The Ffestiniog Railway Rheilffordd Ffestiniog is a narrow gauge heritage railway, located in Gwynedd in Wales. It is a major tourist attraction located mainly within the Snowdonia National Park.
The railway is about 13 1/2 mi long and runs from the harbour at Porthmadog to the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line travels through spectacular mountainous scenery and is single track with passing places. The track gauge is 23.5 . The first part of the line runs along a 1 mi long embankment called "the Cob", which is the dyke of the Traeth Mawr "polder".
The railway company is properly known as the "Festiniog Railway Company", and this contemporary anglicised spelling is the official title of the company as defined by the Act that created the railway. It is the oldest surviving railway company in the world, having been founded by the Act of Parliament on May 23, 1832 with capital mostly raised in Dublin by Henry Archer, the company's first secretary and managing director. Most British railways were amalgamated into four large groups in 1921, and then into British Railways in 1948, but the Festiniog Railway Company, in common with most narrow gauge railways, remained independent: in 1921 this was due to political influence, whereas in 1947 it was left out of British Railways because it was closed for traffic despite vigorous local lobbying for it to be included.
Various important developments in the Railway's early history were celebrated by the firing of rock cannon at various points along the line. Cannon were fired, for instance, to mark the laying of the first stone at Creuau in 1832, the railway's opening in 1836, and the opening of the Moelwyn Tunnel in 1842. The passing of a later act for the railway also saw cannon celebrations, but on this occasion a fitter at Boston Lodge, who was assisting with firing, lost the fingers of one hand in an accident.
Horse and gravity operation Edit
The line was constructed between 1833 and 1836 to transport slate from the quarries around the inland town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coastal town of Porthmadog, where it was loaded onto ships. The railway was graded so that loaded wagons could be run by gravity downhill all the way from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port. The empty wagons were hauled back up by horses, which travelled down in special 'dandy' wagons. To achieve this continuous grade, the line followed natural contours and employed cuttings and embankments built of stone and slate blocks without mortar. Prior to the completion in 1844 of a long tunnel through a spur in the Moelwyn Mountain, the slate trains were worked over the top via inclines the site of which can still be seen, but there are no visible remnants.
Up to six trains daily were operated in each direction, and a printed timetable was published on 16 September 1856 by Charles Easton Spooner who, following his father, served as Manager and Clerk for 30 years. It shows departures from the "Quarry Terminus" at 7:30, 9:28, 11:16, 1:14, 3:12 and 5:10. Trains waited ten minutes at the intermediate stations called Tunnel Halt, Hafod y Llyn and "Rhiw Goch". The fastest journey time from Quarry Terminus to Boston Lodge was 1 hour 32 minutes, including three stops. From Boston Lodge the slate wagons were hauled to and from Porthmadog harbour by horses. Up trains took nearly six hours from Boston Lodge to the Quarry Terminus, and each train ran in up to four sections, each hauled by a horse and comprising eight empty slate wagons plus a horse dandy. This timetable gave a maximum annual capacity of 70,000 tons of dressed slate. Two brakesmen travelled on each down train, controlling the speed by the application of brakes as needed. At passing loops trains passed on the right and this continues to be a feature of Ffestiniog Railway operation.
There is evidence for tourist passengers being carried as early as 1850, without the blessing of the Board of Trade, but these journeys would also observe the timetable.
Hafod y Llyn was replaced by Tan y Bwlch around 1872. Dinas Station and much of that branch, is now all but buried, was removed many years ago. Whilst these two place names existed in the past on the FR, they also existed on the Welsh Highland Railway.
Steam and gravity operation Edit
In October 1863 steam locomotives were introduced, to allow longer slate trains to be run, and this also enabled the official introduction of passenger trains in 1865: the Ffestiniog was the first narrow-gauge railway in Britain to carry passengers. In 1869 the line's first double Fairlie articulated locomotive was introduced, and these double-ended machines have since become one of the most widely recognised features of the railway.
