The Dunstable branch 1965-1990

Introduction

When the last “Skimpot Flyer” passenger train left Dunstable on 26th April 1965, many must have thought that Dunstable would soon be wiped from the railway map. The adjoining Dunstable to Leighton Buzzard line had lost its last through freight services in 1964 and the Luton Bute St – Hatfield route was also closed in April 65. A new connecting chord linking the branch with the Midland main line at Luton, built after the Hatfield’s line closure, meant the branch was now just a 5 mile stub of a former through route from Hatfield to Leighton Buzzard. However, this chord kept the branch alive and for the next 25 years much cement and oil traffic rumbling down the branch, the late 80’s even saw a few railtour’s as the branch reopening to passenger services looked possible. Then came the closure of the cement works in 1988, followed by the oil depot closure a year later, resulting in the total closure of the branch, many years after that last “Skimpot Flyer”

This article records those post “Skimpot Flyer” Dunstable diesel years in detail. There is a lot of archive material here to wade through but amongst there are some interesting workings and a few tales to raise a smile. We hope you enjoy the read!

The Gen sources

The gen that makes up the main sightings log to this work comes primarily from the personal observations of 3 enthusiasts. The branch was never mentioned in the mainstream Railway mags of the time. The local South Beds Loco Group produced a monthly journal which has also come up with a few more nuggets of gen.

Mike Lewis (MIB) has kindly supplied the logs of his late Father’s trips down the branch. Being a Bedford based driver, he saw many visits to the branch. His taking the trouble to note down the loco he drove down the branch should be greatly appreciated as this gives a good historical record of an otherwise overlooked period on the branch

Tony Ewer ( Mad Axeman) again must be thanked for amassing a record of virtually all branch traffic from 1981 to the bitter end. Working at Reed Travel Groups offices alongside the line and having a flat close to the line makes him the branches “top man”!. Again it takes dedication to roll out of bed to view the cement loco at 7am on a Monday morning, or peer out to record the evening cement loco just visible by the Kingsway crossing lights on a dark February evening. Tony also took hundreds of phots of branch workings and a sample of his superb collection feature here. Sadly Tony died in September 2020.

Although of a low volume in terms of recorded sightings I lived and/or worked near the branch from the 60’s to the end and a fair few sightings were recorded over years.

A journey down the branch..

Approaching Luton from the St Albans direction on the down fast line your light engine class 25 passes Luton South box before stopping by the shunt signal just beyond the Hitchin Road overbridge.  Once given the road, you set back onto the connecting line and onto the spur line of the former Hatfield route.

Tony Ewer’s phot of an up HST at Luton in May 88. In this wonderfully detailed photo the Dunstable branch and main line connection stands out.

With the road set and token in hand you move forward past the site of Luton Bute Street station and cross several busy road bridges, then past the site of Maple Road coal depot before climbing up to Chaul End, the summit of the line.

With Blows Downs to your left and houses/factory units on your right there is still a rural branch line feel about your journey before you swing right and into Dunstable.

The site of Dunstable Town station is passed on your left, a car storage yard (until 2008 before flats were constructed here). The Church St bridge here has raised platforms either side of the single line giving restricted clearance, until 2005 this bridge also served as a pedestrian footbridge.

The Bedford truck plant on your right still retains 2 short sidings, disused since the late 70’s. Then a  fixed distant signal, (the semaphore was replaced with a more modern Car Sign style signal in the 90’s) sees the brakes applied, then hooting before you rumble over Kingsway foot crossing. With the college fields on your left and chalk cliffs to your right, you ease round the final curve and stop just before the catch points protecting the line from runaway wagons.

You then move forward under Dog Kennel Lane overbridge before gently kissing the buffers of your waiting cement empties tucked away on a the sharp right hand curve of the cement works triangle

The return run sees your lengthy 16 bogie empty cement wagons eased very slowly off the cement works triangle, derailments here were a semi regular event.

Speed hardly builds as after 100 yards or so you stop. The guard/second man than trudges back the length of the train to set the catchpoints and once he’s clambered aboard, its power up time! Even empty the 16 bogie trucks have a trailing load of around 650 tonnes and on a greasy, litter strewn rail there is much small Sulzer music as the train is restarted and climbs past the Bedford works, over Church St bridge along side Blows Downs before the Chaul End summit. Unofficial speeds of 50 mph were not unknown as the track bed was generally in good condition.

