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On 26th November 2011, I made a trip to Llandudno, on the North Wales Coast. In Part 1, I talk about the town: this part concentrates on the railway journey.
The first train in my journey was non-stop from Wolverhampton to Crewe - a 'Virgin' operated Bombardier-built 'Voyager' heading for Scotland. This made a surprisingly swift journey to Crewe where I had a short wait with a large contingent of passengers for the Arriva Trains Wales DMU to Chester.
Although Crewe is still a large and important station, it's a shadow of its former self, which was a 'Mecca' for me when I was young. There's a post on Crewe station here. I'll never get used to the platform renumbering which has taken place at Crewe (I grumble about this sort of 'Modernisation' in 'Zen and the Art of Platform Numbering').
The rather shabby Arriva Trains Wales DMU from Crewe to Chester was at least quick, so I was soon standing on the much-rebuilt Chester station awaiting another Arriva Trains Wales DMU from Manchester which would take me forward to Llandudno. The commissioning of the power box at Chester in May 1984 meant that the station lost its wonderful arrays of L.& N. W. R. lower quadrant signals. All the mechanical signalboxes were abolished, to be replaced by a Power Box whose architectural style quite defeats me. Great sections of the overall station roof have been swept away, apparently at random. Whilst the elegant station buildings provided by the Chester and Holyhead Railway in 1848 largely remain, the concourse area is now flanked by two curious modern structures which give me the impression of having been accidentally left behind by some alien civilisation.
The connecting train arrived (again, on time) and we were soon away on the last leg of the journey. The train I was on continued directly to Llandudno, avoiding a further change at Llandudno Junction which is often necessary nowadays. The route is now significantly simplified. There were originally four tracks to Saltney Junction (where the G.W.R. line to Wrexham diverged) and beyond but it's now only double track from Roodee Junction. The line to beyond Saltney Junction is remotely controlled from Chester Power Box. There is little sign now of Mold Junction and its Motive Power Depot but the turntable lives on elsewhere, now installed at Peak Rail (see post here). At Hawarden, the huge Airbus plant manufacturing wings appears on the left and at Shotton, on the right, the Corus steel processing plant. Originally, this was John Summers - a 'modern' integrated steel works. The Courtaulds plant has gone, replaced by a gas-fired power station. The modern, brick built signal box of Rockcliffe Hall which controlled the connections to Courtaulds has been replaced by a curious two-storey 'Portakabin'-style signal box next to the new overbridge which carries the approach road to the new cable-stayed road bridge over the Dee.
Fflint (it used to be 'Flint' when I was young) retains its simple Chester and Holyhead station building but has lost its L.M.S. pattern signal box. The next block post is Holywell Junction with its semaphore signals. The station has been closed for many years but the impressive Chester and Holyhead buildings remain. A curious sight on the way to Mostyn is the 'Duke of Lancaster' beached in a creek near the railway. This turbine-driven ship was commissioned in 1956 as a British Railways cruise ship and passenger ferry. It was modified to additionally carry cars on the Heysham to Belfast crossing and was finally taken out of service in 1979 to become a 'Fun Ship' in its present location. It now has a very neglected appearance. There's a 'Wikipedia' article on the ship here. The I remember the ironworks at Mostyn which closed in 1965 but Mostyn Docks remains successful (see article here). The L.N.W. signalbox at Mostyn still sits between the Up and Down Lines controlling the trains. The next box, Talacre, is about 3 miles further on at the far end of Mostyn Sea Wall. Talacre controls the connections to what was the Point of Ayr colliery. The colliery has gone, replaced by a chemical works. The next block post is Prestatyn, now served by a single island platform. I was delighted to find the standard L.N.W. standard wooden station buildings still in use and apparently being renovated but appalled at the huge new footbridge connecting the platform to the town. Painted dark green and with long approach ramps, the ugly steel bridge dominates the area.
The larger resort of Rhyl is a further three miles on. The scale of this station indicates its former importance but now it has just two platforms, a passenger loop on the down and a couple of engineers sidings. Two huge L.N.W. signal boxes once controlled the station. Rhyl No. 1 is still is use. Rhyl No. 2 is disused and forlorn but, I believe, Listed Grade 2.
