The Mumbles Railway 1804-1960

The Mumbles Railway 1804-1960

2024 is the 220th anniversary of the opening of the Mumbles railway, said to be the world’s first ever passenger carrying line. Although the line began tracklaying in 1804 services to the quarries concerned did not begin for some time whilst passenger services did not start until 1807. Thus 25th March 2024 is an anniversary in terms of how passenger carrying railways began. The Oystermouth railway, as it was originally known, has often been described as a tramway and the trains as trams yet it was legally a railway. That has however not stopped people calling the Mumbles line a tramway.

On 29th June 1804 an act was authorised to permit a railway to be constructed between Swansea and the quarries at Oystermouth. Work on constructing the line began in that year. The original length was just under five miles whilst the later extension to the Mumbles was another mile or so.

1819: One of the earliest passenger carrying coaches of the Mumbles Railway. Twitter/X.

Very early form of Mumbles train – prob late 1850s. Twitter/X

In 1807 the company came up with the idea of transporting people, a totally novel idea at the time. This operation began on 25th March 1807, the same day the Slave Trade Act was passed. One of the Oystermouth company’s proprietors, Benjamin French, was granted a £20 annual license (in lieu of tolls) to run a passenger service The line thus became the world’s first passenger carrying line, a role it performed for 153 years with a record number of motive power used on any single railway – horse, sail, steam, battery, petrol, diesel and electric – and it was popularly known as the Swansea and Mumbles Railway.

In 1877 a simple steam tram was used to replace the horse drawn trains before 0-6-0 tank engines were brought in. These tank engines could pull trains of perhaps fifteen coaches in length. These coaches were essentially double deck tramcars. The line was extremely popular with as many as three million being carried annually.

Another early form of Mumbles train! Likely to be 1860s. Twitter/X

The Oystermouth railway announced its company would be from 31st March 1879 known as the Mumbles Railway Company. To extend the line involved a new act and then a substantial amount of work reclaiming land from the sea as well as blasting a line through the rock face nearest to the Mumbles pier. That extension opened some ten years later.

By the early 20th Century electrification was mooted but deferred on grounds of cost. Finally in 1928 it was decided to utilise that at a cost of £125,000. The new electric railcars could carry 110 people, and a pair working on the line 220 passengers. The new electric service offered a train every seven and half minutes in the peaks and fifteen off peak, and it is as a electric railway with its double deck trains the line is most remembered.

The Mumbles train when it was hauled by a steam tram engine. Twitter/X.

The old steam sheds at Rutland Street depot. I Did It This Way

The old steam train in its final year. The wires had already been put up for the new electric service. Twitter/X.

The electrified Mumbles railway in its early days. I Did It This Way

The line from Swansea to Mumbles Pier:

The Mumbles railway began at Rutland Street station, directly opposite the Great Western’s Swansea Victoria station. Although the electric line stopped here and went no further, the tracks themselves continued eastward into the docks and at one time also connected with the wharves on the Swansea canal. The Mumbles line rain parallel to the Great Western’s tracks as far as Blackpill where it then obtained an unobstructed view of the Gower and Mumbles Bay for the remainder of the journey.

A pair of railcars gas just left the Rutland Street terminus. Twitter/X

The line’s first passing loop by Swansea gas works. Twitter/X

Beyond Langdon Place the route was particularly tram-like. It wasn’t a tramway however. Twitter/X

En route to St Helen’s. Note the centre rails, essential for the operation of the line’s automated signalling. Twitter/X

Train about to enter the St. Gabriel’s loop. Note the guard with red flag! Twitter/X

The next stop at St. Gabriel was one of the line’s halts yet by decree of its location it too was also perhaps the busiest stop! The nearby cricket ground was largely responsible for this unofficial stop being what must have been one of the busiest in the world! There was a loop but it seems it was kept out of use much of the time for the trains were too long to pass anyway!

