Pilning railway station serves some fields just east of the English entrance of the Severn Tunnel. The village of Pilning is a mile to the West, with a series of warehouses and the area known as Severn Beach 2-3 miles away. The station has had a limited service for a number of years, although it has declined from its already very sparse service in roughly 2004 from 1 or 2 trains per day (every day) to 1 train per week in each direction (both on a Saturday). Electrification works meant raising the footbridge, a cost which was deemed prohibitive. Thus, the second down platform was taken out of use, and only two trains per week run, both running on a Saturday from Cardiff to Bristol and beyond to Taunton. Therefore, despite being in England, it is impossible to get a train from England to Pilning as it is the first station on the English side of the Severn Tunnel. One has to go into Wales and double back in order to get there.
St Andrews Road currently serves an industrial estate by the Severn Estuary. I only visited it because I had time between visiting Pilning and returning back to London. Its annual patronage has been in the 5 figure level, but in the past few years it has seen a steady decline down to about 5,000 in the most recent period.
An uncharacteristically late alarm went off as I sat at home eating breakfast. Pilning has two trains on a Saturday, one at about 08:30, and the other at about 15:30. It is impossible to get from London to catch the earlier train, so I had to settle for the later one, giving me a lunchtime departure from Paddington station to Newport in South Wales. Having negotiated the tube, I arrived in Paddington with plenty of time to spare. I spent it wandering aimlessly around the concourse until I “bumped into” (they saw and approached me) a person who I knew. We established that we were going for the same train, and that's what happened. For half the journey we spoke about things (life, trains and other random things) and for the other we didn't because he'd got off the train.
The day was also my first journey on the new InterCity Express Trains (IETs) built by Hitachi to replace the ageing InterCity 125s (remember those?) on various routes. They are currently only in service on the InterCity network out of London Paddington (Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth etc.) although they will be rolling out across a number of long-distance services in the next few years. Hopefully. I find the trains much more open and spacious compared to the HSTs, although the seats and general ride is less comfortable. The amenities are better. I'm certainly not opposed to them, as some hard-line HST enthusiasts are.
Quick appraisal over, I was at Newport (South Wales) for 45 minutes in the wind. There were fewer passengers than expected remarked one station attendant, possibly due to the Scotland v Wales rugby match that was in full swing as I wandered around the rather ugly station. They seem to have managed to cover up the older, more architecturally attractive parts of the station, whilst leaving the fairly awful new-build parts in full view.
After about half an hour, my train to Pilning popped into view. Engineering works in Wales meant that instead of running from Cardiff, the service was starting from Newport instead. I took advantage of the declassified first class section while waiting to depart back to England and Pilning. Despite being served very infrequently, Pilning is not a request stop. However, it has been known to be accidentally missed out more often than most stations, probably due to its very sparse service. (I should point out that drivers forgetting to stop at stations happens very, very infrequently (think of the number of trains that stop at stations over a day and how rare it is to have a failure to stop).) Just to make sure, I let the guard know that I wished to alight at Pilning. We went through the tunnel back to England and broke soon after to stop at Pilning.
I wasn't the only one to get off at Pilning. Another person joined me on the platform as four people got on. Despite only getting 2 trains per week, Pilning saw nearly 500 people in the last year, or between 4 and 5 people per train. This is quite a high rate, especially for such a small station. As I found out later, all six of us were railway enthusiasts to some degree.
The person who got off with me took a quick picture of the train departing before leaving. I then surveyed the station. It is located by a fairly derelict scrapyard-thing, and a large number of portakabins and maintenance equipment used by Network Rail when they are working. Coupled with a few nearby dual-carriageways and motorways gave the station quite a claustrophobic feeling despite its distance from any population settlements.
The facilities are very basic. There is a shelter with a salt bin inside, the normal information posters and a help point. There is no bin or indeed station specific lighting (although the industrial-looking lamps used by Network Rail would probably do the job very well). The former platform 2 is clearly visible, if overgrown.
Whilst I was at the station watching the occasional train passing (and having varying degrees of success attempting to photograph them), the group who had boarded the train at Pilning returned in cars. One came onto the platform and asked if I needed a lift anywhere. I said I was fine and was going to stay for a bit. This I did. They departed in their cars, once again leaving me to try not to get blown off the platform.
To St Andrews Road
After a while on the windswept platform, and with no trains due for half an hour, I decided it was time to walk to Severn Beach (about an hour's walk) to get myself to my next destination. I walked through several small collections of houses, past a bus stop (which has an infrequent bus service at weekdays only), across a B road and into a field. Attempting to follow a path of my map which didn't exist (or that I couldn't find) I found myself the wrong side of quite a deep ditch. Without the courage to jump over to continue on an alternative path, I retraced half my route and went back onto the B road for 10 minutes before I found my next path.
The route from Pilning to Severn Beach is not very walkable. I had barely spent 10 minutes on actual paths (not including the 20 minutes wasted wandering around random fields) before I hit a Tesco distribution area and another industrial park. I followed it round into a residential area of Severn Beach, and approach the station. Severn Beach is the terminus of the Severn Beach branch. With 30 minutes before the next train, I walked slightly further to capture the grey muddiness of the Severn Estuary. In then returned to catch the train to St Andrews Road.
Severn Beach has no ticket machines, so I had to get my return tickets from the guard. This was done in the 30 seconds on the approach to St Andrews Road station. I was actually surprised that the transaction had been completed in such a short time. I alighted, thanked the guard and looked at the station.
