Like many other long, rural railway routes, the Cambrian Coast Line has numerous small stations which serve little hamlets that wouldn't otherwise get a railway service. Most of these are request stops. Tonfanau itself is 5-10 minutes north of Twywn (by rail). Although it used to serve a military training and refugee camp, this no longer exists. Only a few houses and multiple abandoned and derelict buildings exist now. In fact, British Rail (BR) attempted to close the station in the mid 1990s because it didn't serve anything anymore. This request was declined.
Given the above, you would be forgiven for thinking the annual patronage for Tonfanau fell under 1000 passengers per year. However, it doesn't. It was used by over 3000 people last year, one of the highest figures in this series. I can only estimate the reasons for this, but it may have something to do with the 4 annual Tonfanau Road Races which take place near the station (hence the name).
Being based in Scotland means getting to any part of Wales takes a long time. The previous day, although brilliant, had resulted in a very late night, so I got barely any sleep before I had to be up for the 06:52 service from Edinburgh. This took me as far south as Warrington, the jewel of Cheshire. There, I changed onto one of the “new” services operated by Northern: the Leeds to Chester service. I took this to Chester, where I made my second change of the day to my service all the way to Shrewsbury. Both these changes were quite tight (>10 minutes).
At Shrewsbury, my 14 minute change became twice as long because the service from Birmingham that I would take to Tonfanau was just over quarter of an hour late. This turned out not to matter, because there was sufficient allowances in the timetable to mean that, by the time it departed Tywyn, it was only 2 minutes behind schedule. But, at Shrewsbury, Tywyn was still 2 hours away and I had the single track Cambrian Coast Line to admire. Although pleasant, the views only really get going after Dovey Junction, where the line to Aberystwyth splits off south, and the line to Pwllheli works north. Tonfanau is on the Pwllheli branch, and I was on the Pwllheli part of the train (services divide at Machynlleth with one part going to Aberystwyth and the other to Pwllheli). The line between Dovey Junction and Aberdovey hugs the cliffs round Dovey Estuary (that may not be the official name of the area, but it works as a description), just above the water. This produces some excellent views.
Aberdovey came and went, as did Tywyn shortly afterwards. Tonfanau is only a few minutes north of Twywn, so I prepared myself for getting off the train. I made sure that the train was stopping at Tonfanau (it is a request stop), and stood by the door for the remainder of the journey.
Having watched the train depart, I had to put on my coat because the rain had just started to fall. This is typical of British weather: Indoors for half the day then the moment when one leaves shelter, the rain starts.
Although Tonfanau station is remote, a new build house has been built directly next to the platform. There were also a number of cars parked up by the level crossing, so the place felt quite crowded. I decided to walk to the beach and derelict military buildings first.
The Surrounding Area
The derelict military buildings are visible from the station. There are a small number of them standing, with numerous other patches of concrete which signify where other buildings or installations once were. One of the sets of buildings had a caravan parked right next to it, a caravan which contained more people.
Further on is the beach and mouth of the River Dysynni. I thought here, at least, I would be able to enjoy the wind-and-rain-swept delights of the Cambrian Coast alone. But, as has become the theme of today, a single human in a black kagoule was also on said beach. I had a short wander down to the sea, enjoying the fact that my shoes were (and still are) waterproof, before going back to the station.
Back to the Station
After my antics (and I use that word in its loosest possible form), I had an hour to look at the station before my train that would take me back ultimately to Edinburgh arrived.
Tonfanau has the normal facilities that I have come to expect. There are a number of signs, a basic shelter, a bench, a salt bin (but no litter bin), a bike rack (one hoop only), a BT payphone, a digital information screen and an automatic announcement system. The automatic announcement system was fairly awful, in that it couldn't pronounce the word 'operated' properly, instead going for “approted”. You can imagine how awful the pronunciation of the more complicated Welsh place names were.
I left the platform for a bit to get some pictures from the other side of the track. As I did this, more people arrived. They went onto the station platform. Another person also arrived in a truck. All the people (so many people) were now on the platform. However, only the couple were hand-in-hand. If you get that reference, you win the prize of slightly understanding my weird brain.
I went back onto the platform, and was asked by the man if one could buy tickets on the train. I told him that he could. I continued to wander up and down the platform for the remaining time until the 15:16 service arrived. As it rounded the corner, the driver gave a toot. I spun round and stuck my arm out to flag it down. The driver responded with another blow of the horn, and I put my appendage away so as not to annoy him.
The Journey Home
The train did stop, and the couple and I got on. My ticket was checked and I settled down for the ride back to Shrewsbury. There were long waits at Machynlleth (timetabled) and at Talerddig (not timetabled – we were waiting for a delayed eastbound train). We arrived at Shrewsbury 10 minutes late.
In the 6 hours between visits to Shrewsbury a points failure had occurred near Chester. A lot of trains were quite late, but my service to Manchester was mostly unaffected. It was only 7 minutes late. An almost perfect run to Manchester was brought to a stuttering halt outside Cheadle Hulme. We were stuck behind a train which was having some problems with its doors for a few minutes, causing the delay to run up to quarter of an hour by the time I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly. Getting stuck behind delayed services turned out to be a theme of my return journey.
With an hour to wait for my train to Edinburgh, I decided to leave Manchester Piccadilly station and walk to a take away to get myself an overpriced burger and chips.
