A Short History of Pontypool Rd Station
Pontypool and New Inn Railway station is now an unassuming Rail Halt mainly serving passengers commuting between Hereford, Abergavenny, Newport and Cardiff. In addition some of the mainline trains running between Cardiff- Hereford-Crewe and Manchester also stop.
A more discerning look at the station platform and the surrounding area indicates that the station was once much larger and indeed this was the case. In the 'Age of Steam 'for almost 100 years from the mid 19th to the 1960s Pontypool Road was not only an important and well know station but a key railway junction which connectied the main Cardiff-Newport line with that from Neath and Merthyr to the Midlands and North of England. Pontypool Road Station was in fact a huge rail complex comprising a 50 line marshalling yard used to assemble coal freight trains destined for all parts of the UK. In addition there were goods sheds, engines sheds and refuelling facilities for the many steam locomotives which used the local rail network. Today all that remains is the main line but at one time much of the land in the valley bottom now occupied by the A4042 dual carriageway and the Mac Donald's roundabout between New Inn and Griffithstown was a sprawling network of railway tracks, sidings and buildings.
The growth of the iron industry in South Wales during the latter part of the 18th Century and then that of the coal mining industry in the 19th Century brought with it the need to transport large quantities of raw materials and finished products. The first successful solution to this problem in the absence of good roads was he the development of canals. The building of the Brecon-Abergavenny canal was made possible by an Act of Parliament in 1793 and opened in 1812 running 33 miles from Brecon to Pontypool (Pontymoile) where it joined up with a branch of the Newport-Crumlin Canal built by the Monmouthshire Canal Company. The canal link from Brecon to Newport and its docks originally served the growing iron industry located on the northern rim of the South Wales Valleys. It was used extensively to carry coal, limestone, iron, timber, farm produce and finished products and was the main freight transport route through Monmouthshire at that time. However, with the rapid expansion of the railways in the 1840s, offering an altogether faster and more powerful transport system, the canal system was to be rendered largely uncompetitive within a few decades.
Growing pressure from industry to improve the transportation network led the Monmouthshire Canal Company (later the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company MRCC) to obtain authorisation to build a railway from Newport to Pontypool in October 1845. This was opened in 1852 with the terminus at Crane Street in Pontypool. In 1854 the line was then extended up the Lwyd Valley to Blaenavon.
In 1846 Parliament approved the incorporation of the Newport-Abergavenny-Hereford Railway (NAHR) and this was opened together with a new station located just to the south of its present site (next to the old Station Master’s House which is now a private residence) on 2nd January 1854. The line from Hereford joined the MRCC line at Panteg & Coed-y-Gric Junction so as to have an access route to Newport. By the time of opening in January 1854, the London North Western Railway (LNWR) (who had previously expressed an interest in buying the NAHR) was now operating the new line.
The Company at first named the new station ‘Newport Road’ but by May that year it had been changed to ‘PONTYPOOL ROAD’. Its first Stationmaster was Mr. Henry Griffiths. He was born in Chepstow in 1824 and had been previously employed by the GWR as a railway policeman in Swindonsince 1844 prior to his appointment as Stationmaster. The coming of the railway to Pontypool contributed much to its population growth and expansion which in turn led to the creation of the terraced villages of Sebastopol and Griffithstown. The latter settlement was named after Mr Henry Griffiths who set up a cooperative building society to provide housing for the railway workers. Pontypool Roadwas also the birthplace of the Trade Union ASLEF( Associated society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) in 1880 which represents those railway men who drive trains. The opening of other railway lines from Hereford to Shrewsbury and then to Chester at this time opened up direct rail links between the South Wales Coalfield and the Midlandsand the North of England.
In 1847 Parliament had authorised the NAHR to build a railway to Merthyr called the Taff Vale Extension Railway (TVE) running westward from Pontypool to link up with the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) at Quaker’s Yard which ran on to Merthyr. This line crossed the Ebbw River at Crumlin via a Viaduct which was opened in May 1857. The TVE linked with the Neath Valley Railway at Merthyr (NVR) producing a direct rail link between Swansea and Neath on the western edge of the South Wales Coalfield across the Heads of the Valleys to Pontypool in the east and then to Newport, Hereford and England. The NVR was built as a broad gauge line (7ft) whilst the TVE was standard gauge (4ft 8½ins). The resulting difficulties were overcome by adding a third rail, producing a mixed gauge in 1864 until the broad gauge was abolished in 1872. The Great Western Railway (GWR) and LNWR companies fought for control of the line until it was finally absorbed into the GWR in 1863-6. The main purpose of this line was the transport of coal and much of it exported to the rest of the UK via Pontypool Road.
