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.
Why am I visiting a station that is already close? How can I visit a closed station using a train ticket? How can I visit a train station that has no trains? What happened for 13 years between the withdrawal of trains and closure? These are just some of the questions that possibly spring to mind when reading the title and questions which I hope to answer.
Norton Bridge railway station is located next to the village of Norton Bridge in Staffordshire. It is also located at a railway junction where the line to Manchester leaves the main West Coast Main Line. Of the stations on the West Coast Main Line, it was one of the smallest. In 2002/3 it had an annual patronage of under 5000, which dipped significantly to 341 in 2006/7 before the Office of Rail and Road stopped collecting figures for the station.
In 2004 as part of the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, train services from the station were withdrawn in favour of a “temporary” replacement bus service. In December of that year, the footbridge was removed in order to allow bigger freight services to pass though.
Bus services continued for the next decade whilst the Department for Transport decided what to do. In 2016, along with the building of a flyover in the area, it was decided that the best thing to do was to close Norton Bridge station permanently rather than continue with the current situation. This was considered much better than re-instating train services at the station. After the consultation period ended, it was decided that Norton Bridge station would close permanently on the 10th of December 2017. However, bus services would continue to be subsidised by the government until March 2019 in order to allow the local council to decide what should happen to the bus service. This is why one can still buy tickets to and from Norton Bridge despite it being closed.
Why not re-instate Train Services?
Norton Bridge's location meant that stopping trains there always meant a lot of “conflicting moves”. IE: trains had to cross in front of a lot of other trains in order to stop there. Rather than having one platform for each railway line, or one platform for a line in each direction (as is normal with most stations), it has a single “island” platform which serves the fast line towards London, and an additional 5th line (on an otherwise 4 track railway) which trains use when leaving the West Coast Main Line and going to Manchester. The diagram below shows the situation prior to modernisation.
I mentioned that a new flyover was built at Norton Bridge at the same time that closure was proposed. This was because the new flyover would mean that trains to Manchester would take different route in order to reduce the number of conflicting moves between them and trains going south. The associated reconstruction of Norton Bridge junction would mean that the platform at Norton Bridge would only face two lines which took trains in the same direction: this direction being south to Stafford, Birmingham and London. Without reducing the overall number of services passing through the area, serving Norton Bridge in both directions would be impossible. Building new platforms was deemed too expensive. The diagram below shows the situation after modernisation.
Having negotiated peak-time in London, I arrived at Euston station ready for my train north to Stafford. A platform was advertised and I aimed myself at it. The ramps from the station concourse are used by Virgin Trains staff to check tickets for Virgin Trains service. I joined a small queue of people who were inefficiently aiming themselves at one of the five people who were waiting to check tickets. I managed to dodge around a number of them and went to one of the otherwise unoccupied members of staff who made an assertive scribble on my ticket before waving me onto my train. I settled myself for the journey up to Stafford.
Because of the tilting, I tend to feel nauseous on Virgin Trains. I dislike this because one of the many benefits I find to train travel rather than by road is because I don't feel or get sick on trains, something that can't be said for cars/buses as my family will attest with memories.
Once at Stafford, I settled myself in the waiting room. I had quite a long time between arriving and getting the bus onwards to Norton Bridge. I ate some of my lunch and charged my phone before noticing that the departure boards had advertised the bus that I was supposed to take. Having asked a member of staff where the bus stop was, I was directed to another member of staff who in turn asked a third member of staff. I then walked the 30 seconds to the bus stop outside and to the left of the main entrance. There I found a small bus waiting to operate route 13 to Stone via Norton Bridge and other small villages in the area. 3 other people also got on the bus but I was the only person using a railway ticket.
After a 20 minute trundle along various country lanes, including some parts of the road network that were simply not suitable for the bus, Norton Bridge came into view. I got off along with 2 other people, leaving the bus empty.
Norton Bridge “Station”
Despite not technically existing, Norton Bridge does have facilities: a sign and a car park. The platforms are abandoned and mostly desolate with a few station lights scattered about the place. The shelter has been demolished. With the bus stop called Norton Bridge Station Drive, I expected there to be a bit more of a road to the station, but I was wrong. The road through the village is still called Station Road, despite there not being a station anymore. There is also a now boarded up pub which was probably called The Railway Inn before most of its letters fell off.
Once I had seen the station from the village side, I decided to explore the opposite side to see if I could get a better view from there. This proved to be very difficult as there was a river which ran between the road and fields and the railway line. The railway was also slightly elevated from the ground meaning that getting any reasonable picture of the station was mostly impossible.
The bus service was at uneven intervals, meaning that I had almost 3 hours in Norton Bridge. I spent most of the third of these hours scraping mud from my shoes in the bus shelter whilst my hands slowly froze.
Back to London
Slightly early, the bus back to Stafford came into view. I hailed it and got on. I was the only person on board for the entire 20 minute run back to Stafford. There I spent another long period of time in the waiting room before I boarded my train back to London. The journey was mostly uneventful save for a 20 minute wait near Watford.
I suspect that the bus service will be withdrawn, or at least partially withdrawn come March 2019 and its review. At that point Norton Bridge should be removed from the National Rail fares database. However, the current state of limbo means that one can buy a train ticket to a station that is formally closed, and also a train ticket for a journey that involves no trains (if one buys a ticket from Norton Bridge to Stafford, it is a journey done entirely by bus). It is slightly mad that this is a thing, but situations like this is something I have got more used to since starting this blog.
Author - Felix