The next station and signal box is Abergele & Pensarn, some four miles further on. Although the L.N.W. signal box has been modernised, the original appearance has been largely retained. The L.M.S. pattern signalbox nameboard used to read 'ABERGELE' but this has been replaced by a new board in the original style lettered 'ABERGELE & PENSARN'. It's about 10 miles to the next signalbox at Llandudno. There's still a station at Colwyn Bay but no longer a signal box. After a brief pause at Llandudno Junction, we set off on the sharply-curved line towards Llandudno. I well remember the diminuitive L.M.S. box at Llandudno Junction Crossing with its level crossing on the main road to Conway and beyond. This used to be a horrendous bottleneck until a road overbridge finally abolished the crossing and signal box in 1969. The estuary of the Conwy River is now on our left and Deganwy station is reached within a mile. New housing has sprung up on the left and extensive boat moorings - the old Quay is transformed. There's still a station at Deganwy and a signalbox to control the road crossing which now has lifting barriers.
Less than two miles takes us to our final stop - the terminus at Llandudno. Llandudno No. 1 box was abolished in 1970 and Llandudno No.2 box at the station throat (renamed simply 'Llandudno') has had its 86 lever L.N.W. lever frame reduced to 34 levers! Platforms 1 to 3 are still in use but tracks serving island platform 4 and 5 are now sidings. The station buildings on the disused side of the station are now out of use or demolished. In addition, much of the station's overall roof has been removed.
There are a few railway photographs of this trip (including those in this article) here.
Crewe - Holyhead Gradient Diagram
The Irish Mail
The reason for building the North Wales Line was to improve communications with Holyhead - the premier port for steamers to Ireland. Mail was carried by train from the start and the 'Irish Mail' train between Euston and Holyhead became the stuff of legend. When I was young, there was still a service between Euston and Holyhead carrying the 'Irish Mail' headboard which connected with the steamers. On a number of occasions, I watched this train thunder through the 'Fast' lines at Stafford, usually with a 'Rebuilt Scot' in charge. The 'Emerald Isle Express' followed the same route, I think.
I also remember, on a visit to Holyhead, finding an Up service preparing to depart in the late afternoon with (I think) two or three Travelling Post Office coaches marshalled ahead of the passenger coaches. I was most impressed with the Post Box fitted in the side of the T.P.O. coach. On payment of a surcharge, the public could actually post letters here, right up to departure!
The advent of railways allowed seaside holidays to become feasible for a much larger section of the population. The North Wales coast was within fairly easy reach of the Midlands and Lancashire, with resorts like Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno growing to meet the demand. In summertime, the original double track main line was unable to handle the traffic. Certain sections were quadrupled (paired by direction) and additional signalboxes were introduced to shorten the block section and allow trains to follow on another more closely in a safe manner. The track layout and station buildings at places like Rhyl and Llandudno were redeveloped to cater for the holiday and excursion traffic.
Chester (General) station was originally shared by the L.M.S. and G.W.R. The L.M.S. lines from Crewe and Warrington converged here and continued along the North Wales coast. But the Great Western also reached Chester via Shrewsbury and Wrexham, to join the North Wales route just outside Chester at Saltney Junction. Trains towards Birkenhead (Woodside) could then either take the Chester Curve or reverse at Chester (General).
Goto North Wales Coast Steam for a marvellous collection of pictures from the steam era.
On the same '6G' site there's a wonderful page devoted to signalling titled 'Signalling around the Junction.
There's a splendid collection of photographs and plans in 'An Historical Survey of Chester to Holyhead Railway Track Layouts and Illustrations' published by Oxford Publishing Co. (ISBN: 0-86093-216-8).
You can find more detailed track and signalling diagrams of the route in the excellent series of publications from the Signalling Record Society 'British Railways Layout Plans of the 1950's'. North Wales is included in 'Volume 10: LNW Lines in North Wales, Chester and Wirral areas' (ISBN: 1 873228 12 0).
For details of what remained of this route in 2005, refer to 'Railway Track Diagrams' Book 4: Midlands & North West', Second Edition, published by Trackmaps (ISBN: 0-9549866-0-1). The First Edition of this book was published by Quail in 1988.