The Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway brought stirring sights and amazing sounds of hard working industrial steam during its September 17-18 Autumn Gala.
The ‘Industrial Steam of South Wales’ event could surely not be held at a more appropriate location than the heritage line at Blaenavon, overlooked by the winding gear of Big Pit coal mining museum, to produce this tribute to the locomotives which once served the collieries and steel works of the South Wales valleys.
The P&BR operates on tracks which carried passengers up the valley until 1941, but was primarily aimed at transporting coal (which it continued to do until 1980) amid a rugged landscape steeped in industrial history.
Recent years have seen the line develop substantially with the help of significant grants. Its initial running line from a compound based around an old coal washery complex at Furness Sidings up a steep gradient to Whistle Inn was extended last year when the line down to Blaenavon High Level station was opened.
The new station building at Furness Sidings (which also now has two platforms linked by a foot bridge) was commissioned in time for the event with a booking office, shop and refreshment room operational, although the building is not yet fully finished.
The first day of the September gala confirmed further expansion with the opening of a branch from Furness Sidings to Big Pit Halt. A new platform and waiting shelter adjacent to the car park of the mining museum is under construction but was not quite ready for the September 16 opening, hence a temporary scaffolding platform was erected for use by passengers. The branch in itself is operationally interesting – its comparatively short length including a descent and sharp climb. Link this with the severe uphill gradient the entire length of the main line and you have significant audio entertainment to supplement the stirring sight of hard working steam!
Three guest locomotives were signed up for the gala. Heading the field in size and power was the awesome Peckett 0-6-0ST Mardy No. 1 from the Elsecar Heritage Railway. Nicknamed ‘The Mardy Monster’ from its industrial days at Maerdy colliery in the Rhondda Valley this amazing machine was the most powerful industrial steam locomotive ever built in Britain – its 2,9527lbs of tractive effort at 85% efficiency is comparable to a BR 7F. In preservation, the nickname has become enshrined in its Mardy Monster nameplates.
What a shame that such memorable sights and sounds on the first two days from the mighty Monster as it blasted up the steep gradients overlooked by Big Pit colliery (and one-time performer on the line, Andrew Barclay 0-4-0ST Blaenavon Co. Ltd. Nora No. 5 awaiting the day it might be restored to steam) were brought to a premature end on the Sunday morning when an eccentric rod came adrift and bent, causing it to be failed and in need of rescue from Blaenavon High Level station.
Also visiting the gala was Peckett 0-6-0ST Sir Gomer from the Battlefield Line, its major overhaul having been completed just a few weeks prior to the event. The third guest was Peckett 0-4-0ST Whitehead (1163/08) from the Midland Railway – Butterley. A lovely locomotive, dwarfed by the Monster – and Mk 1 carriages!
The steam fleet numbered five in all, the visitors joining Blaenavon resident RSH 0-6-0ST ‘Austerity’ 7169/1945 ‘Mech. Navvies Ltd.’ and Bagnall 0-4-0ST H.M. Dockyard Devonport No. 19 (2962/1950) which is on hire at the P&BR from the Bodmin & Wenford Railway.
All passenger trains on the Blaenvon High Level to Whistle Inn main line were worked with top and tail steam. Locomotives periodically rotated duties, with steam also working the Big Pit branch. Trains on the latter employed a DMU (not under power) as the passenger vehicle. As befits a gala celebration of industrial steam, periodic steam-hauled freight operations were slotted between passenger services over the Furness Sidings to Whistle Inn section.
The final train on the Saturday and Sunday ran double-headed plus a banking locomotive to produce an astounding sensory display. Sadly, on both occasions the performance took place amid driving rain!
That said, as those involved in the Sunday effort (Whitehead and ‘Mech. Navvies Ltd.’ on the front and H.M. Dockyard Devonport No. 19 on the tail) dropped down the line to High Level, the consist was beautifully illuminated by a shaft of sun and framed by a rainbow which had followed the previous rain squall. Memorable in its own way to close an outstanding weekend!