It's been a long time since government advice and my life have allowed me to do a Least Used Stations visit for this blog. However, the end of lockdown #2 was a point where I could go and visit places. I could not decide what station I should visit, but luckily that decision was mostly made for me by the government and their tier systems. I live in a tier 2 area, and we are advised against travelling to anywhere in tier 3 save for “essential journies”. This blog is (sadly) not one. I was further constrained by the whole of Scotland and Wales being out of bounds, and by where I could travel to and from in a day from my corner of South East England. Shippea Hill became about the only station I could visit.
Shippea Hill was the least used station in the country for 2 years from 2014, with only 1 passenger recorder per month. That meant it gained notoriety, and patronage ballooned (relatively) to over 400 in the 2018/19 period. That dropped back to 164 for the most recent 2019/20 statistics. The station serves the massive hill that exists in the Cambridgeshire Fens, as well as some farms and a load of shipping containers. The station is located east of Ely on the Breckland Line that links Norwich with Ely. It gets only 1 eastbound train per day (Monday-Saturday) and 1 westbound train per week (Saturday). It would not be desirable to wait between trains on a Saturday, because the first train calls at just after 7am, and the second at quarter past 4 in the afternoon. I decided to get a train to Ely, walk the 8 or so miles to Shippea Hill, then catch the afternoon train back. I think most rail enthusiasts who properly visit the train do so by getting a taxi from Ely or Littleport, but I consider getting a cab cheating.
The Journey and Walk
I woke up at a time, and got myself to London Kings Cross in time for the 10:42 Cambridge Flyer (a service that runs non-stop from London to Cambridge). I got that as far as Cambridge, where I picked up some lunch. Having inhaled that on the platform, I got the next service up to Ely. There, I left the station, and consulted the map I had.
As is normal for England in December, it was raining. My route followed the Hereward Way which is a relatively well established path. I must have looked a little silly trying to find the path as I spent a while alternating between doubling back along roads and dropping my phone. I found the path, and wandered along it to a level crossing. That took me round the back of an industrial estate, over a Bridge, and past a very imposing fence which told me that a security company constantly patrolled. I couldn't see anyone. I arrived at a bridge to see some people diving off it. I'm sure the Great Ouse is a lovely river to dive into, even when it is brown, the sky is grey, and one can already get wet simply by standing on the porch. I managed to take my second wrong-turn of the day, and had a lovely detour to Queen Adelaide. All I can say is that it exists. Back on the path I was expecting, I followed that until I reached the backstreets of Prickwillow. There were a number of trees around, but I could see neither the willow nor the prick veriaty. This did distract me enough to make detour number 3 and a 5 minute period where I walked back towards Ely along B-road. I followed some river for a bit, and then some roads/tracks. Just over 3 hours later I arrived, damp, on the approach to the station.
The station is a fairly simple and standard one. It has 2 platforms situated next to a level crossing with a signal box that is now disused. There is a shelter on the Norwich-bound platform, a diminished number of signs in comparison to most other stations I have visited for the series, some lights, some benches, but no bins. There is a mobility ramp on the Norwich-bound platform, but none on the Ely-bound platform. This makes sense, as nobody leaving Shippea Hill who wants to go west or south has a physical disability.
Surrounding the station, there is a rather optimistically placed pub: the Railway Tavern. Until I looked at the map post-journey, I thought this was just a house with a silly name. There is also a very heavily secured set of shipping containers. They may well be the namesake of the 'shippea' park of the station name, given the severe lack of anything else ship related in the vicinity. On the subject of the name, there is no hill. The highest point around is the railway and the station.
Otherwise, the station is surrounded by fields. It used to be quite a convenient station for nearby American and British Air Force bases (Mildenhall and possible Lakenheath), but they no longer rely on the railway. Lakenheath has its own station anyway. The very limited service won't help either.
The light closed very rapidly, so it went from grey but bright to dark in the hour I was at the station. My train to Ely arrived slightly late. It was not the 8 coaches that was advertised, it was the normal 4 coaches. This was fine. The journey home was busier than I expected, but uneventful.
