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A Railway Ghost Story for Christmas

by
Terry Chapman
, M.Sc., B.D., I.Eng., MIRSE.
(A former senior railway signalling engineer. An Aberdarian now retired in Malta)

A bitter wind was blowing around the Telegraph Office at Dare Junction as the light faded on that wild winter afternoon in December 1924. Ted Roberts got up from his desk in the small adjoining office where he worked his 12-hour shifts as Traffic Foreman and moved stiffly to light the large oil lamp hanging from a roof beam. It was fitted with a chain and counterweight so that it could be raised and lowered easily. With its wide shade it cast a warm glow around the office and seemed to add to the heat from the small stove in the corner. He glanced through the glass panes of the internal door to the Telegraph Office and could see the Telegraph Clerk, young Joseph Edwards, crouched attentively over his instruments and was obviously receiving a message. The clicking of the receiving relay could clearly be heard over the noise of the wind as it howled and moaned around the building. It was the Wednesday a few days before Christmas and things were a bit quiet, as the collieries up at Cwmaman and in the Dare Valley were scaling down production as they prepared for the Christmas shutdown.

Aberdare_from_Graig

View of Dare Junction from the Graig. The Telegraph Office is ringed on the extreme left.

Ted lit the small lamp on his desk and then went outside to fill the big cast iron kettle from the storage tank, which he hoped was not yet frozen solid, despite being next to the burning brazier stopping the water crane from freezing up. It would be a disaster if the engines working in the area ran short of water! Outside the snow was lying thickly over the rows of loaded and empty wagons standing in the sidings on both sides of the running lines. The nearer one to the office was the Dare Branch up to Bwllfa and the farther one, which they called ‘the main’, was the line over the viaducts to Gelli Tarw Junction, where it joined the main line from Pontypool to Swansea.

A shunter

Shunting at Bwllfa Dare.

He went in and put the kettle on the stove to make a warming mug of tea for Joe, the Duty Shunter Griff Davies and himself. Joe looked up as he passed through the Telegraph Office and told him that the Traffic Foreman at Hirwaun Station had just advised that a train of twenty-six empties from King’s Dock, Swansea, was to be put-off at Gelli Tarw Junction. Ted grunted an acknowledgement and went through to his office to put the kettle on the stove. There were two engines working under his control that afternoon and one of them should be coming down from Bwllfa before long with a loaded train, so he would collar those men to go over to ‘the Tarw’ to fetch the empties. The other engine had not long gone up to Cwmaman and would not be back for quite some time. Ted glanced at the long-case clock on the wall and saw that it was getting on for three o’clock. That old clock was his pride and joy, with the face bearing the legend: V of N Rly 1857, and, as far as he knew, it had never been allowed stop in all those years! There was a crunching of boots outside and as the door to the Telegraph Office opened, Griff was swept in with a blast of cold air and whirling snowflakes. He had an uncanny sense of knowing when the kettle was being put on for tea and always made sure he was near the office to see it being filled! With boots thumping on the wooden floor, he came into Ted’s office to give a report on the disposition of wagons, loaded and empty, and receive further orders. Ted told him of the empties which were due at Gelli Tarw Junction shortly, their arrival being advised by the Signalman over the telegraph.

Morse Senders

Typical telegraph instruments dating from 1890 but still in use in many remote railway locations
in the 1920s and 1930s. Sending key on the left and receiving relay on the right.

On his desk was the list of empties required by the various pits for the following day. It would be his task to total the empties on-hand and due to arrive and arrange their distribution to meet the demands of the pits. Joe tapped the door and looked in to tell Ted that fifteen more empty wagons had been put off the returning Salisbury to Aberdare at Cwmbach Sidings and would be worked forward to ‘the Tarw’ overnight by the Gadlys Junction pilot. Ted grunted with satisfaction, as with the twenty-six at the Tarw and the fifteen due from Cwmbach, plus the nineteen already on-hand; he should have enough to supply the Shepherd and Fforchwen pits up at Cwmaman and the Bwllfa pits with their needs by the morning.

Black Lion Halt and Crossing

Black Lion Crossing and Signal Box on the Cwmaman Branch.

The shriek of a whistle could suddenly be heard above the wind, and Ted hastily put down his mug and grabbed his cap and handlamp to go out and meet the train coming down from the Bwllfa. He needed to tell the men to be ready to go over to the Tarw to collect the twenty-six empties. While he waited outside the office Ted looked up the line towards Cwmaman and he could see the glow of the lamp over the desk in Black Lion Crossing Signal Box. The red eyes of the signals under its control shone balefully on this side of the gates over Monk Street. The box was quieter now since the passenger service to Cwmaman had been withdrawn on the 24th of September last, but the workmen’s passenger service was still running, and with the coal trains, it was still open on two shifts. The headlamps of the engine could now be seen coming around the gentle curve to the left and Ted held his handlamp up to show them a steady red light. It squealed to a halt beside him wreathed in a cloud of steam, the buffers of each wagon clinking in turn as their weight came gently onto the standing engine. Ted reached up to Driver Ron Jenkins for the wooden train staff with which the Dare branch was worked. The engine blew-off with a deafening roar which drowned out his words, so he had to climb up to tell Ron where to put the loaded train off and, after a tea break, to go over to the Tarw to collect the twenty-six empties. Ron acknowledged, and with a short blast on the whistle, he eased the protesting train forward over the crossover to ‘the main’ to reach the appointed siding on the town side.

