The Looe Valley line is a branch line in Cornwall. It connects the main line at Liskeard to the southern Cornish Coast, at Looe. Between these two settlements, it follows the Looe River down the valley, passing nowhere else of any significance. Therefore, every intermediate station (Coombe Junction Halt, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, Causeland and Sandplace) has a low patronage. Only one has an annual patronage of under 1000, but some of the others have been down that low in the past. All of them are within the bottom 100 stations in the country, and all of them are worth a visit. As I was in Cornwall for the day, I also decided to visit St Budeaux Ferry Road station in Plymouth, which is the least used station in the major town. It recorded just shy of 4000 visits, but was below 3000 a few years ago.
I have a little game for you. At each of the 4 Looe Valley Line stations (except Coombe Junction), there is a WiFi router. Try to spot them! I will reveal the locations at the end of this blog entry.
Journey 1: To Causeland
Pricing is a big influencing factor for me, especially when deciding dates and when to travel (if there is flexibility in a plan). As it is quite possible to do all the Looe Valley stations inside half a day, I a lot more flexibility than I am used to when planning visits to these least used stations. Having spent a great deal of time scouring the GWR website to see if any good advance deals were available, I stumbled across the Wednesday night Night Riviera sleeper service, which was down at a very reasonable price. I set up a plan, checked the price of the return journey, which was also very reasonable, and went ahead with the bookings.
I arrived at Paddington at 11pm, and fell onto the sleeper. I've only travelled on this service once before, and that was going to Penryn for university visiting reasons. Despite being in a seated area, I had a very comfortable journey that time. Boarding the sleeper this time, I was disappointed. The rolling stock and interior has been refurbished, which means that the comfortable 1+2 seating has been ripped out, and replaced with 2+2 rigid, leather tat. I had a very poor and uncomfortable sleep. The air conditioning was also on for some reason, meaning that I had to wear 2 jumpers and my raincoat to stop myself from shivering.
We arrived at Liskeard at quarter past 6. I got off, and went into the waiting room, where I sat for an hour until I decided it was time to go to the Looe Branch platform and get my train to the first shack of the day: Causeland.
Liskeard is quite an odd station. Despite having 3 platforms, the Looe Branch platform (platform 3) is located across a road from the main station. This is unique as a station model, and not one I have ever come across before. The Looe branch platform has also been kept in the past, with various old, and old-style GWR signs and other pieces of memorabilia dotted along the platform.
It had started raining at this point, so I was glad that my train soon arrived. I boarded, and we waited the few minutes until it next departed south. We did, 1 minute late, and began the journey south to Causeland. I was the only passenger in my carriage. 2 other people were in the other coach (it was a 2 coach train). The guard soon came up, I showed my ticket and railcard and asked if he could stop at Causeland. 15 minutes later, we pulled up at the station, and I got off, waving to the guard as the train departed again for Looe.
As the train departed, I surveyed the station. Causeland is a cute little thing buried amongst plants, a stream and all in a valley. This makes the entire place very secluded. Furthermore, there are no nearby houses, so one has the area entirely to oneself, as I did. It is also very well preserved, with fresh paint, old GWR-style buildings and signs and baskets of flowers. The facilities include a shelter, a help point, a grit box, two flower boxes, a set of signs and two bicycle racks.
As I admired the station, the train from Looe returned. In order to prevent confusion (the driver thinking that I want to get back on), I hid behind a sign and filmed it passing from there.
The walk from Causeland to Sandplace is about 30 minutes along a country lane. A few tiny settlements (of 3 houses maximum) are situated along the road. There are also a couple of bridges, which I used as a location to film the Looe Branch train continuing its shuttles up and down the branch line.
Despite being the 2nd least used station of the 4 along the line, Sandplace is the least remote of any of them. It is located around the bend of the main road into Looe. In fact, Sandplace is also served by a bus route. There is also a little village (called Sandplace) just to the south of the station.
The station itself is nestled rather nicely just by the bridge which takes the main road over the railway. It has many of the same facilities as Causeland, but the overall feel is of being much less secluded than Causeland was. The major thing of note at the station was the birds nest located in one of the nooks of the shelter.
