Brecon and merthyr railway

Brecon and Merthr Junction Railway

The Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil Junction Railway (B&M) was one of several railways that served the industrial areas of South Wales and Monmouthshire. It ranked fifth amongst them in size, although hemmed in by the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) and Great Western Railway (GWR). It notably gained the unfortunate nickname of "Breakneck and Murder Railway" owing to a certain tendency towards having accidents - which, owing to the steep gradients, were generally rather severe.


The B&MR was once described as a "lively octopus in a tank of sharks", but despite the aggressive activities of the "sharks", it survived until the railway grouping. In the process, it absorbed several smaller companies and by negotiating running powers over the lines of other companies, it established links between Newport Docks in Newport and Brecon, and hence into Mid-Wales.

As early as 1836, Sir John Josiah Guest, of the Dowlais iron Works, had written of his proposal to construct a railway linking Dowlais to the valley of the River Usk, and possibly also running into Brecon. The line would have pretty nearly covered the same route as was eventually adopted by the B&M. A similar proposal suggested a line running up the Taf Fawr valley over the Brecon Beacons via Storey Arms and thence to Brecon.

The company was established by a Bill of 1858, with the directors including several prominent Brecon citizens. The Beacons tunnel (also known as Torpantau) was completed by 1862, and runs between Brecon and Pant commenced in 1863. The complicated series of amalgamations (including its originator the Hay Railway,a tram-road worked by horses opened in 1816) can best be appreciated here to explain how the B&M came about. In fact the B&M used the Hay Railway as the basis for its route between Talyllyn and Brecon. This included the tramroad tunnel (see below) at Talyllyn which required widening and deepening to allow the passage of standard gauge trains.

The system eventually came to comprise two sections of lines:

Initially, the only connection to Merthyr Tydfil was by means of a horse-drawn bus from Pant, but, by 1868, a connection with Merthyr had been established by sharing lines with Vale of Neath, London and North Western and Taff Vale railways. This involved the building of nearly seven miles of line from Pontsticill to Merthyr, with an almost continuous descent of 1 in 45-50, two complete reversals of direction and the construction of two viaducts to carry the line over the Taf Fechan at Pontsarn, and the Taf Fawr at Cefn Coed. The Pontsarn viaduct is 455 feet (139 m) long and 92 feet (28 m) height, whilst the Cefn Coed (or Pontycapel) viaduct is 770 feet (230 m) long with a height of 115 feet (35 m).

The section to the north of Pant was primarily a passenger service, serving isolated farms and villages. South of Pant, it was mainly a mineral line and carried coal from the mines down to the Newport Docks.


To develop routes into and through the rugged South Wales landscape, it was forced to construct two tunnels:

  • The Torpantau tunnel through the Beacons was 666 yards (609 m) long, and reached by a three mile (5 km) ascent from the Merthyr side. At an elevation of 1313ft, it was the highest railway tunnel above sea level, anywhere in Britain. Exiting from the tunnel, the line descended for seven miles (the "Seven-mile Bank") along the side of Glyn Collwyn (now flooded to form a reservoir) to the River Usk at Talybont-on-Usk, and and then made an ascent to Talyllyn and thence to Brecon Free Street.
  • A second tunnel was situated at Talyllyn located about 5 miles (8.0 km) to the east of Brecon, just after Talyllyn Junction, (with the Cambrian railway). This tunnel is 674 yards (616 m) long, and was originally built in 1816 for the Hay Railway (see above). Like Torpantau tunnel, it survived long enough to become the oldest in regular use on Britain's railways, although the line had become a freight-only route at its demise.

Rolling stock

  • Locomotives: 35 Several of those were still running post-WWII
  • Coaching stock: 69
  • Goods vehicles (mainly coal): 629. Collieries also provided some, including Powell Dyffryn. By 1913, the line carried nearly 3.5 million tons a year of coal and 227,000 tons of other minerals.

World War One

The line was used in World War I by intensive coal trains, dubbed 'Jellicoe Specials', from the South Wales Coalfield travelling north towards Scapa Flow via the Mid-Wales Railway for use by warships of the Royal Navy.[1]

"The slow train"

Prior to the two sections of line being linked, the train services had been somewhat unpunctual, with unconnected timetables, and the company acquired the unenviable reputation of operating "slow trains". They became the butt of music-hall jokes.


Locomotive Superintendents

  • J. T. Simpson (1863–1869)
  • T. Mason (1869–1873)
  • C. Long (1873–1888)
  • E. C. Owen (1888–1922)


The end of the Brecon and Merthyr

The line was amalgamated with the Great Western Railway following the Grouping. The ex-B&M system survived nationalisation into British Railways, but most were eventually closed during the 1960s, with all passenger services ending in October 1962. By 1980 only one short section of 10.5 miles (16.9 km) survived, serving coal traffic to Bedwas Navigation Colliery. With the demise of the coal industry in Britain the section between Bedwas and Machen was closed in 1985. The section between Machen and Bassaleg Junction (with the GWR Ebbw Valley line) remains to serve Hanson's limestone quarry.

The line today

Partial resurrection of the Brecon and Merthyr

In 1980 a private company, the Brecon Mountain Railway, began to build a narrow-gauge steam-hauled tourist line on the existing 5.5-mile (8.9 km) trackbed from Pant through Pontsticill to Dol-y-gaer. The initial section of 1.75 miles (2.82 km) from Pant to Pontsticill opened in June 1980. The line now extends to Torpantau and plans exist to introduce passenger services along this length in 2014.[2]

Only one B&MR coach has survived into the present day; coach No.111 stands in a private residence. [3] Only one goods wagon is known to still exist today; privately owned No.197 is currently at the Severn Valley Railway. [4]

No locomotives are known to be preserved to the present day.

National Cycle Network

Some sections of the route have become part of the National Cycle Network. These routes are NCN 4 (Celtic Trail) between Machen and Trethomas, NCN 469 between Bargoed and Fochriw and NCN 8 (Taff Trail) between Torpantau and Talybont Reservoir. The section between Bedwas and Maesycwmmer is being considered to become part of NCN 468.


  • The Brecon and Merthyr Railway, by D S M Barrie. Oakwood Press, 1957–1980
  • A Brief History of Merthyr Tydfil, by Joseph Gross. Starling Press, 1980
  • The Early History of the Old South Wales Iron Works, John Lloyd, 1906

External links

  • Historical notes including maps of system
  • Hereford, Hay and Brecon Railway
  • The Brecon Mountain Railway
  • Brecon and Merthyr Railway Company on the Cardiffrail Website
  • Alan George's The Photographic History Of Merthyr Tydfil
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