Steam in the northwest corner of Wales

Posted by Tom Murray
on Monday, October 03, 2011

Welsh Highland Railway Garratt number 87 at Pont Croesor, Wales

My wife and I traveled to Europe this past spring and summer. Our journey took us to Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the three Scandinavian countries (plus neighbor Finland, where Marcia has relatives), and Switzerland, and included a brief side trip to visit friends in Belgrade, Serbia. For the most part, this wasn't a rail-oriented trip, but Marcia's happy to ride trains, so it wasn't hard to persuade her that, wherever possible, our intercity travel should be by rail. Over the coming weeks, I plan to provide several reports here about railways I rode or saw during this journey.

We spent two weeks in the U.K., and I was able to work a couple of narrow-gauge steam railways into our itinerary, both of them in the beautiful and mountainous northwest corner of Wales – the top left-hand corner, as some writers bill it.

Both railways – the Ffestiniog and the Welsh Highland – have a gauge one-half inch shy of two feet, and both were built to move slate to tidewater at Porthmadog, on the shores of Cardigan Bay. There, the slate was loaded into vessels with destinations in Europe and beyond. From Porthmadog, the Ffestiniog extends 13 miles northeast to Blaenau Ffestiniog, while the Welsh Highland is 25 miles in length, reaching Caernarfon in the northwest. The Ffestiniog was the first to be built, between 1833 and 1836, and was originally a gravity operation, at least for loaded cars. Empties were hauled back uphill by horse, and then, starting in the 1860s, steam engines took over. In the era between the two World Wars, slate traffic fell off, and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 was the death knell for the company's limited passenger service. After the war, the railway was dormant but physically intact; beginning in the mid-1950s, it was revived thanks to the efforts of an enthusiastic and hard-working cadre of rail enthusiasts.

Today's Welsh Highland is an amalgam of different predecessors, including one section that was originally standard gauge. When the local slate business fell on hard times, the Welsh Highland came under the financial control of the Ffestiniog, but the arrangement did nothing to solve the lack of business, and the route was abandoned and dismantled. The rebuilding of the railway began in the 1960s, again through the efforts of railway enthusiasts. By this time the WHR was under the control of a bankruptcy receiver, but in the late 1980s the Ffestiniog began the process of reacquiring its neighboring line, and today the two railways are under common management. Over the past two decades, the WHR has been rebuilt through significant financial investment in track components and other hardware, and the labor of a committed group of volunteers. In early 2011, the line to Porthmadog was opened for business, and a physical connection between the two railways became a reality.

Our plan was to spend two nights in Caernarfon, and do a round trip on the WHR to Pont Croesor (just north of Porthmadog, and the location where most of the railway's southbound trains terminated during the 2011 season). The next day, we would travel by taxi to Bangor, where we would board a train operated by Arriva Trains Wales, transfer at Llandudno Junction, and arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog at 1135. There, we would board the Ffestiniog's 1150 train to Porthmadog, arriving at 1300, giving us just over an hour to make the transfer to the Network Rail station, about three-quarters of a mile distant, where we would board another Arriva train for that day's destination, Shrewsbury, England. (By the way, I'm following the British and European convention of using the 24-hour system for times, rather than our AM/PM system.)

On Sunday, May 1, we boarded a WHR train at Caernarfon, within sight of the town's famous castle.

Precisely on time at 1000, we were on our way through the Welsh countryside behind a former South African Railways Class NG G16 Garratt, number 87.  Two of these magnificent 2-6-2+2-6-2 locomotives are currently the mainstay of WHR passenger power, and another three are reported to be in various states of preparation for a return to service.

Aside from the carpet of green on the countryside, the two most prominent features of the landscape were stone (in the hills, in the buildings, and in the hundreds of stone walls we saw) and sheep.

And there were plenty of curves to allow a good view of number 87.

Rhyd Ddu, at 650 feet of elevation, is the highest point on the line, and also the meeting point for northbound and southbound regular trains, which operate at two-and-a-half-hour intervals during the summer season. The stop allowed passengers to detrain and get a good look at the Garratt.

Number 87's builder's plate shows a construction date of 1936. The other WHR Garratts in service, or under restoration, were all built between 1953 and 1958.

This is one spiffy engine. The color is listed as "midnight blue."

It wasn't too long before the railway's other operational Garratt, number 138, in what I've seen described as "crimson lake" livery, arrived with the northbound train.

At our train's next regular stop, Beddgelert, we met this northbound train (not in the timetable) powered by diesel Vale of Ffestiniog. It's a 1967 product of CH Funkey & Co (Pty) Ltd of Alberton, near Johannesburg, South Africa.

After leaving Beddgelert, we passed through Aberglaslyn Pass, which WHR says has been voted the most beautiful spot in the United Kingdom by members of the National Trust.

At Pont Croesor, the terminus of this train, I was able to get a look at extra-fare observation car Glaslyn, constructed at Ffestiniog's Boston Lodge shop (near Porthmadog) at a cost of £200,000. It was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth in a formal naming ceremony in April 2010.

The northbound return trip took us up the steepest grade on the railway, the six miles of one-in-forty (that's 2.5 per cent to us North Americans) from Bryn e Felin to Rhyd Ddu.

And at Rhyd Ddu we again met number 138, this time handling the southbound train.

The next day Marcia and I took a taxi from our B&B in Caernarfon to the Network Rail station at Bangor, which is served primarily by Arriva Trains Wales, with services between Holyhead and Chester, Birmingham, Shrewsbury and Cardiff, and also by Virgin Trains, which offers service between Holyhead and London Euston.

