The “TransWilts” – Some key facts
Swindon to Salisbury – 55 miles by train, 40 miles as the crow flies
Swindon, Salisbury, Trowbridge, Chippenham and Melksham are the five largest population centres in Wiltshire … and Warminster doesn’t come far behind. Wootton Bassett, where trains pass though without stopping and Westbury, where trains connect for many other destinations, both have over 10,000 inhabitants too.
Just two trains a day run each way on the TransWilts at present, and as a result very few people on the TransWilts corridor use the train; the A350 and A36 roads are notorious for jams, and yet train ridership in Melksham, served only the the “TransWilts”, is below 0.5 journeys per head of population per annum. You’ll be hard pressed to find another town in the UK which has a station with worse figures!
A journey on the “TransWilts”
At Swindon Station
Welcome to Swindon station which opened in 1842 during the construction of the Great Western Railway’s engineering works. Until 1895, every train stopped here to change locomotives, and for refreshments for the passengers. The original station building was demolished in 1972, and the station reduced to 3 platforms. An extra (new) platform was opened in 2003.
If you’re arriving from London, it’s likely that your train will arrive at that new platform – number 4 – and you’ll make your way through the subway to the island platform – a platform with tracks on both sides – numbered 1 and 3. Walk along the platform, and you’ll find platform number 2 – a short platform that’s inset into the main structure, known as a bay platform. And that’s where the TransWilts train usually leaves from.
Your TransWilts train will usually be 1 or 2 carriages long – very occasionally 3 or even 4. It will be a diesel multiple unit (DMU) with no locomotive, but rather with the engines underneath the carriages. There will be driving cabs at the outer ends of the train, and perhaps unused ones in the centre too which allow the train to be divided into several shorter trains when required.
Check on the departure board before you board that this really IS the TransWilts train – this platform is also used for trains to Gloucester and Cheltenham. You’re looking for a train with a destination of Westbury, Salisbury or Southampton. The doors may be open … and you can get straight on, or in winter you may find them closed. If the yellow light which highlights the door button is lit, you can press the button yourself and get on – you don’t have to wait for staff to be available to help you.
The engines will be running – idling over – as the train waits. A minute or two before it’s due to leave, the crew – a driver and a conductor / train manager will get on, the doors will close, the engines will rev up, and we’re ready to go.
Swindon to Chippenham – 15 minutes
As the train pulls out of Swindon, you’ll feel it pull to the left as it joins the main line, and on the right of the train you’ll see the line to Kemble and Gloucester curve away. The old railway workshops were on the right, and you’ll see some of the old gable ends that have been preserved of historic interest. The Steam museum, and the National Trust’s headquarters, is in buildings behind, and then you pass a complete remaining workshop building housing the Swindon Outlet Centre. A few hundred yards further on, you pass the old Arkell’s brewery, then you’re passing through a modern shopping and industry area.
On the left as you leave Swindon, you’ll see the station car park, then an outlook over low Victorian housing which gives way to parkland and more modern housing as your train gathers. The field here are giving being developed as the new sustainable Swindon suburb of Wichelstowe, with up to 4500 new houses.
As it passes Wichelstowe, the train speeds up before burrowing under the main M4 (London to South Wales) motorway. The following bridges are at Hay Lane, where the original and temporary terminus of the Great Western Railway was located, opened in December 1840 and provide the transfer from train to horse and carriage for six months a further extension was opened – a further 2.5 miles of countryside – to Wootton Bassett. On this stretch, you pass from the local government area of Swindon to the new Wiltshire Unitary authority, who’s area you’ll pass through all the rest of the way to Salisbury.