Please be aware that my comments about the etymolgy of the name of this station are knowingly and deliberately silly. Please do not write in.
Yes, I am publishing this two months late. I hadn't planned to publish my trip to Corrour on this blog, but I might as well given that visiting tiny stations in the middle of nowhere is not an essential journey.
Although Corrour is the highest in the country and very remote, it is actually one of the most used on the West Highland Line. Over 14,000 passengers used the station last year. However, there is significant seasonal variation. During Winter, the youth hostel is only open for half the week, and the hotel/restaurant is closed from October to late March.
In early March, I was aching to get out of the city (a feeling that was about to get very familiar). I decided to buy some super off-peak smartcard tickets to get as far into the wilderness as possible for the day. Corrour worked. I started relatively late, connecting to a 12:24 from Glasgow to the West Highland Line. The journey takes almost exactly 3 hours from Glasgow to Corrour, although my train was a bit late because of reasons. The West Highland Line is known for being one of the most scenic in the world. I've had many a trip along the line recently, but never in the snow, and, especially as one gets higher into the Rannoch Moor, the snow cover got more convincing (although it was still a speckled coverage).
I was the only person to get off at Corrour, which was expected. Although the station has 2 platforms (a single island platform), the 2nd platform is barely used. The footbridge has been removed, so passengers have to use a barrow crossing to get from the platform to the rest of the world. There is a small wooden shelter on the platform, along with an indicator, flower boxes, benches, and a lot of signs. The speckly snow coverage was a lot thicker than it looked from the train.
I decided to take a walk to Loch Ossian. From the station, the closest part of the Loch is about 2 miles east. The Loch itself is over 3 miles long. I decided not to risk the circular walk round (time constraints). Instead, I settled about 1/3rd of the way down the loch to enjoy the scenery and eat some food. Although the lane is relatively well cleared from snow, the footpath that goes round the south side of the loch wasn't. The snow was slightly more than ankle deep, and I suddenly discovered that my shoes weren't quite as waterproof as they once were. Nevertheless, the views were stunning.
Back at Corrour, I still had an hour before my train home, so I decided to have a look at the Corrour Summit, a little north of the station. Although Corrour station is the highest in the UK, the summit here is not the highest in the UK: that record is for the Drumochter summit on the Highland Main Line.
I now had about 30 minutes before my train. I decided to sit in the waiting room where I squeezed out my socks (literally - I have a video). That didn't really help because my shoes were also soaking. The night closed in before my train arrived to take me back home.
Corrour is absolutely bats, but I love it when there isn't anyone around.
2020: the year that there are two least used stations. Both Denton and Stanlow & Thornton saw 46 passengers last year. I decided that I wanted to visit Stanlow & Thornton first, because it seems the most interesting. Stanlow & Thornton sits on a lesser used railway line which runs from Ellesmere Port to the junction at Helsby. Although the stations at either end have regular rail services, the two stations in between get 3 trains per day in each direction. They are clumped such that there are 4 in the morning between 6 and 7:30, and then 2 in the evening between 6 and 6:30. Stanlow & Thornton is fairly inaccessibly because it is located about 1 mile from any public road inside the Stanlow oil refinery area. The other station on the line, Ince & Elton, gets more passengers because it serves the villages of Ince and Elton.
I started a lot earlier than I had to because I wanted to do a bit of rail enthusiast travelling around Cheshire before I visited the station. We pick my day up on the relatively new service from Liverpool to Chester via Runcorn. I took this lightly loaded train to Helsby. I walked for 5 minutes to a bus stop to board the bus which would take me to the edge of the oil refinery. The bus was late, and the driver appeared confused when I asked for a ticket to the 'Thornton Science Park'. Instead, I went for 'Elton Green', and then underpaid when he sold me a ticket to 'Elton'. Anyway, the bus trundled to the roundabout by the Thornton Science Park where I got off. I then walked along a slightly muddy embankment, while the incredibly pungent manure wafted across from some nearby fields. I got to the roundabout that the private refinery road leads from. The signs were very clear that it was private, and that there were no unauthorised vehicles allowed. I wasn't in a vehicle (shoes don't count), so I walked on.
The walk down Oil Sites Road is very tedious. It was cold, damp, and HGVs passed me frequently. I was glad that a pavement existed. Parts of the site seem to have fallen into disrepair. About 1 mile into the site, the massive footbridge at Stanlow & Thornton station honed into view. For a moment I was a little nervous because it looked as if the entrance had been fenced off. This turned out to be premature, because there was another one just around the corner.
Stanlow & Thornton
The footbridge links the station to the Stanlow Refinery (north) and Thornton-le-Moors (south). However, the bridge to the south has been fenced off. Therefore, the walk from Thornton to their railway station is about twice as long as it could be. At the bottom of the steps are some signs and a light. On the platforms, there are the usual set of signs. The former booking office on the Ellesmere Port bound platform has been boarded up. All of these are at one end of the platforms by the footbridge. At the other end , there are some brick 'egg-box' shelters. Some of them even have benches inside. The lights at the station are very temperamental.
The station has some interesting sign fails. Although some signs correctly say Ellesmere Port, others incorrectly advertise westbound services to Hooton, Birkenhead, and Liverpool.
While I was at the station, there was a very sudden hailstorm, which was fun. I also managed to perfectly time my visit during fading daylight, which meant my pictures deteriorated dramatically as the visit went on.
About 90 minutes after I arrived at the station, the last train of the day to Ellesmere Port did. Although Stanlow & Thornton is not a request stop, I decided to put my arm up briefly to make sure that the train stopped. It did, along with some toots from the horn, probably because the driver realised I was a rail enthusiast. I took the train to Ellesmere Port, took some pictures of it, then returned on the same train to Warrington Bank Quay.
There I sat in the waiting room for 20 or so minutes before my train to Edinburgh arrived.
Once I got back to Edinburgh, I picked up a pizza on my way home. Just as luck would have it, I timed my walk from the takeaway home just in time for a vicious hailstorm to come from on-high. The cardboard box held up remarkably well, with the crusts being slightly soggy the only noticeable difference with the pizza.
I had about an hour and a half at the station before the train to Ellesmere Port arrived. In that time, nobody else came to the station. Regular readers will know that I thoroughly enjoy visiting stations in industrial parts of the country. That and super-rural Highland stations are my favourite ones to visit. The thing that surprised me about Stanlow & Thornton station was how long the platforms are. Most lesser used stations have rather short platforms, certainly in comparison to their counterparts. Stanlow & Thornton's platforms seemed longer than those of all the nearby stations. I haven't measured them, so I can't state that as a fact.
Usually published in December, this year's set of statistics on annual station usage from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) was published in January. The Estimates of Station Usage are published around this time every year and provide a large spreadsheet of the number of people who either boarded or alighted trains at each station across Great Britain. The statistics are estimates as the UK rail network is not fully gated. It also does not include ticketless travel (fare evasion). This short post examines the least used stations for the year, as well as looking at the stations I visited in the period and how I contributed to the figures.
The Least Used Stations List 2018-2019
There are still 54 stations with an annual patronage below 1000. The least used station spot is tied for the first time since records began (as far as I can tell) with both Denton and Stanlow & Thornton recording 46 passengers in the past year. In 3rd place is Reddish South, which is the only other station to record a patronage below 100 this year.
British Steel Redcar, the least used station last year, increased its patronage by 800%. It went from 40 to 360. IBM Halt, which closed during the period, saw a patronage of 506. Scotscalder and Kildonan shuffled places again, with the latter re-gaining its position as the least used station on the Far North Line.
Sugar Loaf, which saw a massive gain from ~200 to ~1800 in the last period, dropped back to a more normal 708, a decline of 61.6% (the 2nd highest in the country). This is still very high for the station. It has re-gained its position as the least used station in Wales. The highest decline was found at Lochluichart (which I visited), going down by 71.5%.