Down trains continued to run entirely by gravity, but faster up journeys and longer trains increased line capacity. A new timetable dated October 1863 shows six departures daily from each terminus at two hour intervals, starting at 7:00 am and taking 1 hour 50 minutes including stops at Tanygrisiau, Hafod-y-Llyn and Penrhyn. Trains passed only at Hafod-y-Llyn. When passenger services started, the usual practice was for locomotive hauled up trains to consist of loaded general goods and mineral wagons, followed by passenger carriages, followed by empty slate wagons with brakesmen. Down trains were run in up to four separate portions: loaded slate wagons, goods wagons, passenger carriages and finally the locomotive running light. This unusual and labour intensive method of operation was short lived and eventually the passenger and goods portions were combined into a single train headed by the locomotive.
The loaded slate trains continued to operate by gravity until the end of passenger services in 1939. Slate trains eventually became very long - trains of less than eighty slate wagons carried two brakesmen, but over eighty wagons required three brakesmen. About one wagon in every six was equipped with a brake, the others were unbraked. Trains continued to pass at Tan-y-Bwlch and to a lesser extent at Minffordd. The Summer timetable for 1900 had nine trains daily in each direction, and trains had been accelerated to one hour from Porthmadog to Duffws including stops at Minffordd, Penrhyn, Tan-y-Bwlch, Dduallt, Tanygrisiau, Blaenau and Blaenau. Speeds in excess of 40 mph were then normal.
The original passenger coaches were small four wheeled vehicles with a very low centre of gravity. In 1872 the FR introduced the first bogie carriages to operate in Britain, Nos. 15 and 16, which were also the first iron-framed bogie coaches in the world. The continuous vacuum brake was installed in 1893. The line was fully signalled with electric telegraph and staff and ticket working. Electric Train Staff instruments were introduced in 1912 and they continue in use to the present day.
Decline of slate and development of tourism Edit
By the 1920s the demand for slate as a roofing material dropped owing to the advent of newer materials and to the loss of the overseas trade in World War I. As a result, the railway suffered a gradual decline in traffic.
In 1921 the Aluminium Corporation at Dolgarrog in the Conwy Valley bought for $54,433.80 a controlling interest in the FR and Henry Jack became Chairman, the FR company's financial administration moving to Dolgarrog. Jack was also chairman of the new Welsh Highland Railway and was instrumental in getting government backing for its completion on the understanding that the FR and the WHR would be jointly managed from Porthmadog, with maintenance undertaken at Boston Lodge and with other economies of scale. In 1923, the FR line was joined to the WHR line at a station called "Portmadoc New". The Welsh Highland line was almost totally dependent on tourism and this proved slow to develop.
To gain additional expertise in light railway operation which was being introduced on the FR and WHR to cut operating overheads, Colonel H. F. Stephens was in 1923 appointed part-time as Engineer to both companies. Stephens became Chairman and Managing Director of both companies in 1924. When the WHR was taken into receivership in 1927, Colonel Stephens was appointed as Receiver for the WHR and financial administration of both companies moved to Tonbridge in Kent. The fortunes of the WHR, despite great efforts, failed to improve and it became bankrupt in 1933. In order to protect their investments, the joint owners of both companies arranged for the WHR to be leased by the FR, but the WHR losses continued and it closed in 1937.
The FR continued to operate its slate traffic, a workmen's train on weekdays throughout the year and a summer tourist passenger service. Ordinary passenger services ceased on the FR on September 15, 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. The workmen's passenger service ran for the last time on Saturday September 16, 1939. Slate trains were from then onwards operated three days each week, but gravity operation was discontinued. Slate traffic ceased on August 1, 1946, apart from the section from Duffws to the North Western yard through Blaenau Ffestiniog town centre, which was leased on October 7, 1946 to the quarry owners. This provided the railway company, which retained the services of a resident manager at Porthmadog, with a small income throughout the moribund years.
The original Act of Parliament which permitted the building of the line made no specific provision for its closure or abandonment. Although the main line had ceased functioning, the company could not dismantle the railway, so the track and infrastructure were left in place. Another Act of Parliament could have been sought to cancel the old one, but the Company did not have the money for such an action. However, without maintenance it soon became overgrown and unusable.