Trippers trying to get onto an absolutely full Mumbles train at Brynmill in 1908. Twitter/X

Beyond Brynmill the railway was double tracked for a fair distance. By now one will have observed the line had an extra pair of tracks bonded together in the middle of the single line sections but none on the double tracked sections. This is discussed later…

On the double track section between Brynmill and Blackpill. Twitter/X

At Blackpill there was once a direct connection to the Great Western Railway near Mumbles Road. This led up an incline to the GWR’s tracks. It seems this connection existed right up to the closure of the Mumbles railway in 1960. The Mumbles line itself was single track from Blackpill to Oystermouth, apart from a loop at West Cross loop.

The Mumbles line at The Grange. (The date should be 1873.) Twitter/X

The railway used to run along the edge of the Mumbles Road all the way from Blackpill to Norton Road as the above image shows. It was actually moved from here to run along the seafront itself and the track doubled. This work was done in the early 1900’s.

Between West Cross and Norton Road. Twitter/X

The old order at Norton Road in 1908. Twitter/X

Soon the railway reaches the site its original terminus. This was by the Oystermouth diary, opposite what is now the Quarry car park. The name of the car park indicates the original reason for the building of the railway which was to serve the quarries that once stood here.

Mumbles train at Oystermouth 1950s. Twitter/X

The extension to Mumbles pier required an entirely new alignment further out but parallel to the old foreshore. Thus the new Oystermouth station was built on land reclaimed from the sea. The new station later had a loop built, and in due course this was extended to meet the other loop at Southend, creating a lengthy double track section.

The old order at Southend in the late 19th Century. Twitter/X

The station at Southend in the 1950s. Mumbles Pier is visible in the distance. Britain from Above

Train leaving Mumbles Pier. Notice how many are on it! There’s something like fourteen double deck carriages! Twitter/X

The pier head stop in the later years when it had been moved back slightly. On Google Streets can be seen a similar scene today. Note the lack of bonded return rail on this single line section. Twitter/X

The railway’s signalling system

Some would probably think the line had no signals and the trains were run like a tramway – that is on sight of the line ahead. That isn’t the case. It was a proper railway so it had to have signals. When one peruses photographs of the line it does appear there were no signals but it did in fact have these! The signals were set in large wooden cabinets for controlling the various switches and single track sections.

This was in fact an early form of automated signalling and that was the reason for the quite odd four rail system seen on many single sections of the line. These centre rails were simply bonded to the running tracks, providing a circuit which could be used to detect whether single line sections were occupied. When a train was occupying a section of single line it completed a circuit which set the line signals to danger.

What it meant is the railway had an early form of electronic track detection. Crude but it worked. If a train was occupying a singe line section the signals controlling that section would show danger. No train on the single line meant the circuits were open and the signals automatically set to clear. This meant that the drivers knew whether it was safe to proceed onto a single line section or not. There was however no fail-safe mechanism to prevent trains being accidentally driven onto occupied single line sections as an accident at Blackpill in 1959 showed.

The ends of the line at Swansea and at Mumbles Pier didn’t have this extra rail. The reason for that was to allow any extra workings driven on sight to proceed once the preceding train had cleared the section. This allow two separate workings (one being, say a special following a scheduled train) to work as far as the pier. Obviously the crews had to be swapped at the pier so the special could become the scheduled train and so on.

The only picture I can find showing the railway’s primitive automatic signals in detail. This shows that at the pier controlling the single line to Southend. The picture was taken in 1951 and the shield seen on the railcar is for the Festival of Britain. Dewis Trains

Conversely the same methodology applied to the stretch of single line approaching the Swansea terminus which meant once the line to Rutland Street had cleared, another train in service could draw up and then both railcars tethered together to form a double unit. Alternatively the first train may have been going to the depot thus the line had to be clear for the second to proceed.

The Mumbles railway’s 150th anniversary

On June 29th 1954 the Mumbles railway celebrated its centenary and half. The celebrations included special run pasts, processions and replica carriages from the early and mid 19th Century and there was a huge festival atmosphere. The above colour photograph shows one of the railcars with its 1954 anniversary decorations evident.

