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Aber Mawr Rail Terminal, proposed
Abermawr, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  1848 - 1851
era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SM879344
When Brunel began construction of the South Wales Railway, its proposed western terminal was to be located at Aber Mawr (Abermawr) on the Pembrokeshire coast, a convenient place for connections to southern Ireland. However, the railway's route changed in the course of construction, and the terminal was built at Neyland, east of Milford Haven, instead. An incomplete section of broad gauge track bed heading for Aber Mawr has been found at Treffgarne Gorge, some 14km inland.
In 1844, the South Wales Railway Company was formed, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was appointed engineer. He planned a route for the new line that ran from Gloucester, where it connected with the Great Western Railway, westwards through the south Wales industrial heartland to the Pembrokeshire coast. There a port would be developed for onward travel to Ireland, enabling a much shorter sea voyage than from Swansea or Bristol.
Brunel was also engineer for the Great Western Railway, and the company behind it nominated one third of the directors of the South Wales Railway Company. An agreement was made that the Great Western would lease the South Wales line on its completion. The South Wales company would operate the infrastructure and pay the bills, and receive two-thirds of the profits. The Great Western would be responsible for the rolling stock and the running of the trains. Both lines were constructed to Brunel's broad gauge specification (2.14m or 7ft 0.25in).
Construction began west of Swansea in 1846, and an Act of Parliament authorised the addition of an 8km branch line from Clarbeston Road to Haverfordwest. At this time, the line was planned to terminate at Goodwick, four miles east of Aber Mawr. However, in 1846-47, Ireland suffered severe famine caused by blight affecting the countryís staple food ó potatoes. The consequent decline in the Irish economy brought the development of the South Wales Railway to a halt. The company lost its investment in Irish rail lines designed to link with ferry services to Fishguard, and it faced financial hardship.
There was also doubt about the location of the terminal. Royal Navy captain Christopher Claxton was employed to survey the St Georgeís Channel to determine the best route across it from Wales to Ireland. The result led to the abandonment of Goodwick and, in 1847, Brunel proposed that the line should terminate at Aber Mawr instead.
Work began on the Aber Mawr line in 1848, but all work west of Swansea was suspended soon afterwards in a dispute between the railway companies. By 1849, Britain too was in the grip of an economic crisis and it was only intervention by the Great Western company that prevented the western section of the South Wales line from abandonment. In June 1850, the railway opened westwards to Swansea and work resumed in Pembrokeshire.
In 1851, Brunel decided that instead of going west to Aber Mawr, the line should turn southwards, terminating at Neyland (New Milford) on the Western Cleddau River, which feeds into the Milford Haven waterway. The new location was more sheltered, better for an Irish packet service and for establishing trade across the Atlantic Ocean. It also happened to be opposite a government dockyard, not served by a railway.
The portion of track bed that had been under construction in Treffgarne Gorge (SM960247), 14.5km from the coast, midway between Aber Mawr and Haverfordwest, was abandoned in spring 1851. On 17th June 1852, an Act of Parliament was passed enabling the railway to abandon the line to Aber Mawr. Instead it approved a new route between Neyland and Haverfordwest, which opened on 28th December 1853.
The line was extended to Neyland, opening on 15th April 1856, where it connected with a new transatlantic terminal for oceangoing ships. In 1863, a branch opened between Neyland and Milford Haven to complete the network. In the same year, the South Wales Railway was absorbed by the Great Western Railway.
The Aber Mawr line was almost forgotten until the 1970s, when a survey rediscovered an untouched but only partially completed stretch of broad gauge track bed at Treffgarne. The surviving remains of cuttings and embankments provided a time capsule of Victorian railway engineering.
As local historian Roger Worsley (1933-2009) commented during the survey, it was "just as Brunelís navvies and engineers had left it in 1851". Brunelís technique for cuttings was clear — start with a 1.8m wide trench on the line, increase it to full width (9.1m) and excavate to half depth, then sink the trench to track bed level and ballast it, with the workmen following each other to remove spoil by hand barrowing.
The proposed terminal at Aber Mawr was never constructed.
Research: ECPK
"Brunel in South Wales. Volume II: Communications and Coal" by Stephen K. Jones, Tempus Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2007
"Brunel in South Wales. Volume III: Links with Leviathans" by Stephen K. Jones, The History Press, Stroud, 2012
reference sources   CEH WalesBDCE2

Aber Mawr Rail Terminal, proposed