I consumed most of the food back at Piccadilly, watching a fare dodger vault the barriers and run away from staff. The British Transport Police officer looked on and said “I'm not running after that” to the staff when they shouted for help. The tracksuit-based fare-dodging clot got away. I hope he face-planted into the escalator.
Re-focusing on my burger, I finished it before my train to Edinburgh arrived on platform 14. I boarded it and settled down in my reserved seat for the 3 hour journey. I spent the journey tracking trains, listening to podcasts and watching the light fade outside until there was a dark nothingness, much like Alexander “Boris” Johnson's conscience.
This dark nothingness turned out to be a field near Lockerbie, a field which I got rather too acquainted with over the next 70 minutes. The train ahead was experiencing the Great British Tradition of a drunken Wednesday night fight. This meant the police and ambulance service had to be called, statements taken from passengers, and associated administration and problems. That train was 90 minutes late getting going, and we finally moved 70 minutes behind schedule.
The train skipped Haymarket station where I had hoped to get off because it was so late that Haymarket had shut down for the night. Instead I was deposited at Waverley at quarter to one in the morning. I boarded a night bus (which cost £3 – great price Lothian Buses(!)) and got home at gone 1:30am.
I may not have mentioned this before, but there were too many people at Tonfanau. I like going to least used stations (partly) for the solitude, something that didn't exist when I was there. For a station that looked so remote on a map, it felt overcrowded when I got there. Worth the 18 hour round trip though.
Whitley Bridge is one of 4 stations on the Pontefract line which only receives 3 trains per day (not Sundays). It is the 2nd busiest of those 4, with a grand total of 1,236 passengers last year. This is the highest it has been for years. Whitley Bridge itself is in the village of Eggborough about 1 mile walk from the village of Whitley. There is a bridge nearby. Hence the name Whitley Bridge (I think). The Knottingley to Goole section of line has not always had such a limited service, although it has generally been more infrequent than the rest of the Pontefract Line. Timetables from the '70s and '80s see 5 or 6 trains per day in each direction, and not clumped together either. This gradually reduced down to the current 3 trains per day (in total) by the mid 2000s.
Whitley Bridge has 2 trains just over an hour apart in the evenings. This sounds perfect for boarding/alighting. Sadly, the 2nd of these services is just too late to enable me to get back to London, so I had to get a bus to Eggborough (which is the village where Whitley Bridge actually is) and get the first train of the evening back.
I arrived at Kings Cross station for my train to Leeds. It was one of LNER's new InterCity Express Trains (marketed as the “Azuma” by the ever-successful Virgin Trains East Coast). Although quite busy, there was enough room for people not to sit next to me. I consumed food and drink to prevent death, and arrived at Leeds station on time. I had a half hour change for my train to Selby, which I spent hanging around on platform 12 observing the coming and goings from the very busy station. It was busier today because there had been an electrical failure somewhere on the Airedale which meant that no electric train could leave Leeds bound for Bradford, Skipton or Ilkley. That is a significant portion of the Leeds commuter network, and so there were a large number of miffed commuters and other travellers standing around the departure boards looking with annoyance(?) at the word “delayed” next to their train.
My train to Selby wasn't delayed. It rocked up on time, and the entire population of Yorkshire attempted to cram onto the three carriages provided. This didn't work. I managed to get a seat for the 25 minute journey, but many others did not.
Selby station started to exist outside the train, so I got off, pausing only to give someone their keys back, which they had kindly left on the table. The Selby to Whitley Bridge section of travel was to be done by bus. Brum-brum. Except it was more of a purr because the bus had a hybrid engine. Whatever noise the bus made, it moved, and I arrived at Whitley Bridge at the time I expected to.
Although being poorly used, Whitley Bridge is certainly not situated in the middle of nowhere. On the south side there are a large number of warehouses. There seemed to be an endless stream of lorries to and from them. To the north is the village of Eggborough, so there are houses. The road by the station is also well-used. Thus, I didn't get the normal solitude of a least used station, which I found disappointing.
The station is a normal 2 platform one. Both platforms have a shelter, various notices a bin and a salt bin. The salt-bin to service ratio is a very high one.
Although the line has a very infrequent passenger service, there is a good deal of freight. In the one hour I was at Whitley Bridge, I saw three freight services. They were mostly operating trains to/from Drax Power Station.
Back to London
Quite a long train arrived to take me to take me to Goole. By “long” I mean three coaches.
I was one of two people in the front carriage. My route from Whitley Bridge to London involved two changes: at Goole and at Doncaster. This isn't the most direct route, but the only one possible given the lack of trains from Whitley Bridge. My train from Doncaster to London was very uncrowded, but somehow someone had managed to sit in my reserved seat. I decided to ask him to move, which he did: first to the opposite side of the carriage, and then he walked off. I was pleased that he did because he was bleating down his phone.
Whitley Bridge falls perfectly into the category of least used stations which could have a much higher patronage if there was a railway service to speak of. Although there is a train for commuters into and out of Leeds at peak times, there are no trains at any other points. Clearly, a station with only 3 trains per day is never going to have a very high patronage, because there are other transport options which are more frequent, as my bus journey demonstrates. Really, Whitley Bridge should have 1 train every other hour. However, this is unlikely to happen in the short or medium term. The reason for the service reduction is because Northern doesn't have enough rolling stock. Although Northern is getting new rolling stock, they are scrapping their Pacers and any additional rolling stock will be used on already overcrowded routes. The Knottingley to Goole part of the Ponefract Line is very low down on the list of rolling stock priorities for Northern.
Author - Felix