St Andrews Road Station
The station is rather intimidated by everything around it. For a start, the single passenger line is flanked by a 5 track freight yard. Huge silos and other industrial buildings push the little 3 coach platform down whilst towering cranes straddle all the railway tracks, used in the past to lift freight off the wagons. The station is on the wrong side of all the railway lines. The passenger line is on the estuary side, but that is private land so the exit has to go onto the public road, located the other side of the multiple tracks. A footbridge links the two. The platform has a shelter, various signs and an electronic help point. One sign incorrectly states that St Andrews Road is a request stop, which it most certainly is not. The other side of the footbridge sees another load of information posters, plus a seemingly silly number of bike racks
I only spent just over half an hour between trains at St Andrews Road. As mentioned before, I hadn't planned to visit the station until a few days before travel. It had got dark in the time I had been at the station, so I jumped on the first train I could, which took me back to Severn Beach.
Back to London
A short turnaround time meant I could only grab a poor quality shot of the train at Severn Beach before I got back on to go the full length of the branch line to Bristol Temple Meads. Once at Temple Meads, I had almost an hour before my booked service back to London, giving me enough time to walk into the centre of town to grab some drinks that weren't stupidly overpriced like the ones in the train station are. Who charges 99p for a small bottle of water? WHSmiths apparently (other shops also sell overpriced water).
The round trip to the middle of Bristol took me most of my hour, so I only had quarter of an hour to wait on the platform. I still had a pork pie and some oranges to consume on the train home. Being fairly late departure (20:35) on a Saturday evening, there was a reasonable concentration of drunk people. I put down a 15 minute wait at Bath Spa to the conduct of these people. Further along, I was treated to the drunk man's train “song”, the lyrics consisting only of the phrase “we're on a train” with the vowels elongated to various different lengths to emphasise something.
The shortish delay at Bath was enough for me to just miss my train from London out to my house, giving me half an hour to sit on a very windy London Bridge platform, wishing for the warm hug of my bed.
I wasn't very impressed with Pilning. Similarly to Barry Links, there wasn't anything particularly special about it. I'm glad I visited, but I won't be returning. As for St Andrews Road, regular readers may know that I enjoy empty industrial areas. A part of me hopes St Andrews Road continues to decline, further emphasising that feeling of loneliness, whilst the rest of me does not think wishing economic decline on industrial areas is a good thing. I am not known for my support of Thatcher, after all.
Also, having not visited Wales for the first year and a bit of my blog, I have visited it thrice in as many months. There's still an awful lot in Wales I haven't done.
The Heart of Wales Line is a 90 mile railway line which runs through rural Wales. It starts on the South West coast at Llanelli and re-joins the main line at Craven Arms in Shropshire, just south of Shrewsbury. It links a few larger villages and towns to the rest of the network (such as Llandovery and Llandrindod), but like so many of these rural railway lines, it passes through several tiny settlements which get their own halt. The majority of the stations are request stops in at least one direction. (Some stations are request in one direction only as trains in the other direction have to stop at the station anyway in order to use adjacent level crossings.) Hopton Heath and Pen-y-Bont are both on the Northern section of the line and are both request stops in both directions.
Because the Heart of Wales Line only has 4 trains per day in each direction, there is a heavy constraint on what stations one can visit, especially taking into account the journey time from Edinburgh. The early morning services don't get into Crewe and Shrewsbury in time for the 2nd full run of the day, but taking the 3rd means that one can only visit one station. This is not very cost efficient. Thus, I decided to use a bus to get me from a station with a better service to one on the Heart of Wales line.
I boarded an early morning service at Haymarket ready to go south to Crewe, where I would change onto another service. Not much happened on this train, save for a person at Preston who boarded and ate McDonald's noisily opposite me. I moved seats later when another man boarded and sat at the table.
Slightly late, the train pulled into Crewe. Despite being one of the “homes of the UK railways” (phrases such as that being the bane of my life), I have never got out at Crewe before. I spent some time enjoying the architecture as I waited for my train to Ludlow. Trains were being delayed because of a bridge strike near Stafford, but my train from Manchester was unscathed. It arrived, and the whole platform attempted to squeeze onto the two coaches that had been provided. Despite booking an advance ticket, the system had reserved me a seat in Coach 0, Seat 000. Unable to find a coach 0 (they were numbered A and B), nor a seat 000, I plonked myself down in an unreserved seat for the half hour journey to Shrewsbury, where I moved again for the remaining half hour to Ludlow.
At Ludlow, I spent about half an hour walking around the centre of the rather sweet market town before I ventured outside to buy myself some chips. I returned to the railway station to eat them. In that period of time, a train had caught fire at Pontrilas (south of Hereford), meaning that all trains were suspended between Cardiff and Hereford, with significant disruption on the nearby bits of network. Ludlow is the second stop north of Hereford (after Leominster), so I had been about 20 minutes on the right side of the disruption. Research and instinct told me that this would be one of those things which messed the network up for the day.
I then walked up to the bus stop where I waited for one of three buses a day from Ludlow to Hoptonheath, where I would board a train at Hopton Heath station. (No, that isn't a typo. The station is called Hopton Heath, but the village itself is known as Hoptonheath, or at least that's what my maps tell me.) The little single-decker bus arrived, almost full. I bought my ticket and sat down next to a man who I couldn't understand due to the thickness of his accent. The pensioners around me were engaged in conversation with each other. Every time one of them got off, practically the entire bus said goodbye. There was quite a commotion at one point, where the bus went over an invisible pothole at speed and made a very unhealthy bus noise. The route of the 740, as with so many of these rural bus routes, is fairly mad. At one point, I got quite concerned that I hadn't read the timetable properly, because we appeared to make turning that took us in entirely the wrong direction. In fact, it was only a 2 mile detour to another village. By the time we had reached Hoptonheath, the bus was fairly empty. I pinged the bell and moved towards the front, watching as we bombed past the green and station entrance to the bus stop, which was inconveniently sited another few hundred metres down the road. I thanked the bus driver as I got off, walking back up the road to Hopton Heath station.
