The Helston Railway was a 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge) railway branch line in Cornwall, United Kingdom, opened in 1887 and absorbed by the Great Western Railway in 1898, continuing in existence as the Helston branch.
It was built to open up the agricultural district of south-west Cornwall, joining Helston to the main line railway network at Gwinear Road, between Penzance and Truro. It was 8.5 miles (13.7 km) long.
Its predominant business was agricultural, but in summer it carried holidaymakers, and its terminus at Helston was the railhead for a pioneering road connection service to the Lizard. During the Second World War there was considerable goods traffic at Nancegollan, sponsored by the Admiralty.
The Helston line was the southernmost branch line in the United Kingdom; it closed to passengers in 1962 and to goods in 1964.
The line ran from Helston, in south-west Cornwall, to a junction with the main line of the Great Western Railway at Gwinear Road()( The connection there faced Penzance. ).
The line was 8 miles 67 chains in length. As a purely local line running through difficult terrain, it was heavily curved and graded. Although Helston is an important town, most of the intermediate area was dedicated to agriculture, with little population, and the terminus at Helston was some distance from the seaside.
The main line at Gwinear Road gave direct access to London and the rest of England, on the route that is now known as the Cornish Main Line.
Before the advent of the railway, Helston was an important centre for tin and copper mining, as well as being the hub of an area of considerable agricultural production. Local businessmen observed the success that followed the opening of early railways elsewhere in Cornwall and further afield, and from 1825 a succession of schemes for tramroads and railways were put forward, many of them oriented towards Falmouth or Penryn and the River Fal estuary because of the harbour facilities there, (and, later, the arrival of the Cornwall Railway, enabling onward transport of minerals by coastal shipping).
All of these schemes fell by the wayside due to the high cost of crossing the difficult terrain; after the collapse following the Railway Mania in the mid-1840s, money became increasingly scarce, and moreover the shallower seams in the mines began to become worked out, reducing the profitability of local mines.
Finally in 1879 the Helston Railway Company was formed, with a share capital of £70,000, with the object of building a standard gauge railway to Helston, not from the Falmouth area but from Gwinear Road on the West Cornwall line. The Great Western Railway was friendly towards this line, and they agreed to work the line when built.
The line received its Act of Parliament on 9 July 1880, and the first sod was cut at a ceremony on 22 March 1882. Work proceeded but the original contractor found himself in difficulties early in 1884 and work stopped for a period, but was resumed under Lang & Son of Liskeard.
Even as late as 1886 there was debate over the site of the Helston station; the site actually adopted, in Godolphin Road, was some distance to the east of the town centre. Some interests had proposed instead a location nearer the town; however the incremental cost would have been considerable and the proposal was finally dropped. The station was built as potentially a through station, with the idea of extension to the Lizard. This was revived from time to time, but was never acted upon.
The Line in action
When the line was opened there were two intermediate stations at Praze (serving the villages of Praze-an-Beeble and Crowan) and Nancegollan. In 1906, a halt was opened at Truthall Platform, less than 2 miles north of Helston and close to the hamlet of Trannack. There was also a ticket collecting platform just short of Helston until the end of 1902.
The only significant structure on the line was the Cober Viaduct, more properly known as the Lowertown Viaduct, 373 feet long and with six arches.
Praze had only a single platform, 223 feet long, on the up side of the line; there was a goods line formed as a loop, controlled by ground frame, on the down side.
Nancegollan station served an important agricultural district and also was the railhead for the fishing port of Porthleven. Originally it had a single passenger platform on the up side and a goods loop without a platform; the connections were operated by ground frame. In 1937 the facilities were considerably extended, with a full crossing facility for passenger trains and longer platforms on both lines, as well as a loop line behind the up platform and a large goods yard.
In 1941 the station's goods sidings were further modified and extended in connection with airfield construction in the locality, and a new signal box with a lever frame that had been relocated from the Cornish Main Line at St Germans. A second, metal, bridge was also built at this time to carry the road over the new goods yard access lines.
A latecomer to the passenger facilities on the branch, Truthall Halt was opened on 3 July 1905, at a location about a mile and a half north of Helston; it served the village of Trannack and also Truthall Manor. It was renamed Truthall Platform in July 1906 and reverted to Truthall Halt in the 1960s. Some tickets referred to it as Truthall Bridge Halt. It had a single platform 84 feet long on the down side of the line, though it was shortened later to about 50 feet.
Laid out as a through station for the possible extension to the Lizard, Helston station had a single platform on the up side of the line; there was an engine release line, with goods facilities on the east side of the station. There was also a carriage shed for the two-coach branch train, and a single-road engine shed built in 1887, lasting until 1963.
Helston station was much used by service personnel based at RNAS Culdrose from 1947. The Royal Navy Air station is on the southern margin of Helston.
Absorption by the Great Western Railway
The line had been worked by the Great Western Railway from the outset, and on 1 July 1898 the line was vested in the GWR, the original Helston company being dissolved.
