AVONSIDE ALONG THE AVONSIDE

By Paul Stanford


The slightly odd title encapsulates what happened in December 2001, when the Portishead branch line refurbishment undertaken by Railtrack was completed and the first ceremonial train operated. The ceremonial opening train was hauled by an Avonside Engine Co steam locomotive - Bristol built in 1917 - which was given special Railtrack dispensation to operate on the main line network for 2 days only. This article sets out events leading to and including that momentous day and the work necessary to ensure the Portishead Branch is fit for 21st century freight trains, which involved several Avon Valley Railway members.

THE BRANCH LINE

Since the end of regular freight trains in 1981 and the GWR 150 special diesel and steam trains, the Portishead branch line had seen very little use. Occasional on-track machines were tested on the line after 1985 and emergency exercises also took place on the line, as it presented a safe stretch of railway to practice emergency procedures and test equipment.

At the time of the privatisation process the line passed to Railtrack in 1994. At this point in time it was overgrown and trees were starting to establish themselves between the rails although the line was open but without traffic and relevant instructions still appeared in railway operating publications. In the late 1990's talks took place between the Bristol Port Company (BPC) and Railtrack about refurbishing the line from Bristol (Parson Street Junction) to a point west of the village of Pill, where it was agreed that a connection with a planned new docks railway system could occur. The Summer of 2000 saw the submission of the application by BPC for a Government rail freight facilities grant, with detailed supporting information from Railtrack in respect of the planned branch line refurbishment.

By Autumn 2000, the BPC has found it was to be the recipient of Britain's largest ever rail freight grant (15.6 million pounds). Railtrack was then funded by BPC and the DETR to refurbish 6.5 miles of the branch line, install a new signalling system and provide a long running-loop to pass trains in the Bedminster area.

Refurbishment works commenced in January 2001 and were complete by the end of November that year, to time and budget. A few days later, EWS Railway ran a class 60 diesel locomotive along the branch and onto the new railway system at Royal Portbury Dock. Crew training trips for EWS Railway Drivers from Bristol Barton Hill and South Wales Depot's then commenced.

PORTBURY - THE LOCOMOTIVE

The locomotive, built by the Avonside Engine Co, is owned by the Bristol City Council's Industrial Museum and was meticulously overhauled by Bristol Harbour Railway personnel and completed in 2001.  It is a small 0-6-0 outside cylinder saddle tank locomotive. As its name suggests it was built to work at Portbury, during the First World War at the War Department Shipyard. In 1922 it was transferred to the City Council's Avonmouth Docks where it worked with many sister locomotives before retirement in the early 1960s. It was then kindly given to the Bristol City Council for the projected industrial museum. It was subsequently restored to working order and operated passenger shuttle trips along Wapping Wharf in the 1990s under the auspices of the Bristol Harbour Railway. At the end of the 1990's overhaul of the locomotive then took place with completion of works in Summer of 2001, commensurate with near completion of the branch line and dock railway works. During the 1990s it carried a dark blue livery, lined in black with red buffer beams and a  black smokebox door. In 2001, however, when restored it carried the livery it wore when first built, of all over grey (including the buffer beams) and a black smokebox door. The grey is relieved by white and black lining. On either side of the saddle tank it carries the legend of its then owners I.W.& D. (Inland Waterways & Docks). An unusual but attractive livery.

Portbury number 34 stands at Parson Street station, just before its epic run to Royal Portbury with the 11.00 departure on 21st December 2001. Photograph by Paul Stanford.

The Bristol Port Company's Director of Engineering, Tony Norman suggested to Railtrack and EWS Railway personnel involved with Royal Portbury rail link project that the loco haul the inaugural passenger train following Railtrack's refurbishment of the Portishead branch line and construction of the new rail network in Portbury Dock. Both Railtrack and EWS Railway took the view the locomotive should run on Railtrack metals should it meet the relevant requirements, notwithstanding it is small industrial shunt engine never before used on the national rail network.

