Three years after my last rail trip to Stranraer, the latest Scotrail Club 50 ticket offer (a bargain £17.00 return from Edinburgh Waverley) gave me the chance to revisit Scotland’s least known scenic railway, and to see if passenger traffic had improved from the dismal levels I noted in January 2016.
For those unfamiliar with SW Scotland, the 38-mile 55-minute journey south from Girvan takes you through some delightfully wild and spectacular scenery, with just one station stop at remote Barrhill and its diminutive signal box, then further pauses at the former stations of Glenwhilly and Dunragit, before arrival at the desolate former ferry port.
What makes this route so interesting from a signalling point of view is that it is the last route in Great Britain to be controlled by Electric Train Tablet, using large round discs which are inserted and removed from machines in the signal boxes at Givan, Barrhill, Glenwhilly and Dunragit called a Tyer’s No. 6 instrument (pictured).
Girvan has long been popular as a leisure destination for Glaswegians, with a fine beach and the amazing sight of Ailsa Craig, a large rocky outcrop standing almost ten miles offshore and locally known as “Paddy’s Milestone”.
The signal box here is one of two listed boxes on the Stranraer route, a Glasgow & South Western Railway (G&SWR) Type 3 box from 1893, with a 30-lever frame, which shares its listing with the adjacent station building on the up (northbound) side of the station.
Scotrail 156504 approaches Girvan on 8 June with the 08.59 Stranraer-Kilmarnock service
At Barrhill the diminutive signal cabin stands on the down platform, controlling the passing loop and four semaphore arms, of which all except the up home signal (BR15) can be seen from the platform. Here the Barrhill signaller exchanges the Girvan tablet for one covering the section to Glenwhilly.
Besides being Scotland’s remotest signal box, Glenwhilly’s other claim to fame is having the last working distant signal in Scotland among the five semaphores it controls.
This is a down distant (GW1) which can be seen from the narrow road which parallels the line almost a mile north of the box and pictured in my April 2017 feature https://railwayworld.net/2017/04/20/glorious-glenwhilly/#more-222
Scotrail 156474 approaches Glenwhilly on 25 April 2017 with a service to Kilmarnock
Just off the A75 and controlling a quiet level crossing is the attractive and listed signal box in the village of Dunragit which, like Glenwhilly, lost its station in 1965. This 1927 LMS box is of a Midland Railway design, known as Type 12, whose distinguishing feature is the projecting centre bay of the three bay frontage.
Scotrail 156442 approaches Dunragit on 24 April 2017 with the 13.03 from Kilmarnock
Today it is the last working box on the trip to Stranraer, so with the Harbour box normally closed, drivers will surrender the tablet from Glenwhilly here and be given a “one train working staff” in the shape of a large key for the section to Stranraer.
There are a total of five semaphores here, all of which can be seen from the level crossing. Looking back towards Glenwhilly there are down outer home DR12 and up starter DR25, which are both tall lattice posts, with home signal DR13 close to the signal box, while looking west to a bridge carrying the A75 over the line are down starter DR14 and up home DR27, which stands under the road bridge (pictured below).
Finally to journey’s end some six miles beyond Dunragit at Stranraer, where the Harbour station is a sad reminder of traffic lost, with the desolate walk from the town centre taking you past the huge parking areas formerly used by ferry traffic, but now forlorn empty and for sale.
The smart 1897 G&SWR 56-lever Stranraer Harbour box has been switched out since November 2007, only opened for routine testing and occasional special traffic.
It boasts a total of six semaphore arms and a large number of disc shunt signals. In the down (southbound direction) are an outer home (SH10) followed by a bracket carrying home signals SH11 and SH26.
In the up (northbound) direction, the exit from platform one is controlled by SH15, with SH29 at the end of disused platform 2 in front of the signal box and further out up section signal SH20 near the A77 road over-bridge.
Switching out of the box means that signals on the line into platform 1 are left in the off position, with deep rust on the line into platform 2 and run round loop, reflecting how long it is since they last saw use.
After 12 years of disuse, how much longer the layout and signalling here will remain frozen in time is a matter for speculation, given local talk of truncating the line to open a new terminus close to the former Stranraer Town station.
Scotrail 156439 departs Stranraer on 24 April 2017 with the 16.59 to Glasgow Central
Campaigners promoting the line would like to see Stranraer Harbour’s rail and signalling infrastructure retained for the development of regular steam-hauled tourist services but, as yet, nothing has happened.
Passenger traffic on my 8 June trip was modest. There were 17 of us aboard the 09.54 departure from Girvan and I counted 22 alighting from the next arrival in Stranraer at 12.56, while I was one of 16 for its 13.04 return, with a further three joiners at Barrhill.
For a list of surviving Scottish semaphores, go to http://www.scot-rail.co.uk. My new book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” is being published by Pen & Sword on 30 July.