Notes: Chesterton Lane Halt on the GWR branch line between Kemble & Cirencester in Gloucestershire (1959 - 64), opened in 1959 with the start of a diesel railbus service with a view to boost passenger usage. The short low platform built of sleepers was reached by a path on the north side of Chesterton Lane. Apart from a name board and a wooden rail around three sides of the platform the halt was devoid of any fixtures and fittings. Sadly despite some initial success the branch line did not survive the Beeching report and was closed to passenger services in April 1964 and fully closed in January 1966. The track through the site of the halt is now occupied by Meadow Road. After many years a recent proposal to reopen the branch line has been put forward but due to modern construction obliterating the original course of the line it will have to find a different route from the edge of Cirencester into any station in the town so Chesterton Lane Halt will never reopen.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CIRENCESTER BRANCH. The Great Western Railway opened its main line between London and Bristol in 1841. During the construction period, an independent company called the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway obtained authorisation on 21 June 1836 to make a line from the GWR at Swindon, to Cheltenham by way of Stroud and Gloucester. As well as the main line between Swindon and Cheltenham, there was to be a branch to Cirencester, terminating at a place there referred to as Botany Bay. A landowner at Kemble, named Robert Gordon, was evidently hostile to the railway, and he secured clauses in the authorising Act requiring a tunnel, not needed for engineering purposes, near Kemble. Moreover the railway was forbidden to open a public station on Gordon's estate. The new line was to be on the broad gauge.
The money market was extremely depressed in the period following authorisation of the line, and subscriptions could not be secured to make material progress on construction. In desperation, the directors determined to construct between Swindon and Cirencester only for the time being, for that would give the best chance of getting an income that would pay a dividend on the outlay. The company arranged a provisional lease with the Great Western Railway, in which the GWR would pay £17,000 annually for the use of the (as yet not built) line.
The Bristol and Gloucester Railway was relying on timely completion of the C&GWUR at the Gloucester and Cheltenham end of the line, and obtained Parliamentary clauses in C&GWUR Acts pressuring the Cheltenham company to complete at the Gloucester end of the line, and the emphasis on early construction passed to that area. In November 1840 even that work proved impossible to finance, and attention reverted to the Swindon end of the line.
Progress was eventually made, and the line opened between Swindon and Cirencester on 31 May 1841. It was a single broad gauge line; stations were at Purton, Minety and Cirencester, so there was no intermediate station on what was to be the branch line. The line was leased to the GWR as arranged, for a period of seven years. In 1842 the C&GWUR obtained Parliamentary authorisation to sell their line to the GWR. The main line company was not yet ready to purchase, but after a delay the transfer was agreed in January 1843. The actual amalgamation took place on 1 July 1843; the GWR spent £230,000 in the acquisition of the line, which so far had cost the C&GWUR £600,000 to construct.
The GWR did not hasten to complete the line, but it opened from Kemble to Standish Junction, joining the Bristol line there, on 12 May 1845. Kemble thus became the junction station for what was now the Cirencester branch. Robert Gordon's restrictive clauses prevented the opening of a public station there, and the GWR contented itself with an exchange station, not accessible for joining and leaving passengers or goods.
The Cirencester branch had been opened as a broad gauge line. The GWR undertook a widespread conversion to narrow (standard) gauge in the general area in 1872, and the Cirencester branch was closed on 22 May for the conversion work and reopened as a standard gauge line on 27 May. Passengers were conveyed by omnibus to and from Tetbury Road station during the closure. In 1922, there were ten trains daily, but no Sunday service.
British Railways ordered 22 passenger railbuses as an attempt to cut operating costs on rural railways and avoid closure. They started operating on the Cirencester line in February 1959. Of those, AC Cars Ltd of Thames Ditton, better known for their upmarket motor cars and the Southend pier railway rolling stock of 1949, won a contract for five railbuses which BR numbered W79975 - 8 and SC79979. AC Cars sensibly chose to install broadly the same equipment as used on the bulk of BR's diesel-mechanical multiple-units; the AEC A220 engine set to develop 150bhp at 1800rpm; fluid flywheel with freewheel; Self-Changing Gears Ltd R14 epicyclic gearbox; axle mounted reverse/final drive unit. Driving controls were of the Sharps type. There were, however, a number of major differences. There were engine controls for, of course, only a single engine and no provision for multiple-unit operation while braking was by compressed air rather than vacuum. Maximum road speed was 57½mph, hardly high speed but perfectly adequate for branch lines. The railbus body seated 46 passengers in two saloons with a central vestibule and as with all BR railbuses there was no separate area for the guard. Entrance doors were sliding, power operated by the driver. On the Cirencester and Tetbury branches it was originally intended to run through services to/from Swindon but this plan was abandoned, where passenger services were concerned, when it was found the railbuses could not be relied upon to operate track circuits. Railbuses did operate in service over main lines on other regions but a special set of strict regulations applied which the Western Region found too disruptive, especially in the vicinity of Swindon. Railbuses stabled overnight at Cirencester and Tetbury, initially running each day empty to Swindon for refuelling. This arrangement was soon altered to a cyclic diagram requiring just one railbus to return to Swindon each day, but as a precaution an emergency fuel supply was set up at Cirencester Town consisting of a 50 gallon drum elevated upon a wooden frame. It is visible in several photographs, opposite the end of the station platform.
Following the introduction of railbuses train service was increased to fourteen trains per day and halts were opened at Chesterton Lane and, in January 1960, at Park Leaze. Results were encouraging: 130,000 passengers yearly, an average of about 13 per train. Particularly on Saturdays, the railbus was overcrowded.
Nevertheless, despite the initial success, the passenger service was not financially viable, and it was withdrawn on 6 April 1964. Goods traffic was withdrawn on 4 October 1965.
With closure of the branches from Kemble the railbuses spread their wings to Yeovil, for the shuttle to Yeovil Town, and to the Bodmin area. Eventually all the AC Cars vehicles migrated to Scotland with what by then had become SC79978 going on the become the last 'first generation' BR diesel railbus in passenger service, being officially withdrawn on 3 February 1968 following closure of the Falkirk Grahamston - Grangemouth service on 29 January. SC79976/7 were also officially withdrawn on the same day, this pair had by then been operating in Ayrshire but, it is thought, they had been out of use for some time. On the Cirencester branch in particular the railbuses encouraged an increase in traffic, but probably due to the initial novelty value as the increased usage was not sustained. All the BR railbuses were a brave attempt to save branch lines by cutting operating costs. In this they succeeded but costs could not or would not be cut in other ways, for example the loss-making branch goods train still had to operate. It was said of the railbuses that they were "Too little, too light and too late" which sums up the situation rather well.
Tickets from Michael Stewart. Route map drawn by Alan Young.
To See also Cirencester Watermoor