By the 1880s the Pontypool Road Rail Complex was a junction comprising of siding and sheds laid out within a vast inverted triangle of tracks (see picture of 1882 map). At the southern point lay Coed-y-Gric Junction of the Hereford line with the old MRCC line running north and to the west of the complex of sidings. It then passed over the TVE at Trosnant Crossing on its way to Crane Street Station and Blaenavon. The third point of the triangle was to the north-east where the TVE left the Hereford line at the West Junction. The original engine shed located in the southern angle of track near Coed-y-Gric Junction was replaced gradually by a much larger series of buildings located close to the centre of the triangle of track. First a round house was built in1865 and then an additional straight shed was added to the south of it four years later. These survived until 1967. Adjacent to them lay the coal stage, greatly increased in size in 1898, and capable of coaling the largest locomotives. The sidings were extended progressively to tackle the increasing traffic. Trains were marshalled at Pontypool Road; iron and coke for Dudley and south Staffordshire, or steam coal for shipping at Birkenhead. The so-called ‘middle’ sidings handled traffic for Staffordshire, Birmingham and London, whilst the ‘Birkenhead’ sidings held traffic for Shrewsbury, Chester, Manchester andBirkenhead: the ‘east and Coed-y-Gric sidings attracted the incoming empties and goods traffic for the TVE and the western valleys via Llanhilleth.
When it opened in January 1854, the original station was located immediately to the south of the present station and the road bridge and just north of the junction of the TVE. It consisted of the Stationmaster’s House (still there) and just to the south of this a platform with offices and a south facing bay. On the west side of the main line was an island platform which served trains on the TVE. By the turn of the century the station had become congested so in 1909 it was replaced by a larger station just to the north of the road bridge on the present site. This comprised a large island platform with two inset bays, the northern one for trains to Monmouth and the southern for the TVE. The main entrance to the new station was through a plain brick building to the east of the main line and then by way of a passage under the tracks. It was approached down a sloping road running northward from the bridge over the railway as it is today.
Passenger trains started running on the Newport-Abergavenny-Hereford line in 1854 and on the TVE as far as Crumlin in 1855. It was not until 1858 that passengers could go as far as Quaker’s Yard and on the Merthyr and Swansea. Passenger travel in the early days was a primitive affair, comparative few trains reached 40-50mph and journey times were slow by modern standards. Journeys were long, and the carriages were crowed, smelly, dusty and uncomfortable. Nevertheless passenger traffic grew more rapidly than freight in the early days as rail travel was half the cost of that by road and much faster. By the mid 1850s the balance between passengers to freight was 45:55. Originally third class passengers travelled on different trains but the grow of third class train passengers from 41% in 1845 to 95% of train travellers by the end of the 19th century soon meant that all trains were made available to 1st, 2nd and 3rd class travellers.
By 1865 there were three passenger trains a day running between Swansea and Hereford via Pontypool Road as well as those from Newport. By 1913 the number of passenger trains running between Swansea and Pontypool Rd had increased to 5 although the direct connection to Hereford had been discontinued in 1873. From 1906 to 1914 a rail-car service operated between Pontypool Rd and Aberdare with three such trains per day. During the First world war there was a slight reduction in passenger trains on the TVE to Merthyr and Swansea but afterwards these continued to increase to six a day by 1921 and 8 a day by 1939. In 1927 an auto train service ran between Pontypool Rd and Oakdale until 1932 when it closed. There was also considerable excursion traffic, in summer to seaside resorts such a Barry Island and in the winter to football matches.
During the Second World War passenger services were again cut with many services being provided by auto trains. There was however, a big increase in the provision of workmen’s trains which reflected the war-time need of miners and factory workers to seek work further from their homes as mines were extended and factories developed. The frequency of these work trains also reflected the needs of shift workers. Special workers trains were also laid on to transport workers to the Royal Ordinance Factory at Glascoed. After 1945 passengers services increased again but increasingly rail passenger transport had to compete with the growth of road transport and in particular the increasing use of the car.
Although a busy passenger route, the main line of the LNWR was also a strategic freight route connecting South Wales with the English regions, in particular the transport of coal. In 1865 there were 6 coal trains per day between Mountain Ash and Pontypool Rd. By 1885 some 40 coal trains a day moved eastwards through Pontypool Rd although this number declined somewhat up to 1913 partly because of the increasing weight of trains and the use of more powerful locomotives to haul them. During the First World War 100 trains per week carried steam coal to Scotland for the Royal Navy ships from Quaker’s yard where they were assembled at Pontypool Rd before being dispatched. Between August 1914 and December 1918 nearly 5½ million tons of coal was moved along this route and in November 1918 nearly 40 extra trains carried 14,000 tons from Quakers yard in one day! The OS Map for 1920 shows a series of Admirality sidings on land which is now occupied by the Coed Camlas Housing Estate- this clearly shows the importance of Pontypool Rd in supplying the Royal Navy with coal during the First World War.
Since much of the freight traffic was coal for England, it was less affected by the General Strike of 1926 than other exports. During the 1930s the volume of traffic remained at about the same level as hitherto and Pontypool Rd continued to be an important centre for the reforming and dispatching of coal trains to England.
