The Branch Line Society


Pontypool & Blaenavon Director
Saturday 19th March 2016

All photos © Simon Mortimer, unless otherwise stated

This joint railtour with KEG began as a simple query, 'when do you run to Coed Avon?', sent to the P&B last year just after news filtered though of opening (11 Sep 2015) of the ¾-mile extension south. Then the casual supplementary, 'who is in charge of charters on the P&B?' which was replied to within minutes! Dialogue began with Alex at the P&B and perhaps, as is typical in these digital days, a text and email exchange followed over the months without speaking until a week before the event, when everything had already been arranged!

At 1,305ft above sea level Alex from the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway whistles as Simon Mortimer, the event organiser,
hands him a cheque for £1,235. For the few of you who do not know, Simon is the one on the left.
[© Kev Adlam 2016]

Beginning with a plan to run to Coed Avon and other extremities, various track orientated targets such as the over bridge route towards Big Pit were gradually added. Similarly, starting with one Directors' Saloon for 30, the second saloon was soon added as numbers approached 60 and Alex suggested a brake van too as nearly 70 was reached. This resulted in a unique train here, and possibly anywhere, of a GER Directors' Saloon with a GWR Inspection Saloon and BR (SR) Shark. Despite appearances the latter was actually the most comfortable option with its working stove! Similarly, refreshments began with tea and coffee and ended up as a set meal of soup, sandwiches, cake, and tea or coffee. This gave Furnace Sidings station buffet a thorough pre-season run; it was certainly very efficient and friendly.

This tour was slotted in between (significant) winter track works and Easter, the start of operation for 'normals', the weekend after. This resulted in many 'firsts' and much rust removal; most of the railway had not seen a vehicle turn a wheel for several months. On a dry but chilly morning, 68 BLS members and two locals who came along to see what was going on and decided (when your organiser described what was about to happen) to join the trip themselves, piled on board the train. Motive power was Hudswell Clarke D1344, a 1965 built 0-4-0DH with a 255hp Cummins NHS6 engine from Shirebrook Colliery. It was saved from the cutter's torch on at least one occasion with only days to spare! The other loco, 1960 Hunslet Engine Co, Leeds built 5511 is an 0-6-0DM. It is something of a transition in their evolution, the first mid-cabbed design with the longer bonnet being counter intuitively 'No2 end'.

5511 was put into gear, actually its only gear and the tour set off 'top and tail' up/Up (in both senses of the word) to Whistle Inn. The pace was such that some furious hand gestures and radio calls soon had 1344 assisting from the rear, and not for the last time on the day. Some PW trolleys were passed under test on the line, which has a conveniently stiff gradient that match NR test criteria. They are from a local engineering firm who use the line many times a year for testing and training when there are no passengers about, a good source of income. The train kissed the buffers beyond the platform at the summit (1,305ft) of the line and set back to the platform for photos. Then there was a ceremonial cheque presentation to the P&B in front of the station name board, which was a bit of a stretch and surely tested the physical if not financial integrity of the cheque! Back down the gradient 1344 drew the train into the loop (right) at Furnace Sidings pausing to refill the radiator. Some coolant had boiled off earlier, with a steamy shroud that would have put any of the line's real steam locos to shame.

The tour visited Big Pit, gently compressing the loco's buffers against the end of line stops before dropping back a little for more photos and another posed headboard moment. The headboard spent most of the trip attached to the GER Saloon as neither loco has a bracket. As we descended from Big Pit, attention and discussion in the cab focused on the stock blocking the over bridge route and what could be moved for later on. The train reversed, requiring two staff to 'bar' the points across and much oil (these being the only points now without a ground frame), over the very rarely used bottom end of the loop, back onto the main line which had been re-commissioned just a week before. This was beyond a section of track only re-laid a fortnight earlier with significant layout alterations. Our tour was the first train over these reinstated sections that are so rarely used that even the driver who had been visiting the railway since he was a boy said that this was his first traversal! Down the hill we positively bowled along, probably occasionally reaching double digits before slowing for our fixer and 'Mobile Operations Manager' Alex to descend and use the newly installed ground frames.

Our most unusual train at Big Pit, end of line. Behind the rear engine, to the right of the yellow '15' speed restriction sign is the Thomas Ness
Tar wagon referred to later in the report. The loco is in disguise; apparently, it had actually worked in the NCB Staffordshire area!
[© Philip Cartwright 2016]

The railtour was the first train to use the new run-round loop at Blaenavon High Level; a redundant suffix as the GWR Low Level is now under a block of flats! Leaving BHL some were on new metals, the ¾-mile south extension to Coed Avon. Conveniently, the original line was built for double track but never had more than one north of Abersychan & Talywain until now; there is a railway track and an adjacent cycle track! Approaching the 'Stop Board' Alex announced the tour had dispensation to pass it and kiss the stops before a photo stop at 13.44. A large group assembled at the southern head of steel and photographed and in turn were photographed, with the train. The railway and local council plan to extend further south, moving the cycle way to one side, as was done from Blaenavon HL to here.