Whilst I was at the station, a man in a GWR/Network Rail van parked in the bus stop area near the station. Yes, it was the day that all the Looe Valley line stations were to be visited and maintained. He arrived with a leaf blower and proceeded to clear the platform of various bits of dust and leaves. He left, and then returned shortly afterwards with a watering can and some other bits with which to tidy up the flower pots and clean other bits of the station (such as the large quantity of bird droppings which had accumulated under the nest). I don't see why watering flowers literally minutes after a few hours of rain was required, but whatever management wants, I suppose.
Journey 2: To St Keyne
The original plan was to board a northbound service at 10:49 to my next shack, which is St Keyne Wishing Well Halt. However, because I like to spend quite a long time at each station before boarding, I was there well in time for the service southbound the Looe to pass me, before coming back up. Despite making no gesture whatsoever to the driver signalling that I wished to request the stop, the driver stopped. I mouthed and gestured that I was going in the opposite direction. The man who was maintaining the station also came up to ask me what was going on. I explained that I was going north. At this point the guard also joined in and suggested that I just get on anyway and enjoy a free ride to Looe and back. So, here are some bonus pictures of the terminus of the branch, Looe:
Once we had left Looe going northbound, I requested St Keyne from the guard, and we stopped there. I got off in the same manner as before, thanking the guard and then surveying the station.
St Keyne Wishing Well Halt
As you now expect, St Keyne is littered with well-preserved old-style GWR facilities, except for the help point and metal bike racks. It is also about a mile from St Keyne itself, meaning that the only buildings around are farm, or ex-farm. The man who had been maintaining Sandplace arrived, so I vacated the station area to allow him to do his work.
But, why the “Wishing Well” suffix? Well, there is a well nearby. The St Keyne Well. I took the mile walk to it (it isn't in the town, instead it is located a small crossroads ½ a mile to the south of it).
Having looked at the well, I walked back to St Keyne, continued taking pictures of the shuttling Looe Branch service and lounging around on the platform, admiring the station and surroundings and taking pictures of the shuttle passing a few times.
Eventually, the train I wanted to catch arrived. I flagged it down using my best arm, it stopped and I boarded. Or, went to board, before the guard (a different one this time) asked me to come a specific set of doors. I complied, and boarded. She verbally checked my ticket and then I proceeded to a seat. We arrived in Liskeard 15 minutes later.
I decided that I would walk from Liskeard to Coombe Junction, as it was only 15 minutes walk away. This proved to be the right decision. It is downhill all the way, sometimes very steeply. It would not be fun to walk in the opposite direction.
Coombe Junction Halt
Coombe is the only station on the line not to be served by the majority of services, and the only one to have an annual patronage below 1000. At the moment, it stands at ~200 per year, although this is the highest on record, with it rarely peaking above 50 people per year. Only a couple of trains per day that skip the request stops of St Keyne, Causeland and Sandplace, but all save for 4 services a day (2 in each direction, Monday to Saturday only) avoid Coombe Junction. Despite including the suffix “halt” (which only 2 stations in the whole of the UK do, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt being the other), Coombe Junction Halt is not a request stop. This does not make sense.
Unlike all the other stations on the line, it is in a poor state of repair. There are at least 3 different shades of cream on the rotting and very small shelter, no flowers and only about half the signage as compared to the other stations.
The station is a junction, because this is where the Looe Branch services reverse. They have to do so in order to negotiate the steep gradients from Liskeard down to valley level. The reason that most services do not call at Coombe Junction Halt is because they reverse at the set of points (Coombe Junction Ground Frame), which is about 100 metres up the line from the station. I spent more than an hour filming the reversal process, which will be explained later in this blog post.
The train back to Liskeard arrived at Coombe Junction Halt. It not being a request stop, the guard had to get out anyway. As she did so, I approached, and she jumped slightly. I don't think she was expecting anyone to actually be getting on or off at the station. She checked my ticket as the train set off again (having reversed at the station), and we soon arrived into Liskeard.
