In 1864, an independent company secured powers to build a railway from Wallingford Road, Moulsford through Wallingford to Watlington – a distance of about nine miles. (Wallingford was once in Berkshire and is now in Oxfordshire.) This would have been the first standard gauge branch off the Great Western Railway (GWR) broad gauge main line from London to Bristol. However, the branch line got no further than Wallingford and the remainder to Watlington was never built. But the Wallingford branch of 3¼ miles from Wallingford Road to Wallingford opened in 1866. For many years, the original station on the main line known as Wallingford Road was used as the southern terminus. It was ¾ mile east of the present station at Cholsey, and ran parallel with the GWR main line for the first ¾ mile from Moulsford. The original railway company was absorbed by the GWR in 1872. Then, in 1892 when the GWR main line was quadrupled to Didcot, Moulsford station was replaced by the present National Rail station at Cholsey. The Wallingford branch was thus shortened to two miles 51 chains of near-level track. In time, the passenger service became known as “The Bunk”.
An interesting incident took place at Wallingford station in January 1899. The 11.02 a.m. train from Cholsey entered the station at speed, locomotive wheels locked, whistling hard and demolished the wooden buffer stops. The locomotive and its three coaches remained on the track and injuries were minimised. An investigation found that the locomotive’s vacuum brake pipe hadn’t been connected to the train. The pipe was still on the engine plug and, according to the driver, the cab gauge was showing 25 inches of vacuum in the system. The convention seems to have been that trains on this line were usually stopped by use of the handbrake only. The continuous brake was only there for emergencies, although it had to be regularly tested. On this occasion the rails were greasy and the handbrake simply wasn’t enough to stop the skidding train. The stationmaster was criticised for not noticing the dangerous practice and for not doing anything about it. That said, the speed limit on the branch was 30 mph for the 6 or 7 minute journey, and 10 mph when running into Cholsey.
In earlier years, the passenger services had been worked by railmotors (steam-powered single vehicles used from around 1905) and auto-trains (a locomotive with a trailer(s) fitted with auto-train regulator and brake linkages that could be driven conventionally or from a driver’s cab in the trailer with the fireman remaining on the locomotive footplate, again from around 1905). This was an “uncoloured” route with restrictions on the weight of locomotives used. In later years, the 14XX 0-4-2 tank engines were used on auto-trains, with the 58XX 0-4-2 tank engines and some 0-6-0 pannier tank classes working the freight services.
The origin of “The Bunk” goes back to before auto-train operation. How the service got its nickname is unclear. One story is that many years ago the locomotive running it “did a bunk” one night when two drunken passengers uncoupled it as a joke and it left the station without its train – “doing a bunk” so to speak! The term meaning “to depart hastily” originated around 1870, so it’s possible. The line was worked on a “one engine in steam” or “two coupled together” basis, operating a weekday shuttle passenger service of 18 trains a day. Freight workings served the local creamery, maltings and coal yard. There was no block telegraph, and a square brown train staff was used with a key at one time for a two-lever ground frame serving the Co-op creamery.
The passenger service was withdrawn on 13th June 1959. On the day with large numbers of spectators on platforms and lineside, locomotive 1444, adorned with a floral wreath, hauled its longest trains on the branch ever. The freight service ceased in 1965. On two occasions in 1968 in April and September, the Great Western’s Society’s 0-4-2 tank engine 1466 and auto-trailer number 231 were brought from Didcot to operate services on the branch for two open days, re-creating the days of “The Bunk”. Despite the ending of all services, the track to the maltings had been retained for several years whilst interest grew in running the line as a heritage railway. That came about, and what is now the Cholsey and Wallingford Railway ran its first train in 1985, with a regular service from 1997. More recently, the company was successful in getting grant aid to buy and move the 1891 platform canopy from Maidenhead station to re-erect and use at their Wallingford terminus. “The Bunk” lives on!
Mike Peart is a former railwayman and the co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and “Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was a founder member of the Great Western Society in 1961.