The Great Western Railway operated a pioneering road passenger connection to Mullion and the Lizard from 17 August 1903, and a Porthleven connection was added in 1909, and surrounding villages were also served. There was also an extensive van service for goods traffic to and from the railway, developed into a motor lorry service from about 1925.
A fragment of the GWR route map from about 1930 is given above, and shows several "road motor routes" radiating from Helston: there was a route to Porthleven and Breage; to Penhale (a small settlement east of Mullion, not the larger place near Indian Queens), Lizard and Lizard Point, and to Mullion; and Coverack and St Keverne, and to Manaccan; and to Falmouth and to Redruth.
The GWR formed a joint venture with the National Omnibus & Transport Company, forming the Western National Omnibus Company Ltd in 1929, and the GWR services were transferred to Western National. The GWR retained its shares in Western National until nationalisation of the railways in 1948.
The branch was listed for closure in the Beeching Plan. On 3 November 1962 the line was closed to passengers; it was the first in Cornwall. Goods traffic continued for a further two years, finally ceasing on 4 October 1964; the track was lifted by mid-1965.
The branch was "uncoloured"—the lightest engine weight classification—but this was relaxed to permit 45XX 2-6-2T locomotives to operate, and in fact these were the general motive power. 43XX 2-6-0s and 51XX 2-6-2Ts were allowed as far as Nancegollan only. In the line's final years, early Class 21 and Class 22 diesel locomotives were used to haul passenger and goods trains.
The line was single throughout, and several of the trains crossed at Nancegollan; from the opening of the passing loop there, the line was operated as two block sections, with signal boxes at Helston, Nancegollan and Gwinear Road East.
The line was sharply curved and steeply graded, with ruling gradients of 1 in 60 and 1 in 54.
In 1922 there were eight trains in each direction on the line; by 1939 this had been improved to ten (Monday to Friday) and eleven on Saturdays. The first train of the day started from Helston, as there was a small engine shed there. The journey time was typically 25 minutes, and the general speed limit was 30 miles per hour (48 km/h)
Goods traffic on the branch was heavy, accounting for about two-thirds of the branch's revenue. The primary traffic was agricultural, whist during the war years, and particularly during the D-Day preparations, Nancegollan saw extensive military traffic.
Local trains rarely ventured off the branch. In 1958 there were nine down and eight up trains Monday to Fridays; the last up train was formed of two sets of rolling stock, and two trains each way were mixed (passenger and goods). The 1.15 p.m. Helston to Gwinear Road had to be given special attention as it had a three-minute connection at Gwinear Road with the up Royal Duchy express for London. (The "up" direction was towards Gwinear Road.)
On Saturdays in that year there were fourteen down and eleven up trains, with three up trains running with double the stock. All of this was accomplished with two B-set two coach sets.
The line today
Although overgrown, much of the alignment of the line remains. Most of the bridges, including the Cober viaduct, are still in good condition as property of the Strategic Rail Authority.
The former station at Helston has been surrounded by housing development, but the site is identifiable, north-west of Godolphin Road and between Station Road and Park an Harvey. The former GWR goods shed has been converted into part of a sheltered housing development (henshorn Court), but all the other buildings have been demolished and the site has become wooded.
North from Helston the first visible trace of the railway is the stub of a bridge on the edge of the Water-Ma-Trout industrial estate.
At Nancegollan, a business park stands on the site of the former station, although the bridges remain in situ. At Praze, a house has been built on the station site and two road bridges either side of the approach have been demolished. The cuttings near to Gwinear Road have been in-filled.
Future Prospects and Railway Preservation
Since April 2005, The Helston Railway Preservation Company has undertaken extensive restoration work on the southernmost part of the line, between Prospidnick and Truthall.
As of April 2014, About 1 (or 2) mile(s) of track has been re-laid, and public passenger rides are available on Thursdays, Sundays and bank holiday weekends from Easter through to October.
The Helston Railway had constructed a station platform on the Trevarno Estate, however they have now relocated 544 yards north to a new temporary platform site at Prospidnick Halt, as the Trevarno Estate has been purchased by new owners. The Trevarno Estate is now a private dwelling, instead of a tourist attraction and is not available for public access. The Helston Railway track itself is not affected and public access is now at Prospidnick.
- History of the Great Western Railway, vol II, MacDermot, E T, published by the Great Western Railway, London, 1932
- Cornwall Railway Stations, Mike Oakley, 2009, Dovecote Press, Wimborne Minster, ISBN 978-1-904-34968-6
- The Hayle, West Cornwall and Helston Railways, Anthony G H, The Oakwood Press, Lingfield, 1968
- Robert Smith. "The Helston Branch". Retrieved 2009-02-21.
- The Railways of Great Britain, a Historical Atlas, Cobb, Col M H, Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Shepperton, 2003
- Operation Cornwall, W S Becket, Xpress Publishing, Caernarvon, undated, ISBN 1-901056-25-2
- The Heyday of GWR Train Services, Semmens, P W B, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1990
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