Usk is a pretty sort of place. It is situated on the river of the same name in the Welsh borderlands, a little north of Newport and a similar distance south of Monmouth. It is bypassed by most main roads nowadays, which has not exactly given it a tranquil air but means it bustles agreeably rather than lying under a smog of impatient traffic while the local children are taught not to cross the road.
High above stands the ruined castle, still picturesque in an early Victorian way with ivy on its towers, gardens on its ramparts and chickens roaming the courtyard.
Below the castle a low bridge of considerable bulk – originally a stone arch and widened later to the south with a girder on bricks – carries a bank of vegetation over a riverside road. Other than this it and the adjacent two-span girder bridge over the Usk have no visible function.
The Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway
This company was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1853 and reached Usk from Pontypool (or, more precisely, Little Mill) in 1855, the grand opening being on Wednesday 1st August of that year. It originally intended to go clear across the Forest of Dean to Awre, where it would join the South Wales Railway and provide an independent link from there to the Mid-Valleys. Competition concerns scuppered that; instead, once Usk Tunnel had stopped falling in the line opened to Monmouth in October 1857 and as far as passengers were concerned it went no further.
In 1861 a goods-only viaduct was opened to carry the line across the Wye at Monmouth to join a tramroad from Coleford. At the same time the railway did a rather neat performance in the game of railway politics and got its very moderately remunerative concern taken over – first by the short-lived West Midland Railway and later by the Great Western.
Other railways around Monmouth and Pontypool then took up the job of being interesting and the Coleford line that never reached Coleford itself merely provided a service of various trains from Pontypool Road running, as the mood took them, through to Ross-on-Wye, as far as Monmouth or only to Usk. Traffic took a battering in the 1930s, probably owing to the appearance of buses that went into Pontypool and Monmouth rather than forcing changes at or walking from Pontypool Road and Monmouth Troy; as trains were never extended through to the more convenient station at Pontypool Crane Street and preferred to avoid going around the corner to Monmouth May Hill usage never really recovered.
Nationalisation of the railways in 1948 was followed by a decline in industrial relations, rising wages elsewhere and slowly sliding rail traffic levels. New staff were unwilling to join the industry, existing staff wanted a payrise to persuade them to stay and British Railways couldn’t afford to do anything because they had barely enough revenue to cover existing costs.
A prune of lightly-used lines was a simple answer and the alignment of the CMU&PR was being eyed for the new motorway network – a key part of which was to be the M50 from Tewkesbury to probably Swansea and which would need a nice link road to Newport.
Unfortunately for the transport planners, the Usk line users that remained wanted their railway and mounted an enthusiastic defence. Instead of closure, from June 1954 the line had a quite unprecedented 11 trains each way per day.
Nowadays procedure is to conduct a 3-year trial of massive regional service enhancements and see how things are going (such as additional trains calling at Chepstow and Lydney, the extra trains to Fishguard or the provision of a usable service between Westbury (Wiltshire) and Swindon). The Usk service enhancements were withdrawn when after six months they were shown to have increased costs (and ridership) and closure was set for the 13th of June 1955.
Other lines got farewell tours, detonators, wreaths and hordes of people taking photos for posterity when they shut. The CMU&PR went out differently. The footplatemens’ union ASLEF was upset that the guards’ union had obtained a pay rise that narrowed the differential between the grades, so on the 28th June 1955 they went on strike.
By the time the strike came off vast quantities of traffic had gone for good, Trooping the Colour had been cancelled and the railway to Usk and Raglan was dead. There were no commemorations. The farewell railtour came in October 1957 to mark the line’s centenary, after which it was dismantled.
The M50 was never a commercial success and was soon superseded by the M4. Journey planners will rarely offer the route these days. Service areas are paltry or have been demolished.
The first couple of miles of line from Pontypool were retained to serve an ornaments factory at Glascoed. Workmans’ trains ran via several interesting (also now dead) routes until 1961. Usk goods traffic survived a little longer and Glascoed provided business until early 1993.
Glascoed Royal Ordnance Factory. Its four daily passenger trains warranted the largest station on the Monmouth rail network. This may have been partly because they all turned up at once.
Most of the line between Usk and Monmouth is buried beneath the expressway, although the station building at Dingestow has survived and that at Raglan only recently departed for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans, west of Cardiff. Monmouth Troy station has been tidied up and is now a flat overgrown space smelling of gas leaking from the adjacent distribution point, though its viaduct is looking better than it has done.
Usk Tunnel remains, as do the station platforms and, amazingly, the goods shed. The tracked from there to the junction is tantalisingly intact, with one bridge missing, no overbuilding and the red arm of the Home signal at Little Mill still in place on its post. The stub is used for parking track maintenance vehicles.
Usk Tunnel, east portal.Usk Tunnel, west portal, feeding out into the remains of the station.The railway bridge over the Usk at Usk. It was the only river bridge on the Monmouth rail network to carry double track.
Usk Goods shed, hiding behind an MoT centre. Currently one of three goods sheds on the Monmouth network, the others being at Coleford (a museum) and St Briavels (no roof).
This survives too – a small stone hut by the entrance to Usk goods yard which probably used to be the weighbridge.Foot crossing near Glascoed.Pontypool Road station, looking towards the Monmouth bay (filled in, surfaced over – unlike the Wye Valley bay at Severn Tunnel – and then pruned back) as a Holyhead train departs.
It would be interesting to compare the current usage of the road with the traffic figures for the railway that was sacrificed for it, based on loadings under the June 1954 timetable adjusted for recent inflation. However, as only 15,000 passengers were recorded in the first six months of the new timetable – a usage for the whole line roughly equivalent to that generated by such centres of population as Kirkby Stephen and Pwllheli nowadays, but particularly notable considering Usk used to manage such figures on its own with half the service in the 1920s – one might be forced to acknowledge that the road barons who went on about the demand for roads had a certain point.