It was one of the city’s gothic architectural masterpieces, but when Dundee West Railway Station was demolished in 1966, many considered it a huge loss. Ahead of the 55th anniversary of the last train leaving the station, Gayle Ritchie looks back at the legacy of the stunning Victorian building…
At 8pm on May 1, 1965, the very last train to run from Dundee West Railway Station departed for Glasgow.
More than 200 people gathered to wave it off, and it’s likely a good few tears were shed.
That’s because the station, one of the most beautiful late Victorian railway buildings in Britain, was due to be demolished to make way for a bypass to the new Tay Road Bridge the following year.
Described by Scottish architectural historian Charles McKean as “overly bombastic”, the station was a showpiece for the city – a veritable cathedral celebrating steam.
Built in deep red sandstone, round corner turrets gave the impression of a castle nestled in the Highlands, while the steep pitched roof was reminiscent of a French chateau. The clock tower at the south end towered over the area with an authoritative eye.
Its demolition, in 1966, was described by author John Minnis as “perhaps the most tragic loss” of a piece of railway architecture in Scotland.
BACK IN TIME
Dundee West Station stood opposite where the Malmaison hotel is today, virtually sharing the site with Tay Bridge Station, which operated at the same time.
The station which was demolished was actually the third on that site and was completed in 1889 by the Caledonian Railway.
The first station had been made of wood and was built to serve the new Dundee to Arbroath line in 1840. The first train was hauled by an engine named “The Queen”, which hit the heady speed of 45mph.
Seven years later, on May 22, 1847, the first train going west set off.
The idea of linking Dundee to Perth was exciting, and indeed, a news report at the time said: “All Dundee, Perth and the Carse of Gowrie turned out to watch”.
Meanwhile, the North British Daily Mail’s report on the first journey said: “As the hour approached for the starting of the train, the bells of St John’s Church run out a merry peal, the union jack was hoisted at the railway station and also at Bellfield House…which stands on the hill of Kinnoull above the railway line. Flags were also flying upon the Court House and other prominent places.”
However, as well as winning cheers from large crowds of spectators assembled in gardens and orchards along the route, the first train was greeted with scowls from stage-coach proprietors and shipping companies fiercely opposed to the railway line.
Others to object included wealthy landowners who didn’t like what they deemed to be noisy, dangerous contraptions going near their properties.
At Kinfauns Castle, for example, Lord Gray would only allow the line to come through his estate for a hefty fee of £12,000.
When the first train arrived at Perth, a banquet was given to 500 guests in a railway shed disguised as a pavilion.
Among the company was Sir Patrick Murray Thriepland of Fingask who remarked that the train had brought Dundee and Perth together in the “shortest possible time”.
He also ventured to prophesy that people would soon, in one day, be able to buy a tartan shawl in Inverness, a gown in Glasgow, lace in Nottingham….or see Jenny Ling sing in London.
In 1864, the original station was revamped with the wooden structure demolished and replaced by a handsome building with a clock tower on South Union Street.
It served the city and railway companies well but as traffic increased and the fortunes of railway companies soared, an even more impressive central station was planned.
Dundee West was operated by the Caledonian Railway at this time and it was their chief engineer, Thomas Burr, who came up with the initial design.
The building was constructed by Edinburgh firm Blyth & Cunningham, the main construction company for Scotland’s railways.
Opened in 1889, it was a stunning, magnificent, creation – a showstopping addition to the cityscape.
Local historian Dr Kenneth Baxter from the University of Dundee says it was built at a time when there was immense rivalry between the Caledonian and its rival, the North British Railway (NBR), who operated Tay Bridge station.
“The NBR had received a massive boost following the building of the second Tay Bridge and the Forth Bridge which opened in 1889,” he explains.
“I have always been inclined to agree with the view of the late Professor Charles McKean that the Caledonian therefore set out to build a structure that would very much overshadow its rival’s underground facility.”
Built in the Scottish Baronial style, it was made from red sandstone with a broad semi-circular booking office that offered access to four platforms.
Tayside rail enthusiast John Ruddy says in its heyday, the station boasted an impressive timetable with regular services to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and London Euston.
“Through coaches” took passengers to the west of England, and sleeper trains served many routes. Local traffic ran to Perth, Gleneagles, Crieff and Blairgowrie via the Dundee and Newtyle railway.
“In 1922, at the end of Caledonian Railway’s existence, before it was merged into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, there were nearly 100 staff employed at the station, including around 40 porters,” says John.
“A large warehouse dealt with all manner of traffic, especially deliveries of jam products to growing markets in the south.
“In a typical month the Dundee West yard handled 15,000 tons of minerals, mostly coal for the many factories in Dundee.
“Around 170 men were employed in the goods yard alone.”
However, with passenger numbers dwindling and only a handful of trains running from the 75-year-old station on a daily basis, it seemed inevitable that the axe would fall.
The death warrant of the station was signed by Dr Richard Beeching, chairman of the British Railways Board, who had been tasked with overhauling the UK rail network.
Despite the rail union ASLEF arguing for Dundee West to be retained and a local pressure group, Save the West Station, campaigning for it to be kept as a bus station, plans to demolish the station – for the construction of approach roads to the new Tay Road Bridge – progressed.
The last train left on May 1, 1965 – the 8pm to Glasgow.
