The S&MR in World War II
Part 1: TAKEOVER
With the outbreak of war the S&MR was seen, unlike for instance the WC&P, as a railway that was important to the nation and was accordingly taken into government control, although formal terms were not agreed till April/May 1940. Delays arose not only through bureaucracy but concerns about the Railways finances and the Directors misgivings about the indirect control relationship arising from a decision to deal with smaller companies through the majors; in the S&MR case the old enemy, the GWR. This was causing continuing tension on major issues, but in the short term, as with all railways, it continued to be managed and run as before.
However, all was not well. With the Depression and consequent crash in mineral traffic after the East Lancs road contract had been completed, income had dried up. Passenger traffic had long become uneconomic and even the bank holiday specials had been abandoned in 1936. Agricultural traffic was thin and the line survived on residual quarry traffic and substantial local traffic in Shrewsbury to the Anglo-American Oil Company’s depot established at Abbey station in June 1934. Government control allowed the line to continue at a guaranteed return of £1 profit but there were continuing concerns about paying for the maintenance backlog which this arrangement did nothing to alter. This factor raised doubts in the Ministry of War Transport about the continuance off government control and decontrol was actively discussed in February 1940. Nothing could cover up the terminal nature of the enterprise, which could only be rescued by a massive upturn in the Criggion roadstone traffic. The latter months of 1939, like everywhere in these early months of the war, were fairly normal and the only intrusion of the war was the use of the waiting room at Abbey Station for ARP meetings for 1 hour every evening.
January 1940 had, however, brought disaster: Ice flows in the river Severn attacked that Achilles heel of the line, Melverley Bridge, which was so damaged on the 27th that all Criggion branch traffic ceased. The quarry was severely hit and only managed to divert a part of its potential output by road to Four Crosses station. The S&MR could not afford the required repairs. Although of relatively small consequence and therefore of little consequence to the nation the Quarry had a Director with influence, Sir Henry Maybury former Director-General of Roads, Ministry of Transport 1919-1928, and a pioneer of the arterial road network. He used his contacts to press the Ministry of Transport to safeguard the bridge and get it repaired and also to get the GWR to operate the Llanymynech-Criggion section.
Income on the S&MR now plummeted and in the first six months of 1940, with the bridge out, the line lost £2028.. Under pressure from Sir James Milne, GWR Chairman and Chairman of the Railway Executive Committee, and following the agreement on financial arrangements for government control, some action was necessary. At its meeting on 29 May therefore the Board decided that their resources had to be concentrated on those parts of the line which might be made to pay and that the Kinnerley to Moele Brace section must be closed and arrangements made for the remaining lines to be worked by mainline companies or otherwise. This arrangement was endorsed by the REC and the Ministry. As a result financial arrangements would be made to repair Melverley Bridge and these were confirmed in June, although the Quarrying Company continued to negotiate on a perceived requirement to sent minimum quantity of traffic by rail. This caused further delay as Millne negotiated with the quarry. It was obvious to him that unless the Quarry dispatched at least 30.000 tons a year the S&MR, even in its truncated form, could not be remunerative Milne threatened closure and Sir Henry Maybury backed off offering two thirds of quarry output to the railway provided basic freight rates applied but still requiring operation by the GWR, which by October they agreed to undertake for £2,000 a year. The Minister and the REC had previously agreed these arrangements in September.
But whilst this was all grinding on other factors came into play.
The War Department takes Over
.The war had gone ‘hot’ and after Dunkirk in May Britain was alone. It was a wake up call for the Military and the scale of the war machine had to be stepped up. Importantly for the S&MR this meant more munitions stores and a need for stone to build runways.
Intimations that there were military plans to hold 50,000 tons of munitions in stores adjacent to the S&MR mainline seem to have been mooted as early as July and firm proposals were made in about September 1940; the Board had kept very quite about this but finally broke the news to Sir James Milne on 12 November after the military had sent out a ‘Reconnaissance Party’ to inspect the line on 4 and 5 November. Thereafter plans firmed up rapidly and on 15 November the railway agreed to let the military have access to the railway immediately to start essential works, and the Minister of War Transport formally agreed to the takeover in December. The meeting at the War Office at which this was agreed was chaired by Colonel Stephens’ oldest and closest friend Sir Gilbert Szlumper in his capacity as the Ministry of Transport Director General of Transportation and Movements. He had been appointed with the rank of Major General to organise the transportation of supplies to the BEF in France, having previously been GM of the Southern. In attendance were some notable names; Keith Grand of the GWR, later to be GM of the Western Region of BR and leader of that regions last stand; and two military men: Colonel H L Woodhouse and Major D McMullan, later to be in the Railway Inspectorate where they proved of great assistance to the embryonic Heritage Railway movement.