The 150th anniversary was a momentous occasion but dark clouds were on the horizon and the railway was closed despite huge opposition and Parliamentary debates.

The 150th celebrations on June 29th 1954 – the scene at Mumbles pier after a special procession of trains from Southend. Wales Online.

Film of the 150th Anniversary celebrations from BBC Wales (Twitter/X). It says 1957 but its actually 1954!

The last years

South Wales Transport (SWT), a bus operator, bought up the line in 1958. Like a lot of things of the sort that happened in the long and ensuing battle between road and rail, SWT soon enough claimed the Mumbles railway was losing a lot of money. SWT said it would cost £300,000 to replace the worn out track and provide new double deck rail cars and naturally they insisted a better and much cheaper service could be offered with their buses.

A piece of legislation, entitled rather ambiguously The South Wales Transport Bill was put before Parliament in 1959. This was aimed at acquiring powers to close the Mumbles railway. The bill generated considerable opposition and a petition of 14,000 was drawn up. Parliamentary debates even arose upon the railway’s proposed closure with local MPs being very critical of SWT. Sadly the bill was passed and steps to close the line were very quickly put in place by first converting the section from Southend to Mumbles Pier to a roadway for the benefit of SWT’s own buses.

No more trains to the Mumbles! It was a win for SWT whose buses now had a dedicated roadway to the pier. Twitter/X

One can follow the old route of the line right to the pier itself via Google Streets. This is part of the bus only road SWT built in 1959 to replace the Mumbles Railway. Several of the lamp posts along here are in fact traction poles used for new purposes!

Swansea & Mumbles railway finale January 1960

The line from Rutland Street to Southend hung on a further three months. Services were operated until Saturday 2nd January 1960 when huge crowds turned out to see the final public service at Southend on its outward journey, and more came to see it arrive at Rutland Street at 11.45pm that night. Well wishers wore black and some even carried a coffin to mourn the line’s passing.

There was just one more train that would run from Rutland Street station. Only those who had purchased special tickets or were invited VIPS could ride that special service and it was to be just over 200 people who had this special privilege.

The final train of all left Swansea just before noon on Tuesday 5th January. Three thousand people followed the train all the way to Southend and back either by car, motorcycle, or bike. A TV crew even flew all the way from Colombia just to film this final day of South Wales’ best loved railway! Oystermouth was absolutely packed with well wishers and that took police some effort to keep the tracks clear so the final train could progress to Southend before returning back to the depot for the last time.

View of the railway’s final day at Rutland Street depot. The plaques on the front and sides of the train were first used for the 1954 celebrations – and were modified to read 1960. Twitter/X.

View from the top of one of the railcars at Oystermouth showing the huge numbers of well wishers who have come to see the final train. Notice the advert ‘Take the train from here to Mumbles Pier Hotel.’ Twitter/X.

The final train is seen on its way back to Rutland Street. Twitter/X.

No sooner than the celebrations were completed, work was begun to rip up the tracks and scrap the huge rail cars. According to Wales Online ‘The track was torn up and the trams were dismantled by a specialist breaker firm, Thomas Ward Bros within minutes of the train returning to the Rutland Street shed for the final time.’ (Wales Online.)

Evidently the line and its infrastructure were disposed of in the shortest time possible. The fastest railway demolition job in the world and one for the Guinness Book of Records…

This full colour film from the BFI shows the fateful day in question, with the line’s one and only diesel shunter escorting the final train back through the streets to the depot, and the cars being cut up immediately the railway had closed. As the film shows, workers toiled very hard to slash, smash, chop, and burn the famous trains and rip up the tracks. It in fact took a few days but nobody was going to waste any more time than was necessary to finish the job.

SWT soon admitted the railway had been making a healthy £5,500 a year profit – and they confessed they had also got other costings wrong! Nevertheless they had got rid of the railway by conducting what many saw as a hatchet job.