A lot has been written over the years about the history of the Pines Express and the Somerset & Dorset Line. This is my own modest account.
“The Pines Express”
In 1927 the direct train linking Manchester with Bournemouth, which had first run back in 1910, was given the name “Pines Express”. The title was a reference to the pine-clad valleys of Bournemouth. The trees were so prevalent in the resort that one even featured on the town’s coat of arms.
Although it was always busiest on summer Saturdays when, together with more than ten extra trains, it carried holidaymakers down from the industrial north to the beautiful Dorset coast, the service actually ran every weekday throughout the year.
The final part of its journey south was over a secondary line that normally only saw short local trains. Here, the long express with its name boards and its restaurant car became quite a celebrity. Even today, more than 50 years after its demise, it is still remembered in places it never even stopped at.
This article, reproduced from the Meccano Magazine of June 1929, includes a wonderful description of the train as it was back then. There is even a detailed map showing how the service used to negotiate its way through Birmingham.
Railway Wonders of the World – The Pines Express
According to the article, the 1929 train left Manchester London Road (now Piccadilly) at 10am. It paused at Stockport before arriving at Crewe (where it picked up a portion from Liverpool) at 10:40am. It then called at Wolverhampton at 11:37am, Birmingham at noon exactly, Cheltenham at 1:13pm and Gloucester at 1.36pm.
It then passed through Yate and onto the now-closed section; passing Mangotsfield North Junction at 2:17pm before arriving at Bath Queen’s Square (later Green Park) at 2:31pm.
After reversing at Bath and a stop of 5 minutes, the train began the final part of its trip. It arrived at Shepton Mallet at 3:18pm, Evercreech Junction at 3.26pm and Templecombe at 3:41pm. After another stop at Blandford, it was due to arrive at Poole at 4:35pm and be in Bournemouth West by 4:46pm.
The times changed over the years; by the late 50s the train was leaving Manchester at 10:15am and arriving, complete with portions from Sheffield and Liverpool, in Bath at 3pm. It then left Bath at 3:5pm and called at Evercreech Junction at 4:02pm, Blandford Forum at 4:54pm, Poole at 5:20pm and arrived at Bournemouth at 5:32pm.
The northbound “Pines Express” generally left Bournemouth before 10am. In 1958, for example, it was leaving at 9:45am and calling at Poole, Blandford, Evercreech and Shepton Mallet before arriving at Bath at 11:56am. It left Bath at 12:01pm and was back in Manchester by 4:52pm.
The heyday of the Pines Express was the early 1950s; a time when summer holidays had become the norm for many families but car ownership was still a rarity. The service declined in the early 60s and, after changing routes a couple of times, it was withdrawn in 1967. The name was revived in the 1980s for a new service via Reading but it didn’t live for long.
The route that the Pines Express followed until the early 1960s owes a lot to the rivalry that existed between the hundreds of companies that ran Britain’s railways in the 19th century. The story is of three large railways and one much smaller one.
Three great rivals
Brunel’s Great Western Railway (GWR) first reached Bristol via Bath from London Paddington in 1840. It grew and eventually came to dominate a great swathe of western England including most of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and South Wales. It also developed routes to Birmingham and even reached as far north as Birkenhead.
When the government grouped the railways into four large concerns in 1923, the GWR was the only one to survive more or less intact. After nationalisation in 1948 its territory became British Railways’ Western Region.
The Midland Railway (MR) was centred on Derby and its lines eventually stretched out in a kind of “X” pattern; north west to Manchester and Carlisle; north east to Sheffield and York; south east to London St Pancras and south west to Bristol. The MR competed directly with the GWR for traffic between Birmingham and Bristol; in 1869 it added a line to a new station, even further inside GWR territory: Bath.
The MR was merged with other railways in 1923 to emerge as the London Midland Scottish Railway (LMS); after 1948 the London Midland region of British Railways replicated much of its territory. As well as having “Midland” in the name, both of these later incarnations adopted similar shades of the original Midland maroon colours.