Although at first the plan seems to have been for the War Department to requisition the line, the complications of existing civilian traffic and the military’s aversion to taking on the Criggion branch led to the suggestion of a voluntary agreement based on the Military’s takeover of the Chellaston Branch of the LMS (later known as the Melbourne Military Railway) earlier in 1940. The Secretary of State for War wrote to the S&MR on 10 December 1940 to this effect. At a meeting on 28 January 1941 at the War Office the S&MR agreed terms and Heads of Arrangement under which the WO would;
• recondition and maintain all permanent way between Shrewsbury Abbey and Llanymynech, including Kinnerley yard and build any yards etc it might need;
• operate all traffic including daily Abbey- Llanymynech goods for civilian traffic, picking up Criggion branch traffic as necessary at Kinnerley;
• not pay rent as this was abated by the refurbishment work. However the S&MR would retain income from civilian traffic and continue employ its existing staff, wages being reimbursed by the WO;
• take over property on land which they proposed to use for new exchange sidings at Hookagate but that otherwise all rents for properties would continue to be paid to the S&MR (or more properly the Shropshire Railways);
• be reimbursed for improvements to be made at termination of the agreement.
These terms were formalised on the 1 June when the running of the railway passed to the military.
An interesting aside at one of these meetings was a discussion of suitable locomotives. W H Austen suggested the use of ‘LMS Saddle Tanks’ that he had used and found satisfactory. He presumably meant Ramsbottom Special Tanks, that would have been easily available from Shrewsbury shed for most of the line’s existence, but regrettably no firm photographic or other evidence is available of these interesting loans. Regrettably too for the Army, and probably unknown to Austen, the last of these locomotives was just being withdrawn from capital stock on the LMS; other types would have to be found.
Meanwhile the Criggion branch and Melverley Bridge which were still the S&MR’s responsibility were eating into management time. At a meeting on Christmas Eve 1940 between the Ministry and the War Office it was revealed that the military were, with the apparent consent of the railway, about to remove some girders. Indeed they indeed have already removed some but they stopped the work and the Ministry agreed to try to get repairs done by the GWR. These repairs were reportedly commenced in May but the bridge and branch were not reopened until 27 October 1941.
Unfortunately for traffic efficacy the GWR had, through accident or design, only rebuilt it for an axle load of 9 tons. With the loss of the last Ilfracombe goods Hesperus, the S&MR did not have a light enough locomotive either, and although they were to try to obtain a small locomotive they did not succeed. In May at the meeting with all parties the WD had agreed to work the branch line and small locomotives that came to be used by the WD, such as a Manning Wardle 0-6-0ST, might however have been used and unspecified accounts were certainly presented by the WD for traffic working on the branch including, we must surmise, normal goods traffic which had increased, particularly with the construction of a BBC transmitting station near the branch and the dispatch of 2-300 tons of stone to the WD worksites on the line. Also as this was a Stephens’ line it is just as possible that, given the climate of the times, the Coal engines with their 11 ton axle load might have been used. Accounts that the line was worked from this date solely by the quarry’s Sentinel locomotive seem unproved. Latter, after further troubles occurred with the bridge in May 1945 it is thought that for a very limited period the quarry locomotive was used to push wagons to the Kinnerley side of the bridge without itself venturing onto it . After that damage had been patched up, and the bridge subsequently replaced, the locomotive certainly hauled traffic all the way to the Kinnerley loop until the branch’s closure in 1959.
The Criggion branch also required attention to its track if the rebuilt bridge was to be of real use and quite a bit of sleeper and track took place whilst the bridge work was underway. This work also involved replacement of half a mile of rail and 24ft lengths of 75lb rail came from the Kent and East Sussex Railway which in turn had been replaced by rail from the Southern Railway. Such swaps were needed at a time of acute material shortages.
The Railway’s Reconstruction
With the Military lease the character of the railway began to change and much of the line was fairly comprehensively reconstructed. By 1944 the WO were recording track mileage, presumably excluding the Criggion branch, as 84 ¾ a truly massive increase on the old line.
The mainline between the new exchange sidings and Kinnerley was completely re-laid with standard army 75lb flat bottom rail on existing and new, though untreated, wooden sleepers replacing the original rail and chairs that were largely those laid by the original ‘Potts’ in 1864-66. The army reconstruction gangs also rebuilt many of the small culverts and underbridges to take the heavier traffic, although the Shrawardine viaduct and two other bridges were subject to a 5 mph speed restriction for the heavier locomotives brought onto the line and, on the viaduct at least, this restriction continued throughout the war. Reconstruction continued after the war and in 1946/47 the war department repaired or renewed nine bridges on the main line, including that over the Severn at Shrawardine to take heavier locomotives. The river bridge was replaced in 1947 by a new structure located between the piers of the original, although parts of the old bridge lasted a little longer.
