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’.

Steam Railway (UK) - - Contents - BY NICK BRODRICK SR

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.

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