A brief tour of Britain’s least used stations

Empty tracks at empty stations: British Steel Redcar station. Image: Red-Oktober/Wikimedia Commons.

Those among you who haven’t yet received your copy of the Office of Road & Rail Estimates of Station Usage 2016-7 (don’t push, now) might not quite realise the scale of disparity in exactly how many people use Britain’s various stations. Of the 2.9bn rail journeys made in Britain that year, just over 500m started or ended at one of London’s ten busiest stations. If you travelled from or to anywhere smaller than Orpington, congratulations: you’re in a minority.

But there are 57 stations in mainland Britain (the statistics don’t cover Northern Ireland) where fewer than 1,000 people embarked or disembarked. I was surprised to learn, on digging into the data, that they’re not all request stops in the Highlands – although, as it happens, 21 of them are Scottish.

So where are these tiny stations? What purpose do they serve? And why should you definitely buy the first ticket out?

British Steel Redcar

Situated on the scenic Bishop Auckland to Saltburn line, this is, as the name suggests, a station built solely to serve the gargantuan Teesside Steelworks which, prior to its closure in 2015, employed thousands locally. In 2015-16 the station served a small but semi-respectable 740 passengers. By 2016-17, that had dropped to 50. It’s noteworthy for still receiving a decent number of trains (four per day, six days a week) – making it look like Clapham Junction next to some on this list.

If you’re thinking of visiting and aren’t thrilled by views of an abandoned steelworks, you might want to take a book. While the station is owned by Northern Rail, there’s no public access in or out, as it sits within land owned by British Steel. If you miss the 8:25 to Saltburn, it’s another eight hours on an empty platform before you can leave.

Falls of Cruachan

This originally caught the eye with a name because sounds like an area in the game Dark Souls, but it turns out to be moderately interesting in its own right. As the name suggests, the station serves Ben Cruachan mountain and Britain’s second-biggest hydroelectric power station, Cruachan Dam, which spans the Cruachan Reservoir.

Falls of Cruachan station. Image: Rosser1954/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s been a station there since 1893, although it was closed between 1965 and 1988, when it was rebuilt by chucking together some old sleepers and calling it a station. Despite only operating during the summer months, it served a healthy 734 passengers in 2016-17. That footpath to the power station Visitors’ Centre comes in handy.

Teesside Airport

With just one train a week calling, at mid-afternoon on a Sunday, it would hardly be surprising that this station served just 30 passengers last year, if it weren’t for its name. While Durham Tees Valley Airport still manages to serve 120,000 passengers a year, its website does not even mention the railway station. It’s slightly depressing that two of the stations on this list are served by the same line – and that a closed industrial site is both more popular and has more trains than a regional transport hub.

Even fewer passengers than normal today. Image: Felix Saward/Wikimedia Commons.

All the references to the station online reference its distance from the terminal, which is over egging it a bit – it’s about a mile on foot. A proposal to move it closer formed part of the Tees Valley Metro scheme under Labour, but that has since been scrapped by the government on grounds of cost. Maybe Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen can include it in his planned nationalisation of the airport.

Reddish South and Denton

As one of the Labour Party’s campaign co-ordinators, Andrew Gwynne MP must be used to banging on about trains. And with good reason – his Denton & Reddish constituency contains two of the country’s least well served stations. While Reddish North, a 20 minute walk away, serves 196,000 passengers yearly, its southern neighbour manages just 94. It’s a request stop served by two trains a week (doubling its service as of May this year); and if you’ve ever wanted to travel to Stockport before returning 50 minutes later, you’re in luck every Saturday morning.

The forgotten Denton line. Image: TfGM.

Denton is in a similar situation although, perhaps in out of respect for its 136-year history, it at least has a bench. It too received a return service as of this May – you can now, if you really want to, take a four minute train journey from Denton to Reddish South and back again. These are mostly interesting for the context – instead of being in the middle of nowhere adjacent to a mountain, Greater Manchester is a place where, I have heard, people actually live.

Portsmouth Arms, and other pub

There are three stations in the National Rail network which are named after pubs – Portsmouth Arms, a request stop in Devon, is the only one to make it under the 1,000 passengers a year mark, with 518.


The Berney Arms, in Norfolk, is a novelty in providing one of two methods for accessing its eponymous pub, as the station and pub are not connected to any roads.

A slightly concerning detail interrupts this rural train-based drinking idyll, and might explain its low rider numbers (1,126). The last train back on most days is at midday (4pm on a Sunday) meaning unless you’re into a pick me up in the morning, you’re in for a pissed boat ride through the Norfolk Broads. Try not to drown.

The last of the pub-based stations is the comparatively popular (100,000 uses) Craven Arms in Shropshire, which serves a small village named after an old coaching inn. This one’s basically a major urban centre, by virtue of having both regular services and passenger access.

Robin Wilde tweets as @robin_CG.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.