After I had last paid a photographic visit to Craven Arms in May 2022, I lamented the blockading of a footpath across the line just north of signal box and level crossing that would have been a great place to see trains passing the surviving semaphores.
A sign at the entrance to the footpath from the A49 had said that it would be closed until early 2023 “pending the installation of safety features”, which I assumed would be the sort of lockable gates and warning lights that I have seen at other foot crossings.
But instead of a safer foot-crossing, a revolutionary light-weight footbridge was opened at the end of January 2023, designed and funded by Network Rail’s Research and Development (R&D) team, in order “to provide a faster, more sustainable, and affordable option to assist with the closure of dangerous railway foot crossings around the UK.”
This new footbridge is known as “FLOW” bridge, which stands for fibre-reinforced polymer (FRP), lower-cost, optimised-design, working bridge. The 21m-long bridge costs around 40 per cent less than a traditional steel structure, with no concrete used in the foundations in order to reduce its carbon footprint, and it weighs only half of a traditional steel bridge, meaning lower transportation and installation costs.
Most of the construction work on a FLOW bridge takes place off site, so installation is able to take place without disruption to passenger services. It is also equipped with a real-time structural health monitoring system (SHM) which records how it performs, allowing future improvements to the design and more efficient maintenance, as well as tracking its use.
The new bridge is certainly striking in appearance and instead of concrete foundations it seems to be anchored by a large pile of sandbags on each side of the line, meaning that the whole structure shakes when a train passes beneath!
Besides allowing the footpath to re-open, this striking new bridge offers a wonderful place from which to see and photograph trains passing Craven Arms and its rather hideous signal box, standing as it does mid-way along the down goods loop, just south of up section signal CA4 and with the down (southbound) junction signals CA27 visible to the north.
As I wrote last year, Craven Arms Crossing Signal Box was re-built in 2000, when a steel structure was constructed around a life-expired GWR box dating from 1947, with the latter being subsequently removed, while the signalling equipment including a 30-lever frame remained to control a number of lower quadrant semaphore signals.
A total of seven semaphore signals remain at Craven Arms, with the up (northbound) trio comprising home (CA2) and starter signals, (CA3), both visible from the station, and section signal CA4, which can be seen both from a level crossing alongside the signal box and from the new footbridge.
Four survivors in the southbound (down) direction are the two-arm bracket (CA27) on which a subsidiary signal controls entrance to the goods loop, with exit from the loop controlled by CA24, which stands close to down home signal CA26 to the north of the level crossing and signal box.
Apart from the new footbridge, another welcome change to the local railway scene since my May 2022 visit has supposedly been a significant increase in the number of loco-hauled workings along the Marches Line, with the long-awaited launch by TfW of loco-powered services between Cardff and Manchester, in addition to those already working between the Welsh capital and Holyhead.
But in the four hours I spent at Craven Arms on Monday, 20 February 2023, the only loco-worked services I was able to see were a pair of Cardiff-Holyhead services (1W93/1V96) with all four Cardiff-Manchester services operated by Class 150 units in place of the scheduled Class 67/MkIV combination.
For passengers travelling between Cardiff and Manchester who are looking forward to the comfort of main-line coaches, along with first class and restaurant facilities, it must be incredibly frustrating to be faced with making the journey in an ageing Class 150 unit.
Freight traffic remains pretty sparse along the Marches Line and, once again, the only freight working to pass during my visit was the regular 6V75 GBRf working from Dee Marsh to Margam, which passed Craven Arms around 40 minutes late, powered by 66304.
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