British Railways, or British Rail as it became known after 1965, was formed on the 1st January 1948 by the amalgamation of the so called, “big four” railway companies: Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. British Rail was often held with a changing level of affection by the British people from its heyday in the 1960’s through until privatisation in the 1990’s.
The Alston branch line, along which the South Tynedale Railway now runs, was inherited by British Railways from the London and North Eastern Railway company (LNER), but didn’t last as long as British Rail themselves with the line being formally closed on 3rd May 1976 after the last trains had run on Saturday 1st May 1976.
British Rail steam locomotives¹ – The nationalisation of railways on 1st January, 1948 made little appreciable difference to rural branch lines such as the Haltwhistle to Alston route, and the late 1940s and early 1950s were, in most respects, merely a continuation of the LNER era. As on so many other lines, the only obvious change concerned the liveries of locomotives and rolling stock.
The teak brown coach livery of the LNER was replaced by an overall maroon colour scheme, while ‘mixed traffic’ locomotives such as the ‘G5’ 0-4-4Ts were repainted in LNWR-style lined black livery. The new liveries were, however, merely cosmetic, and in terms of motive power the Alston branch was still an ‘NER’ route – the ex-NER ‘G5’ 0-4-4 tanks being much in evidence around 1950.
In June 1953 Alston received an entirely new allocation in the form of Ivatt class ‘4MT’ 2-6-0s № 43126 and № 43128; sister engine № 43121 sometimes appeared when one or other of the regular engines was under repair. The use of these ex-LMS locomotives may have been something of an experiment, and in the event the Ivatt engines did not enjoy a monopoly of the Alston route. They were replaced by similar (but better looking) British Railways standard class ‘3MTs” № 77011 and 77014, while class ‘4MTs’ № 76049 and 76024 also appeared towards the end of steam operation.
Modernisation and diesel traction² – In November 1959 BR introduced a diesel-worked passenger timetable. The last scheduled steam-hauled passenger train pulled into Alston station (carrying ‘Royal Train’ headlights) on the evening of Saturday 27th September, 1959.
Steam was replaced, at Alston, by Metro Cammell two car sets (later class ‘101s’) and in the next few years these good looking and relatively comfortable diesel multiple units became familiar sights in the scenic South Tyne Valley. In theory, the flexibility of multiple unit operation should have allowed BR to introduce a much-improved timetable, but this did not happen on the Alston line, and there were, in the diesel era, no more than six or seven workings each way between Haltwhistle and Alston.
Although class ‘101’ multiple units were the mainstay of Alston branch operation between 1959 and 1976, it would be fitting to mention that, in May 1965, German-built 4-wheeled railbus № E79964 was sent north for trials on the Alston branch. Sister vehicle № E79963 arrived in August, but it did not remain for long, and № E79964 was left to carry on alone until the following winter. Built by Waggon and Maschinenbau in 1958, these German railbuses were part of a batch of five ordered under the BR modernisation plan.
Whilst unsuccessful on the Alston branch these railbuses were transfered to other BR regions and E79963 is currently undergoing restoration at the East Anglian Railway Museum and E79964 is now preserved in an operational state at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.
The final journey and closure³ – Saturday 1st May 1976 was a sombre, wet day, but the depressing weather did not deter an estimated 5,000 people from travelling north to ride on the last scheduled passenger services. The normal trains were filled to capacity, while hundreds of others travelled over the branch line is special trains.
Some people rode up and down the line for two or more trips, but finally, at 9:09pm, the time came for the last train to commence its melancholy journey from Alston to Haltwhistle. The train was greeted by little groups of people as it paused at the intermediate stations at Slaggyford, Lambley, Coanwood and Featherstone. The final journey came to an end at about 9:45pm, and as the last day travellers dispersed by car and train, everybody was conscious that 123 years of railway history had drawn to a close.