Both ends of the line

Trains without tracks would be as useful as a chocolate teapot. So why do we talk so little about the tracks they run on? Here’s a story about tracks for a change – the track from Fishguard to Cardiff in fact – and a couple of concerns at each end of that line.

one track removed from Fishguard Harbour level crossing

cut off


Something has changed at Fishguard Harbour. The passing loop that allowed an engine to be shunted from the front of an incoming train to the rear, ready to haul it out on the return journey has gone, cut off at the level crossing. Now there’s a gap where two tracks used to cross the harbour road. Instead we have a single track level crossing and a redundant siding.

close up of Strail level crossing panels

street + rail = strail

The nameplate on the new crossing gives us a clue to what’s going on. Strail is the trademark of Gummiwerk KRAIBURG Elastik GmbH, a German company contracted (amongst others) to Deutsche Bahn, owners of Arriva Trains Wales, to supply level crossing systems.
Their system uses vulcanized rubber panels, and is designed to make life pleasant for both road and rail users.

But why the need for change at Fishguard? A Fishguard Trains regular comments:

articulated lorry crosses level crossing


“The old crossing surface had taken a hammering from all the HGV trailers crossing it daily and by only allowing for the single platform line some standard sized heavy duty crossing panels were able to be used which are more robust than the ones they could use if the second line was done too. 2 panels of track in the runround loop have been removed to minimise restoration costs if needed.”

twin track level crossingWe’re puzzled by this. Strail systems are installed at level crossings of every kind all round the world – like this one in Belgrade. There must be plenty at twin-track crossings. Installing a new robust level crossing surely is no reason to remove our second track.

Has something been lost? We think so. If you can’t swop an engine from the front to the rear of a train any more at Fishguard Harbour, that must cut out all kind of specials in future. Like the Jazz Special  that there’s already talk about, following on the heels of this year’s successful Aberjazz Festival … but that’s another story.


track at Platform Four Cardiff Central

the track moved

Here’s the east end of the line from Fishguard to Cardiff (which is probably the most popular destination from Fishguard). You’re looking at the track half way along Platform Four at Cardiff Central, just like Spad was doing the other day, when a heavy freight train rumbled through the station. Each wagon made a distinctive thud as it passed this point, so Spad came to take a closer look – and saw the rail moving up and down by at least a centimetre with each passing wagon.

closeup of hole in ballast

mind the gap

Look closely at the line where some litter has gathered in front  of a hollow in the ballast. That’s the place where the track visibly flexes with each passing wagon.

Steel is a wonderful material, but if it bends with every passing wagon, sooner or later it must fracture. Not wanting to wait for that to happen, Spad reported the matter to the station chargehand, who came straight over, thanked us, and made notes. Next time you are at Cardiff Central, do check on Platform Four to see if the hole in the ballast has been fixed.

This is not the first time Spad has stood on a platform and watched the rails moving (as opposed to the trains). The most dramatic was at the north end of Baker Street station on the Metropolitan Line to Watford. The rails were heaving up and down as each carriage passed, a movement of several centimetres. Recalling that sadly we said nothing at the time, made us keen to report the problem at Cardiff this time.

But here’s the unsettling question: where else in some remote stretch of line, perhaps on a quiet rural branch, possibly on a high speed line, are the rails moving under each train as it speeds past? No travellers to watch, no one to report their concerns. Does anyone know? It’s not an easy thought. Are there any comforting answers?


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23 Responses to Both ends of the line

  1. Rhydgaled

    The news that the run-round loop at Fishguard has been disconnected is a little unsettling. The two charters I have seen at Fishguard have had a locomotive on both ends, so it wouldn’t have effected them, but this leaves nowhere on the Fishguard branch to park a train out of the way other than the Trecwn junction. It also would have prevented the boat train working back when it was a traditional loco-hauled train (2003 I think).

    It was a good thing the last charter I saw (the Northern Belle Pullman) had locos top & tail as the loop was un-usable then (see this photo:, the other end is blocked).

