bristol and formerly used at Avonmouth Docks. At first, it connected the museum with the SS Great Britain, but when commercial rail traffic ceased in 1987 the museum railway expanded to use the branch alongside the New Cut. When the Portishead Railway was relaid the connection at Ashton Junction was severed.
Today the railway operates on selected weekends on standard gauge track over 1.5 miles (2.4 km). The railway is currently in use as far as B Bond Warehouse (home to the Create Centre and Bristol Record Office), a mile from the museum. On the south side of the harbour the railway crosses Spike Island, the narrow strip of land between the harbour and the River Avon, and clings to the side of the river as far as the junction with the northern branch at the Cumberland Basin. The former route east over the Swing Bridge is now the Pill Pathway rail trail andcycleway.
In 2006, Bristol Industrial Museum was closed and the site redeveloped into M Shed Museum of Bristol. The railway continues to operate between SS Great Britain Halt and the Create Centre, and in 2011 the railway became part of M Shed's working exhibits.