30 Years Ago

Taking a look back at the railways scene 30 years ago.

A Look at the Railway Scene from Spring 1981

Thirty years ago, the railway was not sure which way it was heading with a Tory Government at the helm and were not fans of rail travel. The recession hit the railways hard and declining passenger and freight brought on a funding crisis which led to the Serpell Report later on. BR Managers became very inventive in keeping things going but even they could only go so far!

On the one hand, another round of Beeching cuts could have happened but conversely, modernisation in the form of electrification was gathering pace as the first generation diesels such as Deltics needed replacing. It was a fascinating but worrying time for those employed on the railways and industrial action was never far away from militant unions.

High Speed Trains had been introduced a few years earlier and the Advanced Passenger Train was always just about to be introduced, but never quite made it! However, some of its technology was used and still is today.


30 years ago the railtour scene was picking up momentum as proposed line closures and locomotive withdrawals prompted companies like John Farrow’s Hertfordshire Railtours in partnership with The Lea Valley Railway Club to make a last visit and use locomotive classes about to be scrapped.

Their sold out ‘Fenbasher’ comprised of a DMU ran on July 4 covering eight freight lines in West Norfolk and the Midlands running from St. Pancras. It visited Wisbech, Denver, St. Ives, Middleton Towers and the Kings Lynn Dock Branches. Other tours being advertised were various excursions to real ale and canal festivals! John Farrow still organises railtours today under the UK Railtours banner!

F&W Railtours planned to visit major BREL Works on several of their charters and as with John Farrow, the Woodhead route was popular given its June 1981closure date.

The Railway Enthusiasts Society Ltd ran several trains to the Glasgow Works open day in late June, one overnight and one daytime all first-class service. Derby and Crewe Works were also visited in June 1981 by special trains.

Deltic Withdrawals

The East Coast iconic Deltics were entering their last year in service after a 20 year reign on the Eastern Region. The Deltic Preservation Society requested one to pull ‘The North Briton’ charter from York to Edinburgh via Leeds and Appleby returning via Hartlepool. Deltic locomotives numbers 55005 and 55006 had already been stored at York depot. The plan was to withdraw them all by May 1982.

Two of the class, Nos. 55017 and 55011 had both set off lineside fires in the north east and were set for imminent withdrawal.

The imminent closure of the Cheddleton branch also attracted several charters such as ‘The Knotty Railtour’ in April using a DMU from Bury and the North Staffordshire Railway Co. Ltd ran ‘Churnetrail’ described as a scenic cruise train from Chester and Crewe onto the what is now a preserved line.

SLOA Purchases Pullman Cars

The Steam Locomotive Owners Association (SLOA) purchased eight Pullmans from BR and made the first run on a Cumbrian Mountain Express train on May 2 1981.

SLOA along with BR Eastern Region organised the 1981 summer steam program which included a one way steam hauled ‘Scarborough Spa Express’ running from York and Carnforth and in the return direction on alternate weekends.

The London Midland Region worked with SLOA to put on a ‘Cumbrian Coast Express’, a Cumbrian Mountain Express and the ‘North Yorkshireman’ which all commenced at Crewe.

Electrification on BR

A keen debate was underway following publication of the Electrification report written by the British Railways Board and the Government. There were different options proposed ranging from minor electrification to wiring between Edinburgh and Penzance!

The smallest option included confirming those schemes already underway such as Bedford-St. Pancras using class 317s under construction, Colchester to Norwich and Harwich plus Royston-Cambridge and other lines such as Ayr to Paisley, Preston to Blackpool.

The mid option was all the main routes from London to places such as Bristol, Plymouth South Wales and cross country routes between Birmingham to Oxford and Taunton, and Newcastle to Leeds. Much of this has been approved this year!

Option 1 covered 2580 route miles (6390 track miles), the mid option 4620/11450 miles and the top option 5750/13610 miles. The route mileage at the time was 11006 comprising of 21892 track miles.

This had been costed at around £30m a year for between 15 to 30 years and would bring big employment opportunities to the UK manufacturing industry.

East Coast Diversion at Selby

The East Coast Main Line was being re-routed 30 years ago to avoid the Selby coalfields with their subsidence problems leading to speed restrictions and expensive maintenance. The 14 mile diversion was being built at this time and the track foundation was being formed and included Junctions at Templehirst and Colton where it joined the Leeds to York line.

Last Pullman Service

BR only ran one Pullman train 30 years ago – the Manchester Pullman service. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Pullman, Travellers Fare gave every passenger a miniature bottle of Malmaison house sherry!

Lord Nelson and George Stephenson Over the S&C

SR 4-6-0 No. 850 Lord Nelson was in use on charter trains over the Settle & Carlisle line. The unique LMS Black 5 No. 44767 George Stevenson was the other engine used at this time on that route and to Carnforth.

Swanage Railway Runs Two Coach Trains

The Swanage Railway ran two coach trains using an 0-4-0ST named Richard Trevithick. At this time, the Furzebrook various sidings en-route to Motala, the current boundary with Network Rail were being used for China Clay and oil trains serving the Wytch Farm oil field.

Dorset County Council offered a lease on the trackbed to Harmans Cross some 3 miles away from Swanage but deferred a decision on the rest of the trackbed to Furzebrook pending a decision on the Corfe Castle bypass.

