Britain’s last boat trains

Posted: March 26, 2017 in Rail, Transport

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As part of the package for my current job (working for a train operating company), I currently have free travel throughout much of the British railway network – a dream come true. Over the last few months I’ve been exploring parts of the country that I could never have imagined visiting – places that were just names on a map to a little Welsh lad who rarely ventured past Birmingham prior to turning 21.

Two of my recent trips have been linked. On 18 March, I found myself heading west from Leeds on the only train of the day to Heysham Port. Today, a week later (25 March), I was on one of the few services across South Wales from Cardiff to Fishguard Harbour. Both are amongst Britain’s last surviving services to ferry ports, linking with services to the Isle of Man and Rosslare respectively.

Both services have very interesting histories, but one that has generally been of decline, from the glory days of the boat train during the world wars and the period leading up to the boom of air travel in the 1960s.

Heysham’s station closed in 1975, just five years after being totally rebuilt, but reopened in 1987, although despite the village having a population of 17,000 and a nuclear power station, services remain tied in with the ferry service to Douglas and never really took off, with the twice-daily services reduced to one for much of the year as of 2008. Northern’s only service to Heysham at present runs from Leeds via the Bentham Line and Morecambe.

Fishguard was famously served by Great Western HSTs from London Paddington until 2003 but now relies on Arriva Trains Wales services from south-east Wales and a small number of local services, which increased following the reopening of nearby Fishguard and Goodwick station in 2012. The decline in passengers using these two rail-ferry stations can also be seen elsewhere at places like Stranraer and Newhaven, while Folkestone Harbour and Dover Marine are now long-closed.

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The journey of the 10:17 to Heysham is almost as surreal as the place itself. Jumping on a three-car Class 144 Pacer in the vast expanse of Leeds station, the train headed up the electrified Aire Valley line. Trains for Carlisle (via the Settle and Carlisle Line) and Morecambe run semi-fast to supplement the intensive all-stations commuter service. This means we only call at Shipley and Keighley before reaching Skipton, the limit of electric services.

Keighley is the limit of the commuter belt around Leeds, and after leaving the station (shared with Keighley and Worth Valley Railway steam services) the train headed out into the scenic countryside at the foot of Pennines. After the attractive stations of Skipton and Hellifield, we branched off the former Midland Railway main line to Carlisle and headed west through scenery less grand than the more renowned S&C but still attractive. The line originally headed direct to Lancaster, via one of the earliest electrified railways in the North, but now heads north-west to Carnforth, meeting the Cumbrian Coast Line.

After heading through remote countryside on rare sections of jointed track (which, as you can imagine, isn’t the most comfortable in a Pacer), the train suddenly found itself on the West Coast Main Line, heading south to Lancaster. There we had a short break before reversing to head to Morecambe, where the current station (opened in 1994) has little of interest and the old one (500 yards nearer the sea) is now a pub.

Morecambe is another of Britain’s faded seaside towns – though faded from what, exactly? It doesn’t seem to have the former grandeur of Torquay, the charm of Scarborough, or the attractions of its neighbour Blackpool. It’s just…there. Other than a prominent statue of comedian Eric Morecambe, the town doesn’t really have much to offer the visitor on a grey day. Built mainly with the coming of the railways (it wasn’t even officially named Morecambe until 1889), I guess it is the equivalent of those modern Costa del Sol resorts with concrete skyscraper hotels – a town that sprung up next to a beach to cater for a new influx of holidaymakers. Now it’s just roads, semis, a couple of hotels and sand. Lots of sand.

The train reversed again here, though this time the driver had to don a hi-viz, jump out and change the points himself – that must be a rarity for a passenger service on mainland Britain, and probably sums up what was about to come. After this, the train drew forward onto the Heysham branch, swinging around nearly 180 degrees around the back of he town, passing Morecambe FC’s Globe Arena stadium. There are very few features on the short single-line branch, and trains don’t exactly move particularly quickly down there. It had a sort of rustic feel, though short of the weeds growing between the tracks – as well as the passenger train every day, it sees occasional freight traffic as well.

We then pulled into the station, surrounded on the sea side by abandoned lorry trailers and on the other by Heysham nuclear power station. The whole site seemed totally vacant – there was clear evidence that people had been there that day, but there was no one actually there, which just made it feel like it had been abandoned after a recent nuclear leak. What made it additionally eerie was that on the day I headed down the branch, there were only two other passengers on the train – both were clearly there for the same reason I was: to explore the station.

