Railways of the Cynon valley

This story from the collection will take you on a whistle stop tour of the valley’s railways through several photographs from the Cynon Valley Museum. We will look at some railway ‘outposts’ of the valley, an example of railways and the coal industry as well as the largest and most impressive station to be built in the valley at Abercynon.

Gamlyn Viaduct

Workmen on the Gamlyn Viaduct. (ACVMS:2000.436)

Let us begin with this superb image depicting the ‘navvies’ or navigators who built the countries railway network from the 1820’s to the beginning of the 19th century and beyond. The image was taken during construction of the viaduct by the photographer Joseph Lendon Berry (1933-1916). The ‘navvies’ were typically recruited for the extremely hard work from Ireland and would spend many years travelling all over Great Britain from contract to contract. There is nothing immediately evident here to suggest these men were Irish however, but it is likely. The Gamlyn viaduct was made mainly from wood so it is likely that some of these men were skilled carpenters.

The Gamlyn viaduct was one of a pair constructed in the Cynon valley in 1854/55 by the Vale of Neath Railway on the Dare and Amman branch by the renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. These Cynon valley viaducts are two examples of wooden fan style viaducts constructed in Cornwall and Wales. They were the last two viaducts of this type to be demolished. The double line was of Barlow rail which was somewhat unusual at that time for broad-gauge railways. The Barlow rail did not last long, and standard gauge track was laid which remained until the line’s closure. The Gamlyn and Dare viaducts were of fan or trestle design measuring just over 600 feet (183 metres) long and 70 feet (21.3 metres) high. The bases of the viaduct are built of bulldozed sandstone and the highest is 23 feet (7 metres).

The Amman-Dare branch was built by the Vale of Neath Railway Company and quickly became incorporated into the Great Western Railway. The line ran from Gelli-tarw junction on the main line from Neath to Merthyr Tydfil over the Gamlyn viaduct and then parallel with Aberdare Park before crossing the Dare viaduct and joining the line for Bwllfa colliery to Cwmaman. The line was used for the most part by coal traffic from the various collieries to the main line and ultimately to the various South Wales docks, however, the line was also used to transport miners back and forth to work. There is also reports that the line was also used to convey Sunday school groups to the seaside as late as the late 1930’s. John Mear wrote in his superb book ‘Aberdare: The Railways and Tramways’ that the GWR asked the organisers of a Sunday school trip to the coast to embark the children at Black Lion halt on Monk Street and  walk to the High Level station where they could re-join the train in order for the train to reduce its weight thus reducing the risk over the by now fragile Dare and Gamlyn viaducts. However, the Sunday School organising committee won the day and train and human cargo where successfully and safely conveyed across both viaducts without incident. Modern day health and safety regulations may have something to say about that scenario occurring today!

The men are sat on one of the many large wooden timbers used in the construction of the Gamlyn viaduct. There are 20 men here all displaying a wide variety of headwear popular in the mid-19th century. It can be reasonably assumed that their trousers would have been corduroy which were popular amongst the navvies for their strength and durability. The men appear to be older which would indicate that they are experienced railway workers who have constructed many miles of railways previously.

The viaduct closed to traffic on the eve of the Second World War on the 1st of September 1939 but remained in situ until 1947. The wooden bulk of the structure was removed, leaving only the masonry piers still in place to this day. The embankments on each side of the viaduct are still easily noticeable and each of the piers are to be seen still crossing the Cynon. The Dare and Gamlyn viaducts were fantastic examples of Brunel’s genius and have the distinction of being the final two wooden examples to be dismantled a fact that the Cynon valley should be proud of.

Cwmaman Crossing Halt

Cwmaman Crossing Halt (ACVMS:2009.214)

Now, to one of the railway outposts of the valley. Staying on the Vale of Neath’s Dare and Amman branch we move along the top of the valley to the village of Cwmaman. This photograph shows two Great Western Railway employees in the doorway of the small booking office at Cwmaman Crossing Halt with several potential passengers. John Mear in his book ‘Aberdare: The railways and Tramroads’ that although the it carried the prefix ‘Halt’ by definition a Halt is an unmanned stop, therefore Cwmaman Crossing could legitimately have called itself a station with its staff evident here. Note the local advertising for ‘J K Lewis Family Grocers’ who ran a shop in Cwmaman.

The Dare Amman branch line opened in in 1855, however, until 1906 the only traffic seen on the line was mineral, mainly coal. The Aberdare Leader reported on the 6th of January 1906 ‘Motor Service between Aberdare and Cwmaman’.

In 1903 the GWR began a service from Black Lion Halt (Monk Street, Aberdare) to Cwmaman Colliery for miners who were given a brass token to exchange for travel. The Aberdare Leader reported on the 6th of January 1906 ‘Motor Service between Aberdare and Cwmaman’. The company began a service for all between the Black Lion Halt and Cwmaman with the intermediate stops listed as, Tonllwyd Halt, Godreaman Halt and Cwmneol Halt.  The article goes on to say, ‘The fares are very reasonable. The single fare between the two terminuses will be 2d and the return fare 3d. How much is a return from Cwmaman to Aberdare today? The service never really became that popular and the introduction of a reliable motorbus service, firstly by the GWR themselves and then lately in 1929 they amalgamated their bus services with the Western Welsh Omnibus Company, shortly afterwards the passenger service ceased. The line was to close as mentioned above for good in 1939, however the route of the line has remained and has now become a great favourite with dog walkers and cyclists.

