The Vale of Neath Railway

In August 1846 an act of parliament was passed allowing the construction of a railway line from Neath to Aberdare and a branch line to Merthyr Tydfil. By 1847 construction had started on the terminus at Merthyr Tydfil and the tunnel from the Merthyr valley to the Aberdare valley. The Vale of Neath Railway Co (VNR) opened the line from Neath to Aberdare in September 1851. By 1853 the line to Merthyr Tydfil had also been opened including the tunnel which was designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was originally built as a broad gauge railway, but in 1863 a third rail was installed so that both broad gauge and standard gauge trains could use the track. The VNR amalgamated with the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1865. The line closed in 1964. The section of the line we are interested in is the section from Glynneath to Hirwaun passing through Rhigos. What we are going to do is imagine we are on a train going from Glynneath up to Hirwaun and as we travel we will tell some of the history of the line and try to identify features that have long since disappeared.

The picture above is of a typical mineral train operating on the line in the late 1800's.


Above are two of the types of locomotives that worked the line between Glynneath and Hirwaun during the 1950s up to the line closure in 1964.

Our journey starts in Glynneath station. Although called Glynneath it is in fact in Cwmgwrach. In 1875 the Glynneath station consisted of 2 platforms, and a signal box. By 1879 the platforms had been extended, an engine shed had been added, and sidings added for Empire colliery. 1890 saw further additions to the track layout with the installing of track to connect with Aberpergwm colliery. By 1920 there were also connections with Rock colliery. The normal practice with trains going towards Rhigos and Hirwaun, was that the train was pulled up Glynneath bank by a locomotive and there was hitched on the back what was called a "banker" locomotive to help by pushing the train up the gradient. This banker was unhitched when the train arrived at Rhigos Halt.

So on with our journey. Our train arrives pulled by a locomotive of one of the types shown above. The banker engine is hitched to the rear of the train and we are off. As we leave the station, if we look to the right we can see up Empire Avenue, and as we cross the bridge over the end of Cwmgwrach High Street we see Chain Road on our left, also the tracks to Aberpergwm and Rock collieries. As soon as we leave the station the track starts to climb, and will continue to do so till we reach Rhigos. As the slow ascent of "Glynneath Bank" continues we pass the site of what was Cwmrhyd Y Gae halt. Cwmrhyd Y Gae halt was the point for trains dropping off and picking up workers for Abernant brick and tile works. Looking through the right side windows we can only see the tree covered banking as the ground rose up the side of the valley wall. Through the left window we have a view across the valley towards Aberpergwm House, the home of the Lloyd family in the late 1950s and early 1960s, later to become offices for the N.C.B. As the locos continue to work hard pulling and pushing up the gradient we can see across to the Lamb and Flag pub and the area of Glynneath which carried the name of the pub. The track appears to be hanging on to the side of the valley as we continue to climb. To the left we see in the distance Glynneath Welfare Hall and park, and the collection of houses around Glynneath square. As we come to the top end of Glynneath known as Pontwalby the train reduces it's speed and we pass what was British Rhondda Halt. 

British Rhondda Halt opened in 1906 on the down line only for workers going to British Rhondda colliery. It was closed 1911 and replaced by Pontwalby halt. British Rhondda colliery changed it's name to Rhigos colliery in 1943 and was closed in 1964. As we cross the points into the British Rhondda sidings we see a small signal box on our left then a stone parapet. This is Pontwalby viaduct, another engineering work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel the famous engineer.

Pontwalby Viaduct

Across the viaduct we arrive at Pontwalby Halt. The Halt was originally built to replace the British Rhondda halt for miners going to British Rhondda colliery later known as The Pandy or Rhigos colliery. The colliery had a screen and washing plant near the rail track. By now both the locos are belching steam and smoke as they work hard to pull the carriages up the bank. Just past the Pontwalby halt we pass what was the site of Penrhiw sidings. These sidings were built for the loading of coal from a drift mine at Penrhiw. Slowly we climb on up the gradient and see the Pont Nedd Fechan cricket club with it's club pavilion shaped like a world war 2 nissan hut, and the village on our left, down on the valley floor.


Thanks to Ceri Jones (cerij4242 on Flickr) we have these photographs of the entrance steps to Pontwalby halt as they were in 2009.

We then approach the place where the Dinas sidings once where. The Dinas sidings were built to provide a loading and unloading area for materials going to and from the Pont Neath Vaughan powder works, silica works and brick works. Materials were transported up and down the side of the valley on a tramway. These sidings were in operation from 1887 to 1928. Suddenly the carriage goes dark, we are in the 526 yards long Pencaedrain tunnel.


