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Taff Vale Railway
Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  1836 - 21st April 1841, 1857 - 1862
era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  ST087965
ICE reference number  HEW 1219
The Taff Vale Railway was Wales’ first purpose-built railway to be powered by locomotives. Engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), and his first rail system in Wales, its main line followed the River Taff between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil, with branches into the Rhondda and Cynon Valleys and later, the Vale of Glamorgan. Many of its original structures survive, and modern railway lines still use parts of the route.
By the end of the 18th century, Merthyr Tydfil was a major centre for coal mining and for the manufacture of iron. Its products needed to be transported south to Cardiff for shipping around Britain and overseas. The available routes over the hilly terrain were a turnpike road (built 1767), the Glamorganshire Canal (opened 1794) and the horse-drawn Merthyr Tramroad (completed 1802). However, by 1830, waterborne and horse-drawn methods of transport were inadequate for the volume of goods being moved.
In 1835, Brunel estimated the cost of constructing a railway between south Merthyr Tydfil and the ship canal at Cardiff (later Bute West Dock, ST187758) as £190,649. Merthyr Tydfil ironmasters, led by John Josiah Guest (1785-1852) of Dowlais Ironworks, decided to form a company and asked Brunel to be its chief engineer.
On 21st June 1836, a Parliamentary Bill was enacted, For making a Railway from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff, to be called "The Taff Vale Railway", with Branches, authorising a 39km long single track of standard gauge (4ft 8.5in or 1.435m) with six passing places. The Taff Vale Railway Company was set up with capital of £300,000 in £100 shares.
Construction commenced in 1836. Though Brunel had been using broad gauge track (7ft or 2.134m) elsewhere, he realised that the narrower standard gauge would be easier to construct in the confines of the Welsh valleys. Resident engineer George Bush (c.1810-41) was also involved in engineering the line, and received an annual salary of £700 from the company. Brunel received only £400, perhaps indicating the relative levels of their day-to-day work on the project.
Bush was assisted by Samuel Downing (1811-82) and Charles Bourns. Bourns developed a method for calculating railway curvatures for which he was awarded a bronze Telford medal and premium (On Setting Out Railway Curves, 1840). Principal contractor was John Calvert (1812-90), apparently recommended to Brunel by Robert Stephenson (1803-59). Individual contracts for the major structures were let to John Edmunds, Evan Evans and William Lewis, among others.
The line north from Cardiff to Navigation House (later named Abercynon) measured 25.7km and was opened in a formal ceremony on 8th October 1840. The line from Abercynon to Merthyr opened on 21st April 1841. The intermediate stations at Llandaff, Pentyrch (now Radyr), Taff’s Well, Pontypridd (Newbridge Station), Abercynon and Troedyrhiw were the only passing places on the line.
The railway crossed the River Taff in several places: south of Radyr, twice at Taff’s Well and at Quakers’ Yard (Goitre Coed Viaduct, ST088964). It also crossed the River Rhondda on Pontypridd Railway Viaduct (ST070900). All the bridges and viaducts were of masonry, including the bridge over Queen Street in Cardiff (replaced by steel structures in 1885 and 1975). Originally there were also two short tunnels, near Quakers’ Yard and at Ynyscoi.
As well as the main line from Cardiff to Merthyr, the original route had two branch lines, which opened in 1841. The 5.4km Llancaiach branch, crossed the Taff at Stormstown Junction south of Abercynon and went on to Llancaiach Colliery. The 7.2km branch into the Rhondda Valley linked with a tramroad at Dinas Colliery near Tonypandy.
There were two inclines on the route that were too steep for locomotives. Trains were hauled by cables from stationary winding engines. One of these was to the north of Abercynon on the main line. It was 905m long with a gradient varying from 1 in 18 to 1 in 22. The other was on the Llancaiach branch.
In 1849, a short spur of 1.5km was constructed in the Rhondda Fach (Little Rhondda), from Porth to Ynyshir. This was extended 5.8km from Ynyshir to Ferndale in 1856, and by a further 2.9km to Maerdy, the highest station of the Taff Vale Railway at 274m above sea level. On 7th August 1856, an extension of 10km was completed on the Rhondda branch itself, between Dinas and Treherbert.
Users of the Taff Vale line benefited from the topography, as they did with other lines in south Wales. The principal routes descended towards the sea, favouring loaded trains approaching the docks. Over time, the Taff Vale amassed rolling stock of some 300 locomotives. When it opened in 1840, it had four locomotives. By 1852, there were 26. In 1856, the company built the first locomotive at its West Yard works in Cardiff Docks — an 0-6-0 goods engine with 406mm by 610mm cylinders, appropriately named Cardiff.