Wootton Bassett is a town of around 11,000. Although the town was the site of an original station, and in 1903 it became a junction, the station closed in 1965 with the withdrawl of local trains between Swindon and Chippenham, and there are no longer any signs of the station as our TransWilts train loops around the town through cuttings, and takes the left fork on the line to Chippenham, Bath and Bristol rather than forking to the right via Badminton and Bristol Parkway to the Severn Tunnel. After a break of a number of years, rail freight traffic has returned to Wootton Bassett with stone traffic run by Forster Yeoman. Most of these trains travel up from Somerset via the TransWilts – indeed this traffic is probably the reason that the TransWilts line survived the 1970s.
Wootton Bassett town itself is perched on the top of the hill, and is famous these days (if you can call it fame) as the town that pays tribute to returning fallen servicemen and women as their corteges pass through the town. Just past the junction, the railway line passes under the Wootton Bassett to Lyneham road … and you may see Hercules aircraft flying low in parallel with the train, on the left hand side, as they prepare to land at RAF Lyneham.
With RAF Lyneham closing within the next few years, the area will need redevelopment and there’s a possibilty that the redevelopment, along with 2,000 jobs, could be encouraged by good public transport links such as a re-opened station on the TransWilts. You’ll see on the right of the train that the M4 motorway is still close by, and you may be able to imagine how – in 5 or 10 years – a new junction on the motorway cound feed cars to the parking at Wootton Bassett and Lyneham Parkway, and with a link road on to Lyneham letting traffic from the motorway get to Lyneham without clogging the town centre.
The railway runs along a shallow valley, which was once shared with the Wilts and Berks canal. Opened in the late 1700s, this waterway was closed as long ago as 1912, but if you look carefully you can still see the treeline, and even make out where the land rises at the site of Tockenham locks, and a mile of two on the sign of Dauncey Lock, where the Lyneham to Chippenham Road crosses. You’ll be hard pressed to spot any trace of the old branch line that turned off on the right hand side to Malmesbury – it was a very early closure, as the section between the South Wales line and the Chippenham line we’re now on was rendered redundant in 1903 when the South Wales line opened.
Passing over the watershed from an upper valley of the river Thames to the upper valley of the Bristol Avon, the line heads in a slightly more southerly direction across flat fields, and soon crossed the Avon on a low bridge.
The river hearabouts floods regularly in winter, and it’s always done so over the ages. Maude Heath, a lady from the southern bank of the river, was so incensed with getting her feet wet in 1474 that she bequeathed a sum upon her death for the building of a causeway, and some 250 years later after the sum had been invested and grown, the causeway was built, and it stands to this day. You can see a memorial plaque to the north of Chippenham station, and walk back along Maud Heath’s route, under the railway, across the river on her causeway, and up to the hill where a further monument to her stands. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Our train slows down on the approach to Chippenham, passing under a high foot bridge that links Monton Park to the south with the Cocklebury Lane area. The only way for cars to get in and out of Monkton Park is on the road that passes Chippenham Station, and then dumps out into the High Street, making it (at one time) the most populous cul-de-sac in England.
On the right, approaching Chippenham, you’ll see the old Westinghouse factories. The Westinghouse Brake and Signal company was located here for many, many years, and it’s not unusual to see a relic marked “Westinghouse – London, Chippeham and Calcutta” and dates 1898! Westinghouse is no longer a single company, and the major part that used to be located here in Chippeham has now move about 10 miles south to Melksham and is now part or Knorr-Bremse – but that’s for the next part of our story.
And so we draw to a halt at Chippenham – an island platform between the tracks, with a historic old canopy and a much more modern waiting room, and an old footbridge that allows passengers to get to and from their trains without having to cross the tracks on the level.
At Chippenham Station
Chippenham once boasted a large goods yard, but that has now disappeared under the North car park. The station buildings to the south have fared much better – they’re listed buildings, and some date back to the time when Brunel buit the line (or rather the line was built to his plans!).
The old southern through platform now has no track alongside it, and pipes stick out which perhaps indicate some problems underneath. Cycle parking and other facilities are located on this platform, and you’ll get an excellent cup of coffee at “Steamers” in the station building. During the day, passengers leave and exit the station through the booking hall but at night when there are no booking staff on duty, they walk along the platform and exit through a side gate.