Cwmaman Signal Box

The Signalman at Cwmaman Signal Box.

Locomotive at Ivy Bush

A GWR 0-6-0 saddle tank Engine No.1277 crossing Mountain Road in Cwmaman, otherwise known as ‘Ivy Bush Hill’.

Meanwhile up at Cwmaman, the crew of the other engine had finished shunting Fforchwen Pit and were gingerly dropping down the short but steep incline to Shepherd’s Pit with twelve loaded wagons. There, they were to pick-up sixteen more. This was a dicey business in this weather with the rails covered in wet snow and Alan Williams, the Driver, and his Fireman, Verdun Watkins, had to have all their wits about them so as not to slide away down; there being no brake van attached for this very short trip. The van was waiting down below with Evan Williams the Guard and Dai Eynon the Shunter. They could now see its three red tail-lamps flickering through the whirling snow as they approached the bottom of the bank opposite the Shepherd’s colliery screens.

Shepherds Pit, Cwmaman

An engine and brake van shunting Shepherd’s Pit in Cwmaman.

Alan crept slowly past the van with a toot on the whistle to alert them to their arrival. He stopped with the last wagon clear of the points at which Dai, having climbed down from the van, stood ready to change over to the ‘fulls road’ from under the screens. A white light from Dai and Alan slowly set back while carefully watching Dai’s handlamp signal to be ready to stop. The swinging handlamp stopped and turned to red, followed immediately by the clang of buffers meeting. Then the white light and Alan gently pulled forward to clear the points again. As soon as the longish rake had cleared the points, Dai signalled Evan with a white light to say that the road was set for the brake van to roll down onto the back of the train. Dai coupled the van on and then walked to the engine and climbed up, as he would need to be there to open the gates at the Cwmaman and Cwmneol crossings. Evan gave the right-away signal and they moved off with the loaded wagons groaning and the couplings clinking in turn as the engine took up the strain. As they were passing the wooden platform of Cwmaman Colliery Halt, the Signalman came out of the box to hand Alan the electric train staff, which was his authority to enter the single-line section to Black Lion Crossing. As they slowly approached the level crossing over ‘Ivy Bush Hill’, Dai jumped down to open the gates as there were no staff at Cwmaman Crossing Halt at this time of day. Evan closed the gates once his van was clear of the crossing and once again, the right-away was given. On they went to stop again for the same routine at Cwmneol Crossing. Having cleared it, Alan could now settle down to the slow run to Dare Junction, as the speed limit on the Cwmaman Branch was 15mph throughout. A few lights glowed down in the valley as they skirted the curve around the mountain past Tonllwyd houses and farm crossing. Soon they passed under the overbridge carrying Maesyffynon Lane with the sidings of the Graig Level appearing on the left and the running loop on the right.

The Gamlyn Viaduct

The Gamlyn Viaduct looking towards Gelli Tarw Junction.

Ron Jenkins and his Fireman young Robert Jones had finished their tea break and moved to collect the brake van with their Guard Evan Jones. Robert fetched the wooden train staff for the section to Gelli Tarw Junction from Ted, and they set-off to collect the twenty-six empties. As they went around the curve through the shallow cutting and came out onto the Dare Viaduct, the wind cut through the normally warm cab like a knife, and they felt the engine rock slightly as the wind hit it side-on. They were glad to reach the shelter of the cutting on the other side but feared the effect of this shrieking wind on the longer Gamlyn Viaduct crossing the Cynon Valley, especially when it acted on the wagons of the train coming back. Now they were passing the back wall of Aberdare Park and caught sight of the flickering yellow light of the Distant Signal that gave warning of the level crossing ahead at Trecynon Goods Station. There was a Crossing Keeper there, as the gates were protected by signals interlocked with the gates and therefore needed to be manned. He had been advised of their approach by Joe, the Telegraph Clerk, so the gates were open and the signal green and there was no need to stop. They got a cheery wave from the crossing keeper as they passed over and into the deep cutting through the cemetery and then out onto the viaduct. The force of the wind hit them like a hammer and drove the snow at them in a blind fury as they again felt the rocking of their small saddle tank engine. With relief they ran off the viaduct and rounded the curve to come to a stop at the signal controlling the entrance to the Down Sidings opposite the box. When the signal cleared, they moved forward down an empty siding to the head-shunt at the far end towards the Merthyr Road bridge and backed the van onto the tail of the rake of empties. On returning to the yard entrance, Robert jumped down to attach the engine. Now running cab first, Ron moved the train slowly up to the starting signal for the branch. When it cleared, they set-off round the curve and out again into the hellish storm of snow and wind. They looked back at the train as they crossed, looking out for any wagon being derailed by being tilted by the wind. They were reassured by the winking side lights of the brake van and a steady green light from Evan to show that, so far, all was well. Now back in the shelter of Cemetery Cutting the gates were open for them and the signal showing green. Ron now put on full power for the climb up to the Dare Viaduct, which was a fair slog, and once again they moved out onto the viaduct. Ted had been advised of the departure of the Gelli Tarw trip by the Signalman there, and of the imminent arrival of the Cwmaman trip by the Signalman at Black Lion Crossing, so he went out with Griff Davies to meet them. It was now past 5 o’clock and almost fully dark.

