Investment in upgrading the important Valleys Line services radiating north from Cardiff has been on the political agenda for some considerable time, with ambitious plans announced for partial electrification and/or conversion to light rail.
Yet while all the bold talk continues, the saga of delayed electrification to Cardiff and cancellation onwards to Swansea is a warning not to take anything for granted, and a mainstay of Valleys Line operations today remains the reviled Pacer (Class 142/3) units.
Having previously travelled the Aberdare and Ebbw Vale lines, my challenge, using more bargain-priced GWR January promotional fares and an Explore Cardiff & Valleys day ranger ticket, was to complete my Welsh rail mileage by travelling the three principal Valleys Lines – to Treherbert, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.
Setting out mid-morning from Cardiff Central, my first destination was Treherbert, 23 miles away and terminus of a route which, until February 1968, continued on through the two-mile long Rhondda Tunnel towards Maesteg and Bridgend (as featured in my previous post).
Today this route has a half-hourly day-time service, with a lengthy single track section north of Porth broken by a loop at Ystrad Rhondda and, uniquely for the Valleys Lines, controlled by driver-worked key tokens (NSTR).
North of Porth the line had been reduced to single track in the early 1980s, but growth in passenger numbers led to installation of the passing loop in 1986, along with the opening of new stations at the loop (Ystrad Rhondda) and another at Ynyswen. One further infrastructure enhancement was extension of platforms in 2007, to allow the operation of six-coach trains.
Heading north from Cardiff the line begins to follow the River Taff after Llandaf station, passing some pleasantly wooded terrain and the large Trefforest industrial estate before reaching Pontypridd, where northbound services use the new platform 3, opened in 1991 following re-opening of the Aberdare line to passenger traffic three years earlier.
The Treherbert and Merthyr/Aberdare routes diverge immediately north of Pontypridd, where there is a redundant, but well-preserved, signal box. Soon after this there is one brief reminder of the Rhondda Valley’s glorious industrial past, with the sight of pit winding gear in the Rhondda Heritage Park near Trehafod station.
Trains then pause at Porth, northern limit of the double track, as the driver unlocks a large turquoise cupboard on the platform to retrieve a key token for the section of line to Ystrad Mynach, where we will wait to pass an up train and the token exchange process is repeated.
Unusually for Valleys stations, Treherbert does have an original surviving station building, albeit only partly in use, as well as a number of sidings for overnight stabling of stock. Looking at the current timetable to get an idea of home much stock is based here, four weekday services leave in the morning before the first arrival (07.43).
Returning south as far at the magnificent and listed Pontypridd station, my next Valleys destination was Merthyr Tydfil, another route which has been upgraded to cope with growing passenger numbers.
In this case, another 2007 investment by the Welsh Assembly Government saw reinstatement of two miles of double track on what was previously single line beyond Abercynon (junction for the Aberdare line), from just south of Merthyr Vale station, again to allow introduction of half-hourly services (from May 2009).
Merthyr Tydfil station today (23¾-miles from Cardiff Central) is a basic single platform on part of the site of what had been something far grander. It had begun life as Merthyr High Street in 1853, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and boasted an overall roof and numerous platforms.
This was reduced to a single island platform in 1974, and further reduced to a single platform in 1996, with much of the former site now occupied by huge Tesco Extra store.
Like Treherbert and Merthyr Tydfil, the route to Rhymney (23¼-miles from Cardiff Central) has seen investment in upgrading work, with a loop installed at Tir-Phil on the single line north of Bargoed.
But unlike the other two, the promise of half-hourly day-time services – first made five years ago – has yet to materialise, due to shortage of rolling stock. South of Bargoed, however, there is an attractive 15-minute frequency, with all services continuing beyond Cardiff Central to Penarth.
Like Treherbert, Rhymney station is also a stabling point for the diesel units used on Valleys Lines services. Here the current weekday timetable shows five weekday services having departed (between 06.14 and 07.42) before the first arrival of the day at 08.31.
To give myself more time to ride the three rail routes, I caught a bus from Merthyr Tydfil to Rhymney (Stagecoach routes 1/2/3, £3.10 single and taking 30 minutes), travelling briefly on the much upgraded Heads of the Valleys road and offering another chance to appreciate the region’s remarkable geography.
The upper end of the Rhymney Valley – the section of route north of Bargoed – is very rural and has some wonderful views – my photo at the top of this piece is a view of New Tredegar, its chapels and terraced houses, as seen from outside Tir-Phil station.
One bizarre feature of the Rhymney Line was an announcement on the passenger information display (PID) screens, declaring: “No alcohol to be consumed on trains between Rhymney and Caerphilly”!
So residents of Rhymney and Bargoed heading for a night out in the capital must wait until their train reaches Caerphilly before cracking open the cans – how curious!
Looking at the most recent Office of Rail & Road station usage figures throws up an interesting contrast in the Valleys. While the three termini I visited all saw usage slip over the past year, growth has continued at the principal intermediate stations and was up from 2,850,984 (2016/7) at Cardiff Queen Street to 2,912,364 in 2017/8.
At Treherbert there was a fall from 508,624 to 485,964, at Merthyr Tydfil user numbers fell from 550,216 to 512,754 and at Rhymney the decline was from 191,168 to 180,586. But there was a jump from 801,850 at Pontypridd in 2016/7 to 864,294 last year, at Caerphilly the growth was from 757,094 to 771,930 and at Bargoed 215,054 to 226,342.
Passenger traffic on the Valleys Lines is very much geared to Cardiff-bound commuter traffic. At around 16.30 I passed a four-car Pacer set that was full and standing on a northbound service, yet loadings on all the off-peak services I used were pretty thin, and ticket checking almost non-existent, except on the Rhymney line.
The Cardiff & Valleys day ranger ticket (£13.00) is a great way to sample this network, appreciate some dramatic scenery, and understand something of this region’s remarkable history, while a walk through the town centre in Merthyr Tydfil is a sobering reminder of how deprived an area it has now become.
Besides the routes I travelled, the ranger ticket is also valid on the Maesteg branch (featured in my Tondu post last week) as well as the Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale lines, both of which have some very scenic sections.
My new book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” is due to be published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2019