Dundee firm Charles Brand started the demolition in April 1966, a few months before the new road bridge officially opened on August 18, 1966.
The first task was to remove thousands of panes of glass from the roof over the platforms. They were smashed down onto the torn-up track and platforms. Then the massive steel roof beams were pulled down.
The demolition of Dundee West took 10 weeks and cost the city £1,150. The platforms below ground level were kept and incorporated into Tay Bridge Station.
A Gothic masterpiece, with all the soaring grandeur of the Victorian era, had been wiped out in a flash.
“What has been lost is undoubtedly one of Dundee’s finest buildings, befitting its status as a major city, with communication links all over Britain,” muses John.
“If it had survived, it would be an impressive addition to the seafront regeneration, as well as providing additional capacity for the much increased train service to and from Dundee.
“It would be a reminder of the once major part that commerce played in the Dundee economy, with jute and jam from its many factories being sent all over the country.”
While Dr Baxter agrees the demolition of Dundee West was “sad”, he says it was inevitable.
“It was clear by the 1960s that the station’s future was not viable,” he says.
“Dundee could only justify one station and the advantage that Tay Bridge had was that it was a ‘through station’.
“West, as a terminus, had no real viable way of serving routes to Broughty Ferry, Arbroath and Aberdeen.
“The closure of the Newtyle line to passengers some years earlier had robbed it of its suburban traffic to Lochee and Downfield, as well as its connections to Blairgowrie and Alyth.
“The Perth line, which it had original been built for, and services to Glasgow, could easily be handled from Tay Bridge and after nationalisation in 1948 British Railways had increasingly looked to avoid duplication of routes.”
Could an alternative use been found for the station?
Certainly many believed the stunning frontage could have found another use, perhaps as a hotel.
But the determination to build the Tay Bridge and its approaches meant that architecture was considered “expendable”, says Dr Baxter.
“This was not a unique problem for Dundee as many important English stations suffered around the same time, notably the notorious demolition of Euston Station’s famous arch,” he adds.
FATE OF THE CLOCK
Concerns over what would happen to Dundee West Station’s clock were raised ahead of the demolition.
A report in The Courier at the time said: “Must it suffer the same fate as its Dock Street neighbours – the Royal Arch clock and the East Station clock – which were scrapped?”
It was suggested it take pride of place on the approach to the Tay Bridge “as a tribute for the 75 years of service” it had given.
Despite trawling various archives, we’ve been unable to determine what became of the fate. Any ideas?
THREE STATIONS IN ONE
In 1966, three railway stations were merged into one. Dundee East was already out of use, Dundee West had been demolished, and the Tay Bridge Station was renamed “Dundee”.
In 1989 a new entrance to the station was built with a walkway over the Marketgait for pedestrian access. This was demolished in 2014.
Dundee’s new £38m railway station opened to the public in July 2018 and was billed by city development director Mike Galloway as one of the “major landmarks in the city’s regeneration”.
The five-storey building, which took two-and-a-half years to complete, includes a 120-room hotel and retail units.
It is opposite V&A Dundee, which opened on September 15, 2018.
Fifty-five years ago, Dr Richard Beeching published the second of his two reports that would change Britain’s railway system forever.
His first, published in 1963, identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of track for closure — half of all stations and nearly a third of the country’s rail network.
The second report, released on February 16, 1965, identified a few major routes to receive significant development. It switched the focus towards a small number of lines carrying passengers or freight quickly between major towns and cities, setting the template that today’s rail system still uses.
David Spaven, an Edinburgh-based author of eight books on Britain’s railways, says Beeching’s reports had a huge impact in Scotland.
“Everything north and west of Inverness was shut. A lot of routes in Angus went, along with many lines in Fife and Perthshire,” he says.
“I remember getting the train through the East Neuk when I was a kid. Within a few years it no longer existed – and most of the line of route has long been ploughed into fields.”
Beeching’s cuts came against a backdrop of decreasing rail usage throughout Britain.
The entire rail network had been shrinking since the 1930s with the rise of car ownership and use of lorries to transport goods. Increased post-war affluence boosted car ownership massively and made rail transport a secondary proposition.
There were often duplicate routes between destinations and Beeching looked at getting those down to two, or more often just one single route.
“One victim of this was the Perth-Coupar Angus-Forfar-Kinnaber (near Montrose) line. It was axed because there was a Perth-Dundee-Aberdeen route, so places like Forfar and Coupar Angus lost their rail stations,” says David.
“The idea was that people who lost their station would drive or catch a bus to the nearest station, so their journey would become inter-modal.
“The flaw with that was that people looked for bus services that took them directly to their destination or just drove the whole way.”
David says closing huge swathes of rail line was like using a sledgehammer when a scalpel might have been the better tool.
“It’s very debatable whether Beeching’s way was the best way of sorting out finances.
“Beeching’s biggest flaw was he didn’t have a sense of how railways could be rationalised and made more cost effective by more efficient methods than just shutting down lines.
“He never looked at whether stations could be unstaffed, or whether multiple tracks could be reduced to a single track.”
The pushback against Beeching’s cuts began long ago and continues to this day, with grassroots campaigns to reinstate lines.
“The climate emergency declared by the First Minister last year has given a big boost to the prospects for rail re-openings, with the line to Levenmouth scheduled to re-open in 2024, and more to come, I’m sure.”