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Issue 72 - The train now standing

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013

 

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The train now standing

John Hannavy explores Scotland's railway heritage

Walking along the overgrown and deserted trackbed towards the derelict platforms of Aboyne Station in Banffshire in late June 1972, my father and I were both impressed and a little surprised by just how quickly Mother Nature had started to reclaim her lands. The station had only closed to traffic a little more than six years earlier at the end of February 1966 – one of the many Scottish lines wiped off the map at the stroke of a pen by Dr Beeching – but already nature had begun to assert herself quite effectively.

The station itself was a sorry sight. All the glass had gone from the Victorian cast iron canopies over the platforms; the rails had long since been lifted and sold off; and the little wooden John Menzies kiosk, still advertising the railway’s staple delights of tobaccos and chocolates, was firmly shuttered up.

Today, more than forty years on, the picture is rather different: the trackbed is a footpath – part of the Deeside Way – and the station buildings house a variety of small shops.

The railway had first reached Aboyne in 1859 when a branch line from the Deeside Railway opened. Seven years later, the Aboyne & Braemar Railway Company extended the line to Ballater. One does wonder just how rigorous were the business plans which drove such railway developments. Was there, for instance, really enough traffic to and from Aboyne to warrant the development of the line? Certainly the original plan would have been much more profitable, but Queen Victoria put the mockers on the line’s original route being extended to Braemar as it would have had to cross her lands, and it was never built beyond Ballater. The Queen was more than happy to use the train, but she certainly did not want it coming too close to her Highland retreat. Profitable or not, it survived for a century before it felt the effect of that stroke from Beeching’s pen.
That was the pattern of railway expansion in Scotland – myriad small companies raising capital to develop relatively short lengths of line, initially to serve local interests, and later to offer connections to the growing network of main lines.

The importance of the railway in 19th and early 20th century Scotland cannot be over-estimated and, although very few of the companies which opened routes – almost one hundred and fifty of them – ever showed a profit for their investors. They were, however, central to the development of the country, linking communities and industries and, perhaps most importantly, linking Scotland with the more populous centres south of the border and opening the country up to tourism.

At the dawn of the picture postcard era in the early 1900s, railway travel was one of the first subjects to feature in beautifully tinted cards – pristine stations thronging with elegantly clad passengers setting off for their holidays, or stepping off trains as they arrived at tourist destinations like Oban, Wemyss Bay or Ayr. Those routes which had successfully made it into the twentieth century seemed, by then, so much a part of the national fabric that they might endure forever. For many others, failure had come almost as soon as laying the tracks had been completed.

Life for both the Deeside Railway and the Aboyne & Braemar Railway as independent companies proved very brief – just ten years – the routes being absorbed into the Great North of Scotland Railway Company in 1876, later itself to become part of the LNER in 1923 and British Railways in 1948.

That short life was typical of many of Scotland’s little railways – few of them lasted as independent companies into the late 1860s. The Aboyne & Braemar Railway didn’t even last that long, really. Before it was even completed, it had been leased to the GNoS, and it was their locomotives and rolling stock which worked the line from 1866.

It would seem that those with too much money in the bank were undaunted by the long list of bankrupted railway companies which could have been compiled as the Victorian era drew to a close. Some new projects, equally unlikely ever to see a profit, were still being planned in the 1890s. One of them, the Lochearnhead, St Fillans & Comrie Railway, running from Balquhidder to Comrie was not even given the go-ahead until 1897. It lasted just over fifty years, being axed in 1951, long before the days of Dr. Beeching.

One lovely reminder of its route can be found just east of the site of St. Fillans station, where an odd shaped rock was first painted by local boys in the early days of the railway to look like a crocodile. It is still regularly given a fresh coat of paint, although it is now more than sixty years since it was last looked for out of a railway carriage window.

Throughout Scotland today, there are numerous beautiful footpaths along which Victorians and Edwardians once enjoyed beautiful scenic railway journeys. There are many people still who believe that a lot of them should have been kept open, encouraging rail rather than road travel, but perhaps the good doctor could not have envisaged the growth of the motor car over the last fifty years. All he knew was that in the early 1960s, more than 35% of the Scottish network carried only 1% of the traffic!

