Arcadian Times



London’s Smallest Railway

A clipping from London’s Evening News in the 1920's recalling one journalist’s encounter with the railway in Ham:

a W.G. Bagnall Loco at Ham Pits, 1933

Photograph G.Alliez, collection of Industrial Railway Society.

Just below Teddington Locks, writes Ralph Harold Bretheron in the “Evening News”, where a lane turns off from the towpath towards Ham, you see behind a gate a notice which bids you beware of the trains. London’s railway map at once jumps into your mind and you think wonderingly, what trains?

But here, though you may not have known of it, is Londons’ smallest railway. A quarter or half a mile of track along the edge of the great ballast pits of Ham. Most of those pits have been worked so deep that they are full of water and bear (illegible) of dredgers. But some of the farther pits still have dry bottoms and the little railway doubles into the bed of one of these. The track is off the narrowest gauge. You step over it in the easiest of strides. The two little locomotives stand no higher than a horse. Their wheels look to be barely a foot in diameter. And you wonder that the whole engine does not tip up when the burly driver steps aboard. There are some scores of trucks rather like coal scuttles slung between arms rising from wheeled bases.

The engines take the trucks down into the bed of the pit and bring them back laden with ballast to the dock where the barges lie. About a yard of ballast goes into each truck. It is a rather untidy little line. Having no sidings to speak of, it throws its surpluses off the track. They lie scattered in all sorts of positions by the side of the rails, sometimes with their scuttles off the hinges.

Yet there is a neat little shed that will take one locomotive at a time, and there is a loop which gives room for two engines to pass, for neither can be conveniently thrown off the track to make passage for the other. And there is a real junction, where the mainline sends a branch down into the pit. It is the level crossing, perhaps, that impresses you most with the reality of the line. So many warnings are there that you cannot step across the track without a thrill. Suppose you met a train? Would it be bad for you, as Stephenson said it would for the coo!

Probably it would. Those little locomotives push as readily as they pull, and they have, you notice, good butting ends that would certainly hit you pretty hard. Trains are a common sight to the Londoner. He sees and, perhaps, uses them everyday. Yet Ham is a suburb most remote from the railway.

There are people who live there and do not see an ordinary train all the week. All the same, in this no-man’sland of London’s railway map, two small locomotives busily jostle ballast trucks up and down a self-contained line over what is probably London’s richest mineral field, a rather exotic-looking region of deep pits, water, strange machinery and beautiful heaps of washed stone. So Ham, less intimate than many a country village, with a railway, has its level crossing. And there is no excuse for you if you charge into a train there.