News that the Royal Deeside Railway has been the victim of a further attack by vandals means that the railway is the latest to suffer significant damage.
The physical damage done to the Mark II coach and to other equipment can be repaired — although at a price and the railway has launched an appeal to raise funds for repair work — but the story highlights the vulnerability of so many preserved railways to this form of attack.
Vandalism is nothing new; in the early 1960s the Middleton Railway suffered an attack in which a number of preserved trams were severely damaged, leading to their eventual scrapping and the loss, therefore, of such historical vehicles as the last surviving complete tram from the historic Swansea & Mumbles.
The solution, as many railways have discovered, is in the construction of secure buildings to store locomotives and rolling stock, although this is no guarantee of security from determined vandals or thieves, and for some of the larger railways the sheer quantity of stock to be housed makes the provision of secure accommodation impossible. Moreover, the fact that so many of these attacks take place during school holidays — and the reports suggest that the perpetrators at Milton of Crathes were youngsters — is another problem.
Of course, many might argue that the railway to Ballater was itself the victim of a much greater act of vandalism that the preservation society was trying to reverse — that of closure in the first place.
The Royal Deeside Railway was established in 1996 with the intention of trying to restore services to the Great North of Scotland branch from Aberdeen to Ballater. Based at Milton at Crathes station, the society has established a half-mile long running line westwards from Crathes towards its initial aim of reopening the line as far as Banchory along the north bank of the River Dee. To operate the line, there are two steam locomotives and four diesels, including three ex-BR Class 03 shunters. The fourth diesel, Andrew Barclay 0-4-0 No 4i5 also suffered minor damage during the attack by vandals. The railway’s most important rolling stock, historically, the two-car BEMU Nos 79998/99 (see a previous feature) seems to have escaped damage on this occasion.
The first proposals for a line alongside the River Dee surfaced in the mid-1840s and a 30-mile long line from Aberdeen to Aboyne — the Deeside Railway — was authorised on 16 July 1846. However, in the aftermath of the collapse in confidence following the Railway Mania, there was little progress although the Aberdeen Railway backed the scheme financially (this was ironic, as the Aberdeen Railway would ultimately become part of the Caledonian Railway and thus the LMS whilst, eventually, the railway to Ballater became part of the LNER). Interest was soon to be revived when Prince Albert acquired Balmoral Castle and the Aberdeen Railway was able to dispose of its shares.
In 1851 it was decided to cut the railway back to Banchory, and construction started on the 14½ miles from Aberdeen on 5 July 1852. The line opened on 7 September 1853. On 27 July 1857 the Deeside Extension Railway was authorised to construct the extension to Aboyne and work commenced on 3 October 1857. The line from Banchory to Aboyne opened on 2 December 1859. The final stretch of line from Aboyne to Ballater was promoted by the Aboyne & Braemar Railway, which was authorised on 5 July 1865. The original plans envisaged the railway extending for some 28 miles as far as Braemar but this was cut-back during the parliamentary process to terminate at Ballater for passenger services. (Braemar was eventually connected to Ballater — by GNoSR bus — in 1904.) The 12½-mile line opened on 17 October 1866 9 (although the Prince and Princess of Wales used Ballater station on 20 and 24 September 1866 — a month before the line opened to passenger services); the short extension beyond Ballater to Bridge of Gairn also authorised in 1865 was never completed.
Initially the line from Aberdeen to Banchory was operated by the Aberdeen Railway, but the arrangement proved unsatisfactory and, from 1854, the Deeside Railway operated its own rolling stock. On 13 May 1862, the Deeside Railway decided to lease its operations to the Great North of Scotland Railway; following approval by parliament on 31 July 1866, the 999-year lease of both the Deeside and Deeside Extension railways took effect from 1 August 1866. Both of the railways were formally absorbed by the GNoSR from 31 August 1875, an act confirmed by parliamentary sanction on 13 July 1876. The Aboyne & Braemar Railway remained nominally independent until 31 January 1876, when it too was absorbed by the GNoSR, an act confirmed by parliament on 13 July 1876.
In 1910 there was an intensive suburban service over the 7½ miles from Aberdeen to Culter, although this would subsequently suffer from tramway competition; there were six return workings per weekday between Aberdeen and Banchory, of which four went to and from Ballater. There was no service on Sundays. The single journey time for the 43¼ miles from Aberdeen to Ballater was around 90 minutes.
As part of the GNoSR, the line to Ballater passed to the LNER in 1923 and to British Railways (Scottish Region) in 1948. In the late 1950s radical change came to the Deeside branch in the shape of BR’s only battery-operated multiple unit.
Based in Aberdeen, the unit entered service in 1958 on the branch, where it shared the duties with a conventional DMU. In the winter timetable of 1962/63, there were six return workings a day between Aberdeen and Ballater and the BEMU was allocated to the 8.9am, 1.55pm and 6.10pm departures from Aberdeen and the 10.3am, 3.25pm and 8.3pm departures from Ballater.
However, the economics of the railway industry had deteriorated significantly, leading to the decision to employ Richard Beeching as chairman of the newly created British Railways Board. The fate of the Ballater branch, as for so many other branches and secondary routes, was seated in his Reshaping report published in March 1963. The Ballater branch was amongst the countless lines listed for closure; even the royal connection was insufficient to give the line a future. As a result passenger services were withdrawn on 28 February 1966, just short of the line’s centenary. Freight services between Culter and Ballater were to survive until 18 July 1966 and the final section, from Ferryhill Junction to Culter closed on 2 January 1967.
Following closure, the line was dismantled and, for 30 years, until the creation of the preservation society, that seemed to be end of the line’s history. It is to be hoped that the Royal Deeside Railway can recoup its losses quickly and get the project once again moving forward.
Ironically, the vandalism suffered by the preservation society follows hard on the heels of the recent loss in May 2015 to fire of the historic station at Ballater. Whilst there is no suggestion that the fire was anything other than a tragic accident, the loss of the historic building is a source of much regret. Almost completely destroyed, the cost of demolishing the remaining structure and conserving the surviving remnants prior to rebuilding has been put at £150,000. Fortunately, this sum is covered by insurance and it is to be hoped that the station will eventually rise — quite literally — from the ashes.