The station entrance is located at the top of the road bridge over the railway, with a steep set of steps down to the platform. There is a technically step-free route which involves using a path from the opposite end of the platform along the railway to the caravan park, before coming up that lane back onto the main road. However, this is quite a detour to make (~10 minute walk) and involves a section along a B road that doesn't have a pavement.
Once one gets onto the platform, there are is a shelter, some station signs, a salt bin, some information displays and the mount for a BT payphone (but no actual phone) and a digital departure board. There is also no normal bin, which was annoying as I had just finished my chips. The former station building is now a private residence. Some of the information notices advised passengers to use the phone in order to make contact with the outside world. This was not possible as the phone no longer exists. There is also no help point.
The station was quite peaceful, with only the occasional car and lorry using the nearby roads breaking said peace. The sunshine was also welcome, although not from a photography point of view, as you can tell from the varying quality of the pictures above.
A Quick Hop to Pen-y-Bont
After about an hour, I prepared myself for the train south to Pen-y-Bont. It swung into view, I flagged it down and boarded, informing the conductor as I got on that I wanted to get off at Pen-y-Bont.
I enjoyed the scenery for the 45 minute journey, although the single coach train was quite crowded, possibly full of people who would have otherwise been travelling via Hereford and Cardiff but couldn't because of the fire. Most of the request stops were served en-route, even some of the very small ones which I will be visiting later on in the series. The couple opposite me were noting down each station that was served in a notebook.
On the approach to Pen-y-Bont, I collected my things and made my way to the rear doors. Two passengers had managed to get into an argument “she was looking at me!” exclaimed one, and were being mediated by a probably exasperated catering person. “No madam, I couldn't give less of an expletive about you, I just happened to be looking out of the window and you put your body in the way” I thought to myself as I asked to be let past. One minute later, the train arrived at Pen-y-Bont. I was one of four people to get off there. Another one was she-was-looking-at-me woman. I made sure not to look at her, instead focusing on taking a reasonable picture of the train, without the still bright sun making it look as if a bomb had gone off in the nearby village.
Despite the name, the station is actually located just west of Crossgates, with the village of Penybont (again, spelt one way by the railways and another by the locals) the 4th closest settlement to the station. Fron and Cefnllys are the other two villages that are closer to Pen-y-Bont station than Penybont is.
The station is slightly weird, because one has to cross a level crossing in order to get to the platform. The former 2nd platform is visible but overgrown and out of use. There is a basic shelter, noticeboards for the Friends of Penybont station, various station signs (both old and new), a bin (bonus), a digital departure board, but a lack of station information signs, phone and help point. There is a car park, which leads up to an A road. The bridge over the station at the eastern end is inaccessible to the public (as far as I could tell).
Although I had nearly 1 and ¾ hours at Pen-y-Bont, I didn't do much exploring of the local area, partly because I hadn't planned to, but also because the maps that I had didn't show any decent footpaths nearby. I attempted to gain access to the bridge over the station, but it was privately owned by a nearby farm, as were the other tracks marked (as far as I could tell). Thus, I stayed mostly on the station groups for the duration of the visit.
The Return Journey
A few minutes late, the train which would take me back to Craven Arms on the start of my journey back to Edinburgh appeared. I held my hand out for about 3 seconds when I judged that the train was close enough. I then took a couple of pictures of the train on the approach, both of which were awful. The driver slowed to about 5mph and waved at me, making gestures which I decoded (somehow) as, “do you want me to stop?” I nodded, and the train stopped instantly. I was unsure why he hadn't seen my original flag down (I'm usually very clear on the matter), but decided that I had probably done it when he was too far out. I boarded the train and settled down in a seat.
Do you remember the train fire? Well, just before I boarded my train at Pen-y-Bont I checked online, and discovered that my train onwards from Craven Arms to Crewe had been both cancelled and delayed by 5 minutes.
Unsure as to what that actually meant, I went with the safe option and asked the guard if I could remain on the train from Pen-y-Bont all the way to Crewe.
My train from Pen-y-Bont went all the way through to Crewe, but I had chosen to change at Craven Arms in order to get cheaper advance tickets. Having spoken to the guard, he gave me verbal permission to continue all the way as my original train from Craven Arms to Crewe had been cancelled. When the guards changed over at Swansea, I explained the situation to the second guard, who was fine with the situation.
I had got rather hungry by this point, so I ordered a takeaway from a Chinese restaurant in Crewe online. That meant, when I got to Crewe, I simply had to walk the short distance to the shop, pick up my food, and return to the station. I was immensely pleased with myself.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Both my remaining trains were late, and I arrived home 20 minutes later than I had wanted to. I popped the takeaway into the microwave and consumed it whilst trying not to fall asleep. It had been a long day.
So, why was the 18:25 train from Craven Arms to Manchester both cancelled and 5 minutes late? I did some research and worked out why this was the case. Because of the fire, the trains couldn't run between Newport and Hereford, so they were cancelled at Cardiff or Hereford, depending on which way they were coming from. My train from Craven Arms originated from Carmarthen (South West Wales), so it was cancelled at Cardiff. But, because trains in both directions were being cancelled, trains could be turned back at Cardiff and Hereford. Thus, the system put in VSTP (very short term plan) workings to cover the trains that were starting at Hereford or Cardiff. My train from Carmarthen to Manchester existed twice, once from Carmarthen to Cardiff (where it was cancelled) and once from Hereford to Manchester (where it was 5 minutes late). The system can't have the same train existing twice, so a new VTSP train had to be created from where it re-started. This wasn't recognised as being the same train by the system (because it wasn't), so the train appeared in duplicate for the rest of the journey. Complicated? Yes. But it sort of makes sense.