Branch Lines under Threat

The Eastern Region listed 34 branch lines that were in need of investment and heavy subsidy making them candidates for closure. These included all branches from Norwich, Peterborough to Spalding, Norwich and Cambridge. Newcastle to Carlisle, York and Darlington local trains were also threatened as was the Whitby, Harrogate, Skegness and Harwich branches.

The future of Cumbrian routes was also in doubt. These included the coast route via Millom and the Settle to Carlisle lines. The economics of many lightly used lines was improved with the introduction of class 140 ‘Pacers’ and other new lightweight Diesel Units which were under test and development at the time. These were needed because the first generation of railcars were now life expired having been in service for over 20 years.

The Central Wales Line via Sugar Loaf and the Cambrian Coast routes in Wales were also under threat of closure at this time. This was curious because Barmouth Bridge had only re-opened in the last week in May after major engineering works which had closed it from October 1980!

Freight branches were vulnerable as in Cornwall, the Hayle Wharves branch was at risk following withdrawal of ESSO petrol traffic. Freight facilities were about to be withdrawn from Huntingdon, Scarborough, Abergavenny, Merthyr, Neath, Nelson and Port Talbot stations amongst others.

BR Property Formed

The BRB started to privatise non operation property assets transferring them to British Rail Investments Ltd. This in turn attracted private investment and made it worthwhile to develop centrally placed freight yards in towns as office blocks.

Family Railcard Reduced

The BR Family Railcard price was reduced from £10 to £6. It was issued the previous year as an experiment. BR introduced a Disabled Persons Railcard costing £10 30 years ago. These became hugely popular and were protected by law in rail privatisation legislation 11 years later.

New Signalbox for Colchester

BR was spending £15m in the Colchester area on track and signalling renewal scheme which also included a new signalbox. Semaphores were to be replaced with colour lights and all equipment immunised against further electrification which was on the cards then.

New Signals for West of England Line

The 107 miles of line between Westbury, Exeter, Yeovil and Totnes was to be renewed at a cost of £28m Transport Secretary Norman Fowler announced. The track was to be simplified and level crossings modernised. This was the 1980s speak for a reduction in capacity! By 1987, the 43 signalboxes on the route would have been replaced by two new boxes at Exeter and Westbury. Much of this line is being resignalled again and double track re-instated!

Cardiff Concourse Renewed

BR Western announced they were to upgrade Cardiff’s concourse at a cost of £1.2m bringing better facilities for the 20,000 passengers a day that used it. This was the first upgrade for 50 years and provided a Travellers Fare kiosk and improved booking facilities.

Barry Locomotive Rescue Scheme Launched

MP Robert Adley launched a rescue plan for the 92 remaining locomotives at Woodhams Barry scrapyard. 121 had already been rescued and the MP was the figurehead for the preservation movement and the National Railway museum who joined together in this important project.

New Preserved Railways and New Scottish Steam

The Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) started steam operations 30 years ago over the last weekend in June. The Bowes Railway also opened in April 1981.

The Gloucester and Warwicks Railway purchased the Cheltenham to Milcote section of the line from BR. They were also negotiating for the Milcote to Stratford section at this time.

Romney Record?

The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway advertised ‘The Fifteen Inch Flyer’, a non-stop 28 mile run using 30 coaches and two locomotives claiming it to be the longest steam run on any preserved railway.

The Future – Maglev Trains Developed by BR

The BR Research unit at Derby was world famous for its innovation and was always let down by the Government’s lack of funding. Thirty years ago it was running an experimental MAGLEV line at Derby.

This was to be built at Birmingham Airport linking it with Birmingham International station. It was due to be opened in 1984 and ran for years until it became too expensive to maintain and repair.

Derby Research was also experimenting with hydraulic motors at this time and had fitted a former Parcels Diesel Unit with a bogie fed powered by hydraulic motors fed with engine driven pumps. The unit was named Hydra.

The APT Project

The three trial/test Advanced Passenger Trains (APT) had now completed 100,000 miles on test by the BRB announced but they also said that the project would be delayed until 1984 using APTs in regular passenger service.

The tilt mechanism was causing problems which had to be resolved along with a few niggling rubbing brake issues causing concern.

BR Surveys a Million Passengers

BR handed out a million passengers with a survey called ‘Your Future Train Service’ at 840 stations in mid 1981. It was handed out between Weymouth, Bristol, Rugby, Grantham and Ipswich. Prizes of free first class travel and a free Golden Rail holiday were on offer to those surveys returned.

North Wales Coast Gets New Trains

The Bangor-Manchester service was being upgraded from DMUs to locomotive hauled services every two hours which also cut 30 minutes off the journey time. It also increased the amount of services on the route giving an hourly service on key sections.

Humberlink Service Withdrawn

The BR run rail services connecting with Sealinks Humber Ferry were to be withdrawn because of the Humber Bridge opening. Stations affected were New Holland Town and Pier stations. The former station was to be replaced by a new one called New Holland.

Scottish Push-Pull Services Start

Express services between Glasgow and Aberdeen commenced using push-pull operation with just a few services being operated in this way to start with class 47 diesels.


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