The ferry terminal adjoins the station, and again it was totally devoid of human life. It all seems quite pleasant inside, suggesting people do actually use the terminal on a regular basis. There were even leaflets advertising Manx tourist attractions. I soon discovered the reason for the lack of activity – it turns out the ferries that day had been cancelled, so no one to set down and no one to pick up. In another odd turn of events, after exploring Morecambe for about half an hour I arrived back at the station to find a charter from London Euston arriving at the station, before it headed down the branch to Heysham! Evidently the line is still a draw for enthusiasts.

I’d like to think there are usually more people using the service than I saw – recent passenger figures suggest around 9,000 people a year arrive at or depart from Heysham Port by train. But on this occasion everything – the journey, the lack of people, the nuclear power station, and even the greyness of the weather – just felt very other-worldly. You would find it hard to find a more bizarre railway journey on the national network.

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In a bid to see if Wales’ boat train was any more alive. I jumped on an ATW Class 158 in Cardiff this morning to head due west along the South Wales Main Line. This Monday-Saturday service from Newport takes around two hours 45 minutes in total, roughly the same as the Leeds-Heysham service. It effectively runs as an express, calling only at select stations: Bridgend, Llanelli, Whitland, and Fishguard and Goodwick. It bypasses Swansea by one of two routes – on weekdays, the service runs via the Swansea District Line, while on Saturdays it runs via the Swansea Loop, the single line behind Landore depot. This means the Saturday train gives prospective onlookers the unusual sight of running through Neath non-stop. The westbound service also avoids Carmarthen, making it one of two services to do so during weekdays and the only service on a Saturday.

A rare feature of this service is that on leaving Cardiff, the conductor made sure to ask all his passengers where they were heading to, in order to point out to any customers who would be confused to see their train heading past places like Port Talbot, Neath, Swansea and Carmarthen without stopping. The two-car train wasn’t particularly full, but patronage was a lot better than the Heysham service, with most passengers heading either to Fishguard and Goodwick or Fishguard Harbour.

The meandering SWML through the Ely Valley is very pleasant, before climbing onto Stormy Down and dropping onto the heavily-industrialised coastal run through Port Talbot and Baglan. Then it’s through the urban area around Neath and Swansea, before crossing the Loughor estuary on the new viaduct, running past the second steelworks of the day at Trostre, and into Llanelli. From there, the line is a delight, running along the coast past the castles at Kidwelly and Llansteffan and up the banks of the Towy estuary to Carmarthen Junction, where we avoided the town and curved onto the swing bridge over the river.

After the main road leaves us at Carmarthen, the line runs into increasingly remote countryside, with towns and villages being much more spread out. Whitland, the only stop, is more out of convenience for linking up with services on the other West Wales branches to Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven. The only other stop on the journey came at Clarbeston Road signalbox, where the driver collected the token for the single track run to Fishguard. This is another particularly scenic stretch, especially on a nice day like today, as the line (constructed to a minimal budget) winds its way towards the coast.

Fishguard Bay is genuinely beautiful, with picturesque cliffs and the town perched on top. But the railway goes nowhere near the town centre, running through the village of Goodwick to the newly-rebuilt station. The harbour itself has been modernised, with the line pushed back towards the cliffs in the 1980s with expansion of the road. The Stena Line ferry was in, and the lorries were waiting for it; I made sure to wake up an Irish girl who I was fairly certain had travelled all this way for the ferry rather than for the joys of the long journey!

It was a quick turnaround at the harbour station, allowing only five minutes for the change of passengers. A few Welsh football fans had got on after travelling down from the game in Dublin last night, but not as many as one of the staff members on the train had expected. Then it was back off up the valley to Clarbeston Road and on to civilisation; the return service heads to Cardiff, calling at the same stations plus Carmarthen.

Fishguard Harbour’s passenger numbers have been steadily declining over the last few years, but this may be explained by the opening of the new station in Goodwick, subtracting all the local traffic; the combined number of annual passengers at the two stations is over 42,000, an increase on the last year before the new station opened. The number of services has increased too, thanks to generous backing from the Welsh Assembly Government, which has stabilised the future of a station that was under threat for some time.

The HSTs may be gone for good, but the line to Fishguard is here to stay. For Heysham, the future seems a little more uncertain.

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