Ammonium Nitrate Works
Market Trains and Livestock
Government Timber Siding
Pick Up Goods
Traffic at each Station
The general pattern of traffic on the branch remained relatively unchanged throughout the period 1917 to 1926 with the exception that some specialist wartime traffics ceased in 1919. The basic operating pattern was several passenger trains per day with workmen's trains in the early morning and evening. A mixed or goods train ran once or twice a day, and milk trains twice a day. On Saturdays there were no goods trains and a reduced passenger service. On Sundays there were usually only one or two trains a day each way, and these carried milk in addition. In the 1930s and 1940s decline set in with reducing passenger services and dwindling milk traffic. From 1933 there was no Sunday service at all along the branch, except during the Second World War.
For details see the four sample timetables for 1918, 1923, 1933 and 1942, given on the Timetables page. The following comments apply mainly to services in the period 1917-1926 and for some services in the 1930s and the war years. Prior to and after these dates there were considerable differences.
There were between five and seven passenger trains each weekday, with a shoppers train mid-Saturday morning to Swindon. A mid-morning train ran Mondays only to serve Swindon's weekly market. On Sundays the two milk trains would usually comprise a passenger element as well, thus providing a Sunday service. Generally stopping passenger trains were timed to take about 30 to 40 minutes to traverse the line in each direction, while "fast" services that did not call at all stations would take just under 30 minutes. Some services, slowed in order to fit into main line traffic paths, took up to 45 minutes. The turn-around time at Highworth could be anything from 10 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the time of day and the density of main line traffic. At Swindon there was up to an hour between turns and this was to allow the locomotive to take on water and coal and attend to other duties at the works. Trains normally consisted of four or six 4-wheel vehicles. However the 517 and Metro class engines that initially worked the branch were not powerful enough to draw six vehicles up the 1 in 44 incline to Highworth station. This hill was known as Butts Bank, named for the "butts" or grouse shooting bunkers in the valley of the Bydemill Brook, out of which and up the hill to Highworth the track climbed (16). Incidentally Butts Bank was the steepest railway incline in Wiltshire and had tight reverse curves in addition to the incline. It was a well-known test of man and machine. The normal practice therefore was for the train engine to uncouple the leading two coaches at Hannington, shunt them into the loop and proceed to Highworth with four coaches. On the return trip the engine would collect the two coaches left at Hannington by shunting the whole train into the loop to preserve the vehicle sequence. The 850 and 5800 class engines were more powerful and these may have taken all six vehicles up the bank. However this would then cause problems in running around the train in the short loop at Highworth so it may have been branch practice to always leave two coaches at Hannington.
The authorised load on the line was Swindon-Hannington 110 tons, Hannington-Highworth 88 tons, Highworth-Swindon 96 tons. As a guide, a 4-wheel coach weighed approximately 17 tons plus load, a loaded open 7-plank coal wagon 14 to 16 tons, a loaded closed van 10 to 12 tons and a brake van 15 tons.
The branch acquired the slang name of the Bunk Line and is still referred to as such by elderly local people. How this name originated is unknown but one story concerns a soldier who was on a day pass out of Swindon visiting friends and family in Highworth. He stayed too long in one of the town's pubs and running to the station was dismayed to see the last train of the day disappearing down the bank. He is said to have exclaimed that his train had "done a bunk" (Edwardian slang for leaving without telling someone or clearing off at an inappropriate time). Whether or not the story is true, the Bunk Line is the local name by which the branch has always been known.
These ran in the early morning and in the evening. Some timetables designated the down morning train as empty stock, which ran down to Highworth without stopping at the intermediate stations. On other occasions it operated as a public passenger service. On the return journey the workmen's trains stopped at Hannington and Stratton but perversely not at Stanton. Workers who lived in Stanton had to walk to Hannington to catch this train. One man recalls, as a boy, that his older brother had to get up an hour earlier than necessary and walk the two miles to Hannington to board the train, only to go right past his front door forty-five minutes later. In the evening the sequence was reversed, with the up return working forming the early evening passenger service.