However, though vital locally, the Taff Vale wasn't linked to the national rail network. The South Wales Railway linking Gloucestershire and Pembrokeshire was constructed in stages 1845-56, at broad gauge. A mixed gauge connection was established between the two on 17th January 1854, but it wasn't until 1858 that a standard gauge line reached the railway at Quakers Yard, passing over Crumlin Viaduct (built 1853-57, dem. 1965-66) and Hengoed Viaduct (constructed 1853-54).
In 1857, powers were obtained to double the Taff Vale main line between Cardiff and Merthyr to two tracks — first suggested in 1846 and completed by 1862. As part of the work, the two tunnels were opened out into cuttings and a second viaduct (ST069900) was built at Pontypridd, longer than the first, with seven arches.
In 1863, the Pwllyrhebog branch was constructed in the Rhondda Fach at a gradient of 1 in 13, worked by cable-assisted special locomotives. In the same year, the Taff Vale Railway moved into the Vale of Glamorgan, with a branch south of Pontypridd to Llantrisant that eventually reached the coast at Aberthaw. In 1864, the Abercynon to Quakers Yard cable-worked incline was reconstructed to a shallower gradient of 1 in 40 over a 1.6km length.
In 1865, tank engine locomotives were introduced on Taff Vale tracks. In 1873, Tom Hurry Riches (1846-1911) became the railway’s locomotive superintendent, presiding over the construction of more than 235 goods engines (0-60-0 and 0-60-2T types) during his tenure.
In 1872, a cutting was made at the north end of the newer Pontypridd Viaduct, allowing direct traffic between the Taff and Rhondda Valleys. This was later infilled.
On 1st August 1877, a 764m long link opened between the Taff Vale and the Great Western Railway south of Merthyr. It was funded jointly and allowed the Great Western access to the Taff Vale freight sidings, while Taff Vale passengers could use the more conveniently located Great Western station on the High Street.
In 1887, a new 2.35km spur was completed from the Llancaiach branch, between Pont Shon Norton Junction north of Pontypridd and Albion Colliery at Cilfynydd. In 1900, this spur was looped round 1.7km to join the Llancaiach branch line at Ynysydwr Junction. On 23rd April 1888, an 8km branch opened from Roath to Cardiff to serve the docks — the railway company also owned Penarth Docks.
Between 26th August 1889 and 1st July 1902, the Taff Vale Railway amalgamated with at least eight other small local railways to increase its network. It also leased two Penarth railways and had running powers over lines owned by Barry Railway, Great Western Railway and Rhymney Railway. It treated its workers well, from 1893, providing free non-contributory pensions for all those who retired after 25 years’ or more service.
However, mutiny over pay was looming. In 1900-01, the Taff Vale Railway and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later incorporated into the National Union of Railwaymen) were embroiled in a legal action universally known as the 'Taff Vale case'. The Society had called a strike on 20th August 1900, and the company sought an injunction. The ensuing court case, which ultimately ruled that a union could be sued for damages caused by its actions during industrial disputes, led to the company being awarded damages of £23,000.
In 1914, Tom Hurry Riches’ successor John Cameron developed a larger more powerful 0-6-2T, the A Class tank locomotive, which weighed 70 tonnes with 1.6m diameter wheels and 470mm by 660mm cylinders.
By 1921, the Taff Vale Railway owned or had rights over a total of 200km of single track line, 116.75km of double track line, 55.3km of three-track line and 35.9km of four-track line, including sidings.
Following the passing of the 1921 Railways Act, from 1st January 1922, the Taff Vale Railway was amalgamated (as a constituent not a subsidiary) with the Great Western Railway, along with the Rhymney and Cardiff railways. On 1st January 1948, the Taff Vale of the Great Western Railway became part of the Western Region of the British Railways network.
As it was the first in the area, with lines extending into valleys that had relatively low populations at the time, the Taff Vale Railway was able to take the most advantageous route topographically, and therefore economically. Its team faced fewer engineering challenges than later railway endeavours. As a result, much of its route remains in use.
In 1988, the Quakers Yard Viaduct was Grade II* listed. In 2001-2, Pontypridd Railway Viaduct was Grade II* listed and four other rail bridges on the Taff Vale route were Grade II listed.
Resident engineer: George Bush
Assistant engineers: Charles Bourns, Samuel Downing
Main contractors: John Calvert
Contractors: John Edmunds, Evan Evans, William Lewis
RCAHMW_NPRN 91550 (main entry), 34861, 34876, 34877, 91454, 91474, 91496, 310063, 407022, 407090, 413377
Research: ECPK
"Brunel in South Wales, Volume I: In Trevithick’s Tracks" by Stephen K. Jones, Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2005
"Brunel in South Wales, Volume II: Communications and Coal" by Stephen K. Jones, Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2006
"Brunel in South Wales, Volume III: Links with Leviathans" by Stephen K. Jones, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2009
reference sources   CEH Wales

Taff Vale Railway