Chippenham used to be the junction for Calne, and the Calne train usually left from a short platform near where the taxi rank is now situated, at the front of the station. Like the local service from Swindon which I mentioned earlier, the Calne line was a victim of the cuts pushed through by Dr Beeching in the 1960’s. That was a big loss, but at least you can walk and cycle along the old trackbed of the Calne branch, past Stanley Bridge and Black dog and through a valley which also accompanies the Calne branch of the Wilts and Berks canal.
Chippenham to Melksham – 10 minutes
As our train pulls out of Chippenham, we cross over a magnificent stone arched viaduct and have a view down to the shops below, towards the river which bisects the town centre, then we pass through a housing area and on our right see a modern retail park below us, with many “big names” present. The railway passes high over the old A4 trunk road, the over the old A350 before passing over a much wider bridge carrying the new A350 Chippenham bypass – built as a single carriageway, but the bridge is engineered long enough to carry it over a dual carriageway if that’s ever built in the future.
The train will be slowing now, and as you see the old railway yard at Thingley on the right, you’ll feel the train pulling to the left as it turns off to head south along the old Wilts and Dorset route. The line is single track now from here, although originally it was built as bouble track and to a wider gauge, so the track snakes back and forth across the whole width, making for better alignments on the curves and to allow for faster running – for this section of the TransWilts is used for weekend diversions of trains from London to the West Country when there is engineering work on the direct line from Reading to Westbury.
Thingley Junction was – about 100 years ago – a triangular junction with trains coming up the TransWilts (the opposite direction to we’re taking this journey) able to go around a sharp corner and run to Corsham and through Box tunnel towards Bath. And there were rakes of sidings between here and Lacock – the next village to the south, where there was a small station – a halt where local trains called if required – to the West of the village.
Lacock village iteslf is a tourist attraction, with many visitor coming to see the Abbey, the Church, the Tithe Barn, the museum of photography, and many 17th Century houses which are almost entirely owned by the National Trust. If you want to see Lacock, you can get there on Mondys to Saturdays by bus from Chippenham or Melksham – but be aware that the buses don’t run from the station in either of those towns at present.
It’a almost impossible to photograph the railway line here abouts without getting electric Pylons in the way – for there’s a major electric substation to the west of Beanacre – the next village where there used to be a halt, and the site of major traffic jams on the A350 which goes right through between the houses that were there long before the heavy lorries. The countryide and railway are flat along this stretch, following the vally of the river Avon.
Slowing down for Melksham, we pass under the old Dunch Lane bridge and pass the Out of town Department store at Leekes on our left, and allotments and open land on our right. As the train draws t a halt at Melksham station, we also see the multistory housing at Foundry Close – close by the railway as it’s been built on the formrly rail served site of Spencer’s heavy engineering factory, latterly GEC Mechanical handling.
As our train pulls to a halt in Melksham, we need to keep our eyes open to see which door or doors will be opened – for the platform is a short one, and anything longer than a one-coach train is likely to stick out at one end or the other.
At Melksham Station
At first glance, you’ll think there is little to see here – a short platform with what looks like a bus shelter, a canopy to keep cycles dry from the rain, and a gate out into a small industial area. But look a little more closely and you’ll see the platform extending beyond behind the tyre fitter’s, the beautiful old arched bridge that carries the Bath road over the trackbed fit for two broadgauge tracks, and the old good shed, now home of Novocast who (amongst other products) supply castings to Network Rail and Knorr Bremse – that’s railway industry still at the railway station.
Walk around to the Bath Road and onto the bridge, and you’ll see further old good buildings on the opposite (“up”) side of the track, giving you a clue as to what a major hub Melksham used to be. There’s a startling contrast between this station and the previous one at Chippenham, and it’s amazing to learn that Melksham’s a large town – it’s two thirds of the size of Chippenham, but it currently only has one train an hour calling, compared to 5 every hour at Chippenham.
