The Cumbrian Coast Line is one of the great scenic railway lines that the UK has to offer. It often hugs round a cliff or other coastal feature as it skirts the Lake District from Carlisle to Lancaster. It is one of those rural lines where one would expect to have some piddling little stations that lie near, but not really in, a tiny village. And, that is what happens. While most stations have at least a few thousand passengers per year, Nethertown and Braystones both tend to stay below the 1000 mark, the former's usage halving to 412 last year. Braystones is very near the cut off point at 956. Both stations get 4 trains per day in each direction (Monday to Saturday) with an extra one northbound on Saturday. What is most convenient is that they are only 2 miles apart, which is good for walking. It means I don't have to do constant shuttling, and I don't inflate the statistics too much. Braystones to Nethertown would be the most pointless and annoying journey to make. For a start, they are both request stops, so you'd have to hail the train, get on, tell the guard that you were going to get off in 3 minutes, and then get off, with the driver wondering exactly what the point of doing that was.
The Cumbrian Coast line is one of very few lines to host national rail loco-hauled stock. Northern hire class 37s and MK2s from DRS for the 2 diagrams per day (except Sunday) that use this rolling stock. However, none of the 37 diagrammed services stop at Braystones or Nethertown. This is disappointing. But, I found a lucky loophole...
These stations are fairly well served for their patronage, so the problem isn't trying to use another form of public transport or a better served nearby station to get back home one you've been dumped in the middle of nowhere by a little diesel multiple unit. The problem is working around the irregular gaps in service. On Saturdays, there are 5 trains northbound, 3 of which call in the space of just under 2 hours (14:53, 15:56 and 16:36). The southbound ones do a similar thing. There are 4, 3 of which call in the space of just over 2 hours (16:47, 17:59 and 19:03). This leaves only one possible southbound service with a northbound connection to get me back home (I come in from Scotland). Monday to Friday is pretty similar, but the only possible northbound service leaves after 7pm, which meets one of the last Carlisle – Scotland express services. (There is an option to reverse at Sellafield, but ticket easements don't appear to exist for this route.)
After the eliminations, I am left with one option: an arrival just after 11am, and departure just before 3pm. Nearly 4 hours to explore 2 stations and walk between the two. Sounds reasonable.
Now, the lucky loophole: Having arrived in Carlisle just after 8am from Scotland, I noticed that there was an extra service between my arrival and the service to Braystones, at 09:38. This was the 08:42 (delayed by 30 minutes on the day), operated by one of the 37s. Railway sexiness. I changed trains at St Bees, which is not something that happens very often, and then picked up the “normal” diesel multiple unit to travel the 8 minutes to Braystones. I probably looked like a complete moron, as I expected to be shown off by the guard, but the doors work on a general release, but only the very front set at the ramp. Otherwise, it is a jump down to the platforms. I communicated with various hand signals, waving to the guard to show I'd worked out how to use trains, and then to the driver, because he was 1 foot away and peering out of his cab. It would be rude not to.
Located by a level crossing, below a caravan park and above some beach houses, Braystones has a rather cramped feel, given that there is else except sea, cliffs and beach around. I arrived only 10 minutes before a northbound service was due, and so there were people too. Well, a father and son trying not to get blown away in a shelter. Once they had departed, I explored the station properly. There is an ugly ramp in the middle of it, with little wooden steps, which helps physically disabled people board trains. This is fair enough. I just wish there had been a better way that could have preserved the grassy, un-kept platform. (I'd rather have disabled people able to use a station than it look nice.) The building, that I assume to have been previously a station building, is now a private residence, complete with people. This makes Braystones, while remoted, very cramped. Although, it is a marvellous place to visit. And, unlike any of the other stations I have visited, there is no technology there at all (except for the stuff I brought along with me). All the other stations I have visited have had either a smartcard reader (for all 24 people a year who use Barry Links) or a departure board (for all those services that depart Chathill northbound). Braystones has nothing. Even Nethertown, which has half the patronage, had a telephone. Yes people, this still counts as technology. I'm glad of the lack of technology. Many other stations on the Cumbrian Coast Line have an LED board displaying the next trains from the station. This would look mad in a windswept, barren location such as Braystones. Also, it would break within the first week of service when a large wave smashes up the rocks and gets sea-water in the electrics, which has never been the best combination. Rather like fire and Nottingham Station.
The Walk to Nethertown
There are 2 options: The beach or the road. I chose the beach. (Warning about not using the beach if the conditions don't allow it or the tide is too high. People have common sense, and those that don't are the victims of natural selection. Don't be an idiot.) The best thing about the walk, is the cutting that the railway carves around Nethertown head, and the bridge that passes over it. This is probably one of the best locations to film/photograph Cumbrian Coast Line traffic.
Continuing along, I passed horses and the “village centre”, which is probably the most charming little square, complete with red telephone box, bench and bus stop. Idyllic little English village. The station itself is a 10 minute walk from the village itself, off a road, along a path, over the crest of a small hill, and then down to the station.