Starting in 1941 workmen's trains also served the Vickers Factory. Again these ran early morning and in the evening, the locomotive running around the train using one of the loops just outside the factory itself. In 1942, following complaints from the staff, the new "B" set coaches replaced the ancient 4-wheelers on these trains. One unusual manoeuvre came about from the requirement for a morning passenger train to run immediately after the worker's train. This involved the train disgorging its workmen at the Vickers platform, then propelling its coaches back to Kingsdown Road Junction, to reverse direction again and continue up the branch.
Milk was the single most important produce of the area. There was an extensive catchment area around the line with farms as far afield as Lechlade and Fairford bringing their milk to the various stations along the line by horse and cart, for onwards delivery to London. There were two collections of milk per day, including Sundays.
Empty milk churns were dropped off at each station by the down morning workmen's train and the siphons left in the headshunt at Highworth. The first passenger train of the day then coupled the loaded siphons to the rear coach. In the evening the routine was repeated with empties being left by the afternoon passenger train and full vehicles collected by the last up workmen's train or evening passenger train.
Sometimes the milk was carried in one or two siphon vans. At other times the volume of milk produced by local farms required an additional dedicated train usually made up of three or four vehicles, normally siphons but sometimes including old passenger brake vans converted for this traffic. The milk was transported in 17-gallon galvanised steel churns that were cumbersome to manhandle when full. Milk traffic was important at Highworth and Stratton where photographs of the latter station show no less than sixteen platform trolleys each holding six churns. At Highworth when the milk dock overflowed with churns the cattle dock was pressed into service as additional storage, excess churns even occupying the end of the platform as well. At Hannington a small wooden loading dock was provided for milk at the west end of the passing loop but its diminutive size indicates that milk traffic was lighter here. Stanton, as with passengers and most other freight, appears to have generated the least traffic for this train.
At Swindon the milk vehicles were uncoupled from the rear of the passenger train and left in an adjacent siding for collection by the up milk train. The milk went to several large dairies in London.
There is an amusing anecdote concerning the 17-gallon churns. By the 1940s road haulage was taking the milk traffic away from the railways and very quickly the 10-gallon churn appeared. Railway workers and farmers had been used to lifting the older style heavy cans for years and one is tempted to conclude that lorry drivers are made of lesser stuff than railwaymen!
Milk traffic on the branch declined sharply after the 1926 general strike and continued to decline until by the Second World War the milk trains ceased, the road lorry taking all this trade from the local area while the Great Western looked on, unable or unwilling to compete.
These works were built during the Great War. The atmospheric fixation process was used to make ammonium nitrate, which was an ingredient vital to the armaments industry used in explosives and various propellants. Trains were brought to the works about six times a day. There were several reception roads and traffic was heavy. The trains would be broken down and shunted around the works by their own locomotives. Outgoing trains would similarly be assembled by the works shunters to be taken away by a Great Western engine. Each outgoing train comprised about ten iron minks or GPVs (gunpowder vans) with probably one or two empty open wagons as barrier vehicles behind the engine. Apparently it was policy not to marshal longer trains, despite the economic sense this made, due to the risk of explosion. The ammunition trains went to a number of places but in particular Woolwich arsenal on the Thames east of London. Here the ammunition was sent onward to the Western Front. The trains ran from the works to the Transfer Yard where they were reversed and taken onward to London. It seems unlikely that a train would be taken just the half-mile to Swindon Transfer Yard and handed over to another locomotive when the whole train was outbound elsewhere as a single unit and did not require shunting. The presence of explosives also makes this scenario unlikely. It is possible that engines other than the branch locomotive serviced these turns. There are records of Collett goods (class 2251) 0-6-0 tender engines moving on the branch below Kingsdown Road Junction in the 1940s to 1960s and even ROD 2-8-0 heavy freight engines were stored on part of the nitrate works site in 1919-1920. So during the Great War locomotives larger than the usual branch tanks such as class 2301 0-6-0 Dean Goods may have worked these trains.
