Branch Line Britain - celebrating Britain's minor railways

Scottish - Milngavie memory



By Mark Nicoll

30 November 2009

I grew up in Bearsden in the late 60s and early 70s so the Milngavie branch was my first introduction to real trains. OK, the staple diet of Blue Trains may not be the most exotic of railway traction but for me as a young child it was the most thrilling experience to be able to watch them slip past. Frequently I would walk to the shops at Bearsden Cross with my grandmother from the top of Boclair Road. In my insatiable desire to travel by train, I was able to persuade her many times to get the train back from Bearsden to Hillfoot even if it meant waiting for 20mns or more for the half hourly service! It was a two minute journey by train and you could walk it in less than ten!

Opened as a single track in 1863 by the Glasgow and Milngavie Junction Railway, it became part of the North British Railway and then LNER before nationalisation in 1948. It is easier to start a description of the branch as you come on to it at Westerton. The junction here marks the start of the short branch. And until the mid 1980s, it was controlled by a small signal box positioned at the neck of the junction, between the two alignments - the one to Milngavie and the one to Singer. The branch was double tracked until the early 1990s, but today a single lead junction takes us on our journey. When the proposal to single the branch was made, widespread was the criticism that ScotRail received - especially in light of the  then recent accident at Bellgrove in 1989. But BR went ahead regardless. Ironically there was a bad accident here in March 1957 when it was fully double tracked. An Airdrie to Milngavie passenger train, headed by a V1, crossed on to the branch and collided with a ‘light engine' V3 on its way back to Parkhead shed. Fortunately there were no fatalities.

Twenty years of single lead junctions later and with four trains per hour now using the branch in each direction, the partial singling does not seem to have restricted traffic growth too much. From Milngavie junction, the single line takes a wide turn to the right, initially heading in a northerly direction and on a steadily rising gradient. On the left hand side it passes through typical suburban scenery - well kept semi detached houses in the near distance contrasting to the more distant houses of Drumchapel.  As the right hand turn continues on an embankment through the garden suburb of Westerton, it ends up in a north-easterly direction. The last section of the curve passes a small field on the right hand side that for years contained the ever more decrepit remains of an old BR ventilated van. As a child I surmised that it was a relic from a long-forgotten derailment. With hindsight, it was probably just bought by a horse owner to provide hay and shelter for the two horses that lived in the field for a few years in the 1970s! Out of the turn and there is a short section of straight alignment past pleasant detached villas through to Bearsden station.  A lengthy passing loop starts before the station and continues all the way through to just beyond Hillfoot station. The journey time from Westerton to Bearsden is about 3mns.

The original station building still stands here on the down side and it is now a pub and restaurant. It is constructed of attractive pale sandstone. Until 1982 there was a smaller brick building on the up side which was used as a waiting room. During its demolition in 1982, I found hundreds of old Edmondson tickets here dating back to the early 1960s. They were just scattered amongst the broken bricks and I have kept them to this day. The station also retained the BR enamel totems until January 1985.

I said previously that the traction was mainly 303s and 311s. This was later supplemented by class 314 units (and today a mixture of 320s and 334s) but when engineering duties were required there were regular visits from the diesel allocation at Eastfield shed. From the mid 1960s to early 2000s the branch was closed on Sundays so that was the day most engineering trains ran. I had no way of knowing in advance when works were due in those days, so the coincident occurrences of a ballast train running and my camera having film in it were rare. In fact, it happened on only two occasions - both with class 37s. The accompanying shot shows 37022 in August 1982. When I scan more images Ill post them on this site.

Sadly, I didn't capture any other interesting visitors so the visits by 25226, 24006, 27116 and 20111 went un-filmed and exist only in my memory now.

Outside the station it is a short walk up the hill towards the shops of Bearsden Cross. A further two or three minute stroll from there takes you to the famous Roman bathhouse that was discovered and excavated in the mid 1970s. It is well worth a visit to see the remnants of one of the most northerly Roman remains anywhere in the world. Some photos of it can be found here: There are also some nice eateries around Bearsden Cross and even a Marks and Spencer food shop where you can get a decent sandwich.

Back on the train at Bearsden station it is a short trip to Hillfoot (part of Bearsden). There is a lane on the left as you pass houses on both sides but despite being suburban, it is surprisingly green. Hillfoot station is situated on a northerly left hand curve. There was a goods siding here until the late 1960s but the area to the right has been developed and flats now occupy the site. I recall the Hillfoot station building in the early 1970s as a small building with dark red bricks. It had a roaring open fire with the ticket office at that time being situated on the Milngavie bound platform I think. The station master here at that time was Ralph (actually I think it was probably Raoul but we called him Ralph). He was an English exile and after the new station building had been built in the early 70s, he used to feed the birds by putting seeds on the flat roof of the new building. Many times, I was asked, along with my good school friend Mark, to buy some bird seed from the pet shop in Milngavie. Ralph would give us 50 p and told to ‘go and bring back some seed'! We got a free train trip out of it! The station is still adjacent to the local post office sorting depot and whilst all mail is now taken out by van, in the 1970s and early 80s it was loaded on to the guards van in the 303s to be offloaded at Queen St. I have a photo from 1981 showing this aspect of railway life which has now ceased. A ten minute walk from Hillfoot, up Boclair road takes you to New Kilpatrick cemetery. This contains another interesting Roman site - the remains of the Antonine Wall. Mainly built from turf, there are few remaining sections but the stone foundations of the wall can still be seen clearly here. If you don't mind cemeteries, the walk is well worth it although be warned, Boclair road is pretty steep! The other defining feature of Hillfoot is the famous Hillfoot Café. Even today it sells the best ice cream anywhere in Scotland so if your M&S sandwich hasn't filled you up yet, try an Ice cream cone from the café.

As we leave Hillfoot station we pass the site of Hillfoot signal box and then Douglas Park Golf Club on the right hand side. I gave up playing here when it took me 11 strokes to complete a par 3 hole. The line feels more open here as it runs adjacent to Milngavie Road and a short straight section is followed by a sweeping left hand turn past the Allander sports centre on the left. Alongside the sports centre is the site of George Bennie's famous rail plane although there is no evidence now of its existence. A short spur to a dye works at Burnbrae on the Milngavie Road departed (left) from the branch and the rail plane was built over this spur.  An interesting site that describes the Bennie invention with some really evocative photos can be found here

The branch to Milngavie continues to sweep left and off to the right you can just see Glasgow Rangers' nerve centre, Murray Park, as you pass the West of Scotland Rugby Club on the left.  A final straight section takes you into Milngavie station. There used to be a signal box here as well controlling the three platform faces and a spur on to a paper mill at Ellangowan but all evidence of this at the station has vanished. You can however still see a bridge in Milngavie which carries Main Street over the road up to the library that follows the old spur alignment. The box supervised not only the junctions but until the mid 80s, also the semaphore signalling which governed movements in the station. Even though the rest of the branch was twin aspect signalled throughout. The original station building still stands. It is a very pretty and well kept station even today and it befits the pleasant town of Milngavie.  The old platform 3 has been taken out of service now though. A little way up in Milngavie town centre, the West Highland Way beckons for enthusiastic walkers. There are also some nice pubs here - walk up Main Street and sample them! And the excellent chip shop next to the book shop!