It was almost exactly 50 years ago, on 20 Sept 1965, that the ex Great Western Railway branch from Chippenham to Calne closed to passenger services.
As explored elsewhere on the unseensteam.co.uk website, 1965 was a particularly significant year in the closures that occurred in the years following the Beeching report and the branch to Calne was one of may routes that lost their passenger services that year.
The origins of the line date back to the choice of route made by Isambard Kingdom Brunel which was routed via Chippenham and thus missed the town of Calne in Wiltshire. It was not, however, until the late 1850s that serious progress was made in getting Calne added to the railway map.
It was in November 1859 that formal proposals for the construction of a branch line were put forward. Apart from the proprietor of the Calne branch of the Wilts & Berks Canal, James C. Hale, there was pretty much universal support for the railway, despite the concerns expressed by the Great Western Railway, a company that the promoters believed would be supportive, that the revenue the line might would not be sufficient to cover the operating costs.
Funding the project was to prove problematic although the Calne Railway was authorised by an Act of Parliament dated 15 May 1860 to construct a broad-gauge branch from the GWR main line at Chippenham to Calne. Of the initial shareholders, more than half the money raised came from members of the Harris family, who owned the port factory at Calne.
With only part of the funds in place, it was not until October 1860 that construction commenced. A working agreement with the Great Western was made whereby the GWR undertook the operation of the line based on the use of one locomotive. For two years there was to be a fixed fee with the GWR being paid an increasing percentage of the income generated thereafter.
By June 1861 it was apparent that additional funding for the project was required and construction dragged on with disputes between the railway and its contractors. On 17 June 1863, Michael Lane, the Chief Engineer of the GWR inspected the line; he found problems, which were mirrored by the formal inspection by Captain Tyler of the Board of Trade. Such were his concerns that he refused to sanction the line’s opening. A second inspection, on 7 October 1863, proved equally unsatisfactory and it was not until 27 October that the Board of Trade finally agreed to permit the line to open.
The first services, freight exclusively, operated on 29 October 1863; passenger services were not introduced until 1 November 1863. When the line opened, there were no intermediate stations but a private station — Black Dog Siding — was constructed for the use of Lord Lansdowne of Bowood House and opened with the line. The private nature of the siding as emphasised in 1898 when the GWR sought permission to erect station signs; this was refused by Lord Lansdowne although he did eventually permit ordinary passengers to use the station (although it remained unlisted in public timetables and in Bradshaw until after Nationalisation).
Powers to convert the line to standard gauge were obtained by the GWR on 21 July 1873 and, given the impecunious state of the Calne Railway’s finances the GWR undertook to do the work at cost (£500). The conversion was carried out on 15/16 August 1874 with standard gauge services commencing on the 17th. With the Calne Railway’s finances still poor, discussions were undertaken between it and the GWR in 1877 with a view to the latter taking over; however, the GWR’s shareholders refused to sanction the purchase of a loss-making line and it was not until 15 years later that the take-over was effected. Sanctioned by an Act of 28 June 1892, the formal take-over took place on 1 July 1892; the independent life of the Calne Railway was over
On 3 April 1905 the first public intermediate station on the line — Stanley Bridge Halt — opened; this was preparatory to the introduction of steam railmotors on the passenger service. By 1910 there were 11 return workings per weekday, with an additional late night return working on Saturdays and a very late return working on Wednesdays that departed from Calne at 12.15am. The Sunday service consisted solely of one up working from Calne in the evening.
Although the Grouping took effect in 1923, there was little change for the Great Western — other than it got considerably larger, taking over a number of other operators, particularly in South Wales. For the Calne branch, it was very much business as usual although a private siding was added at Calne to serve the Harris sausage factory in 1927.
The train service for August 1939 shows six morning departures from Chippenham to Calne, with a seventh on the first and third Monday of each month in connection with the Calne cattle market with six more in the afternoon; there were seven services back to Calne on Wednesdays and nine on Saturdays. In terms of up services, there were four in the morning and seven in the afternoon, increased to eight on Wednesdays and 10 on Saturdays. The Sunday service was much sparser, being three return workings each Sabbath. The journey time for the 5½-mile journey was a leisurely 15 minutes on average.
In 1948 came Nationalisation and the Calne branch became part of the new British Railways (Western Region). The first significant event was that Black Dog Halt was made a public station on 15 September 1952. Another significant change saw the introduction of DMUs to passenger services on the branch in 1958.
By the 1950s, road competition for both passenger and freight traffic was increasing with the result that the economics of the railway industry rapidly deteriorated. It was against this background that Dr Richard Beeching was appointed the chairman of the newly created British Railway Board with a remit to get the railways back into profit. In March 1963 his infamous report, The Reshaping of British Railways, was published; the writing was on the wall for lines such as that to Calne.
The finances of the Calne branch, which had been reasonably buoyant at the start of the 1940s, worsened as the Harris sausage factory increasingly shifted to road transport and the closure of two local RAF bases — Yatesbury (in 1965 with flying having ceased in 1947) and Compton Bassett (in 1964) — had a detrimental effect on the passenger traffic.
Freight traffic over the branch ceased on 2 November 1964 and passenger services ceased on 20 September 1965. The track, except for a short section at Chippenham retained as a siding (and removed later), was lifted in mid-1967. The station at Calne was eventually demolished, following vandalism, and the site was redeveloped as a small industrial estate. In late 2014 work commenced in the construction of a housing estate on the site. Much of the trackbed, however, survives as part of Sustrans National Cycle Route No 403.