I had spent 1 hour from arriving at Braystones to arriving at Nethertown, giving me nearly 3 hours at Nethertown. And, boy it was fabulous. Firstly, there is nothing in sight of the station except nature. And about 3 houses. The only access from the south side of the station involves walking alongside the track, without any protection from the running line except a couple of metres of gravel (flat, not in a pile).
Then, there is the station itself. As it used to be a passing loop, there are two platforms, only 1 of which is in use since the loop was lifted about 30 years ago. This platform is on the sea-side of the running line, which means one has to cross from the non-operational platform to the operational in order to board by means of a crossing. This is rather fun. The only slight annoyance is, like Braystones, the ugly ramp in the middle of the platform. But, it has a purpose, so it doesn't really matter. The newly installed shelter (which is already falling apart) was a welcome retreat from the elements in between filming passing trains and taking pictures. One of the best things is the pay-phone, located behind the ramp so nobody uses it. And it looks like it hasn't been used for a decade or more. Firstly, it has First NorthWestern branding, a company that last operated in 2004. Secondly, it is rusty, has peeling paint, and looks more like an artefact than a working phone. Still, useful for an area with patchy reception. Such a brilliant station.
For the 3 hours I was there, I saw 5 people. 4 were in pairs, and 1 was a fellow rail enthusiast, who I assume was local to the area. He turned up in shorts. SHORTS?! It was 5°C with a cold, sea wind. He looked cold. Very cold. This juxtaposed to me in my thermals, multiple layers, big coat, hat and gloves. After we filmed a 156 trundling along, he left, to film the next service (the one I was going to board) from the bridge at Nethertown head which I mentioned earlier.
The Return Home and a Note about Privatisation
This merits an entire article in itself, but, here it is at the bottom. I hailed the 14:53 at Nethertown, feeling very pleased with myself (my first time I can remember getting on at a request stop). I then found an unoccupied 4-seater on the coast-side of the train. Wonderful. I trundled back up the line, noting the location of Flimby station, which sits, like Nethertown and Braystones, on the beach. Having changed at Carlisle to go back north, I settle on my Pendolino, which has the new White livery that Virgin are slowly applying to their West Coast fleet. We then came to a halt somewhere between Carlisle to Haymarket. Having been informed that there had been a fatality further up the line (at Kingsknowe), we reversed (on the wrong line) back to Carstairs after an hour of waiting. Having arrived in Carstairs, we were told to leave the train and go to the car park where there were replacement coaches to take us back to Edinburgh. 2 coaches. For a 9 car Pendolino full of returning students with more bags than sense. Having filled them up, we were shouted at that the other train waiting at Carstairs (a TransPennine service to Edinburgh) had been given the all-clear to depart so we should go back and get on it. Which people tried, and some succeeded until the dispatcher shouted at us to move away from the train. After communication between the Virgin staff and the dispatcher, the train shut its doors and we were told to go back to the coaches. 30 seconds later, the train re-opened its doors, and people rushed on. It then left a minute later leaving half the passengers (not including me) at Carstairs to wait for more coaches.
And here is the problem with our privatisation: it is too fragmented. There were at least 4 parties involved in the farce as to if we could get onto the service to Edinburgh: Virgin Trains, TransPennine express, Network Rail and ScotRail. There was no communication between any of them, except when passengers were left confused on a freezing platform. The signaller (Network Rail) wanted his main line unblocked, the Virgin staff wanted to get their customers to Edinburgh, the dispatcher (ScotRail) wanted to get on with dispatching the train as he was getting an earful from the signaller, and the TransPennine staff just wanted to know what was going on. I have no idea what happened to the half-a-Pendolino load of customers who were left by the 1st set of coaches and the hastily dispatched TransPennine service. But, if the system was operated by 1 group, or at least not 4 or 5 so heavily separate groups, people would know what was going on, be able to tell customers, and not have so much confusion. Our plan changed 6 times (first we would go to Glasgow, second we would go to Carstairs and get replacement coaches, third we could get the train, fourth we couldn't, fifth we could, sixth, we couldn't any more because it had left). And such situations could be managed much better by a single organisation. And, as we know, market privatisation only works on the basis of competition, that organisation would have to be public. So, a bad end to a brilliant day.
Nethertown was certainly the better of the two stations. It did everything a rural coast station should, and did them much better than nearby Braystones. Having said that, don't go there because I want it all to myself. Along with Golf Street. Yes, I now have two adopted stations. Also, Braystones' usage seem to be more stable than Nethertown. It has stayed around the 1000 per year mark for the past 5 years at least, with the highest being 1046, and the lowest 620. Nethertown, on the other hand, has been declining steadily for that period, falling from just over 1000 in 2013/14 to 412 in 16/17. There have been no rises. This is both a shame and a blessing for the station. On the one hand, this puts it at risk of closure or a reduction in services, but on the other, that's more opportunity for people like me (or just me) to visit and enjoy the secluded nature of this fabulous station.
Author - Felix