Journey 5: To St Budeaux
At Liskeard, I had an hour or so before my train to St Budeaux arrived. It was at this point that my phone and portable charger ran out of power. However, this isn't that much of a loss to the blog. The local service arrived into platform 1 at Liskeard, shunted round to platform 2, and then allowed passengers to board. It is one of very few services that serve St Budeaux Ferry Road and Menheniot stations. Despite the latter being advertised as a request stop, the train stopped there as if it was a conventional station. Nobody boarded or alighted. We then stopped at St Germans and Saltash, before going over the fabulous King Albert Bridge. Shortly after, the train arrived at St Budeaux Ferry Road.
St Budeaux Ferry Road
There is very little to say about this station. I got off, along with one other person. 3 minutes later, a train in the other direction also stopped, allowing another person to alight. Each platform is fairly grubby, both have fairly standard shelters, the metal and plastic sort that appear all over the country, and nothing is particularly well-maintained. Even the shelters have had half their benches removed and none of their plastic panels remain. Rubbish is scattered behind everything, and the slate walls are crumbling somewhat.
The station is located literally across the road from St Budeaux Victoria Road (see Google Maps extraction below). Despite their different names, both of them are located on Wolseley Road. I can't even find a Ferry Road in the area.
As one service per day from Liskeard continues to Gunnislake (the end of the branch line that St Budeaux Victoria Road serves), there is an opportunity to travel from one station to the other by train. However, it is not possible to buy a direct ticket from Ferry Road to Victoria Road (I used various websites and even tried on the phone, but no ticket was available). My assumption is that a guard would sell anyone wishing to make such a silly journey a return from St Budeaux stations to Plymouth.
Journey 6: Back Home
Despite St Budeaux being in Plymouth, the advance ticket I was sold meant that I had to travel back via Liskeard. So, I boarded the 18:25 service back there, changed, and found myself on the last service of the day into London (apart from the sleeper).
At Exeter St Davids, we were delayed by 26 minutes due to an incident up the line at Tiverton Parkway. This was cleared, and I had hoped that we would make up some time. This was not to happen. We continued to loose time, finally arriving into London Paddington over 40 minutes late. This was just late enough for me to have missed the last tube and rail services home, so I had to negotiate the night bus network. I finally arrived home at 2am. The worst thing about all of this is that I could not claim for compensation, as GWR long distance services operate by a 60 minute rule, not the usual 30 minute. I was most annoyed.
The Operation of the Looe Valley Line
The Looe branch departs Liskeard going north, before looping around and down the valley to Coombe Junction. It then has to change direction in order to continue to Looe.
It is controlled using the token system. IE: The guard/driver has to obtain a token from the signaller in order to have permission to travel on a particular part of the line (usually from passing loop to passing loop, although not always). The token sections for this line are Liskeard to Coombe Junction Ground Frame, and Coombe Junction Ground Frame to Looe. There is also a freight only line that continues beyond Coombe Junction (the point of reversal for passenger trains) and continues to Moorswater Quarry. However, I am unsure that this is still used, certainly with any frequency.
The Ground Frame has to be set to rest in the Liskeard direction to release and return any tokens. Therefore, the train has to stop twice each time. In order to explain this properly, I have included steps and pictures for each direction (both to and from Liskeard).
Solutions to the Game
Here are the Wi-Fi routers at each of the stations which had them:
St Keyne Wishing Well Halt:
(Yes. I know that was a hard one.)
Notes about St Budeaux
St Budeaux has many bus routes, and even bus stops right outside the stations which are used by a frequent bus service, but the train service is very poor. This is why the patronage for Ferry Road (and to a lesser extent, Victoria Road) is so low. Every train I saw at Ferry Road was used by at least one person (most by two, some by three). But, because the service is so infrequent, people choose the bus or another means of transport. The patronage could be increased by a more frequent train service, but I doubt that this will happen.
A Final Point of Irony
Despite this being a railway trip to Cornwall, at no point did I buy a Cornish Pasty, despite there being a seemingly endless supply of them at every railway station in the country.
