Treasure Hunt by Simon Jones Gwili Railway Volunteer
Now what seems a long time ago in 1988 as a young sixteen-year-old I started volunteering on the Gwili. Things were very different than a newly opened extension to Llwyfan Cerrig and two coach trains being the normal service fleet comprising of the bar/buffet coach and DMU trailer car as brake coach. My roles in those early days were trainee guard/shunter, C&W and Pway. My first introduction to track laying was a week of icy conditions in Conwil with a very enthusiastic Paul Evans – fast forward to 2020 and Rob Cross has the same stamina and determination. At this time as too young to drive, I frequently had lifts from Swansea or caught the mainline train and biked with Peter Greenough. I recall Peter explaining the complex land situation at Abergwili and the uncertainty over the route or at the time whether the bypass would be built, little did I know at the time that some 30 years later Abergwili would take up a lot of my time.
There is a saying ‘never volunteer for anything’, except if most of us followed this the railway would not be here today. Some 31 years ago I also started employment with the council as a Highway design engineer and now lead up a full-time team of ten staff undertaking design, delivery and approval of a wide portfolio of projects.
Each project has its own challenges and uniqueness meaning no day is ever the same which I enjoy. Undertaking this role for council I’m aware of the large cost incurred in the preparation of civil engineering design work and how often the costs of such / design are not sufficiently challenged. I, therefore, offered to assist in any way I could with the aspirations for Abergwili Junction station. Matt Bowen and John Gurmin immediately took me up on this offer and many an evening was taken up drafting designs for the site, surveying what had been built and discussing with others their aspirations.
The small working group of Matt Bowen, James Buckley, Dewi Jones, Mike Dickinson, John Gurmin and Tony Ridgwell allowed these discussions to take place and consensus achieved. Many thanks to all these and any others engaged in this process.
Whilst we are fortunate of what appears to be a large site at Abergwili once four Mk1 length carriage sheds are placed on the plan then very little room is left to accommodate the trackwork and points to provide sidings etc. I deliberately used the term points above as little did I know at the time of the whole subject of Switches and Crossings. Double OO gauge model railways with small, medium and large points are much simpler to understand. To achieve the optimum layout it was clear that additional trackwork would be required. Note to oneself ‘never volunteer’.
Part of my Council job is undertaking feasibility studies for differing projects, this has included visits to numerous locations. On one such visit, I was very surprised to find hidden in the undergrowth a mile of bullhead rail and concrete sleepers still in in-situ.
I mentioned this find to Matt who asked if I could make enquiries with Network Rail, unfortunately, after a prolonged period with lots of discussions with different persons in NR this location is currently not an option at this time but one to keep on the radar. In the 2 year period it took for these discussions to come to these conclusions, the alternative focus was directed to privately owned sections of track.
Often whilst undertaking the design of projects we work on we refer back to historic maps to assess potential ground contamination and possible hidden structures. These maps typically are inundated with railways spiraling up every valley and massive sidings, particularly around docks.
It is hard to picture this scene now with so little remaining railway infrastructure in South Wales with most of these sidings areas either built upon or reclaimed by nature. As a result, the search for track became like a treasure hunt with snippets of information from volunteers and endless searching on Google maps.
The internet was a huge help in identifying possible owners of some locations and emails composed and sent expressing our interest. Some replies were received with disappointment and some kept the door open for when their future intentions were known not wishing to dispose of assets at this time. One of the strengths of the railway is our engagement with the community and desire to support local businesses.
This approach was supported by Mekatek Business Group, a recycling company with sites in Carmarthen and Rhymney. Whilst the Carmarthen site in the location of the old dairy site in Johnston had a siding remaining this had been ‘tramroaded’ (encased in concrete), the Rhymney site had a 500ft run-round loop and headshunt. The manager for both sites living in Ferryside had visited us with his family and supported our approach of working together in this instance a collaborative Tir-party arrangement of Mekatek, Barrett Rail Services, and us. On this basis, Mekatek was willing to donate this track to the railway. Particular mention should also be made of the adjacent Tennant in – Williams Medical Supplies for their assistance in both providing contact details for Mekatek and their cooperation during the removal process.
Plans are already in place for the rails to be used to replace original rails on our operating line with the worn rails displaced to sidings. The switches and crossings will enable new switches for Bronwydd to be assembled in the car park in advance and then thanks to the new crane, the old switch craned out and new installed as a single operation. Another switch from the same location will be used at Abergwili to provide a further southern headshunt towards future Dando Phases 2 & 3. This arrangement at Abergwili will not only provide much needed additional storage space for rolling stock but will also make required shunting movements much easier and quicker.
Although initial discussions with Network Rail regarding the branch previously referred to was not successful, further discussions are continuing with the contacts established during the inquiry. These discussions were taken with an offer to the Materials Recovery Depot at Westbury. Here Peter Nicholas and I met by Jason Weetman and Ben Oakley who showed us around the facility with recovered items arriving by both rail and road. All materials that arrive at the depot whether surplus from renewals or the original materials that were being replaced are dismantled and graded. Some of the materials stockpiled would be suitable for the lower speed operating line that we use and we hope that once Covid restrictions are relaxed Network Rail Materials Recovery Team can visit us for further discussions on how we can work together/support each other for the benefit of the local community and rail industry as a whole.
Similarly, with Transport of Wales taking over maintenance and operation of the Cardiff Valley Lines positive discussions have taken place with them regarding similar ventures and will update you all when confirmed positive news is known.
There are further inquiries that are ongoing in respect to the few private branch lines/sidings remaining in the Wales and Borders area but naturally at this stage wish to keep these locations secret.
Many of the discussions would not be possible without the assistance of Barrett Railway Services and we are grateful for their help in arranging the lifting and specialist transport of track acquired.
Track donation update…
We are pleased to announce a substantial donation of track materials by DB Cargo from their Burrows Yard in Swansea.
Burrows Yard located adjacent to the A483 Fabian Way used to be one of 3 substantial marshaling yards for Swansea Docks. Now the sole survivor it too is substantially smaller than its original layout with only 5 roads retained for operational use. Extensive remodeling over the years had changed the original layout but retained a link to the Ford factory.
With the closure of this factory, this link was truncated east of Gower Chemicals warehouse (former Rhondda & Swansea Bay Railway engine shed) to allow the new Ffordd Amazon road to be built. Nature started to hide the retained part of this link now effectively a siding. From its previous use as a much larger Yard, the first section of the siding had numerous switches affording access to numerous other storage sidings once no doubt full of coal wagons. Whilst the sidings had been lifted the key parts of switches and crossings remained inside. Many of these switches are original GWR components including a loose heel 3 way switch destined for reuse at Abergwili. When alongside Fabian Way the bullhead rail changes to a flat-bottomed section. With dwindling supplies of bullhead rail and sleepers, we like many other heritage railways will have to use the flat-bottomed rail on future extensions with bullhead ideally retained within station limits where most visible and this donation will enable us to get up to speed with installation and maintenance of flat-bottom before wider use.
What is the track going to be used for?
The gifted track has been assigned for replacement of worn rails on the current operating line, much needed extra siding capacity at Abergwili and for the Conwil extension.
Over the coming months, the switches and crossings will be resembled to identify what elements are missing and determine how many sleepers will need replacement before being stacked for ease of loading. If you are good at jigsaw puzzles and enjoy fresh air please get in touch with Rob Cross.
Whilst we are extremely grateful to DB Cargo as a company, we would also like to thank in particular Charlie Swanson, Paul Cleverdon, and Steve Weston for their personal assistance in making this donation happen.
Whilst all track donations are gratefully received, costs are incurred in arranging dismantling and transport to Carmarthen. The majority of our fundraising is for locomotives we now ask that if you feel you would like to contribute towards the cost of transport of these track materials this would be welcomed by the Board. Further donations have been discussed so future updates will be posted to social media so please watch this space.