The Poacher Line, so called because it was the site of the UK's first great elephant poaching (that's a lie), runs from Grantham to Skegness. It links Skegness, Boston and Sleaford to the wider UK railway network. In doing so, it also passes through a number of small Lincolnshire villages whose stations have somehow survived the Beeching cuts. Thorpe Culvert serves the village of Thorpe St Peter, although it is ¾ of a mile away, a caravan park and various collections of houses which don't have a name. It gets only 2 trains per day each way, with no services at all on a Sunday. Last year, it dipped below nearby (ish) Havenhouse to claim the status as the least used station on the line, and in Lincolnshire. It was only used by 148 people that year.
The way the trains are spaced makes arriving and departing by train very attractive. The afternoon ones depart within 1h20m of each other. The problem is that they run in reverse direction (IE: I would have to double back via Skegness). This means I couldn't get back to Edinburgh before services stopped for the night. Wainfleet is located about 3 miles south east of Thorpe Culvert, so I decided that I would walk from there and catch the first afternoon service so I could get home.
I arrived at Haymarket ready for my short hop to Waverley. There were no confused people trying to get to Runcorn in sight, so I went to the ticket office and tried to sort out my tickets. I had bought an off-peak day return from Grantham to Thorpe Culvert, but had forgotten that Wainfleet was further down the line which meant my ticket would not be valid. In this situation, the ticket office can issue an excess ticket where the customer pays the difference between the two tickets. In this situation, the difference between an off peak day return from Grantham to Thorpe Culvert and one to Wainfleet was £0.00. “I'm sorry, the system doesn't allow me to issue a zero excess” explained the otherwise very helpful and friendly ticket man. He advised me to speak to the guard on the train. “If you get a good guard, he'll allow it.”
I completed the quick hop to Waverley without incident, and crossed over to platform 8 to board my train which would take me all the way to York. On departure, the train went into emergency brake and I watched as various members of platform staff gestured to each other. 30 seconds later, the train started again. The “train manager” informed us that someone had tried to open the door whilst the train was departing. This is the technical term for being an absolute moron.
No other incidents happened on the journey down to York, although the train did loose 4 minutes, which gave me an 8 minute change at York. This change was cross-platform, so I completed it in about 5 seconds. LNER's new electronic reservation system had messed up again, so there were no reservations on my train down to Grantham, or “free for all” as the conductor described it over the announcement system. I enjoyed a cheese sandwich as my train moved at a significantly reduced speed south to Grantham. It was explained that trains had to observe a temporary speed restriction due to high winds. This meant we lost 14 minutes by the time the train pulled into Grantham, and I just missed my connection to Wainfleet.
With nothing to do for an hour, I tried again at Grantham's ticket office to get a more concrete form of endorsement for my ticket so that I could actually travel to Wainfleet. The phrase “but the guy at the ticket office said I could” holds sod all credibility with guards, and rightly so. Having explained the situation to the lady, she tried to issue me the excess, but came up against the same problem. She then tried to sell me a single from Thorpe Culvert to Wainfleet, which came out at £1.80 . With my railway head screwed tightly on, I asked if that would actually be valid. The train didn't stop at Thorpe Culvert, so what was technically a ticket split at Thorpe Culvert wouldn't be valid (because the train I was getting didn't stop at Thorpe Culvert). Having asked if that would be valid, she stopped the transaction, and told me to speak to the guard. What fun.
I spent the next hour sheltering from the wind in an overcrowded waiting room. Such phrases as “Is that the train to Nottingham?” filtered from many people, apparently confused by a train to Nottingham turning up on the platform it was supposed to 2 minutes before it was due to depart to Nottingham.
The next service to Wainfleet arrived, and I spoke to the guard before I boarded. He was happy to let me travel onwards to Wainfleet. I spent the next 90 minutes on the train looking at the Lincolnshire countryside and finishing my cheese sandwich.
I got off at Wainfleet, watched the train depart towards Skegness, and began the hour walk to Thorpe Culvert. This took quite a lot longer than an hour, partly because I had to stop several times to consult my map, but also because it was very windy. The storm had meant that my hood no longer adequately covered my head without getting blown off every few seconds, so I had upgrade to head covering level 4: the hat. (For a full list of head coverings in order, please see the notes section at the bottom of this post.)
The walk itself was reasonable, save for the wind. Although the straight line distance between Wainfleet and Thorpe Culvert is under 2 miles, the walk itself is 3 miles because the roads and paths are set up in grids, meaning that instead of popping diagonally across the space like the railway does, one has to constantly walk around the grids. Pythagoras in action.
Another skill I developed during the walk was the ability to urinate discreetly in areas of high wind, without getting most of it on my clothing.
Thorpe Culvert Station
Thorpe Culvert station is located by a level crossing. On the other side is a signal box which controls said crossing as well as some others. The station has a small building on one end which is currently used partly as a waiting room, and partly as a disused building. The other platform has a standard perspex/metal/plastic hut thing. One gains access to the platforms via walkways which come out on either side of the level crossing. There is no other means to cross between the two platforms. Both platforms contain the usual assortment of signs and information posters, although the way out signs are positioned in locations where the way out is obvious (right at the end of the paths from the platform to the road). On the Grantham-bound side, there are some shipping-container-like structures which house signalling equipment and a toilet for staff.
There is also a help point, but this is rather unhelpfully located the wrong side of a “do not cross the line” sign, meaning that in order to use the help point one has to walk past this sign. Good planning.