Viewed by Tony Ewer from high on blows Downs heres 31168 climbing up to Chaul End summit with the return cement empties to Northfleet on May 19th 1986

At Luton Bute St you stop alongside the main line station and once uncoupled move forward to the old Bute St box before setting back onto the adjacent line at Bute St. The Southern class 33 and crew then move up from the spur and couple up to the cements. Again a small burst of Sulzer sounds before the train coasts down the full length of the spur line. With the road set, a spectacular, sometimes speedy, reversal sees the 33 propel the train along the spur, then the “new” connecting chord and onto the down fast main line and through Luton Midland Road station. A sharp stop with the loco alongside the parcels dock before the final reversal sees the 33 and train ease over the crossover and onto the up fast line. A booked fast line path greets the 33, allowing rapid acceleration out of Luton on the climb up to Chiltern Green and eventually back to Northfleet.

Cement Traffic

Bulk Cement Traffic (until 1971)

Until October 1971 the Blue Circle/Portland cement works at Houghton Regis produced cement using chalk from massive local quarries. Some of this cement was dispatched by rail to depots in Northern England and Scotland. The last regular flow was a daily departure to Handsworth in the West Midlands timed at D890 tonnes. The loaded train would leave Dunstable mid afternoon and run round at Luton Bute St before heading North towards Bedford. By 1969 this train consisted of air braked bogie cement hoppers.

6H35 1450 Dunstable-Handsworth loaded cement D890 – AIR-COY

6C36 2315SX/1728SO Handsworth-Dunstable cement empties D553 – AIR-COY, (leave Luton Bute St 0540, Dunstable 0620)

Motive power was normally a 45 or on occasions a 47, 46’s also occasionally produced. Class 25’s in pairs also worked, single 25’s featured when power was  short. On at least one occasion a class 40 was a very rare visitor to the branch on the cement.

Bulk Cement Traffic (from 1971)

Downgrading of the cement works to distribution depot status was completed by late 1971. From a branch point of view this change of traffic flow was to see a completely different operating pattern and a lot more interesting from an enthusiast point of view.

Cement was delivered in a new 1000 ton plus (16-17 bogie wagons) train from Northfleet in Kent, utilising a pair of Hither Green based 33’s and crews as far as Luton.

At this time the 33’s had very little booked work outside of the Southern so it was quite an event for 33’s to regularly stray so far North on the Midland. The 33’s and crews were rostered as far North as Luton to balance, in the railway union’s eyes, the Midland crews that worked MGR coal traffic through to Northfleet cement works. 

This lengthy train was run down the branch in portions by a localy crewed class 25/45 as far as the Watling St embankment at the very extremity of the line. A type 4 would normally work the train in 2 portions down the branch, a type 2 in 3 portions. The portions would then be propelled onto the cement works triangle where the works shunter would take the trains into the unloading areas.

In the evenings the process was reversed except the empties were worked as a single train by a local type 2 each evening with a single 33 taking the train forward from Luton Bute St. On occasions, especially in the evenings due loco shortages the 33 after running light from Hither Green to Luton would go forward to Dunstable to work the evening empties throughout.

6M48 0324 Northfleet – Dunstable loaded cement D1320 – AIR COY,

arr Luton 0530,

1st portion 0720 ex Luton, 2nd portion 0820 ex Luton, xxxxxxx

6093  1915 Dunstable – Northfleet cement empties D660  – AIR COY

In the mid 70’s on Saturday’s the morning pair of 33’s were split at Luton BS with one engine returning light engine to the Southern, whilst the other would stable in the siding adjacent to Luton South box. This loco would return the empties back to the Southern early evening.

Branch motive power in the morning on the “big cements” was generally a  45. The evening empties were normally a 25 although 31’s dominated in the late 80’s and we also had the occasional 33, 47, 56, 58 and even 2 x 20 producing on occasions. The evening empties, a classic Bedford “kick out” of any available power!  