From the earliest planning stage there was concern whether the single line would have adequate capacity and starting in 1942 the line assumed a form of double track for virtually the whole way from Shrawardine to Kinnerley, a relatively simple task as the railway was originally constructed as a double line. The line was however never operated as a conventional double track, for one of the lines was used as the running line and the other for siding access. Of the old stations, Hookagate had to be demolished to make way for the new exchange yard and those at Shoot Hill & Shrawardine relocated. New halt platforms were built at Pentre and Nesscliff (these two were new and distinct from the old station with that purported to serve both villages), Ford yard, and Kinnerley Halt, slightly to the east of Kinnerley Junction. Further halts were built on the loop lines to serve individual depots and finally a four platform terminus was built on a spur line at Nesscliffe camp, which was commonly referred to as Lonsdale. All this work seems to have proceeded at a somewhat more leisurely pace than that envisaged in 940 and extended throughout 1941, perhaps the blackest year of the war, when the supply of materials etc was at its lowest ebb.
Marshalling and interchange traffic were key early considerations. The existing interchange at Moele Brace was considered suitable for expansion but in the event another site at Redhill was considered better as construction was simpler. Llanymynech was not selected as it was less convenient for interchange with the wider railway system but three sidings were developed there so that it could be used in an emergency if the line was blocked or Shrawardine viaduct damaged.
On 13 December 1940 plans were made for opening new exchange sidings with the Joint Railways at Redhill, to be called Hookagate, where the S&MR first came alongside the Welshpool line from the West and where the line’s promoter, Samuel France, had first planned his junction back in the early 1860s before his ambitions to reach the Potteries got the better of him. The Army plans and the traffic arrangements for them were finally firmed up at a meeting the following February, including upgrading the Joint Railways’ mainline from the limited GWR ‘Blue‘ classification to the full mainline ‘Red’. The Hookagate exchange sidings were brought into use by 29 January 1942. Already a considerable amount of traffic had been received for both railway and depot construction at Moele Brace and that yard, certainly initially, remained the exchange point for civilian and construction traffic, whilst Hookagate was exclusively for military traffic, and was to remain until it finally closed on 23 September 1946. As originally envisaged Hookagate sidings were used almost exclusively for interchange and a set of sorting sidings was developed at Ford to disperse and assemble the wagons coming and going to the 206 storage sheds that came to be scattered over the flat Severn plain.
The munitions storage sheds were concentrated in groups served by large loop lines from the mainline. The first depot at Nesscliff was followed by others at Kinnerley, Argoed, Maesbrook, Shrawardine, in two parts, and Ford. Depot construction was proceeding in late 1941/42 despite shortages, and the most advanced receiving munitions by February 1942. Shrawardine seems to have been finished sometime that summer, Ford by August, Nesscliffe by the end of the year and Kinnerley in 1943. Nearly 600 Italian POWs were used in addition to Sir William McAlpine and Co and the Pioneer Corps staff. Ultimately there were 206 storage sheds served by spur lines branching off huge loops of railway cutting through the rural countryside.
After examination the WD condemned nearly all the S&MR signalling equipment as worn out our obsolete. In practice however it seems that some equipment survived. Understandably the army adopted its standard operating procedures although, certainly in the early days, these were breached, leading to several accidents.
The lines with lowest use, namely Kinnerley- Llanymynech and Hookagate - Shrewsbury and the Criggion branch, were worked as one-engine-in-steam. Nesscliff to Kinnerley, the busy centre section was worked by electric token and the remainder of the line by telephone and ticket with Annett’s keys for the siding loops. Army block posts, rather than signal boxes, were established at Hookagate (2) Ford & Crossgates, Quarry, Nesscliff and Kinnerley.
The S&MR, in common with all Stephens’ lines, had ungated road crossings. However, with increased traffic, by early 1943 there had been 3 accidents and one death and safety concerns came to the fore. Pole gates and attendants huts were therefore established on the two busiest roads, those at Nesscliff and Shoot Hill, in the spring of 1944.
Kinnerley locomotive shed was initially assessed as being in good condition with adequate inspection pits and coaling and water supply arrangements. However improvements to accommodate additional locomotives were soon required but whilst the work was underway a heavy snowstorm in January 1942 partially demolished the shed. It was therefore completely rebuilt on the same site.
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