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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.