The works possibly also accepted trains comprising closed vans and sheeted open wagons of general supplies and full lubricant tank wagons for the plants' machinery. No doubt coal, timber and other consumables also went in. As well as the ammunition trains, outbound traffic would therefore comprise empties from the sundries trains and possibly ash and clinker from the plants' locomotive depot.
The market train ran once a month on Wednesdays until about 1925. Highworth market had experienced a boom in 1915-1916 but after this time animals were rarely conveyed by rail, most farmers walking their cattle to and from market. General produce in closed vans or sheeted opens would however be carried. By the 1920s the market was not sufficiently large to create much rail traffic but we will include some cattle wagons in our market train activity to represent this traffic. It is unlikely that horses were transported by train. However we intend to model two liveries of horse-box which can be added to market or passenger trains to add variety. It is possible that horses were taken to and from Stanton as the family home of the Hon. Baronet Mr A D Hussey-Freke, squire of Hannington, and one of the principal early promoters of the line was near the station and animals taken to hunt may have come via train.
One member of the station staff at Highworth recalls a special train in the 1920s that took a hundred army horses to Aldershot. These would have gone in cattle wagons rather than horseboxes (these were usually reserved for stud or race animals). With six to eight animals per wagon this would require a 13- to 17-wagon train, too heavy to be drawn up Butts Bank in one haul and so split and reassembled at Hannington.
In 1915 Britain imported all her timber for the war industry. It was usually used for temporary buildings, particularly at aerodromes, docks, army camps and hospitals. An urgent need for more resulted in a programme of felling home grown timber and as there was a shortage of skilled labour, the Government asked Canada to supply lumberjacks. The 224th and 238th Forestry Battalions were sent over in 1916 and billeted in platoon strength at many places throughout the country. One contingent was sent to Stanton Great Wood. The War Department funded the cost of laying a siding on the west side of the line about a quarter mile south of Stanton station with a wooden platform alongside. It connected to the line by a single turnout facing in the up direction. Here timber was brought from the felling sites in the wood by horse drawn wagon, sawn, and loaded by land girls using a light crane. These were the longest trains to run on the branch, comprising 35 to 40 wagons.
In common with all other goods on the branch these trains started from Swindon Transfer Yard. Exact working practice is unknown but the train was probably stopped at Stratton and broken into sections that allowed it to be run around and then propelled into the siding for loading. It would make good sense from a safety aspect to marshal this train with a brake van at each end, or even with some brake vans in the middle so that the portion being propelled from Stratton would have a braking vehicle in the event of a runaway (the siding was at the top of a mile long 1 in 66 gradient). As wagons were filled they would be shunted to the running line and replaced by more empties. This work was carried out on Sundays when there was no train timetabled on the branch between the early morning up passenger that arrived at Swindon at 8:10am and the down evening milk train that departed from Swindon at 6:05pm.
The siding was lifted at the end of the war and peace returned to Stanton Great Wood, although in size it was now somewhat less great.
From the earliest days of the branch freight on the line was conveyed in mixed trains. They might comprise two passenger coaches marshalled behind the locomotive followed by a handful of wagons with a passenger guards van or goods brake van at the rear. With the 88-ton load limit up Butts Bank, no more than four of five goods wagons could be taken up in one trip. They continued to run until the late 1920s. The general practice was to assemble the freight portion at the Transfer Yard with a brake van at the Swindon end. This part of the train was then propelled to number seven bay, and the passenger coaches then shunted from the centre bay siding or grease works siding (where the branch stock was usually stabled between turns) onto the front of the train. At Highworth passengers would probably be forbidden to board the train until shunting was completed as the passenger coaches might have to be moved several times while sorting the goods vehicles and there would be a danger of passenger injury caused by heavy shunts.