On the Skegness-bound side of the station, there is a yard which contains horses and chickens. One of these birds was a rather impressive looking cockerel, which seemed to like crowing frequently.
I spent quite a bit of time admiring the farmer's impressive looking cock, before realising that the chickens were prevented from gaining access to the platform by wire netting spread across the railings. Chickens on station platforms is something that happens quite a lot with small rural stations, as you may remember from my visit to the Esk Valley Line. “The chickens roam free in Battersby”, which is also the code that the secret services use to describe when the government front bench visits a marginal constituency in the run-up to a general election.
I managed to see 3 services pass through Thorpe Culvert whilst I was there, and I even managed to take some passable pictures of them.
The 4th time a train came into view, it was the 16:25 service to Nottingham, one of only 4 services which stop at Thorpe Culvert in a day. The station is not a request stop, so it had to stop anyway. However, I like to make sure for these very small, rural stations that the driver is indeed stopping. I gave a small wave as the train slowed to a halt.
The doors were unlocked, and I acknowledge the guard's existence with another wave before boarding and settling down for the journey back to Grantham and eventually Haymarket.
There is nothing worthy of note on my journey back, instead to remark the mixture of Irish people, Scottish people and alcohol is a very loud one, as I experienced on my final train to Haymarket.
There has to be a way to officially issue a zero-fare excess. I've spoken to people who know far more about the ticketing system than I do, and they have said that methods for zero-excess fares exist, but they are very time consuming in terms of administration. Some train operating companies specifically have a policy not to issue them in the first place. The further problem for me is that my journey from Haymarket to Wainfleet was delayed by an hour because of that missed connection at Grantham. Although I was allowed to travel, I technically don't have valid tickets for that full journey, which means claiming for compensation that I am entitled to is going to be difficult (it is not an insubstantial amount in this case).
Thorpe Culvert was not the best small station I have been to. There weren't that many quirks, and although Lincolnshire is beautiful, my visits to the Highlands have somewhat eclipsed the view of some fields and the occasional river. However, the continued existence of the station is good, although I wish it had a more frequent service. The limited service limits passenger numbers, and there is a good chance that the residents of Thorpe St Peter and the other nearby villages are discouraged from using the station, and instead head to Wainfleet to catch the train instead. Then again, if that is the case, any increase in patronage at Thorpe Culvert would be at the expense of Wainfleet (extractive rather than bringing in new passengers). What is clear is that the station won't be able to grow with its current service.
List of Head Coverings (by warmth)*
Winter in the Highlands is a time where the most remote areas of the country become more remote. Visitor numbers reduce and transport becomes less frequent than it already is. It can also get bitterly cold. What a perfect set of conditions to visit two railway stations there.
Both Stromeferry and Lochluichart are located on the Kyle Line which runs from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. Stromeferry is not a request stop, and is not technically in the proper least used stations list. Its current annual patronage is just below 1,400. Lochluichart is a remote station with an annual patronage that hovers around the 500 to 600 mark. It is a request stop, one of 6 on the Kyle Line (all of which are (or have been)) in the least used stations list.
The normal early morning alarm greeted me, and I found myself at Haymarket about an hour later, in plenty of time for my train north. The December timetable changes mean that I now have to get an earlier train from Edinburgh to change to the first Highland Main Line service (which originates from Glasgow).
At Haymarket, a lady came up to me and asked where the 06:20 service to Liverpool was departing from. I told her that there was no direct train to Liverpool from Edinburgh (which there isn't) and that she had to change at Preston and Wigan. This explanation did not suit her, because she remained certain that there was a direct Edinburgh to Liverpool service and that if she walked to Waverley station then she would find it. I repeated that there simply wasn't such a train and that she needed to change trains at least once. After an explanation of the route to Waverley, she decided that she wouldn't walk there. I asked her what ticket she had (it was getting dangerously close to the 06:19 departure that I thought she wanted). Her response was that she thought she had an off-peak weekender ticket which allowed her to travel at any point but that she didn't have it with her. Whilst I internally slammed my head into the floor, my mouth suggested that she should either obtain her ticket or buy a new one. At this point, she went to the ticket machines and noisily collected her pre-purchased ticket using her card and booking reference. She came back to me and showed me the ticket. Of course, she had an Advance Single (which is only valid on the service that it is booked for) for the 10:52 departure from Edinburgh Waverley, and was actually going to Runcorn rather than Liverpool (which makes a difference for changing point). After I had explained this, and that she had a 4 and a half hour wait, she decided the best thing was to go to to Waverley. “Can I get a direct train there from here? How do you spell 'Waverley'?” I took her to a ticket machine, selected the single from Haymarket to Edinburgh and let her complete the purchase. I directed her to platform 3 and she left having thanked me multiple times.
5 paragraphs in, and I still hadn't got on a train, so I thought I should. I boarded my booked service from Haymarket to Perth and then got out my tickets. My Edinburgh to Inverness advance single came with a Mandatory Reservation Coupon which detailed the services I had to use to complete my journey. This was labelled “Mandatory Reservation Coupon 1 of 0”. “Does this ticket really exist? Do I have to use the services detailed on it if it doesn't exist?” are just some of the questions that could provoke an hour-long philosophy discussion in a university tutorial. I wasn't in one of those, so I did the second best thing, which was to take the piss out of it on Facebook.
I had nearly half an hour at Perth, so I decided to walk to a nearby shop and buy my 2 litre bottle of water which I require for every trip. Back at the station, I boarded the service to Inverness. The scenery of the Highlands greeted me, with the frost down south giving way to snow as the train moved higher and further north. I did a journey check at this point to see how well the North Highland lines where doing. The note “major disruption” caused slight panic, which gave way to relief when it turned out to be a points failure at Ardgay that did not affect my journey to Stromeferry. Instead, there were a number of cancellations on the Far North Line.
