The Bristol and South Wales Union Railway was built to connect Bristol, England, with south Wales. The route involved a ferry crossing of the River Severn but was considerably shorter than the alternative route through Gloucester. The ferry was replaced by the Severn Tunnel in 1886 but part of the route continues to be used, forming parts of the Cross-Country Route and the South Wales Main Line.
Bristol & South Wales
A "Bristol and South Wales Junction Railway" was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1846. Isambard Kingdom Brunel surveyed a route across the Severn and the ferry at New Passage was purchased, but the line failed to raise enough money so was not built. The "Bristol, South Wales and Southampton Union Railway" proposed in 1854 to carry a line through the centre of Bristol and along the Avon Gorge to New Passage, where a train ferry would cross the water. This became the "Bristol and South Wales Union Railway" (B&SWUR) which received its Act on 27 July 1857 but using a route to the east and north of Bristol. Brunel died in 1859 and the works were completed by Robert Pearson Brereton.
Construction started in 1858 and the single-track 7 ft (2,134 mm) broad gauge line opened from South Wales Junction, half a mile east of Temple Meads, as far as the landward end of New Passage Pier on 8 September 1863, a distance of 11 miles (18 km). The distance by rail between Bristol and Cardiff was reduced from 94 miles (151 km) to 38 miles (61 km). Stations were opened at Lawrence Hill, Stapleton Road, Filton, Patchway, Pilning and New Passage. The short section on the opposite side of the Severn officially opened on 1 January 1864. On 13 August 1864 Ashley Hill station was opened between Stapleton Road and Filton.
Under GWR ownership, the Portskewett branch was converted to 4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge on 13 May 1872 along with all the other broad gauge lines on that side of the river. The Bristol section was closed for one day on 8 August 1873 and reopened the following day as a standard gauge line.
On 1 October 1874 a junction was put in at Narroways Hill, just north of Stapleton Road railway station, to connect the GWR with the Clifton Extension Railway, a joint venture with the Midland Railway to serve the affluent Clifton district. The line from Temple Meads to Narroways Hill Junction was doubled at the same time.
Work had started on the Severn Tunnel a little way downstream from New Passage in 1872 and sidings were laid at both Portskewett and New Passage in connection with sinking shafts to the tunnel workings. On 29 May 1886 a curve was opened near South Wales Junction (between Dr Day's Junction and North Somerset Junction) to allow trains to run directly from London to the new Tunnel. The line between Narroways Hill Junction and Patchway was also doubled to carry the heavier traffic. Just short of Pilning railway station the new route diverged to south and a new station was built. The ferry and Pilning-New Passage line ceased operation after 30 November 1886 and the tunnel opened for passenger trains the following day, although goods trains had already been using the new route. A new 1,440 yards (1,320 m) single track tunnel alongside the old tunnel at Almondsbury carried the Up line on a more gentle gradient from 1887. The increased traffic caused the line from Dr Day's Junction to Narroways Hill Junction to be widened to four tracks in 1891.
The B&SWUR had been authorised to construct a line from Pilning to a proposed new dock at Avonmouth in 1862, but neither the dock nor railway was built. The GWR reopened a section of the old line for goods traffic on 5 February 1900, this ran from Pilning to New Passage and then connected with a new route to Avonmouth railway station. Passenger trains ran from Avonmouth as far as a new Severn Beach railway station from 10 July 1922, and continued to new stations at New Passage and Pilning (known as "Pilning Low Level") from 9 July 1928. The service was withdrawn from 23 November 1964.
Two steam ferries had crossed the River Severn near Aust for many years before the coming of the railway. The upper ferry between Old Passage and Beachley continued as before but the lower ferry, about 2 miles (3.2 km) away at New Passage, was sold to the Bristol and South Wales Junction Railway in 1847. The Bristol and South Wales Union Railway eventually built new piers for the ferry, that at New Passage being 546 yards (499 m) long and that at Portskewett just 258 yards (236 m). On the night of 21 May 1881 Portskewett Pier was badly damaged by a fire; it was reopened on 16 June 1881, during which time a limited train service between Bristol and Cardiff was operated over the Bristol and Gloucester line of the Midland Railway.
A steam ferry, the Saint Pierre had been built by Pride and Williams for the New Passage crossing in 1825 and it worked there until 1831. The B&SWUR bought a new steamer, the Gem in 1863 but it proved unsuitable and was soon replaced by the Relief. John Bland, a carrier and shareholder in the railway, was contracted to operate the ferry. The next vessel purchased was the Dragon Fly, this had been used by the contractors to build the piers but was too small to work as the ferry. Instead, two paddle tugs, the Ajax and the Atlas were hired in to cover for the Relief.
A new paddle steamer arrived in June 1864, named Christopher Thomas after the chairman of the B&SWUR, it had been built for the company by Henderson, Coulborn and Company at Renfrew in Scotland. A slightly larger vessel named the Chepstow arrived from the same shipyard on 11 February 1875. These two continued in service until the Severn Tunnel was opened in 1886. They were sold to WS Ogden at Cardiff in 1880, the Chepstow being renamed the Rover. The funnels were generally painted black with a red band.
|Paddle steamer||Period||Length||Gross tons||HP|
|Gem||1863||122.2 feet (37.2 m)||100||50|
|Relief||1863–1864||117.6 feet (35.8 m)||163||70|
|Christopher Thomas||1864–1886||132.0 feet (40.2 m)||159||100|
|Chepstow||1875–1886||140.6 feet (42.9 m)||188||100|
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