Many thanks to Michael Fox for producing the map.
Click on the map to see the full sized version.
The Garw Valley Railway aims to preserve and re-open the former Garw branch, near Bridgend in South Wales. The line originally ran from the former Brynmenyn Junction, where the tracks of the Garw and adjoining Ogmore valley met. The Garw’s terminus was once at the very head of the valley in Blaengarw, however the last mile of track, together with a former coal washery site, were swept away by a land reclamation scheme in the mid 1990s. Today the branch terminates at Pontycymer, the largest town within the Garw Valley.
The line’s beginnings can be traced back to the mid-1860s. James Brogden, a Lancastrian engineer and partner in the nearby Tondu Ironworks, was keen to improve the transport of large loads within the coal-rich Garw Valley. At the time, the only lines of communication within the Garw were a haphazard network of mountain tracks, many dating back centuries, which mainly linked local parishes and places of worship. Records from ten years earlier showed the Garw’s population was less than 100. Coal, from a few small drift mines, had to be hauled up over the mountains on a primitive tramway and back down into the neighbouring Ogmore valley before it could reach the railway network proper. Mr. Brogden overcame many political difficulties and in 1866 three railway companies merged to become the Llynfi & Ogmore Railway Company. In the same year, parliamentary authority to build the Garw branch was sought. However, by this time the Great Western Railway (GWR) had realised the potential of the South Wales Valleys, and in 1873 made a successful takeover bid on the Llynfi & Ogmore. The Garw branch was finally completed and opened by the GWR in 1876.
The opening of the Garw branch ultimately made the valley’s huge coal reserves accessible. Within 10 years there were 4 major collieries within the Garw, between them producing nearly 4000 tons of coal each day, plus numerous small drift mines and levels. In 1906 they were joined by the Glengarw colliery, which by 1911 was producing 1000 tons per day. The impact of the railways upon South Wales was enormous. The railways allowed coal to be transported for export to the new docks at Newport, Cardiff, Barry and Swansea. Without branch lines such as the Garw, Cardiff could not have become the greatest coal exporting capital in the world, making Welsh steam coal favoured the world over. In turn, the network of railway lines in South Wales at their heyday is probably the densest the world has ever seen. Coal from the Garw helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution upon which was based Britain’s wealth.
The decline of mining in the Garw, and therefore the railways that served the mines, is typical of what happened across the whole of the South Wales coalfield. In December 1985, the men of Ocean Colliery, the Garw’s last working mine, worked their final shift, and the Garw branch fell into disuse (the passenger stations on the line had shut some 30 years earlier). The line was then re-opened for a period during the 1990s to take away the vast spoil tips above Pontycymer, with a farewell ‘enthusiasts special’ train run during 1996 and 1997.
The Garw, as most of the South Wales Valleys, has been greened, spoil tips removed and rivers restored. Visitors travelling the Garw branch will first pass the site of Brynmenyn Colliery, which closed in 1910 owing to uncontrollable amounts of water entering the workings. Further up the branch is the site of a former fulling mill, a reminder of the valley’s pre-mining days. Many of the line’s original civil engineering structures survive to this day, such as the stone arch bridge at Pandy – testament to the skills of the men who built them. Further north, passengers will be able to see the bricked-up arches of Lluest Colliery, at the side of the line near Braich-y-Cymer. In 1899 an underground explosion here killed 19 men and boys, and that part of the workings was never re-opened. Today, a colliery dram stands on the site to commemorate the disaster. All the way along the valley towards the branch’s terminus at Pontycymer are signs of the area’s proud past; the raised earthworks and cuttings of tramways that brought coal from the collieries to the railway sidings, stone built culverts that drain water from long – abandoned workings, and small quarries dug into the hillside from which the rows of miners’ cottages were built.
Between 1887 and 1902 passenger stations located at Llangeinor, Pontyrhyl, Pontycymer and Blaengarw were opened along the line. The line closed for passenger traffic in 1953 and finally to freight traffic in 1997.
Preserving this branch line will achieve many things – telling the story not only of what happened in the Garw valley, but across the whole of the South Wales coalfield.