ABERBEEG

After completing the BR management training scheme in April 1964, my colleague, Stan Judd, and I appeared before the Cardiff Divisional Manager, Bob Hilton, who informed us that he intended to appoint us to two stations in the Western Valley pending the replacement of the Yard Managers, Shedmasters and Stationmasters by a Western Valley Area Manager some ten months hence.  The two vacancies, for some months covered by Relief Stationmasters, were at Ebbw Vale and Aberbeeg.  

We were a shock to the system.  Two Londoners, in their mid-twenties, dropped into a Welsh Valley previously used to a succession of Welshmen in their sixties.  Doubts were openly expressed as to whether we would cope.  The only digs we found and shared were at the Hanbury Hotel, abutting the Webb Brewery in the V junction of the valley overlooking the small yard, junction signalbox and station at Aberbeeg.   Any attempt at sleep was abandoned until after midnight when the last raft of coal empties for the early morning trip to Marine Colliery was safely berthed in two portions in the little yard, until the clanging of buffers ceased and until we were convinced they were not ‘off the road’ again !

The passenger service had been withdrawn a year or so previously and the track layout around Aberbeeg rationalised and the stations left to rot.  My office was in the middle of the V shaped station between the branches to Ebbw Vale to the West and Abertillery and Brynmawr to the East.  The office was dingy, lit by gas mantles, with two buckets strategically placed on the floor to catch the drips from the incessant rain through the leaky roof.  The telephone was archaic, hung on the wall (until one evening a spectacular lightning strike surged through the power lines and it exploded into myriad fragments).  Filing appeared to be by carbon copied memos speared onto a forbidding looking spike on the desk.

My pessimistic encounter with the office environment and systems was countered by the way I was welcomed by the 70 operating staff outside.  Charlie Sargeant, Secretary of our LDC was a signalman in the Junction (Middle) Box, (?Jack) Shepherd his burly mate and Relief Signalman Terry (?Jones, Vincent - my memory is getting bad), the Trade Union organiser, were superb and shared their problems and ideas in a constructive and enthusiastic way.  I was encouraged to instigate a number of changes to improve the working and their lot, a win/win situation, which bolstered my credibility with both the staff and the Divisional Office and I started to spend long periods tramping around my territory, getting lifts from our local pannier tanks and occasional new 1750 hp English Electric diesels (later class 37) which were infiltrating from their Newport Ebbw Junction home.

My southern border started under the impressive Crumlin Viaduct and included the derelict station at Llanhilleth and the colliery which were under the watchful eye of Charlie Corfield, my Inspector there.  Charlie supervised the workings there so efficiently that I soon learned to leave things in his capable hands.  Llanhilleth station was a mess, the only resident being a large and vicious ram which later was the inspiration for a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ video (our railway had permanent trespassing sheep - there was no point in stopping trains to warn of animals on the line).  This ram appeared to have the old waiting room at the station as its residence and one day Charlie went in to shoo it away, when he slipped on loose floorboards disturbed by vandals, and being a large and heavy man, unfortunately fell through and broke a leg.  This accident gave rise to a Court case for compensation, when BR’s lawyers tried to argue against my advice that he shouldn’t have entered the room, whilst I maintained he had a perfect right, and indeed duty, to protect our property from marauding animals.  I don’t think my evidence was very popular with our lawyer and I’m glad to say Charlie got his compensation.

The main activity centred around Aberbeeg Yard and Engine Shed.  At that time there were still six working collieries in the area and the provision of empties to the colliery sidings was made by the Aberbeeg trip engines, by May 1964 predominantly Class 37s, although we still had two Churchward 2-8-0 tanks, 5214 and 5218, to cover our 08.00 ‘anywhere’ turn, used to mop up variations in coal production, and stand by for diesel failures.  The loaded coal trains made their way down the valley to Rogerstone Yard, still under the iron grip of a Welsh Yardmaster who viewed our goings on with considerable suspicion.   Our engines and Aberbeeg men would return with empties from Rogerstone, or even East Usk if they managed to slip past the Rogerstone border controls, and bring them up to our yard for breaking down into manageable loads on the fierce gradients to Marine or Six Bells Collieries.  We had a fleet of pannier tanks -  the preserved 9682 was one of them - and three 94XX (9493-5) for banking the heavy coal and ore trains up the five miles to Ebbw Vale steel works, and for shunting the yard between turns.  One of my first managerial actions was to replace our 350hp diesel shunter, which spent most of the day idling, by a steam banker awaiting its next turn, a move so obvious that the staff had no argument about the loss of a turn and the Divisional Office rejoiced because they’d been trying to persuade my predecessor to give it up for years.  I was therefore uniquely congratulated in the post ‘Stanley Raymond’ era for replacing diesel with steam traction (for a few months anyway) !