Tony Ewer catches a “Crompton” at Dunstable (one of 32 different 33’s recorded on the branch), heres 33061 passing the College grounds heading for Northfleet on June 3rd 1983

Tony Ewer catches some “rat” exhaust as 25089 and a failed 25242 accelerates away from the catch points at Dunstable on August 2nd 1983

25060 on the evening cements on the cements work triangle with the run round for oil trains behind the loco on May 8th 1985

Tony Ewer catches 47359 on the evening empties, quite an unusual sight on June 5th 1986

The first death nail for the branch, 31247 takes the last ever cement train out of Dunstable on May 27th 1988  

The “small cements”

“Special” cement was normally both dispatched and sometimes received in Prestflo or PCA short wheelbase wagons. This train ran as class 8 so a brake van was part of the consist. Wagon load traffic was dispatched from Cricklewood Yard as 8C36, this train also contained wagons for Maple Rd coal depot and the Vauxhall sidings in Luton and Dunstable in earlier years. This train known locally as “the small cements” returned to Cricklewood yard around 10am from Dunstable and was rarely more than 10 wagons. The “small cements” ceased to run as a separate train in Dec 1983, with PCA’ wagons normally tagged onto the main cement train on occasions from 1984 onwards.

Motive power for the small cements was almost exclusively 25 although 27’s featured until 1969 and 31’s in the mid 80’s. When the power situation was stretched the Luton based 08 shunter would trundle down the branch at a stately 15 mph!

A wagon label from the 12th June 1974 which was probably from a a wagon off the “small cements”

Oil Traffic

A small oil depot was opened in 1966 supplying heating oil to the local area. The depot was situated close to High St North close to the former over bridge over the A5 here, adjacent to the headshunt that formed the truncated end of the branch.  A single siding layout, but with capacity for a full train load, with 2 storage tanks. Loaded trains would run round in the loop outside the depot and the loco would propel the tanks into the depot. Unloading would often see the empties ready for dispatch the following day.

Oil traffic to the Kennings oil depot varied from one or two a week in Winter to monthly in Summer and was normally dispatched from North Thames refineries. Coded 6C35 this train was often a mix of air braked short and long wheelbase tanks. Motive power was generally a class 47 sometimes an Eastern based one but mainly Midland, some Western and even Scottish based class 47’s all worked this train over the years. Class 45/56/58 also worked, whilst the empties could also get class 25 plus many 31’s in later years.

Running as a single train this was, post 1972, the heaviest regular train on the branch as the cement flows were normally run in portions. Oil traffic kept the branch alive beyond the demise of the cement traffic and was the last branch revenue earning traffic until the oil depot closed in April 89 and the flow ceased.

6M39 0610 Ripple Lane – Dunstable MO D773

6E48  1550 Dunstable – Ripple Lane MO D1109

Although booked MO (Mondays Only) in the early 70’s the “oils” never had any regular day of operation running as required. On Saturdays in early 72 there was a spell where the loaded tanks would arrive from the South and be shunted onto the siding adjacent to Luton South box.  The loco would then work 4S43 Luton-Johnstone loaded car flats, with the tanks being tripped down the branch later in the day.

45056 passes the staff car park at Reed Travel Group with empty oils from Dunstable to Ripple Lane, the “Peak” will probably work this to Brent yard, on October 6th 1982

Other Traffic

By the mid 70’s the coal traffic from Luton Maple Road and scrap steel from the Dunstable Vauxhall/Bedford factory had ceased. The last recorded Dunstable Vauxhall traffic was in April 75.  Other traffic was primarily limited to the breakdown train dealing with occasional derailments on the cement works. Ballast or engineers trains were extremely uncommon perhaps showing the minimal maintenance done at the Dunstable end of the branch.

In the mid 80’s the small cements was part of a trip working from Bedford so on occasions the consist included MGR’s or bogie bolsters and other unusual vehicles that were tripped down the branch as part of the trains consist. Once at Dunstable the MGR’s ect would be tripped straight back to Luton with the small cement empties!

The weedkiller train had the dubious honour of being the last train to work the branch. This normally ran in May with 25 or 31 power. The very last weedkiller working saw  20902/905  work the train in April 1990. Class 20’s have the honour of working both the last booked passenger and freight work on the branch!

Loco statistics. Confirmed Dunstable branch visitors from 1967-1990

Class 08 1

Class 20 4

Class 25 145

Class 27 13

Class 31 142

Class 40 1

Class 45 108

Class 46 2

Class 47 123

Class 56 9

Class 58 2………………………Total 582

Railtours and shuttles down the branch

Apart from a sole tour in 1968, it wasn’t until the late 80’s that saw a further 7 tours work down the branch ending in April 89.