    In other unsettling news, we only have until Friday 13 September 2013 to respond to the National Assembly for Wales consultation on The future of the Wales and Borders Rail Franchise (see here:

  2. Rhydgaled

    Is there anything to suggest that Cardiff is not only the most popular destination from Fishguard, but from other parts of Pembrokeshire (and Carmarthenshire)? If so, what effect would the 15min time saving from using the Swansea District Line have on passenger numbers?

  3. Irishman

    A disappointing development.

    Wonder where the decision was made and if any thought as to special/ charter trains or indeed loco-hauled scheduled workings was given in any assessment prior to the work.

    Presumably, due to length and curvature, it would not be practical to have a shortened loop? I.e. one that joins the “platform line” prior to the crossing.

  4. Blocking Back

    The crossing has nothing to do with it, as the loop has already been out of use for a number of years and the removal of the loop has been on the cards for some time. This was part of the planning process for the crossing refurbishment – the new crossing panels absolutely were not the cause of the loop closure. Not even charters have used it for the last 5-10 years as they always bring a second loco (due to the steeepness of Manorowen Bank, rather than the lack of a loop), while loco-hauled passenger services haven’t run to Fishguard in over ten years and are simply not going to run again. Why spend a fortune maintaining infrastructure that is simply not used and has little strategic value?

    As for the second part of this article; it might have been an idea to actually speak to a qualified civil engineer before publishing alarmist nonsense. This is absolutely not unusual – ALL tracks move up and down to some extent when trains pass over them and the amount of ‘play’ permitted is dependent on linespeed and a raft of other factors. These locations are well-known and are regularly inspected by track patrolmen and by track recording trains.

    • Spad

      Blocking Back – perhaps you could improve this alarmist nonsense by suggesting what degree of play qualified civil engineers expect in, say, a low-speed rail on concrete sleepers running through a Welsh station on an August afternoon … a centimetre? … three centimetres? … more? That would save passengers wasting everyone’s time.

      • Blocking Back

        I’ve no idea as I’m not a civil engineer, but I’d put it right up there with aircraft passengers being alarmed at seeing the wings wobbling.

    • Rhydgaled

      Didn’t realise the loop had been out of use as long as all that, only since the wooden block I observed when photographing the Northern Belle was put in place.

      You also did not address my other concern, removing the loop leaves nowhere to park a train out of the way. I still maintain that having the train staff drive from Carmarthen to Fishguard in a single car/van owned by the railway would be cheaper than operating an early morning, effectively ECS, service from Carmarthen to Fishguard to start the day’s work.

      • Blocking Back


        We’ve discussed this at length before. To recap:

        a. Arriva (or their predecessor) did for some years (about 10-15 years ago) stable a 158 overnight at Haverfordwest. The costs of employing a separate train cleaning team down here and shuttling of train staff from Carmarthen proved uneconomical and they went back to stabling it at Carmarthen.

        b. There is nothing stopping Arriva from stabling a train on the main running line. You do not need to put it ‘out of the way’ on a loop or siding.

        • Rhydgaled

          a. That’s the cost of the cleaning team surely. I wasn’t suggesting one at Fishguard.
          b. What about the night boat train? I thought a train on the branch has to be locked into either the harbour loop or Trecwn before anything else can pick up the single-line token at Clarbeston Road and enter the section.

          • Blocking Back

            a. Trains are cleaned overnight at their stabling points. Are you seriously suggesting that they could be cleaned in service during the day? There is also routine maintenance to be done periodically, which would mean getting the fitters to and from Fishguard, along with their additional associated cost. Arriva would also have to pay Network Rail for the privilege of using the loop for stabling purposes.

            b. That’s true under the present system of working, but that can be changed should it become necessary (which at present it absolutely is not); e.g. designating Fishguard Harbour Stn as a Permissive Passenger Working platform, where more than one train is allowed into the same section (as at Carmarthen Station). The re-designation and minimal re-signalling required (e.g. moving the start of the Token Section to the other end of the station) could be done at relatively short notice and for considerably less cost than maintaining a loop that is never used for years and years.