Barry Links and Golf Street both saw fairly significant increase. This is mainly down to people buying season tickets between the 2 stations to get free first class travel around Scotland on weekends. For context, because of a poor service following the introduction of the December 2018 timetable change (which I predicted here), ScotRail offered season ticket holders free weekend travel on certain weekends for the affected routes. Of course, that meant people could buy weekly season tickets between two stations that were very close by and get free travel. I bought a weekly season from Greenfaulds to Cumbernauld for about £7, and managed to visit Stranraer, Aberdeen, and Falls of Cruachan over the weekend, racking up nearly 860 miles. That's roughly 0.8p per mile.
How My Trips Effected the Figures
For this period, I visited 30 stations of which 12 saw patronage for that year below 1000. Of those 30, I accounted for more than 1% of all visitors for that year at 4 of them. Buckenham was the highest (1.86% or 4 of 215), followed by Kildonan (1.19% or 2 in 168), IBM (1.18% or 6 in 506) and Lochluichart (1.11% or 2 in 180). Kildonan was also the station I visited which recorded the lowest patronage for the period.
The list below shows the stations visited, the date, and my effect on the patronage.
Polesworth 19th of April 2018 – 1 in 185
IBM Halt – 4th of May, 19th of November, and 8th of December 2018 – 6 in 506
Duirinish – 9th of May 2018 – 2 in 856
Angel Road – 15th of June 2018 – 1 in 35570
Buckenham – 1st of July 2018 – 4 in 215
Berney Arms – 1st of July 2018 – 2 in 442
Bordesley – 11th of August 2018 – 1 in 20688
Causeland – 16th of August 2018 – 1 in 1620
Sandplace – 16th of August 2018 – 1 in 1274
St Keyne Wishing Well Halt – 16th of August 2018 – 2 in 1334
Coombe Junction Halt – 16th of August 2018 – 1 in 204
St Budeaux Ferry Road – 16th of August 2018 – 2 in 3092
Kildonan – 15th of September 2018 – 2 in 168
Lochailort – 27th of October 2018 – 2 in 1546
Breich – 10th of November 2018 – 2 in 342
Battersby – 20th of December 2018 – 10 in 1520
Kildale – 20th of December 2018 – 2 in 1468
Norton Bridge – 4th of January 2019 – No Official Figures
Roman Bridge – 11th of January 2019 – 2 in 1094
Tal-y-Cafn – 11th of January 2019 – 2 in 1392
North Llanrwst – 11th of January 2019 – 2 in 2572
Stromeferry – 19th of January 2019 – 2 in 1274
Lochluichart – 19th of January 2019 – 2 in 180
Thorpe Culvert – 9th of February 2019 – 2 in 258
Hopton Heath – 15th of February 2019 – 1 in 1510
Pen-y-Bont – 15th of February 2019 – 2 in 1854
Pilning – 9th of March 2019 – 1 in 458
St Andrews Road – 9th of March 2019 – 2 in 4724
Last time I visited the North Highlands in the depths of winter, I was described as “crazy”. One of the reasons I like visiting these least used stations is the remoteness and aloneness that one experiences, especially for the many Highland request stops that are scattered around. The Far North Line is one of my favourite lines in the UK (and the world), but I haven't visited it since September 2018. I wanted to visit again. Altnabreac station is one of the most remote stations in the country. Most least used stations are located in small settlements or near a settlement. Altnabreac is so small that I didn't notice it existed when I was there.
As I was used to, I had a very early start to catch the first train of the day from the Central Belt to Inverness. I got to Stirling in time for the 07:35 north. A refurbished HST turned up, which I was excited about. I have used this train a lot over the past year, and this is my first experience of it with a refurbished unit, and I enjoyed it.
Anyway, 3 hours later, I was at Inverness and I had another train to catch. It looked train flavoured (I didn't actually lick it, so I don't know).