Melksham station used to be a lovely Brunel building, but the station was closed completely in 1966, and the buildings demolished. One closure to far, it was reopened in 1985 for a single commuter train each day to and from Swindon, and since that time the service has gone up and down a bit, but has never risen to a sufficient level to generate the sort of traffic you might expect – put simply, people simply wouldn’t wait for 4 or 5 hours for a train – an appropriate service would be every hour, and with anything less that a train every two hours a new service would grow gently rather that take off like a rocket. With a peak service every hour, and trains both ways every 2 hours through the day, you’ll see the traffic levels grow.
Wiltshire Council bought a large parcel of land at Melksham station within the last couple of years, and that will very much enable the station and area to support the demands put onto it when the appropriate service is restored. Council land beside the old goods shed can link to council land at Foundry Close, providing a bus link and footpath to give proper access to the station for all around the town (very much as facilities in front of Chippenham Station have been improved in recent years), and the area that’s across from the station entrance has been part converted to an excellent car park.
Melksham to Trowbridge – 10 minutes
The line carries on under the Bath to Melksham Road – take a look at the bridge and you’ll see just how wide the trackbed is, for this used to be two tracks to Brunel’s broad gauge. A curve to the right, past the National Trust, Asda and Countrywide Farmers and we’re into the countryside shortly passing the sight of Broughton Gifford Halt.
At Holt Junction, the line from Devizes used to join in – closed in 1966, and lifted with a year or two. Just the single track carries on, with Holt village itself being to the North of the railway … and soon we come to the site of Staverton Halt, where the old platforms can still be seen. The train slows here as it curves around to the left, joining the line from Bath Spa on the way into Trowbridge, a further mile to the south. The junction – known as “Bradford Junctions” used to be a triangle; the third side was take out as late as the 1990s, and is much lamented by people who would like a direct train service from Melksham to Bath.
At Trowbridge Station
A modern rebuild with two platforms, and recently further improved. The Heart of Wessex Community Rail Partnership have adopted Trowbridge Station, and it’s a delight to see their floral displays.
Trowbridge to Westbury – 7 minutes
As we approach Westbury, if you look out of the windows on the right hand side you’ll see the Westbury White Horse … and at about the time you’ll also see a line curve off to the left to join the main London one. Until May 2016 it was used by a single scheduled passenger train from London to Bristol – the 17:06 from Paddington – but now the line is used purely for freight and for diverted passenger trains.
At Westbury Station
Westbury Station has three platforms – and a spare platform face with no track against it at the moment. It’s a major interchange – coming off the service from Swindon, you can get direct connections to London (both Paddington and Waterloo), Portsmouth, Brighton, Weymouth, Taunton, Paignton, Plymouth, Penzance, Bristol, Cardiff, Cheltehanham Spa and Great Malvern to name but a few
Westbury to Dilton Marsh – 3 minutes
Some TransWilts trains carry on beyond Westbury (we hope more i the future) … at which point we’ll be looking to adopt Dilton Marsh and Warminster Stations.
At Dilton Marsh Station
Dilton Marsh to Warminster – 6 minutes
At Warminster Station
Warminster to Salisbury – 25 minutes
Watch this space for the proposed station at Wilton!
At Salisbury Station
Salisbury is the offical end of the route as far as the TransWilts Community Rail Partnership’s sponsorship is concerned, but it’s not the end of the journey for many passengers – or indeed for some of our trains, which carry on via Romsey to Southampton. You can change at Salisbury for local trains to Southampton too, and for Portsmouth, for Exeter, and for London Waterloo. If you’re travelling to London and want to visit the Festival Hall / South Bank / London Eye area, take the TransWilts to Salisbury and then the South West Trains service into Waterloo – the journey to London takes longer than Swindon or Westbury to Paddington, but you are then saved having to use the underground or bus in London.