The first railway to Monmouth wasn't really a railway, and it exclusively ran to Monmouth; very little went the other way. It was the Monmouth Tramroad, and it climbed steeply out of Monmouth up the east side of the Wye Valley until it found itself above Redbrook. Then it turned sharply and continued a torturous ascent around sharp curves past Newlands to Coleford. At Coleford it split into three branches. One route went North to New Found Out Mine and the collieries near Berry Hill. One went East to Hopewell Colliery, roughly following the road to Speech House. The final branch turned South and followed the same route as the later railway to Parkend, and, although the tramway terminated at the Darkhill furnaces and Clearwell Caves, it may have been possible for traffic to run right down the hill to Parkend itself, where there was another tramway which extended up towards Coleford.
The Monmouth Tramroad was planned in 1808, and received its Act of Parliament in 1810, which authorised it to enter other people's land and force them to sell it to the tramroad. The winding, steeply-climbing route was not much of an issue for a horse-drawn tramway, with short rails resting on stone blocks. The terminus was by the May Hill pub on the bank of the Wye. The fact that the tramway carried passengers made May Hill Monmouth's first station, opening around 1816, and destined for a life of some 143 years.
The tramway remained in isolation until the arrival of the first proper railway to reach Monmouth. Opened in 1857, the Monmouth section of the Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway (CMUPR) linked Monmouth with Usk. The Usk to Pontypool section (which really met the main line at Little Mill Junction) had been opened in June 1856, but some teething troubles (several bridges over the Trothy and Monmouth Troy station had to be completed, and Usk Tunnel had fallen in) delayed opening of the line to Monmouth until 12th October 1857. Even this did not truly connect to the tramway, as there was, as yet, no railway bridge across the Wye at Monmouth. Notably, at this stage, the CMUPR did not serve Raglan - a halt was later opened, but it was two miles away from the town and its castle, which might have been expected to be a major tourist attraction; a halt at "Raglan Footpath", next to the present junction on the A449 dual carriageway, did not actually open until 1867, and it took until 1876 for the now familiar brick building adjacent to the A449 to be opened as a full station.
In the interim the CMUPR had things to do on other fronts. It was being operated by the Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway (NAHR), which ran from Newport, through Pontypool and Abergavenny, to Hereford. This arrangement saved the CMUPR from having to bother itself with locomotives, stock, and trying to manage a train service. Instead it merely reaped the profits and maintained the track. Unfortunately for the Company, it mainly ended up trying to maintain the track, and had to forego most of the hoped-for profits. This was the sad fate of Monmouth's railways.
In 1860, the NAHR was amalgamated into the West Midland Railway along with a few other railways which had fallen out with larger companies in the area. This resulted in some extra money to help fund the construction of a 22-arch stone viaduct across the Wye Valley, with a single girder span to cross the Wye itself, all carefully designed by Joseph Fairbanks. The viaduct provided access to Wyesham, and connected the Monmouth Tramroad into another railway for the first time.
This just left the extension to Coleford
to complete. However, by this stage the plan had practically been
dropped. By the time the Wyesham extension opened the CMUPR was
leased to the West Midland Railway. This was promptly followed
by the Great Western Railway (GWR) leasing the West Midland. In
1863 the West Midland became part of the GWR.
The CMUPR, however, retained its nominal independence - nominal in that all its income came from the Great Western and it essentially could not do anything which met with Great Western disapproval. The Great Western did, however, begin the process of the extension to Coleford. This involved taking over the Monmouth Tramroad, as it was the easiest route, in that many of the earthworks were already completed. This took time, though, and the next development actually came in 1865, when three schemes arrived in quite close succession in Parliament for Government backing and approval in the form of an Act of Parliament. These were the Monnow Valley Railway (MVR) to Pontrilas and the NAHR, the Ross and Monmouth Railway (R&M) (both authorised in 1865) and the Wye Valley Railway (WVR) (authorised in 1866).