At Inverness, the temperature was noticeably lower and the day was only going to get colder. I purchased a hot chocolate (with a disposable cup – sorry environment) and toastie from the station Costa. I then boarded the train which would take me to Stromeferry. I was one of about 10 people from Inverness.
The train filled up slightly at the stations up to Dingwall, but there were noticeably fewer people on board than there were last summer. This is normal for rural railway lines such as the Kyle Line. I was the only person to get off at Stromeferry. I waved to the conductor, and the train departed.
Stromeferry used to be a passing loop. The second platform is still visible, although it is inaccessible by the public. It is located at the end of a deep cutting which rises quite rapidly at the Kyle of Lochalsh end of the platform. The platform itself is quite long for the line, and was longer before the far end was fenced off.
The facilities are standard, with most of them clustered around the Inverness end. The shelter is located on part of the platform which is lower than the rest of it. The noticeboards, signs, bin and bike racks are all located around the gate which acts as the entrance/exit of the station.
The village of Stromeferry (or South Strome as some signs refer to it) used to have a ferry connection to North Strome and Strome Castle. However, when a new bypass was built in the 70s, it negated the ferry which meant that it ceased to operated regularly. It has been revived since, mostly during road closures, but Stromeferry generally has no ferry. There was quite a famous road sign on which was written “Strome Ferry (No Ferry)” although this has been removed. The short quay which these shuttles used still exists, right next to the railway station. The quay on the other side of Loch Carron is also visible.
I decided to walk from the station up the steep road which led out of the village. Several hairpin turns brought me to Strome Wood, which is a small part of woodland owned by Forestry Commission Scotland. I decided to have a look. With a little over half an hour to go before my train, the ¾ mile route looked doable. I walked up, looking back to see the spectacular view of the full length of Loch Carron stretching out under me. The walk continued up into actual woodland, where the view was obscured. Time was ticking, so I didn't take as much time as I would have liked to properly admire the area. After a steep ascent, the path flattened out, turned back on itself and started steeply back down some steps. These steps bent round onto quite a wide forest track, with a reasonable downward gradient. My speed increased and I got quite a rate down the track through the forest until I bowled out onto a natural viewing platform. From there it was a short flat walk back to the start and the road back to Stromeferry station. I had completed the ¾ mile circuit in under 10 minutes.
Back at the station, I sat and waited for a short time before the return train rolled into view. The line hugs the coast at this point, so the train pops in and out of view a couple of times before arriving at the station.
I got on, and informed the conductor that I wished to alight at Lochluichart. After just over an hours journey, the train slowed and stopped. I got off and surveyed the area as the train departed.
Lochluichart is located on the bank of Loch Luichart (albeit very close to the western end), near the village of Lochluichart. There are a few houses on the lane which links the main road to the railway station.
The station itself has a small wooden shelter, a series of noticeboards, a help point and a bin. The bin was surprisingly not empty. There was a particularly pointless notice at the station which targeted fare evaders by telling them to always buy a ticket before they boarded. I made sure to use the great choice of 0 ticket machines at Lochluichart to buy a ticket.
At the eastern end of the platform there is a level crossing which leads to a path. This path leads past a pond to the banks of Loch Luichart. I spent a while sitting on the rocks, eating some sandwiches and enjoying the fairly spectacular scenery. The moon had also appeared.
The pond was completely iced up, although it was the sort of ice which looked like it would be the scene of an over-dramatised public information broadcast about the dangers of cold water. The sort that starts with a group of youngish boys playing about and laughing, continues with the most hesitant member of the group being dared to do something stupid, and ends with a blurry shot of an ambulance and a parent looking sad whilst holding a photograph.
Back at the station, I still had another 2 and a half hours before my train back to Inverness came, so I decided to explore back from the Loch by walking along the main road. I came across a quaint little church and community hall of Kinlochluichart. It is a listed building dating from the early/mid 19th century. The church itself is rather small, and has a rather impressive tomb for Lady Ashburton. It shares services with another church in Contin, with services alternating each week between the two. The next days service was to be held in Kinlochluichart church, with the service next week at Contin.
Despite being a lovely little church, darkness was falling quickly (this is winter in the Highlands), and I did not want to walk along the main road in the dark. I got back to the railway station unharmed and spent the remaining hour and a half inside the shelter. It was getting very cold (approaching -7ºC as I later found out) so I experimented with how far I could get my breath away from the shelter before it became invisible and scraping the ice off the notice boards. With about 10 minutes to go before the train, I used the help point to see if it was running on time. The train had not reported for over half an hour (which isn't unusual in this part of the world) but it's last report was that it was on time. Sure enough, bang on 18:41 it swung round into view. I held my arm out in order to get the train to stop, which it did. I greeted the driver with a hello as he had popped his head out of the cab. I boarded and rested my feet on the heater in an attempt to unfreeze them.
Back to Edinburgh
The guard came round and marked off my ticket back to Inverness. We exchanged comments about the weather
“What's it like outside?”
“Really very cold.”
“I bet you're glad to be in the warm!”
I certainly was. Because it was dark I couldn't appreciate the scenery of the Kyle Line, so I listened to some podcasts and slept for part of the journey whilst my feet defrosted.
At Inverness I got off and walked towards the ticket barriers in order to see what platform my 20:15 connection south would depart from. It had been cancelled because of shortage of train crew. I showed my ticket to the gate attendant who informed me that there would be a replacement bus from Inverness to Perth where there would still be trains to get me the rest of the way home. I dislike long-distance coach travel and do my best to avoid it. I spent the journey down the A9 asleep (or trying to sleep).