            However, this a circular argument. What is the point of leaving a train overnight in Fishguard? If you want to keep a loop in Fishguard for the overnight stabling of a train, you’ll need to add the annual cost of maintaining that track to the cost of overnight stabling. I’d also add that as it’s Stena who own the line from Goodwick to Fishguard Harbour and not Network Rail, what is the economic benefit to Stena of having their land tied up in an unused loop?

            In any case, there are simpler and less costly ways to stable a train

  5. Rhydgaled

    Blocking Back, you make a good argument for (b.). I hope it is as easy as you say.

    As for (a.), I don’t think much (if any) routine maintenance (certainly not refuelling, if I’m not mistaken) is carried out at Carmarthen, so trains have to cycle between different stabling points at night anyway. If a unit stabled overnight at Fishguard it would obviously have to be a different one every night. Heavy cleaning could similarly be done the next evening at a better-equiped stabling point.

    I wouldn’t suggest leaving the unit at Fishguard untouched though. On-train ‘train presentation team’ staff would do their best before it departs Carmarthen on the last evening train. In the morning it could be cleaned to a certain extent on arrival at Carmarthen (you could run it into the un-numbered face of the island platform if it’s signalled for passenger movements). It might be possible to give the unit a turnround of 15 to 30 minutes to allow it to be cleaned.

    • Blocking Back

      But what possible benefit does that give to Arriva over centralising their west Wales operations at Carmarthen? All that does is complicate matters and complication = additional costs.

      • Rhydgaled

        Complication might equal additional costs, but track access and fuel for running a train from Carmarthen to Fishguard can’t be cheap either. I’m not sure which would work out cheaper, but the costs of running the train are so high that I think stabling at Fishguard could be cheaper (emphasis on ‘could’).

        Swansea Jack, the class 47 on the back of Nunny Castle’s charter a few years ago seemed to be assisting on depature from Fishguard, it was emmiting some black smoke and noise. It certainly wasn’t ‘dead on rear’. The primary purpose of the diesel was probably to haul the train from Carmarthen to Fishguard, but it did seem to be acting as a banking loco of sorts also.

        • Blocking Back

          The last few steam specials have left the diesel loco attached to assist with power up Manorowen Bank, ever since one steam loco nearly conked out on the bank and took the best part of an hour to get up it in May 2010 or thereabouts. From what was discussed at the time, the main issue seems to be that the current breed of steam-special drivers simply do not have the same level of accumulated experience that drivers of yore, who did it day in, day out, had.

          In fact, HSTs had major problems with Manorowen Bank in wet weather, especially in leaf-fall season. There were several occasions during the last days of HSTs to Fishguard, when they had to have more than one run at it, with one even giving up after five attempts and staying in Fishguard until it dried out with the morning sun (that was probably the last time a train was stabled in Fishguard)!

          An interesting anecdote told to me by an old Fishguard driver was that in the days of steam, the drivers who lived in Manorowen and Scleddau would walk to work down the track and would sprinkle sand as they went, thus making their jobs easier when they brought the first trains out in the morning.

  6. Swansea Jack

    The run-round loop at Fishguard was last used regularly in the Summer of 2006 when class 50s and mark II stock worked the daytime boat train from / to Cardiff. Similar had happened in the Summers of 2002, 2003 and 2004 by the way with class 37s so rather less than 10 years or more……

    Charter trains do not need a second loco for banking trains up Manorowen bank by the way – that went out with steam, the banking engine token being last used in 1972 when an ailing DMU set was helped on its way by the class 37 stabled for the then Freightliner train (remember that one!). The use of 2 locomotives is usually so that the feature locomotive can work into Carmarthen on the way from Bristol / Birmingham etc, be left on the back Carmarthen to Fishguard, and then power the train out of Fishguard, back to destination via Carmarthen curve….thing of the steam tours that occasionally visit for example.

