The Branch Line Society


Cornwall STP Tracker, Day 1
Wednesday 11th July 2018

Report by Neil Greenwood

Our two day Cornwall STP Tracker was really a four day marathon for half of the 10 members. The Night Riviera on Tue 10 Jul saw four 'BLSers' board the 23.45 Paddington to Penzance Night Riviera 'sleeper' service collecting more at various points, particularly Plymouth (one had 'done' Devon the day before), on the way to St Erth, the start of our two day event. The two coaches of Standard Class seating accommodation (one 1+2 seats) are at the country end with a buffet and sleeping lounge car. Shunting it is the main function of Long Rock's Class 08 now. Well priced advance tickets are available for the seats from GWR's website, for example Paddington to St Ives (305 miles) for only £24 - railcard £15.80.


The objectives over the two days were to cover all available passenger track in Cornwall, cover all the platforms at Plymouth (for the purpose of our tour, an honorary enclave of Cornwall), stop at all the 'request' stops and all other platforms in the county. This was a pretty tall order to achieve in just two days, especially when you consider that some of the rare moves only occur once or twice a day. The idea for this event, on the back of our previous service train trackers, came from Mark Haggas, a distinctive Fixtures Team member regularly to be seen stewarding at Society events. It was planned over many months (including even a trial run by Mark) requiring the high summer mid week timetable.

BLN 1308.1445 had the full plan. First it was the 07.59 from St Erth (bay P3 - which is to be realigned to allow widening of the narrow platform that becomes very congested at times). This stops at all stations (most trains don't) to St Ives and, on return, in the absence of main line connections continues to Penzance. It is one of only two trains a day to do so, covering the branch link to the station and then the trailing crossover to the Down Main. The St Ives branch opened in 1877 and was the final new 7' 0¼" broad gauge passenger railway to be constructed in the UK, except for at Didcot Railway Centre!

A British Telecom livery DMU leaving Lelant for St Ives, the 'fumes' were fairly typical at that time when the first generation DMUs were very worn out.
[© Ian Mortimer 19 Sep 1985]

A third rail was added to the southern section for standard gauge goods trains to access Lelant Wharf. The final broad gauge service ran on the line on 20 May 1892. During the hour layover in St Ives, Mark took every opportunity to advertise that the BLS was 'in town' while a couple of participants opted for mileage accumulation with two extra return journeys as there were plenty of options in the plan.

Back in Penzance several moves were made up the line and back covering all the platforms except P2 and to unusually sample a Voyager and an HST stopping at Hayle, which is mostly served by local trains. Mark pointed out that the recently opened Asda supermarket here is the only one in the UK to have the 'ASDA' building logos in stainless steel rather than the usual green after the locals complained it was too garish for Hayle! It also has the 'welcome' signs in English and the Cornish language too. Kernow a'gas dynnergh! At St Erth, the appropriately named Branch Line Café was sampled by some.

The next objective was the Looe branch and to visit Coombe Junction Halt which has two trains each way (SuX), or around 1,240 per year, as most reverse just short of the station. Interestingly whenever a train goes to Looe, the junction itself has to be reset for the Liskeard to Moorswater line. The halt serves Coombe and Lamellion villages, 212 passengers were documented for 2016/17 - so about 6 trains have to call for one passenger to alight or join. However, this compares with 48 passengers in 2015/16. In 2008 Coombe Junction Halt became one of only two national network stations to officially have the suffix 'Halt', the other being St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, on the same branch. The term 'Halt' was previously removed from BR timetables and station signs by 1974. During the course of the trip all four request stops were called at - the other three have around 1,500 passengers per year and Looe itself 123,000. As an alternative to time off in Looe, most opted for a second return trip on the branch.

In Apr 1976 all trains to/from Looe reversed in the platform at Coombe Junction which was then fully signalled, even with its own signal box. The single unit 'bubble car' is on the dead end passenger line (buffer stops behind the camera); the signal shows that it is going to Looe. On the right was the separate line to Moorswater, then dispatching China clay by rail.
[© Ian Mortimer 1976]

On 23 Jan 1977 another bubble car is at a very wet Looe looking north towards Liskeard.
[© Ian Mortimer 1977]

At Liskeard, due to the significant lateness of the next connection for the Newquay branch, some 'on the fly' planning took place and it was decided to go to Gunnislake instead and do Newquay next day. A quick run to St Austell on an HST (where, to be fair, a road connection was provided for the 'normal' passengers who had missed the Newquay connection at Par) neatly slotted into another HST back, this time to Plymouth. Bay P3 was done on the 18.17 all stations DMU to Liskeard (with few passengers) which took the group to Devonport where there was just a five minute wait for the Gunnislake train. Although the branch service is vastly improved on years ago, the 16.35 from Plymouth is probably too early for most in employment and the 18.23 a bit late. Incredibly one participant lives at Bere Alston on the branch and had only joined the Society the week before, so this was his first event with us!

Okehampton to Plymouth, along with the Callington branch (which actually terminated at Kelly Bray!) from Bere Alston were listed for closure in the original 1963 Beeching Report. However, due to the lack of road bridges over the River Tamar, British Rail found it impossible to provide replacement bus services and the branch was reprieved to Gunnislake when the rest to Callington CP from 7 Nov 1966. Branch trains ran through to Plymouth after Bere Alston to Okehampton (both excl) CP from 6 May 1968, so 2018 has been the 50th anniversary of this. Trains for Gunnislake must collect the branch train staff from a secure cabinet on the platform at St Budeaux Victoria Road before proceeding, as the line is operated on the one train working principle with only a single unit allowed on the branch at a time.

The staff has to be returned to the cabinet on the return journey before the unit can enter the main line. The run is fast on the ex-main line former double track section with much continuously welded rail and some impressive river bridges (hence the line's survival). The disused, but connected, strategic standard gauge sidings (TRACKmaps Vol 3 p8C, Aug 2010) can be seen at Defence Munitions Plymouth, Ernesettle Naval explosives and ammunitions depot. They include a blast wall at the transshipment point - but the once extensive internal narrow gauge system that also ran on the pier has long gone.

There is a small railway museum, the Tamar Belle, (visited by the Society 22 Jun 2013) by Bere Ferrers station with B&B available in LNER carriages (£20 a night self catering; £25 with breakfast and £35 also with a 4/5 course evening meal in the dining car - what are you waiting for?). The restored Southern Railway type box has a large 'Beer Ferris' nameboard (the older name) to check who is awake.

After reversal at Bere Alston, where the conductor operates the ground fame, a completely different world is entered. If anyone only does one branch line in their life this should be the one! Originally built as a 3' 6" gauge mineral line from Calstock Quay on the north bank of the Tamar to 'Kellybray', (sic) later 'Callington Road, then 'Callington', the line was converted to standard gauge and connected to the national network by a new line just south of Gunnislake to Bere Alston in 1908. The section to the quay was abandoned. The gradients are steep and there is hardly a straight section of track on the circuitous 4½ mile branch (which takes nearly 20 minutes to traverse) and is mostly jointed track.

Maximum line speed is 20mph with two sections of 15mph and another two of 10mph. Two open crossings require the train to stop, sound the horn loudly (no doubt the locals are used to it) and proceed with extreme caution. The 120ft high graceful Calstock Viaduct is spectacular with wonderful views and again there is no equivalent road, another reason for the line surviving despite high losses. Many make the trip from Plymouth just for the views. The branch is included in both the Devon and Ride Cornwall Day Ranger tickets. Incredibly the service has improved to two-hourly from 05.00 (06.40 SO) until 19.00, with a late return trip from Plymouth at 21.31. There are even six return trips on Sundays throughout the year now. There was a brief stop at the second Gunnislake station which opened in 1994 with 52 car parking spaces when the line was shortened slightly to save the cost of replacing an 'unsafe' very low bridge beyond over the A390. It had 54,500 passengers in 2016/17 and the platform which can accommodate a 4-car DMU is twice as long as at Calstock (35,348 passengers). The group returned to Plymouth to stay the night having completed a very enjoyable sociable first day.

April 1971, a very early picture from Ian Mortimer's collection. A DMU at the very run down Okehampton (P3!) then the terminus of passenger services from Exeter. Ian actually used this normal service train to return from a walking holiday on Dartmoor. It was reportedly then averaging 50 passengers a day including a handful of season ticket holders and was withdrawn from 5 Jun 1972.
[© Ian Mortimer 1971]

Tue 10 Jul 2018 at London Paddington P1 and 57605 in on the 23.45 Night Riviera sleeper train to Penzance which left on time.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

321 miles later St Erth was reached at 07.51 next day, note the signal (right) for movements from P2 over the trailing crossover in front of the train.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

A train leaving St Ives for St Erth.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Our Illustrious organiser at St Ives with an extra large ticket (and not a guided busway in sight!).
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

The 06.26 from Plymouth forming the 09.35 to Manchester is at the buffer stops (far end) of the rare Penzance P4 outside the main train shed (on the right). A NR measurement train was stabled in the 'Oil Sidings' (left).
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

37612 was on that train; the Atlantic Ocean can just be glimpsed background left.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Train leaving Liskeard towards Plymouth with the connection to the Looe branch used by ECS and cement trains going off to the left.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Liskeard bay P3; Looe train, the driver is on the right and the senior conductor left (there was no junior conductor). Unfortunately, as can be seen, the windows of the DMU were very dirty.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Look who has popped up again at Looe! The facilities have definitely improved since Ian Mortimer's Apr 1976 picture earlier (as well as the number of trains and passengers - both considerably).
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

On the platform at Coombe Junction Halt, some of the participants.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Looking north towards Moorswater where a cement train arrived from Aberthaw the following day.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Plymouth bay P3 with the 18.17 all stations train to Liskeard; our ubiquitous organiser chats to the driver. Right was former P2 (now 'Dock 4' and not used for passenger services). Once they were both through platforms and there was also a north Down side bay P1 (now trackless).
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Reversal at Bere Alston, the conductor operates the Ground Frame at the end of the platform. Left is to Plymouth; right is the 1970 connection to Gunnislake (previously Callington/ Gunnislsake trains ran from the third platform far right behind train). When the train is on the branch the points are left set for its return.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Looking north towards Okehampton (one day!) the ex-Southern Railway double track Plymouth main line. Pre-1970 the branch connection was this end.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

Gunnislake: the 19.09 arrival ex-Plymouth (1994, second station) forming the 19.13 return as much of the nation were preparing to watch the England V France World Cup semi final.
[© Neil Greenwood 2018]

1961 Seventh Series composite 1" OS map, Bere Alston is bottom right, the original station is shown as Gunnislake, the 1994 one is the other side of the A390 bridge which was removed. The original 9½ mile branch terminus of Callington (in Kelly Bray) was top left.

Calstock Viaduct (River Tamar), the village is on the right.
[© Angus McDougall 12 Sep 1987]

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