The R&M was, in some ways, the more successful of the trio. Work began in late 1865 and was proceeding nicely when in 1866 the British economy collapsed. This was caused by two major issues. The first was the Crimean War, which was raging at the time and providing an excellent outlet for any surplus cash from the country's coffers with no particular signs of success (a little like Iraq, and not all that far away from there either). The second was the Mid Wales Railway, which had taken out a large loan from the merchant bank Overlend and Gurnley and omitted to either secure it on something or pay it back. Consequently when the Mid Wales Railway defaulted in mid-1866 (pointing out that a legal technicality gave it no obligation to pay), several banks and the economy of the country followed it. The railway was later bought out by the Cambrian and closed in 1963. The result of an economic crisis is several miles of abandoned embankments and cuttings.
While the financial collapse slowed the R&M, it at least had the advantage that it had properly started work. The MVR's engineer, Thomas Savin, was also involved with the Mid-Wales Railway and took the opportunity to go to the wall, leaving twenty feet of tunnel at Monmouth Troy for posterity. The WVR hadn't started work at all, as its Act of Parliament had not gone through until 1866. Moreover, it no longer had any opportunity for raising the money. The WVR duly removed itself from the scene and went into hibernation until the economy improved.
The R&M determined to put a brave face on things, and consequently the heavy earthworks, two tunnels, and two bridges across the Wye between Ross and Monmouth May Hill show no signs of the financial collapse or the fact that it took 8 years to reach Monmouth May Hill. Here - barely half a mile from the CMUPR at Monmouth Troy - it ran out of money. A station was duly built at May Hill next to the terminus of the tramroad, and the company sorted out the money required to build a bridge across the Wye to Monmouth Troy. In the meantime, opening was delayed while the Great Western found the railway a suitable locomotive.
The line opened on 7th August 1873 to Monmouth May Hill, and began in the way that it would go on, with a little tank engine hauling a couple of coaches along the 13 miles of railway. The completion of the bridge over the River Wye allowed access to Monmouth Troy station from 1st May 1874 onwards, providing a single-track link (with passing places) from Ross to Pontypool. Later that year access was provided to the Forest of Dean when the Severn and Wye Railway (S&W) opened their Lydbrook branch, which met the R&M at Lydbrook Junction. It would have provided direct access to Cinderford in the Forest of Dean were it not for the fact that Cinderford had not yet gained a rail link.
With the Ross and Monmouth railway opened, work began on the WVR. It rapidly became notable when a branch line was authorised off the main route of the WVR into the centre of Tintern to serve the wireworks there; for some 50 years it was the only one of the railways to Monmouth to have its own branch line. Notably this line never carried passengers, being intended exclusively for the use of the wireworks, and it was completed in 1875.
The main WVR itself, however, would not be completed until 1876. Of the four times that trains would cross the Wye between Monmouth and Chepstow, only two actually needed to be provided by the Company. A decision to redesign the route and dramatically increase the amount of tunnelling required delayed the project slightly, but, apart from that, things went pretty well, and by November 1876 the line was in a condition which was good enough for the GWR to start running trains over it. The Wireworks branch at Tintern, however, had its low-key opening ceremony shortly afterwards and was promptly mothballed, as the wireworks had gone bankrupt and there was no need for the branch line.
With the WVR open, thoughts were turning elsewhere. The need for a railway to be built from Monmouth to Coleford subsided when in 1875 the S&W reached Coleford from Parkend. This line was noted for the fact that anything with more than six wheels found it very hard to get past Darkhill Ironworks, where a vicious S bend was noted for its ability to bring runaway trains to a stand, and trains descending the 1-in-29 incline (about 3%) had to put on power in order to get around the curves. On the Monmouth front, plans were being floated for a line from Monmouth to Pontrilas again. They pottered in and out through the 1880s and disappeared forever at the end of the decade. Consequently no link was ever built up the logical-looking route to the North via Skenfrith and Grosmont. (It would actually have either been highly expensive or slow and awkward - or both - due to a pair of tight meanders near Skenfrith.)
By 1881 the Monmouth Tramroad had been increasingly moribund for some years; work now began on rebuilding it as a railway. This was completed in 1883, giving Coleford two stations - the Great Western one and the Severn and Wye one - which were adjacent to each other. The Great Western branch from Monmouth travelled through four tunnels and predominantly used the trackbed of its predecessor, except for cutting off several corners. This successfully raised the maximum speed of the line to 20 mph. The link between Wyesham and May Hill was lost altogether with the rebuilding, but it did bring the tramroad into line with the rest of the railways around Monmouth.
