February 1 marks the 60th anniversary of the partial closure of one of Britain’s least known joint lines — the Axholme Joint Railway (or Isle of Axholme Joint Railway as it was officially known from 17 February 1904) — which operated on the Yorkshire/Lincolnshire border to the east of Doncaster.
The Isle of Axholme was originally marshy land but this was drained in the 17th and 18th centuries to create fertile agricultural land. Although there were proposals to serve the area by railway in both the 1840s and in the 1880s, when a 3ft 6in gauge line was initially proposed (an Act was passed permitting construction of alternative line in 1885 but this was abandoned by a further Act three years later), it was not until the passing of the Light Railways Act in 1896 that more definite plans came to the fore.
The first of the companies that ultimately came to form the Axholme Joint was the Goole & Marshland Railway. This was authorised by a Light Railway Order of 16 August 1898 to construct a line between Marshland Junction, on the line between Hull and Doncaster, to Fockerby. Construction started at Eastoft on 22 September 1898 and freight services were introduced, following agreement with the North Eastern Railway, between Marshland Junction and Reedness on 8 January 1900. The Isle of Axholme Railway, from Haxey to Reedness, was authorised by a Light Railway Order of 11 March 1899 and work commenced on the line’s construction on 20 July 1899. Whilst construction of both lines was in hand negotiations took place with the North Eastern Railway regarding both operation and ownership.
In the event the two lines were acquired by the North Eastern and Lancashire & Yorkshire railways for £73,500 and £27,500 respectively, a transaction confirmed by an Act of 31 July 1902. The new railway — the Axholme Joint — being created as a result on 1 October 1902. The lines from Reedness Junction to Fockerby and to Crowle were opened to all traffic on 19 November 1903. By that date, the entire line south to Haxey was complete apart from the swing bridge at Crowle; this was finished in March 1904 and the line from Crowle to Haxey opened to freight traffic on 14 November 1904 and to passenger traffic on 2 January 1905.
The freight only branch from Epworth to Hatfield Moor via Sandtoft was authorised as the Hatfield Moor Extension Light Railway by an LRO of 5 August 1905 and opened on 1 March 19019. The major traffic for the branch was ultimately peat from the Hatfield Peat Works, into which a siding was constructed in 1913. A second peat works, at Swinefleet , which originally had a narrow-gauge railway, was also served by a siding from the line just north of Crowle; this opened in August 1903.
In 1910, there were three workings from Goole to Haxey Junction each weekday, with five on Saturdays; of these two connected at Reedness Junction for a service over the branch to Fockerby. The journey time for the 19½-mile journey from Goole to Haxey Junction was just over 50 minutes, whilst that for the 5½-mile trip from Reedness Junction to Fockerby was just over 20 minutes. The actual distance from Marshland Junction to Haxey Junction was just over 17 miles. In the reverse direction there were also three workings per weekday with an additional two on Saturdays and two from Fockerby to Reedness Junction to connect with the service from Haxey Junction to Goole.
Although consideration was given to the operation of the line by petrol-electric autocars in 1907, the lack of capacity meant that conventional locomotive-hauled passenger trains operated through until the 1920s. From the late 1920s, following a successful trial in July 1926, passenger services were operated by Sentinel steam railcars.
However, the poor level of service — there were regular complaints about the lack of suitable connections at Haxey Junction, for example — allied to the rise of unrestricted bus competition from the early 1920s meant that the passenger services became increasingly uneconomic and so the railcars ceased to operate over the ‘main line’ from Marshland Junction to Haxey Junction and over the branch to Fockerby on 15 July 1933. Although timetabled passenger services ceased, there were still occasional excursion trains.
Following the suspension of passenger services, freight continued to sustain the line, although the growth in the road haulage industry meant that much of the agricultural traffic, the original reason for the line’s construction, was gradually lost from the late 1930s.
The first section to be closed completely was that from Haxey Junction to Epworth, which succumbed on 1 February 1956. By this date most of the surviving traffic over the line was peat plus sugar beet. The branch to Sandtoft, close to where the Sandtoft trolleybus Museum is located, and Hatfield Moor closed completely on 30 September 1963 being formally abandoned on 29 April 1964.. The lines from Marshland Junction to Epworth and from Reedness Junction to Fockerby formally closed on 5 April 1965. This was, however, not quite to be the end of the story.
The Central Electricity Generating Board had a problem; it possessed a power station at Keadby, to the south of the Stainforth & Keadby Canal. Unfortunately, the bridge carrying the A161 over the canal was not strong enough to accommodate some of the heavy equipment need to keep the power station operational. As a result, when this equipment was required, it was carried by road to the Isle of Axholme Joint’s depot at Ealand, where it would be placed on a railway wagon for the movement across the canal to Belton, where road transport would then complete the journey to Keadby. As a result of this traffic, the line from Marshland Junction to Epworth was maintained by British Rail as a long siding.
Even this traffic was, however, to disappear when, following the rebuilding of the road bridge over the canal in 1970, the need for the rail link ceased. The track south from Marshland Junction to Epworth was finally lifted in 1972.
More than four decades after the line’s final closure and lifting, there are still significant traces of the route across the landscape, particularly the section south of Epworth and the branch towards Hatfield. Elsewhere much of the trackbed, lightly engineered over relatively flat land, has been reclaimed for agricultural use.