Once at Perth, I walked into the station and boarded the first train south to Stirling. There, I spent half an hour in a waiting room which smelt so strongly of urine and excrement that I had to use my polo-neck thermal as a face mask. With my long, dark coat I looked very much like an assassin, albeit one who is utterly incompetent at the entire point of an assassin, which is to kill a person.
The train to Edinburgh arrived, and I was disappointed that it was not an electric one. (The line from Stirling to Edinburgh had been recently electrified and I had hoped that this would be my first experience of an electric service on the route.) The train made steady process to Haymarket where I got off and went straight home. I was far too tired to buy chips on the way.
I don't mind helping people, especially on railway matters, but the lack of knowledge of some travellers is sometimes amazing. (I don't let on when I think someone has a serious lack of knowledge.) In this case, if I had not been consulted, she either would have waited at the station until May 2019 (when a direct service from Edinburgh to Liverpool is due to start), or she would have tried to board the 06:19 service thinking that she had bought a ticket that she both didn't have and wasn't valid on the service anyway. I think my intervention helped.
One of the things that I enjoy about visiting stations with a very low patronage is the bleakness and remoteness of them. Arriving somewhere where there are no people for miles around is something that I enjoy, especially when I can do it by my favourite mode of transport (which is the train, in case anyone didn't know). Parts of the Highlands in winter are perfect for this. None of the 3 trains on the Kyle Line had many people on board, trains that I know to be reasonably full in the summer months. For others this trip will be another piece of the puzzle which says “Felix is nuts”.
Visiting the Highlands in winter is seriously worth it, and preferable to having to deal with midges. I'd rather have to put on a couple of extra layers than be caked in those horrible little biting things.
I haven't visited Wales for this blog yet. However, Wales has some long, rural railways which are perfect for discovering little stations with low annual patronages. Visiting most of Wales from my base in southern Scotland is quite a tough ask, and most of it is out of reach. But, there are parts which are possible to visit in the day, and the Conwy Valley Line is one of them.
The Conwy Valley Line runs from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog, mostly following the route of the river Conwy (surprise, surprise), especially in the northern half of the railway. It links a few towns in North Wales: Llanrwst, Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog to the rest of the railway network, but is a very rural railway line, with the remaining 7 stations being request stops serving much smaller populations. Half the stations (5) are small enough to justify a visit for the blog. Being able to visit a maximum of 3 at a time (with careful planning), I selected my trio for the day, booked the tickets, and turned up at Edinburgh on the correct day.
Because the Conwy Valley line has roughly a train every 3 hours, there are few opportunities to connect without long waits. The first train worth getting from Edinburgh is just after 8am. I took it as far as Preston, where I had an 11 minute wait for my next service. That train was slightly late, so I risked the brisk walk out of the station to Fishersgate where I could buy something hot to eat. I returned with 1 minute to spare before the timetabled departure time, and 5 minutes before it actually turned up. As it departed, I realised that my 6 minute change at Warrington Bank Quay was looking very tight. A nervy 20 minutes passed, as I checked various open information sources in an attempt to work out if my connection was also going to be delayed. On the approach to Winwick Junction (north of Warrington Bank Quay), my connection was held to allow my train to run in-front. I whispered to myself, earning a look from a nearby tracksuit containing a person.
Now on my third train and fourth ticket of the day, I slept for part of the journey across to Llandudno Junction, making sure that I didn't miss the scenery of the North Wales Coast once I got beyond Chester. At Llundudno Junction, I had the option to take a quick detour to Llandudno during the 40 minute wait I had for the Conwy Valley service. In fact, it was the same train that would operate the Conwy Valley service. On the return, it had a 15 minute dwell at Llandudno Junction, where I got out and observed a seagull using the train as a perch. I hope it got a good fright when the engines started firing on departure.
Almost immediately the line skirts the River Conwy, passing through various small settlements. We stopped at every request stop, although I wasn't able to observe if anyone actually got on or off at all of them. I had already requested Roman Bridge from the conductor all the way back at Llandudno, so I didn't have to worry. We skipped Dolwyddelan, (the only request stop that the service skipped all journey) and continued to hug the hills round until the driver braked for Roman Bridge. I got off, gave a wave, and watched the train as it departed.
Roman Bridge doesn't serve a settlement as such, instead there are a number of farm buildings and a couple of houses dotted around the valley that are within eyesight of the station. Roman Bridge has some quite modern facilities for such a remote stop, including quite a large station shelter and an electronic departure board. There are also various pieces of history, such as an old bench (which every Conwy Valley Line station seems to have) and a wooden shelter by the former station house (which is now a private property).
I then walked to the station's namesake, which is an ancient stone bridge over River Lledr. Over the years it has clearly been added to; I am unsure that the Romans built metal railings in the same way that councils in central Manchester do now. The closest proper settlement is Blaenau Dolwyddelan, a tiny village of no more than a few houses.
I had just under an hour at the station. Roman Bridge is the penultimate stop on the Conwy Valley line, meaning that the southbound and northbound services run quite close together, with a long gap before the next two trains. The nearly 1 hour gap from 14:13 to 15:07 is the longest of the day. I spent the remaining time wandering around on the platform, and experimenting with different photography positions from the platform. 4 minutes before the train was due, I jumped. There was an automatic announcement system which had just triggered, surprising me. It was possibly one of the most comically awful announcements ever. If Welsh people think English people trying to pronounce Welsh places properly is hilarious, just imagine an electronic American voice that has been poorly edited attempting to pronounce “Dolwyddelan”. It couldn't even pronounce Llandudno properly, instead opting for “Lendidnow”. It was one of the worst examples of electronic pronunciation, only being beaten by another electronic American announcement in France, which proudly announced the next bus service to Val-d'Isère (pronounced Val diz-air) as “Val dee eyes-are”. The best part about that is that the French voice pronounced Val-d'Isère properly, so the French clearly thought that English-speaking people were too stupid to understand the proper pronunciation, and had deliberately edited it to be wrong.