    One of the Charters last year (with a class 55 Deltic from memory) had hoped to use the run-round loop but ended up with a class 66 added for the Carmarthen to Fishguard section. Charter companies are worried more about the available length of platform rather than the run-round facilities, as to insure against locomotive failure having a spare locomotive on the back is a good idea when the nearest rescue locomotive is likely to be in Margam (Port Talbot) or further afield.

    Blocking back has covered the old Rhydgaled argument about stabling trains rather well, suffice to say I haven’t seen the run-round loop used for stabling purposes since a failed class 33 was dumped there in February 1986 – the 28th by the way……

    Regarding the level crossing panels – yes they can be used for multiple tracks as your picture from Belgrade notes, but the issue is that at the Harbour crossing the second line wasn’t a constant spacing from the first as the pointwork is rather close, so you’d end up with a triangular shaped piece – which would be fabricated especially and wouldn’t be as robust to cope with the regular pounding from HGV trailers as the standard panels.

    Finally, as a fully qualified Civil Engineer by the way some movement is rather better than no movement – the springyness of mild steel being rather better than say the brittleness of cast iron (look up Stephenson’s problems with a cast iron railway bridge near Chester in the early years of the North Wales coast line for evidence). Dipped rail joints however can be an issue and would eventually require packing (ballast packed under the sleepers near the dip) but that one at Cardiff Central is not a problem at present.

    • Blocking Back

      Cheers SJ,

      2006? Gosh, it seems longer ago than that! Yes, it was bloody useful then, but I think the days of single loco-hauled passenger trains are long gone from these parts now.

      Re track access, I’ve absolutely no idea what they charge or how it’s calculated, but I presume that the main part of the calculation is based on the frequency of trains along the line; I would imagine that an early morning train to Fishguard has surely got to be the cheapest track access that Arriva could buy. By contrast, the cost of stabling at Fishguard, which would have to include the cost of maintaining the loop for the sole use of that one train, would probably be quite high unless they could persuade some other train companies to use the loop, thus spreading the cost.

      • Swansea Jack

        The costs of having a traincrew signing on point and stabled DMU set at Fishguard was the final nail in the coffin of the old 07:22 Fishguard Harbour to Clarbeston Road service that ended in May 1982. What we have now is a service that is similar to many others across the UK – such as Pembroke dock and Milford Haven, where trains have to work down to the terminus first, with the likelyhood of few if any passengers.

        Yes it is a shame about the rather un-useful early morning Carmarthen to Fishguard etc trip and possibly the last one back to Carmarthen in the evening (athough I have used the latter on quite a few occasions (I’ve used the 05:50 ex Carmarthen a handful of times too). a lot of that comes from the 18 hour a day railway we now have in the UK. In the days when newspapers, mail and so on used the railways this type of early morning train would have probably provided a useful passenger service from somewhere like Cardiff or Bristol, but those days are long gone.

        Regarding locomotive hauled trains – yes they are the exception these days and as with Y Gerrallt Cymro between Cardiff and Holyhead such trains run either with a tail locomotive or with a DVT – a driving van trailer which can remotely control the locomotive, in a similar way top the old auto-coaches in steam days, except the control system is a little more refined these days.

        The fact that tail locomotives can assist struggling front end power such as highlighted about the steam trips above is one of the main reasons why many charters use them rather than run-round facilities these days. The hauled trains in 2002-4 and 2006 for example carried a shunter with them all the way from Cardiff to assist with the coupling and run-round at the Harbour – another cost not borne by multiple units.

  7. Blocking Back

    Now I come to think of it:

    What blithering idiot thought it was a good idea to stand on the railway, taking photos of the level crossing and then posting the evidence of their trespass on here?! Did you contact the signaller before going on the railway? Have you done the mandatory Personal Track Safety training and do you have a valid PTS Card? Were you wearing full orange PPE? Did you first request a Line Blockage and set up a safe system of work?