The tour at the south end of Blaenavon High Level station leaving the new loop, to run onto the new extension.
Note the degree of rust on the tracks, and that the Varteg Road underbridge ahead has been replaced for the
reinstatement of passenger services. Originally built for double track (which was never installed) the right hand
bridge is now used by the 'Pontypool Blaenavon Cycle Track' which is part of Sustrans Route 492.

The south end of Furnace Sidings Loop looking south. The branch up the incline (right) is to Big Pit and the single line in the middle is to Blaeanavon HL and Coed Avon. Left are the recently lifted low level sidings where a new carriage shed is to be built; their direct connection to the running line is (temporarily) severed. The associated connection to the track the tour is on (behind photographer) was plain lined permanently over winter. Fresh ballast can be seen on other pictures.

The new south end of line, beyond the stop board, at Coed Avon.

It was now uphill all the way to Furnace Sidings, initially an easy grade to BHL for a platformed stop to visit the museum in the station building. The local railway expert and curator had kindly opened especially for us, just like everything else! Many scenes from what now seem like another planet were viewed. The scale and complexity of the railway network, which at its zenith was quite bewildering, were perused and discussed. It principally carried coal to Cardiff and the world and served some local ironworks. Now the big haul up the bank including a 1:28 was in prospect and 5511 in the lead took our 80 tons with perhaps 5 tons of passengers out of BHL. It steadily hauled the tour up the bank; on the stiffest part of the gradient the train was barely moving but it was confirmed in the cab that this was maximum speed! 1344 assisted, the tour grinding into Furnace Sidings two hours after leaving.

Then it was 'cut!' as a director would say. Lunch ensued, a queue of keen diners forming out of the doors as the cold had sharpened their appetites and, not least, that of the crews who had spent much of the time throwing points and other manual tasks. They did not linger, as the buffet worked through the queue, returning to detach the saloons and leave the brakevan on 1344. Meanwhile Class 31 D5627 fired up clearing the wagons from the main yard road (bonus 'cabage' and yardage for some!).

Back at the station, the first party crammed onto the Shark sharply; it must have had at least 30 on board. The tour set off through the yard past the original NCB shed and the distinctive landmark concrete water tower of the former colliery washery. Then to the recently rebuilt overbridge (since our 20 May 2012 visit) to a 25-ton axle load. Crossing the line to Blaenavon was the highlight of the day for many; rust was audibly ripped from the rails as the train docked with a 1939- manufactured tar wagon from Thomas, Ness Caerphilly tar works. It looked as though it had spent most of its subsequent life rooted to this spot! Most of the lower level sidings here had been recently lifted (and their direct running line connection severed) ready to build an extensive carriage shed, funded by a legacy.

A wheelset on the train showing rust on the wheel tread picked up from the rail during the rust scraping exercise to the end of the line at Blaenavon High Level.
[© Geoff Noakes 2016]

Returning to Furnace Sidings, a swap was made for another crush load and the initial party chosen in part for their intention to continue to Newport MES bade a grateful farewell to our hosts who reciprocated their enjoyment of the day and asked us back, perhaps when they had extended again. They also volunteered to clear out the whole yard! For many pictures see

The second trip repeated the run over the bridge with bonus track in the brakevan and the cab of the 31 shunting the stock for those not needing to make a sharp exit. A future chance to return will certainly be kept in mind! For those unable to make this tour, the P&B's new extension is now in regular use by service trains (BLN 1246.2180). They generally run south through Blaenavon HL nonstop, reverse at Coed Avon (non-alighting) and call at Blaenavon HL on their return.

TOP LEFT: Coed Avon, the new end of line, the tour is about to pass the 'Stop Board' non-stop.
TOP RIGHT: The afternoon brakevan trip; Furnace Sidings HL Yard through line and the loco shed.
BOTTOM LEFT: Then crossing over the line to Blaenavon HL (paradoxically at the lower level off left). The Thomas Ness tar wagon from Caerphilly Works can be seen ahead, just to its right can be made out the passenger running line to Big Pit (the lines not connected).
BOTTOM RIGHT: Looking back from the bridge in the other direction to HL Yard. The lifted Low Level Yard ran from where the man in a high viz vest is standing, down behind the fence to join the running line distant left. (Furnace Sidings loop top left; the station is round the corner.) Looking north towards Whistle Inn.

Thanks to BLS and KEG member Simon Mortimer for all the splendid arrangements, a very interesting and enjoyable visit. For 54 pictures of the fixture and further information, see .

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