Dare Viaduct

A train of empties crosses the Dare Viaduct heading towards Dare Junction.

Dare Junction, looking north

Dare Junction looking north west towards Bwllfa Dare.
The old ventilation shaft tower mentioned in the story can be seen on the left.
The train on the left is loaded and had come down from the Bwllfa.
The train on the right is of empties and has come off the Gelli Tarw line and is turning into the sidings on the town side.

Now on the Dare Junction side of Black Lion Crossing, there was a facing turnout where the Dare Branch diverged to the left and the ‘main’ line to Gelli Tarw Junction went straight ahead. They formed two parallel single-lines through the siding complex, with the Dare Branch being nearest to the Telegraph Office. This junction was controlled by Black Lion Crossing Signal Box and Ted had instructed the Signalman there to route the Cwmaman train onto the Dare Branch to avoid a conflict with the train from Gelli Tarw Junction approaching on ‘the main.’ In almost whiteout conditions, Ted and Griff stood waiting on ‘the main’ opposite the office while their hats and overcoats became white with snow. They heard the whistle of the train from ‘the Tarw’ which was due first and saw it coming out of the cutting towards them, but they did not look for the approach of the train coming from Cwmaman, as it would come in on the other line nearest the office. What they did not know was that, for whatever reason, the Signalman at Black Lion had not turned the train from Cwmaman onto the Dare Branch as instructed. So, intent on the train from the Tarw approaching, they heard nothing of the train from Cwmaman coming up behind them, as they were facing into the wind. Suddenly there was the long shriek of whistles in front of and behind them and they turned in horror to see the other train right behind them. The two drivers had seen each other only at the last moment and the crews jumped for their lives as a collision was inevitable. But for Ted and Griff it was too late. In their haste to get clear, they slipped and fell against each other on the icy snow-covered sleepers and were trapped and crushed between the colliding engines.

It was during another bad winter on the same date in 1957, that a shepherd was walking along the disused section of the Dare Branch towards Dare Junction, driving his flock of sheep before him. It was snowing hard with the high wind driving it into his back, so it was difficult to see far ahead in the dying light of the winter afternoon. As he came to the old brick tower of the ventilation shaft on the right of the line, he remembered that the Telegraph Office had been just beyond it when the lines had been open, as he was sometimes offered a cup of tea there. Just then he seemed to hear the rumble of a train to his left through the moaning of the wind. There followed a crashing and tearing sound like as if a tree had been blown down, followed by a screaming that sounded a bit like engine whistles. As he strained to try and see what was happening, he saw two ghostly white figures in snow-covered caps and overcoats, running and stumbling for their lives, across the rusty lines towards where the old Telegraph Office used to be.

Ventilation Shaft

An aerial view of part of Dare Junction with the old ventilation shaft tower mentioned in the story ringed on the right.

A shepherd in the snow

A shepherd walks the abandoned Dare Branch through the snow
towards Dare Junction driving his flock of sheep before him.

Dramatis Personae:

Ted Roberts – Traffic Foreman at Dare Junction
Joseph Edwards – Telegraph Clerk at Dare Junction
Griff Davies – Duty Shunter at Dare Junction
Ron Jenkins – Driver of the Bwllfa and Gelli Tarw Trips
Robert Jones – Fireman of the Bwllfa and Gelli Tarw Trips
Evan Jones – Guard of the Gelli Tarw Trip
Alan Williams – Driver of the Cwmaman Trip
Verdun Watkins – Fireman of the Cwmaman Trip
Evan Williams – Guard of the Cwmaman Trip
Dai Eynon – Shunter with the Cwmaman Trip

(Author’s Note: The events and characters in this story are entirely fictional.
Only the location and its features were real.)
 

Bibliography: