When I started this series of posts about the route from Carlisle to Stranraer I divided the line into three sections. In some ways the sections were chosen by the junctions at Castle Douglas and Newton Stewart, serving Kirkcudbright and Whithorn respectively. In others they represented the different geographical settings that the line passes through from the billiard table farmland of Dumfriesshire into the uplands of Kirkudbrightshire with their lochs and moors. This final section sees the line returning to farming countryside though there is a significant amount of forestry as it passes through Wigtownshire to the west coast of Scotland. Although the land is flatter beyond Newton Stewart this section of the line still has a few solid climbs though the majority of the hard work for locomotive and crew comes when travelling the eastbound direction, for example between Stranraer and Castle Kennedy but we will be facing that particular grade as a descent near the end of our journey.
Departing Newton Stewart we see the remains of the Whithorn and Garlieston branch on the left and the small shed that provided locomotives for the branch – The shed is still there to be seen on satelite maps, finding new life as premises for light industry. Passing under the Old Military Road (there are quite a few of these in Scotland) the crew find themselves suddenly facing a vicious 1 in 68 grade which eases after a short while to 1 in 86 as the line climbs to Glasnick. During the climb we pass through areas of forestry and some scenarios for the line remaining open see it used to carry timber – a trade that the modern day railway is involved with on remaining lines in other parts of Scotland. Breasting the summit the line then descends on an easier 1 in 100 grade before levelling to cross the River Bladnoch. The crossing point once occupied by the railway is now used by the re-aligned A75 although the original road and bridge still crosses the river further upstream. The line climbs briefly after the river on a gentle grade to reach Kirkcowan where the station is situated a little to the west of the town. There were permanent way sidings here and presumably some agricultural freight.
From Kirkcowan the line climbs gently before levelling to pass through an area of flat moorland and cross Tarf Water before once again climbing to a summit at Knockishee where the descent to Glenluce begins. The line here follows another Old Military Road and also the Lady Burn until it reaches the town. The initial grade on this descent is 1 in 63 which really gets your attention as a prompt application of some brakes is desirable to prevent the train from exceeding the speed limit of 60mph. Of course, travelling in the eastbound direction the gradient starts from Glenluce at 1 in 100 and steepens to the 1 in 63 at the summit; just as well it’s only a short climb because it’s a real tester for steam locomotives and crews! Glenluce handles a mix of general freight as befitting a station serving a moderate sized town.
Leaving Glenluce the line crosses Water of Luce on a viaduct that remains in place before descending towards the next station at Dunragit. Before we get to Dunragit we pass Challoch Junction where the Ayr line joins the line to Stranraer from the north. This route to Stranraer remains open to freight and passenger traffic with services from Glasgow so we’re now back in some form of reality. We also find colour light signals here in place of the semaphores and the AWS (automatic warning system) actually works too though I usually treat it like a satnav – not to be trusted once we’ve left the west coast mainline 😉 Dunragit is one of those classic British stations where the road crossing is obstructed while a train is in the station – it was a common design feature and is probably a result of so many stations being constructed when road traffic was much lighter and generally consisted of horse and cart. To the west of the station is Dunragit Oil Terminal which has ceased to exist. Dunragit also had a creamery to the east of the station, now sadly closed though the buildings remain and you can still see the trackbed of the siding that served it.
Dunragit… what a delightful name for a station that is. I’m sure Sir John Betjeman would have loved it! Railway stations usually have names taken from the community they serve and they form a catalogue of Little Britain – those strangely named glimpses into the nation’s soul. Railway modellors have often referenced the ancient naming policies of the companies in a humourous way. A couple that spring to mind are… ‘Much Wittering in the Marsh’ and the classic GWR advice on one model station to ‘Change for Theworst’ – purporting to be somewhere in Wales! Checking out on Wikipedia I understand that Dunragit was derived from Din Rheged meaning “Fort of Rheged”, the Brythonic kingdom of Rheged which existed in northern Britain between the 5th and 8th centuries. There’s also a link to King Arthur but even my credulity is getting stretched at that point. I suspect that the closest thing to King Arthur would be a Steam Special to Stranraer with preserved Southern Railway King Arthur Class 777 ‘Sir Lamiel’ on the front! However the link to a very different Kingdom of North Britain exists – many of the steam loco’s and some of the diesels that worked the line were built by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow as were so many steam loco’s that served on lines throughout the British Empire.
From Dunragit we descend gently to Castle Kennedy station – having discussed names it behoves me to say that the Clan Kennedy have their homelands around here and that the Castle Douglas of Dumfriesshire also references a local clan. It’s also interesting to note how many of the local towns along the route reference churches… Kirkcudbright, Kirkcowan, Crossmichael. Everything here speaks of the past and some sort of permanence which the railway didn’t quite achieve – perhaps it was too recent? Anyway, I digress once more… The descent from Castle Kennedy towards Stranraer is quite steep – 1 in 86 for much of the time – and care is needed to avoid busting the speed restrictions which culminate with a 20mph restriction over the points at the junction. On our descent towards Stranraer we pass a forlorn signal box with boarded up windows – a faded sign proclaims Cairnryan Junction. A short distance further and we pass the remains of Cairnryan junction itself. The line to Cairnryan was constructed by the military during WWII along with a port at Cairnryan to supply naval vessels from the weapons plants along the line. After the war the tracks were lifted.
At Stranraer the line divides – on the left is Stranraer Town station and the stub of the line that went to Portpatrick where passengers and mail originally crossed to Belfast via the shortest route. To the right the line travels out along the breakwater to serve the harbour and the vessels carrying freight. Portpatrick declined as a port almost at the same time as the line was built so essentially all passengers and freight have long been handled by the railway via Stranraer Harbour station – a slightly longer sea journey.Therein lies a modern tale for in 2011 Stena Line moved its operations to a new port at Old House Point to the north of Cairnryan, so there is now no direct rail connection with the ferry services. Currently that now means a bus ride to Ayr for passengers looking to use train services to Glasgow and Carlisle. The remaining train service to Stranraer from Ayr has been reduced since the ferries moved and only one platform remains in use at Stranraer leading to fears of the loss of the service altogether.
Finally… A glimpse of another ‘What might have been’ – 66094 shunting log wagons at Newton Stewart whilst 66028 prepares to depart with a load of logs for Stranraer and onward shipment to Ireland.