The Old Main Line

9 & 16 March 1991

"The North Eastender" at Stanhope, WeardalePerhaps a couple of years ago, we tried to book for the "Edinburgh and the Bridges" railtour, a "125 Special" organised by Hertfordshire Railtours. Alas, it was fully booked.

In the meantime, a stretch of former North Eastern track remained an elusive objective - the "Leamside" route, the "old main line" from Tursdale Junction, Ferryhill to Pelaw Junction, about 4 miles from Newcastle Central on the Sunderland line. I booked for a trip which included this stretch about 18 months ago, but when the tickets arrived, the Leamside line was "regrettably" unavailable, as BR could not persuade signalmen to staff the boxes that day. The departure time of the trip had also been brought forward by 2 hours, making it impossible to get to New Street by rail. I cancelled!

It is BR's intention that the route will close later this year, once the East Coast electrification is completed. In March, I achieved both the above objectives, in two successive weekends - and nearly travelled through Leamside twice!

The first trip booked was a re-run "Edinburgh and the Bridges". Some time after booking, the "North Eastender" was advertised by Pathfinder Tours, to run the following weekend. Some careful negotiations with the household authorities enabled this to be booked too!

The "Bridges" trip originated at Birmingham New Street; we joined it at Water Orton, which offered easy access by car and free parking! The booklet handed out on joining stated "As an added bonus we take a diversion on the outward journey, via the Leamside line." It looked as though I need not have booked for the following weekend.......

The 125 followed the now standard route, via Sheffield and Doncaster, through York and on to Darlington, running more or less to time. Some rather sluggish running followed to Ferryhill, where we stopped briefly. Then an announcement on the public address system "Well, unfortunately BR have been unable to staff the boxes on the Leamside line, so we will be travelling via Durham after all".

Deja Vu! Was the same going to happen next week, or would it be "third time lucky"?

The route through Northumberland and over the border, across the cliff tops, is a most scenic stretch of railway, even in the thickening mist! In fact most of the Scottish part of the trip was somewhat marred by the poor visibility, never more than about 2 miles.

At Waverley station, a number of passengers detrained for an afternoon's shopping. We hardier souls remained on board for the real highlights. I tried to explain the route to my friend, who was never too hot on geography "First we cross the Forth Bridge. The second is the Tay Bridge, and the third bridge is the Forth Bridge....".

We actually left the station heading east, as we were to travel over the Edinburgh suburban line before heading for the Firth of Forth. At the north end of the bridge, we took the Dunfermline line, rejoining the normal route at Thornton North Junction. On then to Ladybank, where the left fork took us on towards Perth, joining the former West Coast route at Hilton Junction. We then followed the north bank of the Tay (though it could have been the coast - we could not see the other side) to Dundee.

Reversal here enabled the train to cross the Tay Bridge, where the stumps of the first "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay" (to quote Scotland's second greatest poet) are still a visible reminder of the "Last Sabbath day of 1879, which will be remember'd for a very long time"

We returned via the usual coastal route to Edinburgh, where just over an hour's well earned leg stretch enabled the purchase of something to read on the way back - it would be dark most of the way.

In all this was an excellent trip, despite the scotch mist, and the author's inability to find the M6 after leaving Water Orton! The 125 specials are good - well worth the trip from Shropshire.

A week later, in the company of our illustrious ex-chairman, I travelled to New Street to join the "North Eastender" for an 0712 departure. This train originated at Bristol, and followed last week's route, as far as Sheffield. Unlike the earlier trip, this one had an extra and unannounced deviation from its route - from Sheffield we took the spur to the former GCR route, then the left turn at Woodburn Junction, to run more-or-less parallel to our scheduled route, through Rotherham Central to Aldwarke Junction, here regaining the planned way north. (This was our scheduled route for the return journey.)

We continued through Moorthorpe and Pontefract Baghill to York - the route I travelled many times as a student heading for Birmingham, but now seeing only local services. Trains from the north-east to Sheffield have really had an almost incredible variety of routes in the last 20 years!

At Northallerton we descended the freight line through Boroughbridge Road, in order to gain access to the Stockton line, the former Leeds Northern Railway's route. After Stockton, the south to east link at Norton Junction gave access to the line to Ferryhill.

Mild panic now began to set in - where now? Would the signalmen once again be having a day off? I need not have worried, as we left the wires of the main line and headed at last for Leamside.

The Leamside line once was a busy route, giving access to numerous colliery lines, include the large Philadelphia system. The lines to Durham Elvet and Gilesgate crossed, and joined the line. The Bishop Auckland - Durham - Sunderland services used a short part of it, joining our route at Leamside and diverging at Penshaw, a few miles further on. The latter route was noteworthy for its use by coal trains from Philadelphia to Lambton Staithes, hauled by NCB locos such as Nos 5 & 29, the 0-6-2Ts preserved on the North York Moors Railway.

After Penshaw the line crosses the river Wear over the magnificent Victoria Viaduct - opened on her Coronation Day in 1838. At the other side of the viaduct, until 10 years ago when the works closed, iron ore trains used to diverge onto the line to Consett. The Consett route has an interesting history, being opened originally as part of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway in 1834. Between here and South Pelaw (not to be confused with Pelaw) the line was closed in 1966 when ore trains were diverted from Tyne Dock, via Gateshead. The direct link to Tyne Dock, across the famous Boldon Crossing at Brockley Whins, closed completely as far as Boldon Colliery, but the line to South Pelaw re-opened in 1973 when iron ore was brought in from Redcar. It's all gone now!

Almost at Pelaw Junction is the only bit of railway activity remaining on the whole of the Leamside line, the loading pad at Wardley, on the site of Follingsby colliery. The Freightliner terminal here is closed, and so, no doubt, will the Leamside line, no longer (in BR's view) having a raison d'etre.

We entered Central over the High Level Bridge, having raced one or two Metros along the stretch from Pelaw. Like Waverley a week previously, class 158s were much in evidence. There was just enough time for a leg stretch along the platform, before we were away again, over the King Edward Bridge, and down the main line back to Ferryhill.

Much excitement amongst the number crunchers here - what would be the assist loco? We were to be "topped and tailed" for the next five hours, for the trips to Raisby Hill and Eastgate. I can remember that it was a class 37, but which one I failed to notice. ("Diesels have numbers, have they, Steve?")

The trip to Raisby Hill is probably best described as an anti-climax. The total distance from the point of divergence from the main line, to the point where we reversed, cannot be more than a couple of miles. Highlight of the journey was probably the appearance of most of the population of West Cornforth, a small former pit village en route, to wave to the train. (Why do people wave at trains? Answers please to the editor.)

The line to Raisby Hill serves a major quarry, and is the last surviving stretch of a line which ran from Bishop Auckland to Hartlepool, crossing the main line just north of Ferryhill. Various spurs connected the routes. With the lines to Stockton and Coxhoe, as well as those already mentioned, Ferryhill must once have been a most interesting place.

After returning to Ferryhill, we continued down the main line to Darlington, where, after a short pause for reversal, we headed for Bishop Auckland and the Weardale line.

The route is of course steeped in history, being the original S&DR. It is marketed locally as the "Heritage Line" - this nomenclature applying to the whole of the through route to Saltburn, away on the Yorkshire coast. I last travelled along it in July 1984 ("North Eastern Ranger") - little appeared to have changed, that is until reaching Shildon. The works there was on the verge of closure last time; the busy sidings were now mostly gone. The biggest surprise was at Bishop Auckland.

The station here was once a fine, rambling old edifice, mostly contained within a triangle. Now it consists of a single straight platform, and a supermarket (cf. Wellington, Shrops. Same supermarket too - what have Morrison's got against railways?).

From Bishop Auckland to Eastgate is about 20 miles, being approximately three quarters of the branch to Wearhead. Closure to passengers was in 1953, and by 1968 the cement works was the limit of the rails. There were one or two other uses for the line until fairly recently, notably the ancient iron works at Wolsingham. Passenger services used the route as far as Wear Valley Junction until 1965, when the service from Bishop Auckland to Crook ended. This was the last remnant of a passenger service which, until 1939, crossed the high Durham moors to Consett, using part of the route of the aforementioned Stanhope and Tyne.

Our journey was most pleasant, following the Wear upstream and seeing the hills gradually close in to form a fairly typical (though more industrial than most) northern dale. It is fairly obvious why the Sunday passenger services, introduced three years ago, are being repeated this year. The public service extends as far as Stanhope, where the station is reasonably intact, including a fine (though totally redundant) iron footbridge. Our train ran to the cement works, then reversed back to Stanhope for a photo stop.

The highlight of the trip now being over, we ambled back down the valley and headed for home, in most timely fashion - the weather had been good, but now the clouds gathered and augured rain. One more detour was scheduled - returning down the main line to York, then by our outward route to Ferrybridge, we were to take the freight route through Knottingley to Shaftholme Junction near Doncaster. Hardly a highlight - it was now quite dark.

Disaster struck just north of Clay Cross Junction - we came to a stand at signals, and after a few minutes we were informed that there was a failure in the facing point lock ahead. The points could not be locked for the Derby line. Unfortunately our driver did not know the former Midland main line through the Erewash Valley, so we would have to stand there until either the points were fixed or a replacement driver could be found. Meanwhile the rain drummed on the roof incessantly. Our connection to Wolverhampton started to look precarious.

Nearly an hour later, after much biting of nails and consultation of timetable, we were away again, taking the Derby line - evidently the points had been repaired. Consequently we were very late at New Street - after 10.30 instead of 9.21. A Wolverhampton-bound Inter City train stood in the station, so we were soon back at the car and homeward bound.

So at last I achieved my objective, and had two excellent days out into the bargain. I'd still prefer BR not to close it though!

Footnote:- Tursdale Junction to Wardley closed to all traffic on 20 May 1991; the track is to be retained in situ for a year.

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