The axing of the Waverley route to England, however, is still considered little short of an act of vandalism – by far the most beautiful route into and out of Scotland, which ran from Edinburgh Waverley to Carlisle linking Scotland’s capital directly with many of the most important border towns along the way. That closure is at least partially being reversed, with the £120M reinstatement of the Edinburgh-Galashiels-Tweedbank section. A provisional opening date planned for 2015 is still on the cards, despite rising costs.

Of course, part of the ‘magic’ of those lines is linked to the nostalgia of steam trains. A steam locomotive working hard as it made its way through the glens or across spectacular viaducts at the head of a long train, tall plumes of smoke and steam rising high above it, was an evocative sight, at least to people of my age. That tradition is kept alive on Scotland’s four steam heritage railways, the diesel-operated Keith and Dufftown Railway, and the occasional – sadly now too occasional – steam ‘specials’ which make their way up through the Highlands.

One of those steam heritage lines, the Royal Deeside Railway, is based at Milton of Crathes, west of Aboyne (where my story started), and about two miles from Banchory. Running on the trackbed of the former Deeside Railway, steam trains are operating once again on the line Beeching axed in 1966 – albeit only on a mile or so at the time of writing. The railway, however, has plans eventually to re-lay track into Banchory, giving a running length of two miles. At Milton of Crathes, they are currently rebuilding the station buildings from Oldmeldrum, the terminus on the former Inverurie and Old Meldrum Junction Railway, thus preserving them for the future. Remarkably, having been closed to passengers from 1931, and to goods trains from 35 years later, the Oldmeldrum station buildings remained in sufficiently good condition to be worth salvaging.

The Caledonian Railway, running from Brechin to Bridge of Dun, recalls one of the great names of early Scottish railways. The ‘Caley’ was one of Scotland’s ‘big four’ companies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the others being the North British Railway, the Highland Railway and the Great North of Scotland.

The Strathspey Railway, running ten miles from Aviemore via Boat of Garten and on to Broomhill, over former Highland Railway tracks, is the longest heritage line in Scotland. The line was purchased from British Rail in 1972, only seven years after closure to passenger services, and today it operates services on the most picturesque heritage route in the country – ironically hauled by former Caledonian Railway locomotive No.828, and a former Swindon-built BR Ivatt Class 2. Plans to extend the line to Grantown on Spey, mooted as far back as 2006, and currently on hold due to escalating costs.

The Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway is rather different, effectively having been built from scratch. The original Bo’ness station had closed in the 1950s – the site now occupied by a roundabout – so the Scottish Railway Preservation Society started off in the late 1970s with little more than some industrial railway sidings. Assembling buildings from far and wide, what has been created is the epitome of a Victorian Scottish branch line. The new Bo’ness station incorporates the Caledonian Railway cast iron train-shed canopy from Edinburgh Haymarket, the North British Railway station buildings formerly at Wormit at the south end of the Tay Bridge, the Highland Railway footbridge from Murthly, and the Caldonian signal box from Garnqueen South outside Glasgow. Together they constitute the most important collection of early railway buildings in Scotland. At the other end of the line, Broomhill station’s buildings were formerly at the North British Railway’s Monifieth station north of Dundee. Again, a mixture of BR and pre-BR locomotives work the line – in this case from the Caledonian Railway, LNER and British Railways.

Scottish factories built the majority of the locomotives used on early lines – with several notable makers in Glasgow, a huge loco works at Inverurie, and other smaller manufacturers. Scottish locomotive builders also supplied the motive power for railways around the world – the huge cranes which dominated the Clyde docks were especially built to life heavy railway engines into the holds of ships – and specialist manufacturers such as Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock built many of the locomotives which worked Britain’s colliery lines, dock railways, and large industrial sites. A number of these engines are preserved and operated at the Scottish Industrial Railway Centre, part of Dunaskin Heritage Centre, ten miles south of Ayr on the A713, between Patna and Dalmellington. Barclay’s powerful little engines, economic to operate and easy to maintain, provide the motive power for many of Britain’s heritage lines today.