Bordesley is located one stop south of Birmingham Moor Street on the Snow Hill Lines, which is still very much in Birmingham. But, the general service is one train per week in one direction only: a proper parliamentary. Despite the very low level of service, over 15,000 passengers were recorded using the station last year, working out as nearly 300 passengers per train. This is a very odd situation for a station to be in. That puts Bordesley outside the least used stations proper list by a significant number. Clearly, there is something that is wrong here, so an investigation was required.
The only train of the week runs northbound on a Saturday, arriving at Bordesley at 13:36. I decided that the best thing to do would be to alight from it and then explore the station. I worked my way across London to Marylebone, and boarded a Chiltern service to take me most of the way to Birmingham. The journey planner and the route of my advance ticket was very weird. Instead of changing at Solihull, and again at Tyseley (because the only service of the week originates at Whitlocks End), I had to go all the way into Moor Street, back out to Tyseley, and then back to Bordesley. I effectively did a triple-back. A map will show how mad this route is. The even bigger thing was changing at Tyseley instead of Small Heath, given that Small Heath is closer to Birmingham than Tyseley.
On the Chiltern service to Birmingham, a man in a suit, trainers and with a cycling rucksack got on and at opposite me with his similarly weirdly dressed child. The suit and trainer is not a look I have ever understood. Especially when the person clearly doesn't run due to their size. They sat opposite me for a mercifully short amount of time, alighting at Warwick Parkway having boarded at Banbury.
The train arrived in Moor Street, late, and I crossed over to another platform in order to board the 2nd of 3 trains. I changed at Tyseley without incident, and stood by the doors for the short journey back up to Bordesley.
Having passed it twice in the past 30 minutes, it was third time lucky as the 13:36 service pulled into Bordesley. I was one of two people to get off at the station, with one person boarding. The other passenger to alight walked towards the exit, then away from it, then back towards it and out of the station. I was left to admire (used in its loosest possible form) the station.
Bordesley station is a very barren island platform. It has some lights, some signs, a help point, an exit and a barren concrete waiting hut which smelt of urine.
Various frequent errors and fun bits popped up: There was a smartcard reader, which sees virtually no usage whatsoever. The signs advertised services to Shirley and Dorridge, which is weird as the southbound platform sees no trains in normal service. The opening of the hut was also to the southbound platform (the platform face that sees no trains in normal service). I say normal service, because the station becomes a lot more busy at match days when Birmingham City play home games. Trains do stop at the otherwise unused platform at these times. The stadium is visible from the station, although it is not as prominent as the graffiti.
The normal paintwork at the station was still slightly sticky, I assume because it had been touched up recently.
I sat on the platform, resting against a pole, getting occasional toots from passing trains as I filmed/photographed them.
The Journey Home
After the service that would form my train home from Birmingham Moor Street passed, I decided that it would be best to walk the mile from Bordesley to Moor Street so that I would be there in plenty of time. I had spent just over 90 minutes at the station.
The walk was mainly about negotiating back-streets through decaying industrial areas and warehouses, being glad that it was a Saturday afternoon and not 2am on a Friday morning. It was exactly the sort of area which journalists visit after a “well-loved cornerstone of the neighbourhood was brutally stabbed in the early hours of Sunday morning”. I didn't see many people, or indeed weapons, and arrived at Moor Street 25 minutes later. I still had more than half an hour until my train departed, but it was there and unlocked, so I sat on it, enjoying the fact that I had a 4 seat area with table to myself.
A feature of city railways appears to be that the station one stop out from a major terminus is a lot less well-used than the majority of other stations on the line. Bordesley is not an isolated case. Elsewhere in Birmingham, there is Adderley Park and Water Orton (neither of which have quite as low a patronage or quite as infrequent a service). Meanwhile, Manchester has Ardwick and Ashburys, with the former being in the least used stations list proper.
The reason for their lack of patronage is a combination of not being near many houses, and any people wanting to use them being put off by their very limited service. Bordesley has a bus stop right outside the station with a number of bus routes serving the station. Meanwhile, the train service would be, at best, every 30 minutes. Given the choice, most people would choose the bus because it is much more frequent and therefore more convenient, given that there is a major railway station close by which one can get a train to practically anywhere from. The only reason Bordesley's patronage is so high for the level of service is because of the extra trains layed on when there is a football match.
Author - Felix