Scotland’s rail stations 50 years on from Beeching

The station and railway bridge at Hassendean, near Hawick, in its heyday
The station and railway bridge at Hassendean, near Hawick, in its heyday
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THE wind is whipping the blue carrier bags into the leafless branches of the trees. Beneath the arch of a tunnel, the sooty ground glints with the green glass of broken Buckfast bottles.

Some of the graffiti is so old it has faded into the sandstone, illegible and looking almost organic.

The station and railway bridge at Hassendean now

The station and railway bridge at Hassendean now

None of which puts off a steady stream of short-cutters, nipping along the old railway line from Carntyne to the back of the Forge shopping centre. Two of them even hold hands as they pass the abandoned tyres and cider bottles that infest the dry, straw-like undergrowth. “My mum will give me trouble when she hears I’ve been here,” says Annette Adams. “‘What were you doing cutting through there?’ She thinks I’m 12.” Adams is 62.

When Dr Richard Beeching, the technical director of ICI turned axe-man of the railways, recommended the closure of 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of track in 1963, he was not aiming to create a handy walking route between, say, Cranhill and Parkhead stadium. His intention was to streamline the sprawling Victorian network, getting rid of duplicate services, unprofitable lines and seldom-used stations. Something had to be done: the railways, which had been nationalised after the Second World War, were losing passengers and freight contracts to the road network. They were also bleeding money. In 1961, losses ran at £300,000 per day.

Conservative transport minister Ernest Marples persuaded Beeching out of his research lab to review the service. The scientist’s number-crunching revealed a network that was clearly not fit for purpose. Half of the country’s railway stations were contributing two per cent of passenger revenues. One third of route miles carried one per cent of the passengers. The line between Gleneagles and Comrie, for example, had ten trains a day carrying an average of five people, covering just 25 per cent of its running costs.

Down came what became known as “the Beeching axe”, mainly on cross-country and branch services. The Waverley Line, from Edinburgh to Hawick and Carlisle, closed in 1969, leaving the Scottish Borders without a train service. The West Highland Line and Far North Line, although marked with Beeching’s red pencil, survived. By 1975, the network had shrunk to 12,000 miles of track and 2,000 stations. It’s roughly the same size today.

City stations were redeveloped or left to fall down, while the lines became cycle paths, short cuts and home to foxes, deer and other urban wildlife. Rural sites returned to agriculture or were taken over by the brambles the station master once cut back. Some properties have become tea rooms, hostels, artists’ studios and family homes. Others are ghostly wrecks, overgrown and unloved, lurking in the undergrowth.

The task of documenting and recording these falling-down relics now falls to the likes of Tim Gilligan. A member of the Hidden Glasgow forum, Gilligan can spot the air vent from a disused tunnel and identify where a railway line once ran by the age of the surrounding lamp posts. He has charted their progress and knows what used to be accessible and has now been boarded up. If there is an old bridge hiding beside a defiantly modern red brick housing development, he can lead the way.

There is just such a structure on the edge of Newton, on the south-eastern edge of Glasgow. A row of houses stops abruptly, the pavement in front comes to a dead end and is linked to a higher pavement by a few stone steps. A jogger zooms down them and disappears behind a row of scrubby bushes. With a fenced-off estate on one side and the pavement on the other, an old railway line leads through a burnt-out turquoise-painted bridge – Gilligan is less interested in this one – out into open country.

Cliff Muir walks Keira and Ellie (a German shepherd and a Border terrier) to the older bridge every morning. It is, he estimates, between two and three miles. His wife, who is from Cambuslang, remembers when the line was a working railway, serving the steelworks, the brickworks and the nail yard. Now it looks rather worse for wear. Some ancient lumps of industrial-looking debris lurk in the brambles behind a decrepit fence. Gilligan thinks they may be remnants of the steelworks, which closed in 1978.

At the edge of the housing estate, the fields open out. In the distance, it is possible to see the blue signs of the M74. The growth of the motorway network and the rise in car ownership were important factors in the railways’ decline.

Professional dog-walker Elspeth Durkin appears with two of her charges; she marches them to the bridge and back twice a week. “The wildlife is good here,” she reports. “Earlier this week I saw four pairs of kestrels fighting over the pylons. They were looking for somewhere to nest.

“There are magpie nests as well. I’ve seen blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits and roe deer in a field further down. There’s a badgers’ set there as well.”

To the uninitiated eye, the bridge itself is nothing spectacular. Old. For Gilligan, this is not the point. It’s the juxtaposition of the present and the past, the fragment of Victorian engineering among the Tesco carrier bags and Tennent’s lager cans, that draws him to spend his day off exploring corners like these, photographing the details. He is particularly fond of a former bridge on the East Kilbride to Strathaven line. The top of the structure has been removed, leaving the two walls on each side of the road and the abutments, heavily overgrown, on one side only. He points out the ridge where the tracks once ran. “Most people drive past this,” he says, “without even noticing.”