This train ran once a day, usually as the last train of the day, Mondays excepted, throughout our period of interest, or on a "runs as required" basis (which is a railway term for "not enough traffic to make it worth running every day"). On Mondays it did not run as the Swindon market passenger train occupied its path. Some of these trains ran only to Stratton but when the mixed trains were withdrawn in the late 1920s this train served all stations, and took over the daily mixed path so that on some timetables two daily goods trains are shown.
Most freight was carried in open wagons either exposed to the elements (household coal, timber, building materials and animal feedstuffs) or protected from the weather by heavy waxed canvas sheets. Vans might also be used instead of sheeted wagons depending on the traffic or what vehicles were available. Photographs of the line show open wagons to be very much in the majority over covered vans, to a ratio of more than 3:1. These are casual statistics assembled from a study of a series of photos of the line between 1890 and 1964. A further analysis of this data for open wagons shows that of approximately every six, four carried coal and two carried general goods either sheeted or unsheeted.
If you were to represent a hypothetical "statistical-average" eight-wagon branch pick-up goods train, it would comprise four open coal wagons, an open wagon carrying an unsheeted load, a sheeted open wagon and two covered vans. Interestingly, with an average coal load of 15 tons per wagon, a 7 ton weight for each of the other two opens and 12 tons per loaded covered van we get a train weight of 98 tons. Add about 15 tons for a brake van and we are at the line's load limit.
The line's main inwards traffic was ordinary household coal and usual distribution practice was for a local coal merchant to be based at each station. Coal was often bagged up into sacks direct from the wagon using a pair of tip scales. These were placed on the ground adjacent to the wagon and had a pivoting hopper on top, held upright by a counterweight at the end of a balance arm. A coal sack was hung at the other side. The wagon side door was dropped open, coal was shovelled direct into the hopper and as it filled, it tripped the counterweight when the weight reached the pre-set amount (usually one hundredweight) and the hopper tipped up and filled the sack. The sacks would then be taken by horse and cart to local customers to fulfil specific orders. Highworth had a siding laid specifically for coal traffic that had a capacity of ten wagons and boasted a set of coalbunkers or staithes so beloved of UK railway modellers. The advantages of storage bunkers over working directly out of a wagon were that different grades of coal, and more importantly coal in quantity, could be stored to meet fluctuations in demand. Furthermore a wagon could be unloaded quickly and despatched back into revenue-earning service, rather than acting as a store-bin on wheels.
Highworth boasted a gas works and the Vorda Works both of which bought coal for their boilers from the Highworth station merchant. No doubt many other organisations, such as the several inns in the town and the school, bought coal from the Highworth merchants.
Hannington and Stratton appear to have had no such luxurious fittings although photographs of Stratton show it's two sidings at times to be filled with coal wagons. We do not have a photograph of Stanton goods yard and the 1:2,500 map shows neither coalbunkers nor cattle dock.
Other than coal, general produce such as timber, building materials and sundry hardware would have been off-loaded either direct to the horse and cart of a contractor or into a shed for collection later. There was a small iron lock-up shed on a brick built loading dock at Stratton for this purpose as well as a 3-ton hand operated crane that stood in the open. Highworth had a much larger timber shed built by a local firm Chick's in 1897 that had an internal 2-ton crane. It had a loading dock inside with the capacity to unload three wagons under cover. This was the biggest railway building on the branch. There is no map or photo evidence of either a crane or a lock-up at Hannington or Stanton.
The goods shed siding at Highworth was accessed by a kickback from the coal siding and so shunting moves here could get quite convoluted. The site was very cramped being built partly into an old quarry on the side of a hill and no doubt shortage of funds at the time of construction restricted the track layout as well.
In addition there was an end loading dock here, used by covered vans or low-sided wagons with end doors that carried road vehicles, carts or wheeled farm machinery.