Other developments occurred as the Great Western increased its control over the lines into Monmouth. In 1887 the CMUPR was taken over by the Great Western. The WVR became increasingly worried - a precarious financial position with large debts to the Great Western made it susceptible to takeover. The R&M was doing reasonably well at this stage, presumably helped by the traffic from the Forest of Dean. The new Coleford branch was of little use for traffic coming out of the Forest, as there was, as yet, no link with the S&W line at Coleford. Direct traffic will therefore have found it more beneficial to go via Lydbrook.
In 1901 the Wireworks Branch at Tintern lost its main reason for existence when the wireworks closed for a second time, never to re-open. By 1902 the dedicated fleet (one industrial steam locomotive) had been disposed of and the branch once again lay disused, losing the railway slightly less money than it would if it was actually used. A blanket ban on tolls prevented the WVR from making a profit on the branch, which probably was the most important contribution to the next event.
In 1905 the Wye Valley Railway succumbed to the inevitable, passing into Great Western control while being cited in a curious law suit concerning the road bridge over the Wye at Brockweir (which it had avoided being the defendant in purely because it ran out of cash before it could build the bridge itself). Local landowners had built the bridge for the good of the area at the beginning of the century and the ferry owner sued them for trying to put him out of business by undercutting him; the bridge was free, but using his ferry cost 1d. The case was appealed up to the Court of Appeal, where it was vigorously fought on the grounds of unfair competition against a franchise which had been running "since time immemorial". This was ruled to be inadequate defence; the ferry closed, but the bridge is still there.
Things remained much the same until the First World War broke out in 1914. It was an interesting period for the railways. They were briefly taken over by the Government, and traffic levels grew, but all war-related work was done entirely for free, despite it destroying the track and causing great expense for after the war. Apart from the UK's worst ever rail accident occurring at Quintinshill in Southern Scotland, the network also experienced the first major round of closures at the end of 1916, when a couple of hundred miles of totally unprofitable lines were temporarily closed to free up the track for the war effort and save money. Among these closures was the Coleford Branch, although a section near Coleford was retained for a further 50 years to serve Whitecliff Quarry. In the main, these "temporary" closures were not very temporary, as most of the lines never re-opened. The Monmouth-Coleford line was among them. The route had been in use for 100 years.
More temporary was the closure, on the same day as the Coleford branch, of Tidenham station on the Wye Valley Railway, making it the first station (along with Newlands) on a railway to Monmouth to cease to accept traffic. In a most curious way, it was re-opened in February 1918, without waiting for the war to come to an end first. Newlands, being on the Coleford branch, was not so fortunate.
Following the war, the Government realised that it could save money by making all the railways work under one central management. However, this was politically unacceptable in 1919 - it smacked of communism, which was particularly high-profile then as the Bolsheviks had just taken over Russia - and so it was decided to "group" the railways into four companies, based partly on whereabouts they were and partly on who had previously owned them. These four companies were the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London Midland and Scottish Railway, and the Southern Railway. As part of the Railways Act 1921 the Ross and Monmouth Railway was finally surrendered to Great Western control, with the railways of Monmouth all coming under one company from the 1st January 1923.
The Grouping, as it is known, had little immediate effect. All three surviving lines had been operated by the Great Western in the years leading up to 1923, with direct services from Ross to Pontypool and from Monmouth to Severn Tunnel Junction (a few miles beyond Chepstow). After the Grouping the GWR took the opportunity to split the Ross to Pontypool axis into two separate branches centring on Troy, with only a few through trains from Pontypool to Monmouth May Hill. The WVR's branch line continued to decline, with most traffic from Tintern to Wireworks junction now being horse-drawn. Given that the railway had started with an up-to-date locomotive, it was slightly ironic that it had managed to reverse the passage of time in such a way.