During the Second World War the volume of freight traffic again increased at Pontypool Rd but demand for coal was not as pressured as in the First World War as the navy was using less coal. Some idea as the volume of freight traffic coming out of South Wales can be gleaned from the following statistics. A report in June 1943 stated that during 1942 some 37,064 freight trains left South Wales; the week ending 26 July 1942 saw a record 793 trains; in 1943 the weekly average was 750. Many of these undoubtedly came through Pontypool Road. In July 1943 a new staff canteen was provided at Pontypool Rd and stocked with reserves of tinned foods and biscuits in case of air raids. Luckily Pontypool Rd did not sustain any damage from enemy bombing raids.
Pontypool Rd, because of its location on a main line and as an important marshalling point for freight trains saw a great variety of locomotive types over the years. Back in 1908 it had a ‘Duke’ and three ‘Bulldogs; during the First world war the ‘Bulldogs’ were joined by a ‘Badminton’ and by 1923 it had three ‘County’ class 4-4-0s, an ‘Atbara’, a ‘Flower’ and five ‘Saints’. The maximum number of locomotives based at Pontypool was over 100 during the First and second World wars. After the Second world War, Pontypool boasted some 18 different classes of locomotive, including its own stable of ‘Granges’, ‘Halls’, and 4300 class 2-6-0s, no fewer than 12 GWR classes were still represented in 1957, as well as ex-LMS 0-8-0s(5) and 2-8-0s(3). Even as late as 1963 the allocation comprised:
21 Pannier tanks
2 large 2-6-2Ts
In 1948 the Government nationalised the railway system as part of its drive for post-war reconstruction. In 1926 the private railway companies had been re-grouped into just 4 big companies(GWR, LMS, LNER, SR) but little investment in the railways took place in the inter war years with the exception of rolling stock. After the War the UK’s railway system was in great need of capital investment and renewal. As part of this process the Government created ‘British Railways’ operating in six regions: Southern, Western, London-Midland, Eastern and North eastern and Scottish. In 1955 plans were announced to end the production of steam locomotives and switch to diesel and electric traction although this change was not completed for another 10 years. The last British railways steam locomotive ever to be built rolled out of the Swindon Locomotive Works in 1960. It was called ‘Evening Star’ a 9F Class 2-10-0 Number 92220 which is now preserved for posterity in the National Railway Museum in York. From the moment of it being built it was earmarked to be preserved and served for only 5 years before being parked at Pontypool Rd having been chosen by Western Region staff to be preserved for posterity. A photograph of ‘Evening Star’ parked at Pontypool Rd in1966 waiting to be housed at the York Railway Museum is on the website of the Griffithstown Railway Museum.
In the post war years the railways had to face growing competition for both passenger and freight traffic. The growth of road network and the development of motorways from 1961 onwards meant that in terms of speed and cost, rail transport was losing out to road transport. The age of the car had arrived and people were now choosing to go by road rather than rail. Faced with spiralling costs of keeping the rail network going, the then Chairman of the British Railways Board Dr Richard Beeching undertook a review of the railway network and in his report of 1963 (which became known as’ the Beeching Axe’ ) proposed that one third of the entire UK rail network be closed down. This resulted in the closure of many minor, branch and rural lines and the impact on Pontypool Rd was dramatic.
After the war there had been a gradual decline in coal freight as oil based fuels gradually replaced ‘King Coal’. Although coal was still to be the primary fuel for power stations for many years to come, it was fast being replaced as a domestic fuel/heating fuel by gas and oil based alternatives. The decline in coal freight and passenger traffic resulted in the closure of the Pontypool Rd marshalling yards and depot in 1965 and the site cleared. The station was reduced in size by the removal of the island station buildings so that only the east building and an island platform was left. The railway tracks were reduced to a double mainline track so a dual carriageway could be built. The Lines up to Blaenavon and over to Crumlin were also closed about this time and today the old rail routes have been replaced by a new road network. The A4042 dual carriageway and the roundabout at MacDonald’s were built in the mid 1970s on the site of the old Marshalling yards and depot which once made Pontypool famous in the annals of railway history.
In 1993, following representations from local rail commuters and the local Torfaen Borough Councillor, John Turner, a joint funding package from ERDF, WDA and Gwent County Council was used to demolish to old station building, rebuild the frontage and convert the remaining platform island platform into a modern rail halt as it is today.
Cllr. John Turner
SCROLL TO BOTTOM OF PAGE FOR PHOTOGRAPHS
I am indebted to Martin Fay of Griffithstown Railway Museum for his help in compiling this account and for lending me the following books from which I freely took much of the information and photographs:
Jones, Gwyn Briwnant, & Dunstone, Denis, The Vale of Neath Line: Neath to Pontypool Rd, Gomer, 1996.
Gatehouse, Don & Dowling, Geoff, British Railways Pat and Present No 26 South Wales, part 1: Gwent and routes to Dowlais and Merthyr. Past & present Publishing Ltd, 1995.
Hale, Michael, Steam in South Wales: Volume Four: Monmouthshire,Oxfordshire Publishing Co, 1984.
Coles, C.R.L., On the North and West Route, Ian Allen Ltd, 1984
Lots of good photos of Pontypool Rd in its heyday.
A good photo of the restored locomotive.