The known tours are listed below, additional gen welcome

October 19th 1968 – Midland Railway Centenary Assoc DMU Tour from St Pancras

January 17th 1987 – Hertfordshire Rail Tours Chiltern Chariot DMU Tour from Marylebone, DMU was 51877, 59675, 59731, 51669, 51673, 59747, 59744, 51652

February 21st 1987 – Hertfordshire Rail Tours Chiltern Chariot II DMU Tour from Marylebone, DMU was 51869, 59729, 59764, 51900, 51571, 59759, 59733, 51656

May 3rd 1987 – ADAPT Dunstabelle to Brighton (from temporary platform at Kingsway) 33119 and 4TC 8019

May 8th 1988 – ADAPT Dunstabelle II to Portsmouth (from temporary platform at Kingsway) 33111 and 4TC

May 30th 1988 – Local Carnival shuttles Dunstable – Luton (temporary platform) using Green Cravens 53359 and 54122

November 12th 1988 – SEG Thame Dunstabelle Tour from Waterloo using 33114 and 4TC’s  8015 and 8018

April 30th 1989 – ADAPT Tour to Matlock (from temporary platform at Kingsway) using Reading based Met Cam DMU

Dunstable branch “Tales”

Tale  1 – Desperate leaps

January 1977. Being based in Swansea at the time, I was seeing out the last days of the long college Xmas holidays in my parents house on the Western outskirts of Dunstable. I was in the loft running the model railway when I heard a full size loco hoot on the breeze. Cue a desperate scramble out of the loft, a manic cycle for the 15 minute ride down to Kingsway and hope the hoot was from an inbound train from Luton.

I was rewarded with my first Dunstable train photo, local regular 25221 chattering back to Dunstable with a rake of empty oil tanks having presumably come down from Luton light engine.

I only had a Kodak instamatic camera at the time, so the photo is poor by todays digital standards but instant nostalgia on seeing it.

Tale 2 – Office views.

From 1979-1999 I worked at ABC, later Reed Travel Group in Dunstable. Good fortune saw the then ABC Travel Guides moved from the Dunstable’s southern suburbs in Old Hill to new Church St offices alongside the branch . So from November 1981 daytime branch movements could be recorded by myself, plus one or two other enthusiasts and many willing volunteers with the best lineside views. Resetting the catch points near the college grounds meant you had a few minutes warning of approaching rail traffic and the internal phones would quickly ring. Over the next 9 years we were lucky enough to see class 20,25,31,33,45,46,47,56 and 58 pass our office windows, even the very last weedkiller train in 1990 got a flail from a good number of ABC/OAG staff.

From the office window 25244 crosses Church Street bridge with the “small cements” bound for the Southern on December 22nd 1982

Tale 3 The Dunstabelle 1 Special

Work commitments saw me get a grandstand view of 33119 on the Dunstabelle 1 to Brighton whilst doing Sunday overtime on May 3rd 1987. A few enthusiasts gathered on the Church St bridge to watch 33119 and TC pass on a grey Dunstable morning. Enthusiastic locals made up the consist of the 4TC stock that formed the special. Enthusiasm at the time for the branch reopening to passenger services was at a real high, this special reflecting the buzz the line could give the town.

Fellow OAG worker and legendary local enthusiast “Smudger Smith” deserves a mention here. Unable to get a ticket for the Dunstabelle 1 , he jumped the tour at the temporary Kingsway platform sitting with the guard in his compo. Not content with the rare track, loco and historic nature of the special train he got off the Dunstabelle 1 during the Clapham Jn crew change and crossed the platform to join “grid” 56033 into Victoria on the “Hastings Belle” Railtour, top move or what!

An ADAPT flyer for the second special from Dunstable on May 8th 1988 to Portsmouth

33111 at a soggy Dunstable Kingsway temporary platform with the Dunstabelle II for Portsmouth on May 8th 1988

Tale 4 Steam on the branch

  In late 1976  a “Jinty” and an 0-6-0 Saddle tank arrived, presumably by rail at the Houghton Regis cement works. They were parked up in a secure compound, well protected from the local vandals. Local press reports advised of how the locos were to be involved in steam shuttles down the branch possibly in connection with the Luton Carnival.  Sadly the steam shuttles were never authorised. Nothing more was heard till years later, when a colleague who lived by the line told us of a steam engine passing one summers evening in 1977. This colleague advised that one of the train crew “raised his bowler hat as he passed”. We assume this was Jinty 1708 being given one special steam run on the branch before relocation back to Derbyshire. We assume it was just a light engine move, no coach in tow, but further gen on this very last branch steaming, is…as yet,.zero. A real branch mystery tale.!