  Above left is the west entrance of Pencaedrain tunnel (from Ceri Jones). Above right we think is the east (Rhigos) entrance in an old photo.
Click on this link, Pencaedrain tunnel, for more photos and info.

Emerging from the tunnel we pass the site where on the left side another set of sidings once existed. They were known as Bown's Sidings. They were primarily sidings for the storage of engineering rolling stock for the railway. We then enter what was known as Ty'n Ton cutting. This was a stretch of track cut into the rock so that a steady gradient could be maintained, making it slightly easier for the locomotives. Emerging from the cutting we see on the left Rhigos signal box and on the right we catch sight of the Rhigos carriage sidings. These sidings served two purposes, firstly they were for storage of carriages used to transport workers to and from the Royal Ordnance factory on the industrial estate and also to allow materials to be brought in and out of the factories. The signal box and the carriage sidings were in use from 1943 to 1965.Then we arrive at Rhigos Halt. Built originally for the workers going to work in the factories of the estate in 1911. Here we stop and the banker locomotive is unhitched.

Above left is a view of the Rhigos carriage sidings, and right is a view of Rhigos Halt.

Our journey continues towards Hirwaun. Passing the industrial estate on our right hand side, as we come out of the cutting after Rhigos halt, we get a good view through the left side window of the Vole (Foel) towards Penderyn. Then we pass the Penderyn reservoir again on our left side. We then approach an area called Hirwaun Ponds. This area has seen many changes over the years. Where in recent years we are used to seeing the conveyor system from Tower colliery, there was in 1882 the Tir Herbert brick works. These works had gone by 1919, and by 1944 new sidings had been laid for the Royal Ordnance factories use and later the industrial estate. By 1964 all these sidings were taken out of use except for the line to the Tower colliery which was transferred to the ownership of the National Coal Board, and they had their own locomotives to move coal and supply trucks up and down to the colliery. Prior to the ROF sidings being taken out of use all trains went to Tower colliery along the side of the ponds nearest to Hirwaun on a private railway known as the Hirwaun Common Railway. This line also gave access to the Aberdare Merthyr colliery, Park Pit and the Hirwaun Iron Works. 

A locomotive of the type used by N.C.B. on their line to Tower colliery.

After passing Hirwaun ponds we approach Hirwaun station. Over the years much change took place in this area. In 1882 around Hirwaun there were three companies operating lines. The Vale of Neath, Hirwaun Common Railway and Aberdare and Hirwaun Tramway. A lot of their work was related to the coal mines, the iron works which had internal tracks as well as access tracks, and the Penderyn limestone quarry. By 1898 the platforms at Hirwaun station had to be enlarged to handle the amount of traffic. By 1905 the iron works owned by the Crawshay family, had ceased to work and was replaced by a wagon works operated by the Gloucester Wagon Company, also the Aberdare and Hirwaun Tramway had been incorporated into the VNR. From 1955 the size of the railway infrastructure around Hirwaun had started to be reduced. The wagon works had closed, Tower colliery had started to use their own lines where the conveyor system is now, and the Aberdare and Hirwaun Tramway no longer existed, and the same applied to the Hirwaun Common Railway. By 1977 the only sidings were for Penderyn quarry and they were greatly reduced. So we come to the end of our journey as we slowly trundle into Hirwaun station.

Hirwaun station 1963.


The Passenger Train Timetable

To go with the account above we've added a few pages from the "Working Timetables for Passenger Trains from Neath to Pontypool Road for September 1956 to June 1957" which includes the Glynneath to Hirwaun section. Click on the thumbnail picture below to have a look at it.


Other South Wales Railways

We've been looking at the other railways down in South Wales and have found some maps of the lines and details of the companies that ran trains on these lines. We've put some links below that will direct you to railway sites that are very informative and which can describe the railways a lot better than we can.

The first map shows the layout of the railway from Neath to Pontypool Road as it was in 1955 (from the Railway Magazine of that year).

Next are two older maps showing the entire South Wales region.

Here are some links to web sites which give some historical detail of the two railway companies which served the area of Glynneath, Rhigos, Hirwaun and Aberdare. The Taff Vale Railway served the Aberdare Valley and the Taff Vale to Merthyr, and the Vale of Neath Railway served the Neath Valley and over to Aberdare. Both were merged with the Great Western Railway by the time we lived in Rhigos in the fifties and sixties.

The Taff Vale Railway

The Vale of Neath Railway

Click on the thumbnail picture below for a detailed map of the Taff Vale Railway.


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