The other thing about Welsh stations is that everything is meant to be bi-lingual. However, the salt bin was not. This made me sad.
A Short Hop to Tal-y-Cafn
The hilarity of electronic voices aside, my train arrived and I flagged it down. My next station was Tal-y-Cafn, which is not a request stop southbound, but is one northbound. This is because there is a manned level crossing which requires trains to be manually waved across. Going southbound, trains have to stop at the station anyway, so it becomes a normal stop. Northbound, trains are accelerating away from their stop just before the crossing when going past the platform, so only stop on request. I requested the stop from the conductor and got off when the train stopped.
Tal-y-Cafn used to be a passing loop. The former platform 2 still exists and is maintained by volunteers. The former station house is mostly a holiday home, although there is still a single room that looks out onto the platform for the Network Rail crossing attendant to use. The person on-duty was a very pleasant chap who, after seeing me hanging around on the platform for a while, asked if I was OK and offered me a cup of tea in the office. Slightly taken aback and not quite being able to process things, I declined the offer. I took a quick walk to the bridge to see the river, but otherwise I stayed in the station taking photos from various different angles.
Shortly before the next service was due (the one I was to take to Llanrwst), he emerged from the office to close the gates. The gates are still the manual type found in many-a Thomas the Tank Engine book. Very few of these still exist in the UK. I can only think of 2 (Tal-y-Cafn and Brundall in Norfolk). After he had closed the gates, we had a quick discussion, part of which involved me talking about why I was in Tal-y-Cafn in the first place, and part was being invited back to the station to have a proper look around. I hope to take this offer up at some point.
Another Short Hop: To Llanrwst
The train arrived and I boarded. I showed my ticket to the guard, which was a return from Tal-y-Cafn to North Llanrwst. I asked if I could be excessed up to Llanrwst, but he was happy to let be go the additional 1 minute without buying an extra ticket. There is no different in price. I was one of a number of people to get off at Llanrwst. I didn't take any pictures, because it is one of the few mandatory stops on the Conwy Valley line and is used by over 30,000 people a year. I took a walk through the small town, debating if I should buy some fish and chips. I eventually decided against. The walk from Llanrwst to North Llanrwst is only 10 minutes, so I arrived with plenty of time before the train returned to get me to Llandudno Junction and eventually Edinburgh.
This is the only remaining station on the line with 2 platforms. In theory it can be used as a passing place between two trains, although this doesn't happen in practice (certainly not in normal service). Despite it being the only passing loops, it is still a request stop. This is because trains actually have to stop to exchange tokens a few metres north of the station by the signal box.
Unfortunately, by the time I got to the station it was dark and the station lights were not working. This meant taking pictures of the station was very difficult, as the picture below demonstrates. That means a description will have to suffice.
The station itself is situated in a bus depot, specifically Llew Jones' base in Llanrwst. There is an old stone church hall type building which used to be the station house. I am unsure what it is now. The entrance is a gate at the Llanrwst end of the station on the Llandudno/northbound platform. On this platform there is a normal departure board and bicycle racks. Along the walls of the former station building there are a few pictures which show the beautiful scenery on the Conwy Valley line, as well as a wooden canopy at the other end of the building towards the signal box.
The only means of gaining access to the southbound/Blaenau Ffestiniog is by foot crossing at the Llanrwst end of the platform. On the southbound platform, there is a more substantial shelter, with various notices, including a plaque on the 150th anniversary of the line and some artwork from local schoolchildren. There are plant pots scattered around, including one that is shaped like a boat.
After I had walked around the entire station area, I sat down on the correct platform for my train and ate the remainder of my pasta whilst listening to some podcasts. At this point, a group of local teenagers arrived and sprawled themselves across the shelter on the opposite platform. They proceeded to shine their phone torches around whilst they busied themselves with doing something on the station benches. This turned out to be drug-related, because soon they were smoking and the lovely smell of weed filled the night air. They then left the station, leaving me to wait for my train towards home.
The Journey Home
I flagged the train down and boarded. I showed my tickets to the conductor and explained where I was getting off (I had a couple of tickets which got me through to Llandudno Junction). Changing trains, I spotted a loco-hauled train and took a quick snap.
I then boarded my own train back to Warrington Bank Quay. It was the same unit which had taken me from Warrington to Llandudno Junction earlier in the day. On board was a friend who lived in the area (not a coincidence, I had made him aware that I was going to exist in North Wales previously). We had a pleasant conversation from there to Chester, where he got off. I continued to Warrington where I changed onto another train, before a final change at Preston got me onto my last train of the day back to Edinburgh. I slept for most of the way, finally getting home shortly before midnight.
The Conwy Valley line is similar to a lot of rural branch lines in that it links a few reasonably-sized settlements but also serves some very small ones that would not usually justify a railway service. I was surprised at the number of people who used the request stops, especially on my first service where all but one were used. This is a good sign, especially as it is winter, a time where the usual tourist boost does not exist.
I would like to thank heartily the man at Tal-y-Cafn for his kindness. I'm sorry I didn't engage properly the first time, but I am grateful and would love (at some point) to return properly.
Author - Felix
List of stations visited: