Poor Pilning, the only station in Britain with only two trains a week. What's more they're both on Saturday. What's more, because National Rail demolished the footbridge to platform 2 at the end of 2016, both trains run in the same direction. This is not a great way to boost passenger numbers.
Monday - Friday
Pilning is a village of a thousand or so people, with the luck (or ill-fortune) to be located just inland from the lowest crossing point on the River Severn. It's hemmed in to the north by the M4, on its way to the Second Severn Crossing, and to the south by the South Wales Main Line, descending in cutting towards the mouth of the Severn Tunnel. To the west is a motorway junction called the Pilning Interchange, but residents of the village would have to drive for ten miles to reach it. And the station is essentially no use to anyone, save those who enjoy an awkwardly-timetabled Saturday jaunt.
It's not Pilning's first station. That opened a short distance away in 1863 on a new line built to connect with the ferry to Wales. Pilning was the last stop before New Passage, where trains ran out onto a wooden jetty to transfer passengers to the boat, and a large hotel was built close by to cater for those arriving when tides were inappropriate.
This bustling departure point no longer exists, but remnants can be found on the shoreline about half a mile north of the Second Severn Crossing, which is where I left you yesterday. Again there's a Heritage Trail to follow, which is expertly done, so you can track down the remains of the pier, where the tea gardens were, and which cottages in the existing hamlet used to be where the railwaymen lived.
In 1886 the Severn Tunnel opened, and the line to New Passage immediately closed. A new Pilning station was opened on the new alignment, not in the village itself but some distance outside, just before the 1 in 90 downward gradient set in. The tunnel was an engineering marvel, bedevilled by flooding during the construction phase, and is still kept dry only thanks to perpetual pumping. Trains could now carry passengers all the way to Wales without stopping, so few stopped, and the seeds of Pilning's later malaise were sown.
I visited on a weekday, not a Saturday, which made visiting the station something of a challenge. I had two hours between trains at Severn Beach, and my phone told me Pilning station was 1.8 miles away, so I thought it'd be fine to walk. But I didn't take the direct route, the allure of the road bridge was too strong, so eventually I walked inland from New Passage instead, and that was 1.8 miles away too. A steady routemarch was required. The country lane I was following reared up after a while to pass over the M4 motorway, providing an excellent view down to the Pilning Interchange and the towers of the bridge beyond.
The next few houses form the hamlet of Redwick, then there's a dual carriageway to cross, and only after that does Pilning proper begin.
At the heart of the village are the war memorial and the post office, plus a large half-timbered building which used to be a pub and then an Indian restaurant but since last summer has been neither. Just down the road is a garage whose pumps still have Attendant Service, and then St Peter's church, in Gothic style with a very high-pitched roof. What there isn't is a station, or any nudge towards the station, other than a notice in the post office window encouraging residents to make best use of the week's two available trains.
Annoyingly the station is still a mile's walk away, down the country lane on the other side of the churchyard. It's OK so long as the pavement holds out, which it does as far as the old primary school (recently metamorphosed into an Indian Orthodox church). But beyond that there's no choice but to walk in the road, minding the blind bends and occasional dollops of horse manure, acknowledging oncoming vehicles when they graciously slow down. I strode on, aware that time was ticking away, and keeping an eye out for any evidence of the original railway line behind the hedge.
When what I assumed was Pilning station finally came into sight, up on the embankment, there was alas no direct access. Instead I had to continue to the end of the road (noting one house, one pub and one postbox), turn right, then manoeuvre one last blind bend, before finally locating the main entrance. Pilning doesn't merit a proper double-arrow sign, only a GWR sign saying welcome, and bearing a strong hint that there is only one platform. A couple of bus stops lurk somewhere down the road, but they're only served by one school service (on weekdays) which is a fat lot of good when trains run Saturdays only. Basically it seems you need to get here by car or by bike, otherwise it's all a bit ropey.
I was looking forward to exploring the station on one of its days off, but was surprised to find it was a hive of activity. A host of electrification engineers in yellow helmets were busy inside a compound beside the tracks, and the 10-space car park was full of vans and a noisy unattended truck. Damn, I thought, I've not come all this way only to be thwarted, so walked up the long ramp in the hope of looking around anyway. I got as far as the phonebox where the footbridge used to be, behind a big green skip, but alas the entrance to the single platform was temporarily barriered off so my hopes of nosing around within were dashed.
I rationed myself a 15 second look-around. The shelter looked solid, but seatless. The help point was solar-powered, and for most of the week useless. Someone had painted Mind the Step on the edge of the platform for the benefit of passengers arriving from Wales. A sign informed passengers that they'd be expected to use rail replacement taxis last October. What used to be the footprint of the footbridge was clearly visible on the opposite platform, but with no way to reach it. I hoped a fast train to or from Cardiff would rush through, but I wasn't around long enough for that.
A short distance down the tracks one electrification gantry was up and ready, with another to one side constructed but not yet in place. This is the reason for the footbridge's removal - it wasn't tall enough to cope with overhead wires, and Network Rail weren't keen on wasting money on a replacement at such a lightly used station. Stuff it, they thought, we'll run our parliamentary services in one direction only, and save a bit more money by never having to maintain the westbound platform. Given the opportunity I'm sure they'd love to close the station for good, but that'd involve contorted legal approval and expense, so much easier to timetable two pointless trains a week and leave the place be.
Local residents are gallantly fighting back. They've formed the Pilning Station Group to campaign for better services and are actively trying to drum up more passengers. There is a quirky joy to making a rail journey from a certified backwater station, so it's not just residents who've been drawn in. Last year (in the PilningGrand Slam) they challenged visitors to depart on one train and arrive back on the other via as many other rail companies as possible, and this year's version (the Pilning Scramble) is Scrabble-related instead. If this scratches your itch, or you like following inventive social media feeds, add your support. [video]
My abortive visit complete, I then had to get back to Severn Beach. Only 40 minutes of the two hour gap between trains remained, and I absolutely had to get back for that or face transportmageddon. 1.8 miles should be doable, I thought, then remembered the route wasn't a straight line, and exiting the station involved heading in completely the wrong direction. You would have enjoyed watching me sort-of running up the lane back to Pilning, then stopping out of embarrassment when I reached the throng of parents parked outside the front of the new primary school.
I decided not to wait for the hourly bus, because I'd seen it arrive too late for the previous train. I cursed that there wasn't time to divert 200 metres down the A403 for a good view of the railway line vanishing into the Severn Tunnel. I had to skip the really interesting-looking public footpath passing over the top of the portal because it was even curvier than the road. I lolloped across the bridge over the M49 without even daring to stop for a panoramic photo, so scared was I of missing my connection. I reached the wrong side of Severn Beach with barely any time to spare, and strode through the new housing estate sensing resignation. And joy, the train was four minutes late, and all was well.
If you live somewhere with decent public transport connections, remember those who don't. The villagers of Pilning have a train they can only catch twice a week, an hourly bus that doesn't take them all the way into Bristol and a 'nearby' station with trains every two hours which goes the long way round. A bit of investment could see them have rather more, perhaps even a new parkway station with regular services, but at least they're making the best of the miserly pittance they've still got.