14th August 1896. Light Railways.
Today in 1896 the Royal Assent was given to the Light Railway Bill which largely resulted from the rural economic downturn and a desire by the government to stimulate transportation with an inexpensive class of railway.
Those set-up under the Act came under Light Railway Orders (LRO), rather than through expensive Parliamentary Acts.
Whilst in theory these lines, a mixture of Narrow and Standard Gauge tracks, were restricted to speeds of 25 mph and light axle weights, there was also no expensive infrastructure requirements for level-crossing gates, cattle grids only being required, or signalling and operated on the ‘one engine in steam principle’.
However there were problems as a Letter to The Board of Trade in November 1912 reveals the Rev. Robert Brock incumbent of St Michael and All Angels, Criggion, Montgomeryshire, complaining that ‘he was forced to travel in the engine because there were too few passengers to fill a coach’.(1)
Papers from The National Railway Museum, York tell how he protested about the ‘barbarous treatment’ he had suffered at the hands of the Shropshire and Montgomery Railway and how he was ‘showered with sparks and soot’.
Now we think we are hard done by when we have to stand!
The owners claimed traffic was so light that a coach was often not needed. However the locomotive responsible The Gazelle, was fitted with a passenger cab, albeit likened by some to a mobile prison cell.(2)
Opened in 1911 the S&MR ran from Shrewsbury to Llanmynech with a branch at Criggion with a terminus on the site of Shrewsbury Abbey where passengers shared the platform with a 14thc refectory pulpit, as it was refused access to the main station, by The Great Western.
Running on the reconstructed and defunct, Potteries, Shrewsbury, North Wales Railway (‘The Potts’) founded in 1866, it was originally a project for a line from the Potteries via Market Drayton to quarries at Nantmawr and Criggion.
However the dearth of passengers meant that after just four months its first operators went bust.
Then the line to the Stoke Potteries from Shrewsbury was never built and the line became derelict.
Two more operators tried and failed with ‘The Potts’ before the eccentric ‘Light Railway King’, Colonel Holman Stephens reopened it in 1911 as the S&MR
He cut costs by using a motley collection of old rolling stock including the Gazelle, nick-named the ‘Coffee Pot’, with the line probably the smallest Standard-Gauge company in Britain then operating. It closed to passengers in 1933 with tourist specials continuing to 1937.
Though many Light Railways remained independent after the 1921 amalgamations, their days were numbered and all were integrated into the national system in 1948.
The Heart of Wales Railway is the only one still running under the original Act, though no doubt complying to more modern running practices.
(1) Letter 23rd November 1912.
(2) Gazelle can be seen at the Col. Stephens’s Light Railway Museum at Tenterden, Kent.