The first alteration under the Great Western came in 1927. The Wye Valley south of Monmouth has a scattered population, and large portions of it were not served by the railway, with potential passengers being obliged to walk up to a mile to reach the station. The Great Western decided to alter this, and opened a halt at Whitebrook in February 1927, and another at Llandogo in March, both near St Briavels station which was next to Bigsweir Bridge. This was followed by Brockweir in 1929, while Raglan's original station re-opened as the CMUPRs first halt, called Raglan Road Crossing Halt, in November 1930. Then came Wyesham in January 1931. The Ross and Monmouth gained its first halt at Walford, near Ross-on-Wye, in February, and another WVR halt opened in August at Penallt, across the river from Redbrook. In 1932 the Wye Valley saw its last new halt with the opening of Netherhope Halt, near Tidenham, but the CMUPR gained a new halt in November 1933 at Elms Bridge, to the north of Raglan. Replacement of the steam-hauled trains began in 1936 with the arrival of the new GWR railcars, variously called "Flying Bananas" and "Elver Expresses", which provided a faster service and cut costs. The Great Western was trying to cut its losses on three quite expensive lines.
Then war broke out in 1939. The main effect was the opening of a new military depot at Glascoed, west of Usk. This naturally received rail access, and two new halts were also opened at the site - Glascoed West Access Halt (a small wooden platform) and Glascoed East Access Halt (a huge concrete platform of a now-familiar design). This addition, opened in 1943, would bring some much-needed traffic to the CMUPR.
When the war ended in 1945 the rail network was tired, forlorn, and worn into the ground. None of the Big Four had any money. Tired locomotives (there had been considerable difficulties getting new stock for six years) limped around a railway which had a limit of 60 mph imposed because it couldn't cope with anything faster. Rather than compensate the Big Four for forcing them to move all the military trains for free and preventing them from doing maintenance, the newly-elected Labour Government merely appropriated the network and called it British Railways. The Monmouthshire branches became part of the Western Region (WR). As regional control increased, it became clear that the Western Region was just the Great Western, with a new name tag but still practically in the same clothes. The WR opened a new halt at Hadnock, to the north of Monmouth on the R&M, in 1951. It was not even deemed to be worth a decent platform. Staffing levels on certain stations were decreased slightly, although all remained open.
The final rundown began in 1954. A proposed closure of the CMUPR was fought off and instead BR opened Cefn Tilla halt, to the east of Usk. The platform was around six feet long and the sign had to go on the bank behind it. The train service, which had for so long been 4 trains each way each day, was increased to 11, with an additional railcar being allocated to the branch. Costs and income rose dramatically.
Had the service been reshuffled at the December 1954 timetable, to only require one set (around seven trains each way could then be accommodated), the line could have kept some additional revenue and possibly survived, as it only had one major river to cross, with a single bridge at Usk. However, this didn't happen.
Instead, the December 1954 timetable change saw the service revert to 4 trains each way each day. Both railcars were withdrawn and replaced with steam traction. This was, to all intents and purposes, the closure of the line, with the remaining service being retained as a skeleton service (only skeletons had the time to wait for it) until full closure was authorised. The Transport User's Consultation Committee (TUCC) was held in Cardiff, in March 1955, and, despite some spirited local opposition, suffered from the fact that it would reduce the train service to Monmouth, but not end in its withdrawal. The R&M and WVR were to remain open. BR's figures showed a very distinct loss, and although the methods of working out closure figures for any railway have been rejected by many in more recent years, in 1955 they had no problems satisfying the TUCC that the line cost more than it was worth. Closure was scheduled for the 13th of June. Practically unnoticed in all of this was the relegation of Tidenham station to a halt in February, with goods services withdrawn and staff laid off. It had been coming for a while, and should have happened elsewhere to cut costs.
What the closure "celebrations" for the 98-year-old CMUPR would have been is unknown; if there were to be any, there was no opportunity for them to occur. A national strike by driver's union ASLEF on the 28th of May shut most of the rail network down for several weeks and was the single largest cause of traffic loss from the railways in the post-war era. Even if before Monmouth had been due to retain its remaining railways, by the time the settlement occurred on the 14th of June, closure was inevitable. The CMUPR passed away suddenly when the life support system was turned off by strikers.