The London South Western Railway (LSWR) opened a line from London (its terminus eventually became Waterloo) via Basingstoke to Southampton in 1840. It was later extended to Bournemouth, Poole and on towards Weymouth. The LSWR eventually came to dominate Dorset and competed fiercely with the Great Western to Exeter and further into Devon and Cornwall. In 1923 it was merged to become part of the Southern Railway (SR). Post 1948, the Southern Region of British Railways continued operations in much the same territory.
A smaller affair
The Somerset and Dorset Railway was a much more modest railway. It started in 1862 with a merger of the Somerset Central Railway and the Dorset Central Railway, and by 1863 the company had linked the south coast to the Bristol Channel by creating a line from a junction with the LSWR at Poole northwards to Burnham.
The S&D originally had intentions to reach Bristol, deep inside Great Western Railway territory, but when the Midland Railway was extended south to Bath in 1869, it changed its plans. In 1874 it opened an extension from a junction at Evercreech over the Mendips to meet the Midland line at Bath.
The extension, although a success, had been expensive to build and the Somerset and Dorset soon ran into financial trouble. Given that it operated in territory largely controlled by the GWR, it seemed logical that it might be taken over by that company.
However, in 1875 the Midland Railway and the London South Western Railway got together to try and thwart the rival they had in common. A joint lease, shared control, was decided on and the “Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway” was born.
After 1923, ownership remained shared between the LMS and the Southern Railway and the S&DJR had its own identity preserved as a “joint line”. Even in early BR days the line was split between the LM region and the Southern region. It was only in 1958 when regional boundaries were reorganised that some of it finally became part of the Western Region.
A legend is born
So the stage was set. The little “joint” railway line with its sections of single track and its steep gradients had become a vital link between the great Midland Railway to the north and the London South Western to the south; a way for both of them to avoid surrendering traffic to their common Great Western rival.
From the early 20th century onwards, the south coast resorts became more and more popular and the line got gradually busier. The Midland Railway gathered traffic from the industrial north, from places like Leeds, Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool and then sent it down to Bath; from there it went over the S&D onto the London South Western and into the booming seaside town of Bournemouth.
The busy summer traffic, the rivalry with the Great Western, the difficult route (which often required large engines and double heading) and the picturesque scenery all contributed to the S&D acquiring legendary status among railway enthusiasts. It became a very well loved and much photographed line. Over the years, hundreds of books and even the odd TV documentary (Like this one ) have been produced about it.
End of the line
Perhaps inevitably, decline eventually set in. When, in the late 1950s, part of the line finally passed into the stewardship of the Western Region, the through trains were gradually diverted away and the line was left with just local traffic to try and survive.
When Dr Beeching came along in 1963, nobody was surprised that the line was soon put up for closure. The last trains ran in 1966. The link from the Midland line north of Bristol closed around the same time.
With the track gone, much of the old railway land was sold off. Viaducts were removed; tunnels blocked up; much of the track bed became farm land and most of the old stations were torn down and replaced by industrial parks or housing estates.
Gone but not forgotten
The S&DJR is certainly one of the most missed railways in England. It remains deeply mourned among many enthusiasts. There have been several attempts at preservation and no less than four separate short sections of track exist on the lost part of the route of the “Pines Express”; trains are operated on three of them. Several stretches of the old route have been converted to cycling or walking trails.
Judging by the amount of streets named “Pines Close” in the new housing estates created on the station sites, the “star” train hasn’t been totally forgotten either.
Return to “On the trail of the Pines Express”
Sources / Further Reading
The following book is in my personal collection….
- Allen, Cecil J (1946) Titled trains of Great Britain. Ian Allan
Website Links (Valid in 2021)
- Avon Valley Railway
- Railway Wonders of the World – The Pines Express – Meccano Magazine
- Somerset and Dorset Railway at Midsomer Norton
- North Dorset Railway at Shillingstone
- Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust
YouTube Links (Valid in 2021)