Tale 5 the big un, single train 56..

Tony Ewer advises that presumably as an experiment 56089 worked 18 loaded bogie cements trucks  down the branch in one go one Sunday morning in Feb 86. The train was presumably split into portions on the loop outside the oil depot before being propelled onto the triangle. This was to prove a unique one off working.

56089 returns light engine to Luton after her historic up non portioned morning cements from Northfleet on February 16th 1986 

Tale 6 Distant personal memories

I can vaguely remember catching the train from Dunstable Town station to Luton  with my family, we caught the train because my sister was in a pram. It was probably early in 1964 and I remember seeing the trail of smoke coming from along Kingsway from what I assume was a steam engine or perhaps a “Baby Deltic!”

One sunny summer afternoon,probably 1967/8, I was enjoying the good weather in Grove House gardens which were quite near the railway. A hoot and I legged it to nearer the line to see a black 11105 diesel on a rake of oil tanks. I think this was an 03 shunter which made occasional trips down the branch back then.   

My school from age 11-14 was in ear shot of the branch and many a maths lesson’s

monotony was broken by the hoot of a passing class 25. “PE” saw us sent on cross country runs which involved going down Dog Kennel Lane, across the railway overbridge then back to school via the cement works. A comfortable 30 minute run unless you stopped to view passing rail traffic! I’m sure our teacher was bemused why me and one or two others regularly trailed in behind our much chubbier classmates!

After school we would regularly cycle down to Kingsway Crossing where I don’t think we ever saw a train but just hung about. The Vauxhall Works sidings were near here and there were usually a few open mineral type wagons and the Ruston shunter in the two sidings here . Again we never saw this 0-4-0 red machine move but presumably the shunter was used in loading these trucks with steel swarf from the factory. There were a few relics that caught our eye here, a Great Northern railway “do not trespass” cast iron sign and a fixed distant signal. On a grander scale the works water tower looked down on us and half the town, this familiar landmark was to survive much longer than works themselves

The fixed distant at Dunstable Kingsway is seen here in May 81 as kids we put long bits of grass to see if the signal ever moved, it didnt!

Tale 7 Luton Town FC

The branch at the Luton end literally ran right next to Luton Town FC’s Kenilworth Road ground. Many a Saturday afternoon home fixture was disturbed by a hooting 25 rumbling by, as we waved it by between watching the “stars” like Mike Keen and Laurie Sheffield.

As Luton progressed to the higher divisions the Saturday cement traffic had ceased but there was speculation of a football station being built. This would primarily cater for away fans as some were creating “bovver” on the long walk from Luton Midland Road station where their football specials terminated. Like much of the branches history this was always speculation and talk, in reality nothing happened.

Tale 8 The last “rat” to “litte Siberia”

Class 25’s nicknamed “rats” featured on the branch from the late 60’s until January 87. Whilst many local enthusiasts will remember the far too common  “Terrible Ten”  (5212-5221) for their turning up every day, on every working, perhaps 25059 deserves inclusion? In January 87 much of Britain, particularly our area was blitzed by heavy snow. This 25 was fitted with miniature snowploughs and the loco spent much of January working freight, parcels and even the odd passenger turn on both the Midland and WCML.

Dunstable has been nicknamed as “Little Siberia” for years now as its high altitude often sees much more snow than some of the lower  lying surrounding countryside.  A few days before the “Chiltern Chariot” DMU tour to Dunstable, 25059 worked a light engine snow clearing trip down the branch. Sadly this was the very last recorded 25 on the branch as the surviving members of the class were all withdrawn a few weeks later. 

The Chiltern Chariot DMU tour from Marylebone in the snow taken from Dog Kennel Walk footbridge on January 17th 1987, things looked promising for the branch back then

the beginning of the end for the branch, the Cement works was closing as a major distribution depot and this was the last cement empties to leave Dunstable on May 27th 1988, very much the end of an era. Just oil traffic was to remain on the branch for another year or so and then that was that.

Postscript

At a time of deep recession and the country in severe debt due to the banking crisis it was a shock too many that in March 2010 tree clearance of long sections of the branch began. Sadly this was preparatory work for unpopular guided busway project. By Autumn 2010 the likes of Church St rail bridge had been removed and replaced with a new guided bus bridge. Sadly the track bed that had survived for 20 years since the last train, had by late 2010, been lifted and in 2011/2 a concrete “guided busway” will be put in it’s place….Such is progress…

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