Once the conductor had come around and I'd requested Altnabreac, I settled down for the 3+ hour journey. The Far North line is not the most scenic line in the world, but I find it a good combination of super-rural, scenic, and quick-ish. As we scampered up towards Caithness and Altnabreac, we stayed on time and didn't stop at any of the request stops. Until mine...
Altanbreac came, and I got off, waving to the conductor as I did so. The train departed, and I looked around the station.
It has a wooden shelter, some signs, some bike racks, a departure board, a bench, a help point, and a bin which had blown over. I helped the situation by putting some rubbish in the bin so it was stable. I am helpful.
The remoteness of the station is not truly appreciated at the station. This may sounds weird, but, Altnabreac station is located in what I later found out was Altnabreac. That sentence may sound silly, but there was one house by the station with a generator on. A second house (the ex-school) was nearby. I had assumed that this was just the tiny collection of houses that spring up around a station when it is built, and that Altnabreac proper was somewhere else. As far as I understand, this is not the case. The station and the two houses nearby is about as close as one can get to Central Altnabreac. So it is really only once one leaves the station area that one can properly appreciate just how remote this station is.
There are no roads for miles. By miles, I mean 6 miles straight line, but this doubles to 12 miles for actually getting there on foot. Instead, there are mud and gravel 'Forestry Commission' tracks. The closest proper settlement is 15 miles away. I left the station, turned right, and went down to a signpost. One way pointed to 'Altnabreac', the other pointed to 'Loch Dhu'. I had already been to Altnabreac, so I went to Loch Dhu.
The first thing I came across was an abandoned house. I'm only assuming it was abandoned because it was partially boarded up, some of the windows were broken, and the interior was seriously unmaintained (I didn't enter the building).
I continued along the forest track, passing a couple of small, iced up ponds. I entertained myself by skimming pebbles across the ice and enjoying the sound they made.
Further on, I came to a break in the forest, and then the Loch Dhu. This is a fairly nondescript body of water with a socking great hunting lodge on its edge. It is called Lochdhu Lodge, named by the same person who named David Davis.
I decided to continue through the forest. About 5 minutes after leaving the loch behind, I approached a large fence and the edge of the forest. The endless sprawl of bleak, harsh, but wonderful Highland terrain spread out in front of me. This is what I meant when I said that “the remoteness of the station is not truly appreciated at the station”. Despite being possibly the most remote station in the country, it is nestled in the forest with 5 houses within a 10 minute walk from the station. Once one leaves the forest, the world just stretches out. The freedom one feels from being the only person around is immense. I catalogued this on my Urination Freedom Scale. Essentially, the more free I feel, the happier I am to have a pee. In this case, I could do so on the side of the track into the grass without being worried that a car or other human would see. In fact, it will remain a secret, barring someone telling the rest of the world via a railway blog.
The one disadvantage of going to the Highlands in winter is how short the day is. Sunset for the area was quarter to four when I went, which means it is totally dark by quarter past. That limited the time I wanted to be out in a place I didn't know very well, so I retreated to the safe confines of the station for the final hour before the train. Both lights worked for a bit, but then one stopped working. As the train approached, I flagged it down. The driver poked his head out, greeted me, and commented about the lack of lighting. I boarded, and settled down for the journey home.
I slept on trains and listened to podcasts. It was totally dark, so the scenery was invisible. This is a technique which has helped the matrix save 28% of its power since 1995 as part of its zero net emissions target by the year 2039.
As far as I can tell, the station probably spawned the area. It was most likely built for operational convenience. It is almost exactly mid-way between Forsinard and Scotscalder (the first stations south and north respectively), and serves basically nothing. The Lochdu Lodge, and the school (IE: the two main things nearby) were built after the station. It's a slightly weird state of affairs, especially when one considers that Altnabreac wasn't closed by Beeching, but stations like Evanton, Beauly (which actually serve towns and villages) were.
Altnabreac is a station I want to revisit because of the location. The true seclusion of it is difficult to describe and capture in pictures, but something I thoroughly enjoy. I'd want to go in summer when the day is longer.
Author - Felix