The Vorda Works of the Oriental Matting Co. (17) has already been mentioned. It was owned by T Angell Smith, one of the line's promoters. The works took delivery of coal from the Forest of Dean "Park Royal" Colliery. The main inwards traffic was coconut fibre bales. These were imported from India into Brentford Docks in London about once a month and then despatched in block rakes of about 20 to 30 wagons to Swindon where they were stored in sidings. The wagons were sheeted Hybar vehicles that were moved up to Highworth in batches of three or four, the fibre bales being taken to the works by horse and cart.
In the other direction carpets and finished mats went out in closed vans, one or two vehicles at a time.
W. Bartrop and Son, agricultural engineers (18), produced horseshoes for the army in the Great War and these went out at the rate of two or sometimes three wagon loads a week. Between the wars Bartrops repaired farm machinery and this came in on flat wagons to be craned out in the goods shed or wheeled off at the end loading dock. Some awkward loads were brought in on dropside wagons and taken off sideways at the milk dock, where steel plates were laid across the gap between wagon and dock.
Coal merchants known to have operated at Highworth are: Gilberts (1890-1919), Baldwins (1919-1930s), Cooke's (1930s), Co-operative Wholesale Society (1930s). Apart from the CWS it is not known if any of these companies had their own wagons.
Private owner coal wagons that are identifiable from photographs of the line are Ocean, Parkend, Park Royal, Wilmer, Stevenson Clarke and Tebbutt (or Tebbutts).
Cattle cake and fertilizer came in to be distributed to local farms. Foodstuffs and general goods were brought for sale by the town shops and timber came in on bolster wagons, running in pairs or triples to protect adjacent vehicles from damage as the long baulks of timber swung on the tight curves of the branch.
Apart from some milk and coal traffic, this station was one of the quieter places on the line. Cattle feed and farm machinery came in and hay went out but since it was so far from the village it served, it attracted little traffic. The nearest settlement, Swanborough, a quarter mile up the road was (and still is) only two houses and an inn.
This station also provided only very local trade from coal and milk. Foodstuffs for the village came in and eggs produced by a nearby hatchery went out in covered vans. As mentioned elsewhere there may have been some bloodstock movements associated with Stanton House, and again baled hay was sent out to Wales in the autumn for pit pony feed. The hay was conveyed in open wagons protected by the usual tarpaulin sheets.
The Second World War saw Stanton's busiest time. The station serviced the postal and equipment requirements for a number of army camps in the area and the small station experienced its peak traffic in 1939 to 1941 when it shipped in coal and equipment for the Vickers Works at South Marston. This trade ceased when that factory's own line was laid in from Kingsdown Junction in May-June 1941.
This station was the equal of Highworth for goods traffic. Parcels, food and other items for retail at local shops, farm machinery, cattle cake and seed potatoes in open wagons all came inwards on a regular basis.
There were three coal merchants based in the yard; Day's, Whittaker's and Barnes's.
John Arkell was another promoter of the line. His family brewery (19) sent its beers out by rail until the 1920s when they converted to road transport. But after this they still accepted incoming loads of hops and bagged sugar in covered vans at the rate of two vehicles a week. An interesting traffic concerned a contract with the Guinness Company, for whom Arkells had a bottling franchise. 54-gallon hogsheads of the dark ale would come in from Dublin in closed vans to be bottled at Arkells and sent out by rail for distribution.
The Trinidad Ashphalt Works (20) is shown at Stratton in one photograph labelled "between the wars" so we are not sure when it was built. It is not marked on the 1923 survey. A later photograph of 1958 shows no trace of the plant so it was probably built in the mid- to late-1920s and demolished by or soon after the Second World War. It appears to have been a fairly flimsy structure of corrugated tin or asbestos sheeting probably laid on a timber frame. We have been unable to find out what the trading practice of this industry was. To be built at Stratton it either had it's raw materials or it's market close by. Since Swindon was expanding greatly between the wars and just after them, it seems likely that the plant accepted stone in large boulders, crushed and graded the material and sent it out locally to the road construction and building trade. Graded road stone may also have gone out by rail. The engines to drive the crushing plant were probably steam driven and so coal would be delivered for this purpose, as well as possibly sundry supplies.