Gilligan is not this structure’s only admirer. He has, he says, seen climbers practising their holds at the weekends. From the top, they can watch the learner drivers who favour the road, a back route to East Kilbride, progress nervously towards them. On the way down they must, however, watch out for the jagged cans and broken glass.

It is easy, on an urban safari with Gilligan, to think that the only unintended consequence of Beeching’s cuts was to replace the railways with a network of alfresco drinking dens. Not so. Much of the nation’s network of cycle paths runs along these old lines, carrying a new generation of commuters in hi-vis cagoules into work. Knockando railway station ticket office and waiting room used to be the Tamdhu whisky visitor centre and is still used occasionally by its owners, Ian Macleod Distillers. Lochearnhead station is now owned by Hertfordshire Scouts and used as a base for outdoor activities. The scouts raised the money to buy it from British Rail in 1978, renovated it and added chalets in the surrounding grounds. It can now sleep 90 and is busier in the winter than it is in summer.

Tom Pyemount actually lives in Hassendean station, five miles from Hawick, in the Borders. When he spotted the group of derelict buildings on the Waverley Line in 1989, his architect’s heart leaped. Since then he has converted and extended the station into a family home, turned the waiting room into his office and added a holiday cottage next door. (“I built it from scratch,” he admits, “but it looks as though it is authentic.”) He is currently hoping to rebuild the wooden footbridge that connected the two platforms. It is, he thinks, one of the last of its type in existence. The only other one he has seen is in the National Railway Museum in York.

The bridge, which is highly visible, attracts the kinds of visitors who have very large cameras and notebooks full of tiny numbers. (Another unintended consequence of Beeching: thousands of men have an excuse to abandon their families to drive around the countryside and document tumbledown structures.) “We get lots of railway buffs asking about it,” he says. “I love it. Locals come here with their grandchildren and tell them that they used to catch the train here, or even work here. We’re in a unique position here, it would be selfish to keep it to ourselves.”

Ladybank Station in Fife escaped the harshest of Beeching’s attentions. With the closure of the line to St Andrews, however, it was no longer a busy junction. Several of its facilities were surplus to requirements. They remained locked up and unloved until artist Kirsty Lorenz moved from Edinburgh four years ago and needed a studio. “Someone mentioned there were boarded up and unused rooms at the station,” she recalls.

“The station mistress produced a huge bundle of old keys and showed me round. It was amazing. They are such great spaces.”

Today Lorenz has converted the abandoned restaurant, kitchen and gents’ toilets on platform two into a studio-cum-classroom. Marjorie Ward, the station mistress who first showed her round, has created a beautiful garden on the opposite platform. Lorenz, who paints huge blousy blooms, has free rein to pick what she wants. “Marjorie has retired now. She comes to my weekly art classes. I get free-range eggs in part-payment.”

It’s like The Railway Children meets the Bloomsbury group. Another group of artists has taken over the station house next door, green-fingered locals have claimed the garden and the school children have made a pond. There are plans afoot to convert another station building, the crumbling Laird’s waiting room, for community use.

Not all post-Beeching stories have such a happy ending. Back in the East End of Glasgow, Lisa-Marie Mulholl recalls being attacked near the tunnel while pushing her baby in the pram. She still takes the shortcut most days. “I think most of Carntyne uses it.”

It was once, she recalls, a bonny spot. “It used to be neat. I would come down early in the morning, sit on the grass and watch the wild rabbits. My daughter could ride her bike.” It was a much-needed green space. “We have nothing in Carntyne, nowhere to plant herbs or vegetables.”

Instead, the area has become a beer garden and gang hut. “The alcoholics have smashed the tunnel up and set fire to it,” says Mulholl, pointing to the soot-covered walls and ground. “A few years ago someone sprayed hash seeds over the grass. Another time someone found a holdall full of stolen documents and fake IDs.” These days she stomps through at a good pace, her keys attached to her belt by a strong chain.

Between Celtic Park and the new Emirates stadium, shiny and ready for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, there’s a cutting into a tunnel. The line went under London Road to the old Bridgeton station. Gilligan stands beside a bricked-up building that has been the subject of some Hidden Glasgow debate – he is sure it’s an old public toilet and is itching to get inside – and looks down towards the mouth of the tunnel, now also bricked up. “They used to throw all the empty bottles down there,” he recalls. “They must have cleared it out.” Now there are just a few – Buckfast, of course – beside an old crash barrier, some bits of tree and other detritus of the 21st century.

Along at Bridgeton station, smart and brick-built with an automatic door and everything, there is a window through which it’s possible to see the old tracks beside the new ones. Beneath the old station wall, which runs along London Road, the old line is quietly rotting away beside the platform for trains to Queen Street low-level. The usable railway land round about has been built on. The old station, further along London Road, is now Bridgeton Express convenience store, selling four packets of Koka noodles for £1.20.

This funny-shaped little corner of industrial history, of no use to anyone, recognised and remembered by only Gilligan and a handful of other enthusiasts, is left just sitting there.

Twitter: @MsABurnside