The Navigation Yard, Mountain Ash

Navigation Colliery, Mountain Ash and old Taffs Vale Railway Station (ACVMS:2000.1025)

Moving down the valley now to Mountain Ash. The ‘Navi’ yard was for many years one of the arteries that linked the two sides of the town together making it far easier for people living in Newtown or Caegarw to cross the valley here to do their shopping down the ‘Mount’.   This photograph dates from the 1970s when the line was line was only open for mineral traffic after passenger services ceased in 1964. The yard was a part of the Nixon’s Navigation colliery which was first sunk in 1855 by the John Nixon a mining pioneer from the North-East of England.  This blog is mostly interested in the railways of the Cynon Valley, however, so let us return to the tracks. The line in the foreground of this photograph is the Taff Vale Railway mainline from Cardiff Bute Road to Aberdare Low Level.

The previous photographs here have all been part of the Vale of Neath Railway and latterly the Great Western Railway, however, the railway depicted in this photograph was opened by the Aberdare Railway Company on the 6th of August 1846 with the running of the line being undertook by the Taff Vale Railway who went on to take the lease of the line in 1847 with the Aberdare Railway Company being incorporated in to the TVR.  The line continued to be served by the TVR until grouping in 1923 when the hundreds of private railway companies in Great Britain were reduced to the ‘Big Four’ namely the Great Western Railway (or the Great Way Round as critics called it), London, Midland and Scottish Railway, The Southern Railway and the London North Eastern Railway Company. On the nationalisation of the railway network in 1948 control of the line moved to British Railways, Western Region. The line closed to passenger service in 1964 with much of the line being singled and remained open for only mineral traffic and the very occasional summer excursion.

The Nixon’s Navigation colliery officially closed in 1940, however the yard remained open as maintenance depot and being used for pumping.

The yard has featured in local newspapers on many occasions throughout the years and many of the stories have been tales of woe. One of these sad stories appeared in the Aberdare Leader on the 30th of November 1878. It reports that a stoker (fireman) by the name of Charles Davies was killed at the yard when he hit his head on a post while his engine was in motion. On the 19th of December 1907 the Cardiff Times reports the death of Mrs Jane Garett (63) who was drowned in the Glamorganshire Canal near the Cresselly Inn after crossing the yard from her home in King Street, Miskin on her way to her daughters in Caegarw. The Cardiff Times again reports on the 26th of March 1870 the untimely death of an unnamed mason’s labourer who was crushed to death between coal wagons at the yard. Another stoker’s death was reported in the Western Mail on the 5th of April 1880, on this occasion George Smith aged 17 fell under the wheel of coal trucks at the yard. The paper reports that he was doing well, until lockjaw set in and he sadly died.

Abercynon Station

Abercynon Railway Station (ACVMS:2009.213)

To the end of the line for this railway themed blog now approaches and it is fitting that we end at the last station in the valley, at Abercynon. This superb image of Abercynon station looking towards Merthyr and Aberdare dates from around the late 1920s or early 1930s. Note the sign reminding passengers to change here for Aberdare. The Taff Vale Railway opened the station, then known as Navigation House, on the its mainline to Merthyr on October 9, 1840 for freight and passenger services. The Great Western Railway took over running of all TVR lines and stations on grouping in 1923 and remained under their control until 1948 when the British railway network was nationalised and brought under the control of British Railways, Western Region.

To the right of this image was the steam shed. Prior to 1950 the shed’s code was ‘AYN’ afterwards becoming ‘88E’ until its eventual closure in November 1964. The area around the station became a stabling point for several diesel class 37 locomotives until the late 1980s. Further reading on the locomotive allocation to Abercynon shed and many others in South Wales and beyond can be found at ‘Shed Bash UK’.

The station was downgraded in the early 1970s with only one face of the island platform being in use, serving the Merthyr to Cardiff service. For many years waiting passengers would notice their train stopping at the Cardiff end of the station to pick up and return the single line token for the Merthyr branch. The signal box that many of us in the valley would remember was a GWR type 27c box. The box started its life at Birmingham Moor Street in 1909, moving to Didcot Foxhall in 1915 and finally to Abercynon in 1932, where it stayed until it’s sad demolition in 2013 after five years of inactivity. The signalling for the entire area is now covered by the new Abercynon Signalling Centre directly opposite its predecessor.

The South and North experiment that lasted some 20 years ended in 2008 when Abercynon North on the Aberdare line was closed and the line rearranged to look not too dissimilar to the photograph above and the main station became just plain Abercynon once again serving both Merthyr and Aberdare using both its platforms once again.


Geraint Lewis, Cynon Valley Museum volunteer, June 2020


Further reading:

  • More about the Gamlyn Viaduct on Coflein and Ancient Monuments
  • The Railway: British Track Since 1904, Andrew Dow.
  • About timber viaducts on Engineering Times
  • Cynon Valley History Society, Hanes 57, available online.
  • Aberdare: The Railways and Tramroads, John F Mear, Anthony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham.
  • Aberdare Leader 6th of January 1906, via The National Library of Wales available online.
  • About Navigation Colliery on Welsh Coal Mines website
  • Cardiff Times 30th November 1878, via the National Library of Wales available online.
  • Cardiff Times 19th December 1903, via the National Library of Wales available online.
  • Cardiff Times 26th of March 1870, via the National Library of Wales available online.
  • Western Mail 5th of April1880, via the National Library of Wales available online.
  • Welsh Railways Research Circle- Available online.
  • Shed Bash UK
  • About the Abercynon Signal Box at Coflein


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