At Llandudno Junction, we transferred to a Conwy Valley train destined to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The Conwy Valley line has been threatened with closure in the past but somehow keeps operating. For me, one of the marvels of railroading in the U.K. is how many lightly-trafficked lines continue to have working signal boxes like this one at Llanrwst, where train crews pick up tokens that allow them to proceed into the next block.

This line didn't have steam, but scenically it was the equal of the Welsh Highland.

However, in the last mile or so approaching Blaenau Ffestiniog, what you see out the window is mainly piles of scrap left over from the area's many decades of slate production.

Our two-car train arrived at Blaenau Ffestiniog on time at 1135, 15 minutes before the 1150 departure of the Ffestiniog train to Porthmadog. The two railways' stations at Blaenau Ffestiniog are next to each other, and the walk between them takes no more than a couple of minutes.

Thanks to the fact that this was a "bank holiday" (the first weekend in May), the crowds for the Ffestiniog train to Porthmadog were heavy but we were able to secure our tickets and get seats in time for the 1150 departure. Our engine was the coal-fired Earl of Merioneth, one of three 0-4-4-0T Double Fairlie locomotives operating on the Ffestiniog. Of the three, one is an original Ffestiniog engine, built in 1879. The Earl of Merioneth followed 100 years later, entering service in 1979. The newest of the three is an oil-burner that debuted in 1992, also a Boston Lodge product. Here, we are negotiating a spiral at Dduallt that provides a rapid descent to begin a 2.5-mile diversion constructed between 1965 and 1978 to pass a reservoir for a pumped-storage electric generating station.

For much of the journey, the railway was hugging the sides of mountains, where the economic advantages of narrow gauge were evident.

The first stop was Tan-y-Bwich, about 25 minutes after leaving Blaenau Ffestiniog. Like Rhyd Ddu on the WHR, this is the normal meeting place for "up" and "down" trains. We got an unwelcome surprise here when our conductor announced that everyone should disembark, because there would be a delay of unknown duration. A tree had fallen across the track between here and Porthmadog, and while a crew had been called to remove it, we would have to wait until the line was clear and the opposing train had arrived before we could proceed. Our one-hour connection to the Arriva train at Porthmadog was beginning to look a little shaky. The good news was that there was a lunch room here. We had planned to grab some takeout food on the fly at Porthmadog while making our transfer. Instead, we decided to get a sandwich here. Just as we finished our food, the opposing train arrived and the conductor announced that we should reboard. We left Tan-y-Bwich almost 40 minutes late.

Arriving at Porthmadog, we had less than 30 minutes to make the transfer to the Network Rail station used by Arriva trains. We were traveling light, considering the type of trip we were on: each of us had a 22-inch roller bag and a backpack. But this stuff did slow us down. On this holiday weekend, traffic was heavy and we would have to go right through the center of town to get to the other station. Walking didn't seem like a practical option. No problem, I thought – this is a big town; we can take a taxi. A helpful ticket agent in the Ffestiniog station did call a taxi for us, but after waiting for ten minutes in the parking lot, nothing was showing. Unbeknownst to us, the agent followed up with the taxi company, found out that they wouldn't be able to get us to the other station in time, and notified her supervisor. The supervisor found us in the parking lot and told us to put our luggage into a company car, because she was driving us to the other station! We were there with ten minutes to spare for our 1406 train. And yes, we did follow up with an e-mail to Ffestiniog management thanking her for this extraordinary service.

Our fourth train of the day was an Arriva train destined to Shrewsbury. It followed the Cambrian Coast, along the shores of Cardigan Bay, for the first 90 minutes after leaving Porthmadog. One of the highlights of this route was Harlech Castle, constructed between 1283 and 1290, during the reign of King Edward I. I'm not sure what effect having a castle looming over your back yard has on real estate values in Wales.

Our train, which had started out of Pwllheli (yes, the Welsh language is not generous with vowels) 22 minutes before arriving at Porthmadog, had standees by the time we were halfway down the Cambrian Coast. At Machynlleth our two-car train was combined with another two-car train from Aberystwyth, and we continued to Shrewsbury, arriving at 1725. The station there, which was built in stages beginning in 1848, is considered a Grade II ("particularly important building of more than special interest") by English Heritage, which designates architecturally protected buildings in the U.K.

As was repeatedly the case during our trip, I wish that we had had more time to explore this area. Railways aside, it was a fascinating part of the world. For example, we heard more Welsh than English being spoken in the restaurants and pubs of Caernarfon, and there were major heritage sites we missed, like the castle at Conwy (which we saw only through the window of an Arriva train). From a rail perspective, I found both the WHR and the Ffestiniog to be hospitable, well-run operations, and I would like to have spent more time photographing them. I hope that readers more knowledgeable than I will be quick to offer corrections or enlargements on my cursory overview of these two fine heritage railways. To learn more about them, or if you're thinking about a trip to this corner of Wales, you'll find a wealth of information at the Ffestiniog/Welsh Highland Web site.

Anyone interested in an overview of our trip can find a summary, including photos (mostly of scenery, not trains) at our travel blog. The story of our rail travels in the U.K. continues in Those colourful Brits, Part 1. One final thought: we've resolved that the next time we travel abroad, we're going to check each country's national holidays ahead of time. If the trains are going to be crowded, we want to know about it ahead of time.

My two-part report about our rail travels in the U.K. after leaving Wales is available through these links: Part 1; Part 2.

Additional rail photos from our travels in the U.K. and Europe can be seen at my Picasa photo gallery.

For an overview of the trains and other forms of transportation we used during our European trip, see our personal travel blog.

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