After much hard work by EWS, Railtrack, Bristol Harbour and Resco Railways staff, to obtain necessary certification and exemptions, the diminutive steam loco hauled the opening train on 21st December 2001, which consisted of 3 chocolate and cream MK 1 coaches. Because BHR, Railtrack and EWS personnel were unaware of the locomotive's capabilities, it undertook a complete dummy run on Thursday 20 December, which allayed everybody's fears that the engine may exhaust its water supply, develop a hot axle box or prove unable to haul a passenger train over such a long distance. The trial dispelled all fears and it is worth pointing out that the Avon Valley Railway based Avonside 0-6-0 saddle tank 'Edwin Hulse' - almost identical to 'Portbury' - should be able to comfortably cope with the shorter passenger trips on our line, given the ease with which Portbury coped on a longer run.

OPENING DAY

The special passenger train ran from Parson Street Station to a specially constructed station at Royal Portbury and conveyed  guests to the opening ceremony.

I, along with Mike Organ and several other Railtrack representives involved with the re-building of the line, along with our colleagues from EWS Railway, were invited to travel on the special train. My role in the scheme was to be the lead person from Railtrack to finalise the funding agreement with BPC, and act as sponsor to the Railtrack branch works - which dominated my workload last year!

Mike played a key part in securing the necessary safety clearance within Railtrack and associated risk assessments. He did so in conjunction with EWS Railway colleagues Simon Ball and John Green.

Portbury and its three coaches were hauled from Royal Portbury Dock to Parson Street station by an EWS class 47 diesel locomotive. The latter was then detached. and V.I.P.s then joined the train. The 3 coaches belonged to Rivera Trains - based at Crewe. They are normally used on main line steam specials, and were specially hauled to the Bristol Area on 20th December returning afterwards on a special empty coaching stock move Royal Portbury to Crewe on the afternoon of 21 December.

The locomotive was crewed by 2 Bristol Barton Hill EWS Railway Drivers, Brian Dudley Ward (Driving) and Geoff Ewens (Firing). They were accompanied by David Martin of the Bristol Harbour Railway as locomotive owners representative. At exactly 11.00 the loco gingerly hauled the train from the Up Relief Line platform at Parson Street and swung onto the new double track section and coasted down grade to the new colour light signal protecting Ashton Junction Level Crossing. Here the key token for the single line section was obtained by the Driver, and once the level crossing barriers were lowered and the signal cleared to green the train was off - Royal Portbury bound! The loco accelerated smartly and charged across Ashton Gate Level Crossing, with much whistle blowing in response to the cheers and waves from bystanders and staff from the adjacent Strachen & Henshaw engineering works.

After passing the former stations at Ashton Gate and Clifton Bridge, the engine settled to a good steady pace, albeit a distinct to and fro motion was noticeable - quite typical when industrial steam locomotives haul passenger trains. The occupants of the Police Dog Handling Centre - built adjacent to the line at Clifton Bridge station, went berserk with the trains passage - with much barking in evidence!

The building of the line in 1866.  This shot shows the line west of Clifton Bridge station, with Brunel's famous suspension bridge as a backdrop.  Photo - Colin Maggs Collection.

It was amazing to pass under the Clifton Suspension bridge to see people waving and photographing what many people thought was an impossibility - a 84 year old steam engine hauling a passenger train on Railtrack's newest old line!

The excitement was too much and I found myself forced to lean out of the leading coach window to savour the unique experience. The locomotive was generating some serious 'chimney talk' as it headed through the Avon Gorge, with the safety valves just feathering slightly indicating the locomotive and its crew were masters of the job.

Steam was shut off for the downgrade through the former station at Ham Green and then through the lengthy single bore Pill Tunnel. After exiting the tunnel, the loco accelerated again over Pill Viaduct, before shutting off steam again, with much whistle blowing to the assembled crowd of well-wishers waving from the overbridge in Pill Village.

