BLUE IS THE COLOUR
Standard gauge steam may have officially ended with the ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’ on Sunday August 11, but as dawn broke on Monday August 12, a new era of British Rail steam had already begun. This was 1968’s class of ‘98’.
The Vale of Rheidol Railway and the ‘arrows of indecision’ post-1968
There has probably never been a livery that has been more Marmite than this.
British Rail corporate blue, complete with its angular ‘arrows of indecision’, applied to all three of the Vale of Rheidol’s model Prairie tank engines. Indeed, the striking new image extended to all of the carriages that were used on the Aberystwyth-Devil’s Bridge narrow gauge tourist line. And it all happened in 1968.
The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more self-contradictory. At the same time that British Rail was ridding itself of its last outmoded steam locomotives in the North West, it remarkably made, in effect, a U-turn to keep the Rheidol running. Diesels weren’t a realistic option because the railway had never used one. The 1ft 11½in VoR had, naturally, been absorbed by the Western Region following nationalisation in 1948, along with the likes of the Welshpool & Llanfair and Corris railways, but it was transferred from Paddington control to the maroon corner of the capital, Euston, in 1963.
The ‘Rheidol’ had apparently been keeping its head financially above water during the reign of BR Western Region, but the London Midland Region’s top brass considered that the success of its new acquisition was contrived and therefore closure was the inevitable
outcome for what was a minor concern. It was subsequently claimed that it was actually losing £1,200 a year – £20,000 in today’s money. However, George Dow, the BR divisional manager responsible for the 11¾-mile branch line, fought hard to not only keep the line open but also inject much-needed infrastructure investment.
He won the fight thanks to a stroke of serendipity, as Labour government Transport Minister Barbara Castle visited Aberystwyth together with the Secretary of State for Wales in 1967. Dow was able to argue first-hand why the ‘Rheidol’s’ survival was good for Wales, but that it was reliant on £5,000 of national money to finance the relocation of its GWR-era terminus to create a genuine cross-platform interchange with the town’s standard gauge station.
Moreover, ‘Aber’s’ engine shed, once home to ‘Manors’ but closed in 1965, was now re-purposed for the 2-6-2Ts (which had, on paper, been allocated to Machynlleth for the past three years), together with the re-routing of the then circuitous route through the southern edge of the town.
Barbara Castle was convinced, and she ordered that the upgrade should coincide with the railway’s revival, much to Euston’s private annoyance.
Tourist trains departed from the new terminus on May 20 1968, with the new blue fleet – in harmony with the new age of diesel and electric. It is not entirely clear how the livery diktat originated, whether it was a publicity stunt or simply regarded as part of the corporate image. However, George Dow is likely to have been involved, having been intimately involved in LNER and BR publicity throughout his career.
In 1968, 48,532 passengers were carried, generating a revenue of £12,873, but leaving an unfortunate deficit of £15,000. Nevertheless, BR stuck at it – or rather, was stuck with it. Swindon’s A Shop would continue to maintain the famous trio of Nos. 7 Owain Glyndwr, 8 Llywelyn and 9 Prince of Wales which, post-1968, were known by the BR TOPS (Total Operations Processing System) as Class 98s, in line with the newly reclassified Class 25s, 31s, 47s, et al.
Nationalised steam continued to serve Devil’s Bridge until the VoR was privatised in 1989, following decades of under-investment and rationalisation. Unlike 20 years earlier, there was no glorious final flourish, simply a modest acknowledgement of the passing of a remarkable era and thus, finally, BR steam was finished.
It’s an August morning in 1968, the same month that British Rail dispensed with standard gauge steam, yet 2-6-2T No. 7 Owain Glyndwr prepares to depart from the recently converted main line platforms at Aberystwyth – as the class would continue to do for another 20 years under BR rule.