The WVR and R&M services carried on much as before. Although Tidenham was now a halt, most trains will have continued to stop there. The obvious thing to do at this point would have been to amalgamate the lines to provide a through service, but this didn't happen. There could have been practical reasons for this - the WVR train was based at Severn Tunnel Junction, but the R&M set was kept at Ross. Both sheds drew up different timetables, and connections were not easy to obtain at Monmouth Troy.
On the 12th October the Stephenson Locomotive Society ran a special from Pontypool to Monmouth and back over the still-intact line. It was the last passenger train to work the route. In all probability the three lines were by now actually life-expired, and would need major financial support to keep them going. In post-war Britain, that could not be forthcoming. Consequently they would have to go, and the CMUPR had the least tourist value. This and its extra age will have been factors as to why it went first.
The closure proposals for both stations in Monmouth and their railways came in 1958. There were sometimes a number of proposals as to what would happen, but on this occasion it was all very plain and simple - both lines would close to passenger traffic from January 1959 and some of the goods facilities would be closed at the same time. There was an immediate outcry. A letter was written to the Editor of The Times. Scores of suggestions as to how the lines could be made profitable poured in. They included sacking all the station staff and running the line with a series of unstaffed halts. It was pointed out that even BR admitted that steam trains cost more to run than their diesel counterparts, but the railcars had been withdrawn and replaced with steam traction in 1957. It was even suggested that the Monmouth Tramroad between Wyesham and Monmouth May Hill should be re-instated, with Monmouth May Hill becoming the main station and Troy being closed (Troy, by historical accident, was the main station, but was a mile out of the town centre). This had been proposed by the WVR in 1877 but finances had conspired against the upgrading of this useful chord.
BR, however, felt that enough cost-cutting had been done to show that the lines couldn't pay their way. Apart from Lydbrook Junction, Monmouth Troy and Tintern, most of the stations were wayside halts with only a couple of members of staff. The railcars had been life-expired. So, now, were the steam trains. So, for that matter, were both lines. New stock would cost too much - new diesel railcars were appearing, but not all of them worked, and there weren't enough to cover every line. It was deemed that keeping the railways open for three years would cost £60,000 (probably the cost of refurbishing the lines to carry passenger trains for any longer). The TUCC, after it had calmed down from hearing this figure, promptly recommended closure of the railways, with a replacement bus service and the track to remain down for three years. The closure was set for the 5th of January 1959.
Events did not intervene this time to interfere with this closure, though they did ensure that no outsiders would be interested. January 1959 was more taken up with a Cuban freedom-fighter, Fidel Castro, overthrowing the US-backed Government of Cuba. While Castro walked into the capital of Cuba, the last passenger train to use both the Ross and Monmouth and Wye Valley Railways trundled up the line with eight coaches and two engines on the 4th of January 1959. On Monday 5th, the only train to Monmouth was a goods service from Chepstow.
Traffic over the WVR ceased in nice, easy stages. The R&M was more untidy. Monmouth May Hill to Lydbrook Junction closed entirely on the 5th. This brought to an end many years of trains passing under Symonds Yat Rock. Coal continued to cross the river to Monmouth May Hill as it was next to the gas works of the time. The WVR brought in a steady stream of goods traffic of various shapes and sizes, and seemed reasonably secure. The R&M, despite providing an Edison and Swann wireworks at Lydbrook with transport, did not have a certain future. Early efforts to preserve it, however, were already beginning a long tradition of failing.
The closure of the tinplate works at Redbrook in 1961 meant that, for the first time in many generations, Redbrook was not involved in heavy industry or polluting the Wye. It also meant that there was a shortage of traffic for the WVR north of Tintern Quarry. In 1963 coal stopped being delivered to Monmouth Gasworks by rail, prompting the Monmouth section of the R&M to pass into oblivion, and the section of WVR north of Tintern Quarry obligingly followed on January 6th the following year. The yard at Lydbrook Junction closed in November 1964, and this put the R&M smartly into the position of the first of Monmouth's railways to close entirely. The rush of closures briefly ceased at this point, but it resumed when the section of the Coleford branch to Whitecliff Quarry was remembered in 1967, and it was promptly shut, with Coleford being struck off the rail network. Whitecliff Quarry remained open, with stone being transported to Parkend by road.