A Diesel Multiple Unit leaves the 59 yard long Clifton Bridge No. 1 tunnel on 7th June 1960 with the 11.15 a.m. Portishead to Bristol Temple Meads.  All work on the branch has been done so as to not preclude the possibilty of passenger trains once again working on this line.  Photo - Ronald Toop.

After passing Pill platform, the loco then passed over the new junction and swung onto the brand new railway, braking to a stand at the stopboard protecting entrance to the dock estate. After the power operated security gates across the line were opened the loco moved off, under the M5 motorway viaduct and the Driver surrendered the single line token to the EWS Railway member of groundstaff. The train then snaked over the dock railway system passing through a tunnel and over several level crossings, past the many rows of import/export road vehicles that have helped make Royal Portbury Dock a success, before coming to a stand in the general rail cargo area, where a run round loop exists, with a head shunt leading toward the uninviting Severn Estuary. Fortunately a sturdy buffer stop exists, to prevent errant rail vehicles going into the Estuary. Alongside the loop line a temporary platform had been built allowing guests to disembark.

Portbury stands at Royal Portbury Dock shortly after arriving with the V.I.P. trains from Bristol. Alongside is an EWS Railway locomotive - number 66250. In the distances are the old quayside buildings at Avonmouth Dock. Photograph by Paul Stanford.

Shortly after arriving at Royal Portbury, the locomotive was returned to the Bristol Industrial Museum on a low loader vehicle - still in steam - after creating some significant history in the story of the Portishead Branch Line. The three coaches were returned along the branch line after lunch by the class 47 diesel locomotive - this locomotive having run light engine from Parson Street to Portbury, after the train crew of 'Portbury' had surrendered the electric key token at Royal Portbury Dock. Placement of the token in the instrument at Royal Portbury, then allowed the train crew of the class 47 locomotive to withdraw another electric key token at Ashton Junction for their journey along the branch.

The very first freight train over the refurbished branch line ran on 7th January 2002, conveying empty coal wagons from East Usk Yard (Newport) to Royal Portbury, hauled by locomotive 66250 complete with special headboard. Later the same morning the locomotive hauled the loaded coal wagons to Fifoots Point Power Station (Newport). The train paused specially in the Avon Gorge under the suspension bridge for me to photograph same, and for railway artist Ian Cryer to substantially complete his EWS commissioned oil painting of the first train.
Photograph by Paul Stanford, with special thanks to Tony Jameson and Driver Dennis Flood, EWS Railway.

THE FUTURE

Turning to day-to-day operations coal trains from Royal Portbury will operate to power stations in South Wales, the Midlands and Didcot. From the 3rd week of January 2002, 7 return coal trains a day started operating. Subsequently the first loaded car train operated in mid February - taking import cars to Scotland. Class 66 diesel locomotives are the usual locomotives to be seen on the branch. Train operation over the branch is daily but erratic at present, partly caused by the closure of the Power Station at Fifoots Point (near Newport, South Wales) meaning that coal train movements are reduced, albeit daily trains do run Mondays to Fridays.

Early Summer 2002 also saw the start of steel train operation, moving steel slabs that arrived by ship at Royal Portbury to the steel works at Llanwern in South Wales - these trains have generally operated overnight.

All Railtrack works undertaken on the branch line were undertaken in such a way, so as to not preclude the possible operation of passenger train service in the future. Similarly a junction was installed at Railtrack's behest at Pill, to preserve access toward Portishead. Of course, operation of a branch line passenger train service is dependent on a train operator coming forward with a wish to operate such a service. For now, the freight trains operating making a significant contribution to minimising the number of heavy lorry movements in the Bristol Area.

For the operation of steam locomotive 'Portbury' to have operated over the refurbished Portishead branch line in the 21st century is quite a feat that will probably never be repeated. The fact that it happened was due to hard work by my colleagues in EWS Railway, Railtrack, and the Bristol Harbour Railway and this article is a mark of thanks to their efforts.

Paul Stanford.

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This page last updated by Tony Wray on 10/7/2002.

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