Shippea Hill


What does Shippea Hilla remote railway station in Cambridgeshire, have in common with Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo, Japan? It’s all a question of busyness. Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and is used by 1.26 billion passengers each year, whereas at Shippea Hill there is not much going on. In Europe, the busiest station according to recent analysis by the Independent newspaper, which takes account of metro or underground users as well, is Waterloo in London with 200 million passengers a year, followed by the Gare du Nord in Paris with 180 million users a year. So what about the least busy railway stations?

No photo can do justice to Shinjuku Railway Station, the world’s busiest transport hub with its 11 separate railway lines, 36 platforms and 200 entrances. Here is a pedestrian crossing to just one of those entrances.

World-wide figures for the quietest stations are not available, nor are there any for Europe. But according to the figures for 2014-15 released on 15 December by the UK Office of Rail and Road, there are ten stations on the national rail network that have fewer than 100 passengers a year. By comparison, Shinjuku has 12 million times more users.

The Least Busy Railway Stations

The ten least busy stations in Britain during 2014-15, in decreasing order of the number of users, are

10 Breich in West Lothian, Scotland (with 92 passengers)

Elston & Orston in Nottinghamshire, England (88)

Buckenham in Norfolk, England (88)

Golf Street in the town of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (86)

Pilning in Gloucestershire, England (68)

Barry Links west of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (60)

Reddish South in Stockport, Greater Manchester (54)

Tees-side Airport near Darlington, County Durham (32)

Coombe Junction serving the villages of Coombe and Lamellion, near Liskeard, Cornwall (26)

Shippea Hill serving the hamlets of Shippea Hill and Prickwillow in Cambridgeshire (with 22 passengers)

The reason for these very low levels of patronage is usually the small number of trains that actually stop at these stations. Take Tees-side Airport. You would expect a station apparently serving an airport to have tens of thousands of users a year. Despite the name, the station is a fifteen-minute walk from the airport, so accessibility is a major factor in its lack of usage. The other is that only two trains stop at the station each week, both on a Sunday: the eastbound Northern service 11.14 Darlington to Hartlepool, and the westbound 12.35 Hartlepool to Darlington. Sadly campaigns to highlight the poor rail service at the station, and to persuade rail authorities to move the station 500 metres closer to the airport terminal, have so far been unsuccessful.

Shippea Hill is marked on this railway map with Ely to the west and Norwich to the east. Most of the land to the north of Cambridge is the Fens, which drain into the square area of sea to the north, which is called the Wash.

Why did Shippea Hill however attract just 22 passengers from April 2014 to March 2015? Firstly only one train a day going eastwards towards Norwich actually stops there, the 07.28 which runs from Cambridge via Ely to Norwich (07.25 on a Saturday), and then not on a Sunday. Going westwards there is just one train a week, on a Saturday, the 19.27 that runs from Norwich to Cambridge. The service then is almost non-existent. Shippea Hill is also a request stop, so passengers must inform the driver or conductor if they want to get off, or put their hand out as they stand on the station to alert the driver that they want to get on.

On a weekday over 30 passenger trains, including an East Midlands hourly 125 service between Norwich and Liverpool, pass through Shippea Hill each way so the route itself is a busy one. But why don’t more trains stop there? The simple answer is that it is a remote location where very few people live.

Where is Shippea Hill?

Shippea Hill railway station lies in the east of Cambridgeshire, with the Suffolk border 200 yards to the east, and a triple border with Norfolk a little further to the north-east. The station is on the Breckland Line that runs between Ely in the west and Norwich in the east. The station was opened in July 1845 by the Eastern Counties Railway as Mildenhall Road, the road that crosses the railway next to the station, though Mildenhall itself is eight miles away.

In 1885, with the opening of a separate railway from Cambridge to Mildenhall, the name of the station was changed to Burnt Fen, the name of the surrounding area. Finally in 1905 the current name was adopted. The only settlements are farms, and the nearest hamlet of Prickwillow is four and a half miles away by road. The name Shippea Hill seems odd as being in The Fens, the area is very flat and much of the land around the station is about one metre below sea level as a result of the draining of the fens. It is therefore very likely to be the only station in the world with ‘hill’ in its name that is below sea level.

Shippea Hill Farm © Evelyn Simak / Creative Commons Licence

Shippea Hill Farm (photo left) is a mile and a half to the west of the station (see map above), and stands on slightly higher ground 5 metres high but it is still surrounded by land at sea level. It is one of the few areas within Burnt Fen which rises above sea level, hence the ‘hill’. Potatoes are the main crop today, and the farm is owned by Frederick Hiam Ltd. Fresh produce is still delivered daily to Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets in London.

There are farms that are nearer to the station than Shippea Hill Farm, though they may no longer have lived-in farmhouses. One of the nearest is Bulldog Bridge Farm, less than a mile away to the west along the A1101 to Littleport. Bulldog Bridge, which crosses Engine Drain, is back along the road towards the station. Might Bulldog Bridge have been a more appropriate name for the station?