With virtually nothing left to close, closures ceased at this point and the remains of the railways of Monmouth were left to get on with life.
A Government stock-take in 1980 revealed, much to their horror, that virtually no railways had been closed anywhere in the UK since 1974. While they began the run-down of the Settle and Carlisle Railway, they began some much-needed practice for closing railways, and several minor freight-only lines were shut. The Monmouth area offered two - Tintern Quarry to Wye Valley Junction on the WVR and Glascoed to Little Mill Junction on the CMUPR. Apart from some people at Netherhope (who could now have a quiet Christmas) hardly anyone noticed when the WVR was mothballed between Tidenham and Tintern Quarry at the end of 1981.
Limestone trains from Dayhouse Quarry ceased in 1990, and the CMUPR finally made it to the list of "totally disused" lines when the services to the Royal Ordinance Factory at Glascoed ceased in about 1997. Neither line is really happy for this to be the end of the story, however, and occasionally one will stir in its sleep, pondering re-awakening.
In the meantime, the CMUPR makes a lovely dual carriageway. Usk station has been demolished, but the site is still clearly visible and the tunnel can be walked through. The former stations at Llandenny, Raglan Road, and Elms Bridge are marked by overbridges on the A449/ A40 dual carriageway. Raglan station is sat next to the road, looking a little run-down, working for the enemy as a works depot for road maintenance. Dingestow station, a minor stopping place when it was alive, remains unnoticed but loved by those who know it, as a house hidden from the A40 by trees. It is vaguely visible if you drive slowly and look out for it at a spot where the A40 goes over a local road.
Ross-on-Wye station is now gone, replaced by a warehouse, though the engine shed and goods shed remain. Walford halt has gone, Kerne Bridge is a private house, and Lydbrook Junction has been absorbed into the Edison and Swann factory. Symonds Yat has been turned into a hotel car park. Hadnock halt has gone, which wasn't difficult as it was barely there. Monmouth May Hill is now a set of sports facilities, although the bridge under the A466 remains intact.
This is in contrast to the old bridge where the WVR crossed the A466 at Wyesham, which has been removed along with Wyesham halt. The bridge over the road at Redbrook has gone, and the station has been built on, though the bridge over the river is still there, except for the bits which rusted away. Penallt halt has gone, though the trackbed is still there, and the same applies at Whitebrook. St. Briavels station is securely fenced off, although only the loss of the signal box prevents it from being more intact than Tintern - the goods shed remains, pretending to be a giant ivy bush. Llandogo halt is also fenced off, although there isn't much to see these days (it was next to the church). Brockweir halt has vanished under brambles. Tintern station is now a tourist attraction, and it is quite ironic that nearly all the visitors come by car. Netherhope halt platform has been removed, and Tidenham station has changed so much since that, while it still has rail access, it is hard to connect the deserted concrete platform (now minus the stone loading equipment) with the idyllic little station opened in 1876.
Coleford station is a car park and the goods shed is an excellent museum. Newlands is a private house. Caravans are parked on the line further down. The Redbrook tunnels are the most secure in the area, having been walled up and used to store gunpower and weapons in the World Wars.
Monmouth Troy remained derelict for a number of years. In 1957 the footbridge disappeared. The shelter on the second platform was flattened shortly after closure. After goods trains ceased, the site was taken over by a haulier, who made good use of the goods shed and the main building but did not retain the separate refreshment room or the signal box. The station building was carefully dismantled in 1986 and taken away to the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway station at Winchcombe, where it looks very happy. The goods shed has passed on to a different happier place - with no need for it at Winchcombe, it remained at Monmouth until 2002 when it was sent off to where all good goods sheds go, and replaced with a housing estate. Monmouth Tunnel remains sealed up.
Proposals to convert the WVR into a cycleway require permission from both local authorities and they are taking it in turns to give the scheme the cold shoulder. The CMUPR and the Coleford Branch look set to remain firmly dead, although re-opening to Usk from Pontypool is a possibility. Re-opening from Chepstow to Ross-on-Wye, along with the old line from Gloucester to Hereford through Ross, was proposed in the 1980s but sank in the 1990s, seemingly ending possibilities of seeing trains once more running alongside the Wye.