All locomotives that used the branch faced Highworth buffer stops. We know of only one exception, a class 08 diesel electric photographed passing through Stratton in 1964 and facing toward Swindon.
When shunting at Highworth two guards would accompany the train. The brake van would be uncoupled and left 50 yards down Butts bank in charge of the junior guard. This man would screw his brakes down full on and apply sand to the rails behind the vehicle to give additional grip. These precautions were in case a runaway vehicle went down the 1 in 44 incline which commenced at the pointwork of the station throat. The senior guard would then supervise the shunting of the train.
From 1928 Cricklade Road crossing (21) became unstaffed and the gates were opened and closed by the train crew. The crossing gates were thus left locked open for road traffic and closed across the railway. The gates were opened by means of a steel key welded to the handle of the train token. The practice was for the locomotive to come to a halt before the gates, the fireman would jump down, unlock and open them and the driver would take the train across at walking pace, the fireman jumping aboard on the move. The train stopped again when the guard gave the signal that the last vehicle was clear. The guard then got off to close and lock the gates, retaining the train staff until the train reached the next station, when he would return it to the locomotive. We plan to investigate the code that the simulation uses to see if it is possible to manually operate the crossing. If not, it will be standard procedure to follow the above sequence (stop, walking pace across, stop) at the crossing in any post-1928 activities. Some train crews affixed red markers to telephone poles at the correct braking points from the crossing but these were not always observed and the wooden gates had to be replaced several times!
In between turns on the branch the passenger stock would be stabled in the siding adjacent to the grease works immediately northeast of Swindon station (see activities in the simulation).
Because the signalmen in the Swindon area dealt with numerous and complex train movements, a whistle code was arranged between the train crews and signal cabins. On the Great Western a long blast was called a 'crow':
Permission to leave no.7 bay: 1 crow
Request to enter no.7 bay from down main: 3 shorts
Request to enter no.7 bay from up relief line*: 2 shorts, 1 crow
Highworth branch to or from up relief line: 1 short, 2 crows
Highworth branch to or from main line: 2 shorts
Use these signals for that authentic experience.
*Returning to no.7 bay via the up relief line was incorrect procedure (known as "wrong road running") but it was done at busy times in the Great War and more frequently in the second half of World War Two when the main lines were densely pathed.
When propelling wagons from the Transfer Yard across the main line up to 30 vehicles could be manoeuvred in this fashion, provided that a guard rode in a brake van at the head of the train and the speed did not exceed 10 miles per hour or 4 miles per hour over pointwork.
There was no official water or coal supply for engines on the branch. There was a standard GWR cylindrical pattern water column at the end of Swindon's number 7 bay and another water tank and coaling stage at the Transfer Yard. Coal and water could also be got as required from the main works engine shed to the north west of Swindon Junction (22) where the coaling stage was a tippler similar to the stage still in use at Didcot. The coal stage at the Transfer Yard (23) was a simple shovel and hoist affair.
There was no requirement to supply locomotive coal on the branch. The journey was so short that a tank engine's bunker-full would last most of the day, and if there was a need, the bunker could be filled in Swindon between turns. However in times of dire need for water a human bucket-chain could be formed at Highworth to bring water from a well above the station. In the event that locomotives in our simulation require water and coal we have included a 'pickup object' for both on the coal siding at Highworth, as well as the official fuelling points on the main line.
The nitrate works had it's own water tank and coal stage but this was for the use of it's own shunting engines and GWR crews were forbidden to use these facilities.
The following are Ordnance Survey grid references, all taken from 100,000m grid square SU, and traceable on Landranger 1:50,000 sheet 173 or Explorer / Pathfinder 1:25,000 sheet 169.