 

Stan and I shared ‘on call’ duties for the Western Valley from Crumlin northwards in the days before mobile phones and bleepers which meant we were tied to the valley for a week at a time, one or other of us escaping alternate weekends on the ‘Jones’ bus (never the Western Welsh option) and the main line to London at Newport.  Minor derailments were common - the 37s were a nasty shock to the local S&T lineman whose maintenance of signals and points had to cope with constant colliery subsidence.  It was apparently very common for a steam engine to mount the guard rails at points and either drop back on again or be swiftly rerailed with ramps from the yard without bothering the Newport breakdown gang.  The diesels had a habit of splitting the points and derailing a bogie and we only tried driving it back on with ramps once.  The damage to the under bogie traction motors was not well received.

I had a propensity to invite call outs for some reason - indeed during our stay, Stan was only called out three times, while I had sixteen emergency calls.   Within days of my arrival, a diesel and the Guinness tanks from the brewery were on their side fouling three of the four lines approaching Aberbeeg Junction (shades of ‘Whisky Galore’) and I had to open up single line working over a complex junction layout with red-padlocked points now out of use littering the remaining single line open.  Charlie Sargeant saw me nervously looking at the mess and said ‘Follow me, boss, stick this red armband on as pilotman, and do what I say’.   We never looked back.  

During one night of torrential rain, I was called out to an earth slip opposite Marine Colliery on the Ebbw Vale section.  Not only the bank, but a large mature tree had slid down the cutting and was now residing in the middle of the line from Ebbw Vale behind which stood a large 2-8-2 tank, 7249, and a full load of 50 vanfits of steel tinplate.  We opened up single line working and then had to get the tinplate train to reverse its load to the crossover at Marine Colliery about a mile to the rear.  We were way over the load for a 72XX and there was no engine north of us to assist, so we had to try.  I shall never forget the crashing and very deliberate exhaust and the rocking motion of the engine as it propelled its heavy train in slow motion without the trace of a slip through the stormy night.

Our constant ‘emergencies’ had their humorous side.  Stan and I could occasionally venture out together provided our inspectors knew where we were and we were not too far from reach.  Adjacent to Llanhilleth station was a little cricket ground and we had both joined the club and played an occasional match.  I can remember vividly one sunny afternoon being at the crease and had just snicked my first runs through the slips when a thunderous voice came from the Llanhilleth Middle Box loudhailer ‘Mr Maidment, you’re needed, they’re off the road at Ebbw Vale’.  The scorecard read ‘Maidment, derailed …4’.

The Aberbeeg Shedmaster retired in the Autumn of 1994 about two months before the depot was due to close when full dieselisation would be completed.  As there was little point in filling the post for such a short time, I was asked to take over the reins there for this interim period and had one brief moment of glory when I managed to persuade the diagramming people in Cardiff to let our Aberbeeg men learn the road and go through to Gloucester with a Mondays Only tinplate train with one of our two 52XXs.  I don’t think the route learning costs amounted to anything - the men were so keen, I think they learned the road in their own time !  So I vividly remember bowling down the valley in the cab of 5214 on our inaugural run and whistling rudely at Rogerstone Yard as we escaped into the big wide world outside the Valley.  I baled out at Newport but rumour has it that some of the signalmen on the Newport - Gloucester line had never seen an old 52XX in such a hurry.

The 37s reigned almost supreme - an occasional 42, 52 and 72XX or 9F would foray up to Ebbw Vale from Alexandra Dock to the end of our time there.  Our trusted panniers were replaced by  Paxman Class 14s, D95XX, we must have had some of the first, and dreadful they were.   Their attempts at banking heavy trains to Ebbw Vale were farcical - they overheated and the engine would trip out halfway up the bank and a number of 37s would finish up hauling their full loads and the banker.  One consequence of the switch from steam to diesel was the sudden shortage of coal at all the signalboxes on the patch.  We had to start actually ordering domestic coal and the Aberbeeg Junction Box asked for a coal store as they could no longer replenish themselves from the bunkers of pannier tanks.   I ordered a breeze block coal house from the District Engineer at Newport and got a quote of £465.  I remember being horrified as there was a terraced miner’s cottage in the road just below the box going for £325 and I offered to buy that instead.  I don’t think my irony was appreciated, but we did get our coalhouse.

I often look back at the ten months spent at Aberbeeg as the time I learned most about human nature - not just in the railway activities, but also from the experiences in the Hanbury Hotel, now no more.  However, that would need a whole new book to describe…..    The Western Valley not only provided such valuable experience and a rich encounter with some marvellous and generous characters, but it shaped both Stan’s and my railway careers for years to come, in that Stan became a ‘Marketing Man’ and I became an Operator.