    How ironic that they should then criticise railway safety… Doubly ironic that the same author was recently criticising level crossing safety…

    • Spad

      Adrian Bond emails us:
      re the level crossing picture at the harbour.

      There is a ‘network change’ procedure which has to be agreed before such works can be undertaken, I hadn’t noticed this change in the list on the ORR website or anywhere else.

      Fishguard Harbour Station is one of the few (if not only) private stations on the network, not sure how this affects the situation. Still a retrograde step though.

      Makes me think of the Windermere branch – how can such a major tourist destination be a 10 mile long siding? Effectively the Fishguard ‘branch’ has become this if no trains can pass or run round.

      Spad comments: For what it’s worth, there is a passing loop at the Trecwn junction. Does this upgrade Fishguard from siding status?

      • Swansea Jack

        Letterston Junction is the correct term for where the Trecwn (and formerly North Pembs branch to Maenclochog and Clunderwen split from the CRL (Clarbeston Road and Letterston line). Trecwn Junction was the location nearer the A40 road where the Trecwn branch split from the North Pembs line…..OCD moment over.

        As far as the network change procedure I was aware of it, and realising that the loss of the runround loop could be more of an issue for charter operators I made sure that DBS and DRS were aware of the change. As these two companies are also 2 freight companies that side was covered too – as I understand it they were mainly concerned that the full platform length remained available to charters rather than the Harbour station becoming another Barry Island where the full length platform now has a buffer stop about 1/3rd of the way along the platform making it useless for charters.

        I also understand that only 2 track panels were removed at the crossing so reducing any replacement costs if a freight operator required reinstatement. It might be worth noting that Fishguard is no longer in the Haven enterprise scheme which might reduce the likelyhood of freight traffic returning in the near future.

  8. Anthony

    Speaking about hst’s struggling up the bank on the Fishguard Branch reminds me of what happened a few years ago with that hst coming from Pembroke Dock which was struggling on one power car and a class 60 was scrambled from Margam but only got to Llanelli before it was stood down and sent back as the hst had just about managed to get to Whitland.

    If ATW do as it is looking likely take on Llandore depot as a fueling and stabling facility for teh west wales dmu fleet then I think we can see major shake up ‘s with the timetables especially with diesel services not running beyond Swansea.

  9. Mark Carter

    AS an occasional user of Goodwick station, its easier to get to than Haverfordwest for me. What has puzzled me is why do ATW not promote the use of the 2 later morning trains from the harbour for Haverfordwest customers to join at Clarbeston Road? Hwest customers have the choice of 7.20, 9.20 or 11.20. If they went to Clarbeston road they would have a 8.30 and 10.20 approx departure and hopefully further load the train even though it isnt a direct addition to Goodwick numbers but all adds to the viability of the train service. Customers may even be those who went by car as Hwest times didnt suit them. A simple poster campaign would be a start or possibly a minibus connection from Haverfordwest station. The evening return journey is already in place.

  10. Swansea Jack

    As I understand it the passenger numbers using the additional trains at Clarbeston Road and Clunderwen are also in the consideration ( I was informed by on-board staff that they record passenger numbers beyond Whitland).

    I’ve tried pushing the 08:30 and 10:30 departures from Clunderwen pointing out that a) they are useful times, secondly might be quieter and finally that by using them it helps to reinforce the idea that an hourly service from Clunderwen is a good idea. Clunderwen in particular seems to have got busier since the now hourly morning eastbound service has commenced. The station now has an hourly service Eastbound from around 06:30 to 11:30 making it the railhead for the Crymych area rather than Carmarthen. Clarby Road has a similar service. The evening peak service is improved to the two stations is improved too – a 16:40 and 17:05 from Swansea rather than just one.

    There is hopefully a piece in the Western Telegraph this coming edition about the train service to Fishguard with a use it or lose it theme.

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