The Fens, also known as Fenland, cover an area of 1,500 sq miles in eastern England, and they were drained in the 18th century leading so that most of the area lies at sea level or just above. Read more about this here. Incidentally the lowest point in Britain, at 2.75 metres (9.5 ft) below sea level, is also in the Fens at Holme Fen. The land is very fertile and it continues to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps that work continuously. In the 17th century however the land was described as being all above sea level so perhaps Shippea Hill was a more significant hill then.

The Rise and Fall of Shippea Hill

Shippea Hill station was at one time an important centre of agricultural industry. For most of its existence it was primarily a railhead for fruit and vegetables grown in the area: it was never intended to be a passenger station.

The station had a goods yard to handle agricultural produce. A network of horse-drawn tramways ran to the station from the farmland to the south-west. From the east end of the station a mile-long private branch line ran parallel to the main line to the jam factory of Messrs Chivers & Sons on Sedge Fen at the centre of the 1,570-acre Shippea Hill estate. According to a 1922 Ministry of Agriculture journal there was a nine-mile network of narrow gauge lines on the estate linking it to the surrounding orchards. Fruit trains used to run direct from Shippea Hill to London for delivery to Covent Garden. So Shippea Hill was no rural backwater, at least until road haulage took over the traffic. The branch line to the estate was replaced by a road in 1950, and what is left of the factory is no longer used for fruit processing.

Chivers also had a massive factory at Histon north of Cambridge. For rail enthusiasts, here is a link to an old film (you need to wait a little before the film starts) of one of two petrol-electric shunters used by the company at Histon. The other was used at the Shippea Hill factory. The shunters were built just after the First World War from old buses, but were sold for scrap in the late 1960’s.

This photo of Shippea Hill Station from 1946 shows quite a range of station buildings, one with an advert for Bovril on its wall. All these buildings are long gone and today there is only a small waiting shelter on each platform.

It is said that the change of the name of the station in 1905 to Shippea Hill was made to placate local farmers who dispatched their potatoes from the station. The colour of the earth changes suddenly here, black fen soil to the north and west and lighter Breckland soil to the south and east. Farmers could obtain higher prices for ‘hill’ potatoes grown in the lighter soil compared with potatoes grown on ‘fen’ soil.

A couple of miles to the east of the station there was a station Shrub Hill which opened in 1865 to serve a tramway which ran to clay pits and osier (willow) plantations at Shrubhill Farm to the north. The station closed in 1876, and the tramway went a few years after that, due to the agricultural depression.

Even as late as the early 1960s the sidings at Shippea Hill station were full of loaded wagons, but the yard was closed in 1966 and it is now a chaos of Portakabins, old van bodies and rusting farm machinery.

Following the closure of the Cambridge to Mildenhall branch in 1962, Shippea Hill was used by servicemen at Mildenhall airbase. Up to the 1980s around 11 trains a day called in each direction with taxis often waiting in the yard. Extra trains and connecting buses were laid on for the Mildenhall air fete.

Shippea Hill Station Level Crossing © Ashley Dace / Creative Commons Licence

This photo from June 2010 shows the wooden level crossing gates across the A1101 at Shippea Hill which used to be opened and closed manually by the signaller in the signal box. In 2012 the 140-year old signal box was closed and automated full barriers with red flashing lights were installed. The signal box leans quite a bit due to subsidence. A 1969 photograph shows it propped up by baulks of timber but these were replaced or hidden in the 1980s by the timber-boarded extension built at the rear.

There used to be a public house, the Railway Tavern, just south of the station and still marked PH on the map, but this is now a private house. Thought the station boasts six parking places, at one time there were a lot more but most of the car park was sold off after British Rail was privatised in 1993. There is small waiting shelter on each platform. Just a few weeks ago, on the afternoon of 23 November 2015, fire crews were called to put out a fire in a ‘temporary building’ at the station. Leaving aside the redundant signal box, I wonder what this temporary building could be given that the single shelter on each platform is more than enough for the number of trains that stop?

Fatal Crash on a Level Crossing

On 3 December 1976 there was a tragic accident at the Chivers’ ‘user worked’ vehicle level crossing a mile and a half east of the station (marked as LC to the right of the map above). The crossing was used by lorries and farm vehicles on the Chivers estate which lay on both sides of the railway. At about 4 pm, a three-carriage passenger train collided with a lorry carrying crates of washed carrots on the crossing. The engine driver, Robert (Bob) Hitcham, was killed and eight passengers were injured.

When the accident occurred there was thick fog. There was a telephone at the crossing and a conspicuous sign instructing drivers using the crossing to telephone the signalman at Shippea Hill to check that it was safe to cross. However the gates at the crossing had not been previously closed as was required, and without telephoning the signal box, the driver drove over the crossing straight into the path of a passenger train travelling at 50mph. The driver of the lorry, whose cab was already well clear of the line when the collision occurred, escaped without injury. The accident became notorious, as according to the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, this was the last time in Britain that a member of staff on a train was killed due to a collision at a user worked crossing.

Why So Few Trains?

A High Speed Train from Liverpool speeds through Shippea Hill towards Norwich. Passengers on the train are unlikely to know that they have just passed Britain’s quietest station. Nowadays this service is provided using Sprinter diesel units.

Whilst Shippea Hill is the least used railway station in Britain, the 22 passenger entries/exits in 2014-15 is a massive 83% increase from the previous year when the number of users was 12. But for five years between 2006 and 2011, the numbers of users each year was above 500, with a peak of 942 users in 2009-10. That’s still under three passengers a day on average but it’s still a huge difference from now. I can’t find the train timetables for this period but it is very likely the case that more trains stopped at Shippea Hill during this time.

National Express East Anglia was the train operating company that operated the Greater Anglia franchise from April 2004 until February 2012. In November 2009, the Department of Transport announced that although National Express had fulfilled the requirements of the franchise, it would not be granted a three-year extension from 2012 onwards because National Express had defaulted on its East Coast franchise. Perhaps National Express decided from 2009 to cut its losses by reducing the number of trains stopping at Shippea Hill, a practice that was then continued by Abellio, the replacement franchisee. So why not just close the station?

A Branch Line No More

This track runs from Shippea Hill station alongside the railway which is just to the left (there is a signal in the distance). On old OS maps, it was first marked as a path to Railway Lodge Farm, then in 1925 as Station Road, when the mile-long branch line from the station to the Chivers jam factory on Sedge Fen was also shown. The branch line and then then the road were abandoned long ago. The bridge that takes the track over Mildenhall Drain looks unsafe though the track is part of the 110-mile long Hereward Way between Oakham in Rutland and Harting in Norfolk

Why Is The Station Still There?

The process for closing railway stations, like that for railway lines is involved and time-consuming, and was first laid down in the Transport Act 1962. But in the year before Dr Richard Beeching had been hired by the Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport (and former managing director of the road construction firm Marples Ridgeway) who recommended in 1963 that a third of Britain’s railway stations and 5,000 miles of track should be closed. The 1962 Act anticipated these closures by establishing a process that allowed for objections to closures on the basis of hardship to passengers if their service (or station) was closed. Although the majority of the recommended closures went ahead, the process became increasingly difficult to implement as objections and campaigners against the closures gained momentum, and by 1970 closures had slowed to a trickle.

In many cases where rail services were threatened with closure because of exceptionally low usage, the service, and the number of stations served, was reduced to a bare minimum, but the service was not formally closed, and hence the costs associated with closure were avoided. The service might be reduced to one train a week, and in one direction only. These trains became known as ‘parliamentary trains’ after the Act of Parliament passed in 1844 to allow cheap and basic railway travel for less affluent passengers. This required that at least one such service per day was run on every railway route in Britain, although such services did not stay a legal requirement for very long.

Thus although the circumstances were quite different, the term ‘parliamentary train’ has stuck and there are still many parliamentary trains running in Britain, as listed here. Shippea Hill station remains open: it is not worth the time, effort and cost that it would take to close it. Being served by seven parliamentary trains a week, its future looks secure.

I’d Like To Visit Shippea Hill

‘See Britain by Train’ was one of several slogans used by British Railways in the 1950s and 60s to promote leisure travel by rail. This poster Fenland by Lance Cattermole shows King John on his horse on the shore of the Wash (a large square bay in the coastline of the Fens) where in 1216 the crown jewels were lost as his baggage wagons were engulfed by the incoming tide.

If you insist on going by rail, this is going to be quite difficult. You can’t travel by rail to Shippea Hill in the same day from most places in Britain. The only daily train (Sunday excluded) is eastbound and stops at the station (if requested) at 07.28. This train leaves Cambridge at 07.04 and then Ely at 07.19. If you live in London, you could get the 05.43 Great Northern London Kings Cross to Kings Lynn train which gets to Ely at 07.07. You might hope to get a cup of coffee at the LocoEspresso café on Platform 1 in between trains but it doesn’t open until 9am.

The furthest place away in which you can get to Shippea Hill by train in the same day is Nottingham (unless you are better than me at reading railway timetables). But to do this, you’d have to get the East Midlands train that leaves there at 04.56 and which arrives at Ely at 07.00. Annoyingly, this same train then speeds through the Fens and Shippea Hill station without stopping on its way to Norwich!

Once you get off at Shippea Hill, you will have 12 hours, less a minute, to wait for a train back to Ely, provided of course it’s a Saturday.


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