From 1949, various groups of rail enthusiasts attempted to revitalise the railway. Eventually, on June 24, 1954 a group of volunteers funded by Alan Pegler purchased the company to run it as a tourist attraction, and gradually restored the line to working order. This was not helped by a decision by the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1954 to build the Ffestiniog Pumped Storage Scheme, including the creation of Tanygrisiau reservoir, which flooded part of the northern end of the line. The Festiniog Railway Company was able to obtain compensation in 1972, after the second-longest legal battle in British legal history, having taken eighteen years and two months. Two years later, as a result of the case, the British Parliament passed the Land Compensation Act 1973.
On August 18, 1954, prior to commencing the restoration, in an inspection, the first of many, Colonel McMullen of the Ministry of Transport, Railways Inspectorate, accompanied by Alan Pegler, several directors and other supporters walked the line from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. The work of restoration began on September 20, 1954 when Morris Jones, the foreman fitter who had last worked for the railway in March 1947, rejoined the staff to complete the rebuilding of the locomotive 'Prince' on which he had been engaged when the works closed. He was joined at Boston Lodge works by two volunteers, Bill Harvey and Allan Garraway. November 6, 1954 marked the completion of sixty years service with the FR of Robert Evans and a special train was run from Minffordd to Porthmadog to celebrate the occasion and convey Mr Evans, his wife, Alan Pegler and guests en route to a clock presentation ceremony. Mr Evans continued in service as Manager until his retirement on June 1, 1955 when Allan Garraway was appointed as Manager.
The first public passenger train from Porthmadog to Boston Lodge ran on July 23, 1955. Prince returned to service on August 3, 1955 and, following extensive boiler repairs, Taliesin, then the latest of the FR Fairlie articulated engines, returned to service on September 4, 1956. The passenger service was extended to Minffordd on May 19, 1956, to Penrhyn on June 5, 1957 and to Tan-y-Bwlch on April 5, 1958. Increasing traffic was putting severe demands on the track - over seven miles had been reopened in four years. A long period of consolidation, rolling stock restoration and track renewal followed before the extension to Dduallt on April 6, 1968. Extension to Dduallt was celebrated on May 28, 1968 by the re-introduction of the Ffestiniog Railway Letter Service.
The Llyn Ystradau Deviation Edit
Between 1965 and 1978, the Ffestiniog Railway Deviation, a 2½ mile long diversionary route was constructed between Dduallt and Tanygrisiau in order to avoid the works of Tanygrisiau hydro-electric power station and its reservoir. The Deviation was built mostly by volunteers. At the southern end is the spectacular Dduallt spiral formation. It was constructed with its bridge entirely by volunteers and gains an initial height rise of 35 ft in order to clear the flooded track bed north of the former Moelwyn tunnel, which is plugged near its normally submerged northern end. Parts of the trackless former route can be clearly seen below the new route between Dduallt and the old tunnel.
The new 310yd long tunnel was constructed between 1975 and 1977 by three Cornish tin mining engineers with a small team of employees. It had to be blasted through a granite spur of the Moelwyn mountain. The tunnel plant included stone crushing and grading plant to produce track ballast and other aggregates from the spoil for use on the railway. Following completion the new tunnel first had to be lined throughout its length with liquid cement reinforced with steel mesh in a process called 'shotcreting'.
A pull and push service officially called The Shuttle and powered by diesel locomotive Moel Hebog with carriage 110 was operated from Dduallt to Gelliwiog from May 26, 1975, during two summers, to enable tourists to experience the Deviation route in advance of the opening of the new Moelwyn Tunnel.
North of the new tunnel is a long stretch along the west bank of the new reservoir. Full-length passenger trains first ran from Dduallt through the new tunnel to a temporary terminus known as 'Llyn Ystradau on June 25, 1977. This station was alongside the Tanygrisiau reservoir, but passengers could not leave the station other than by train as it was on Central Electricity Generating Board land without public access.
The remaining section included some specialised engineering work at its summit where the new line passes over the power station pipelines. This was followed by two public road crossings with automatic signalling, during a fall in height to rejoin the old route in Tanygrisiau station, which was reopened on June 24, 1978.
The largely volunteer group building the Deviation was officially called the Civil Engineering Group, but its members were popularly known as the Deviationists who completed an enormous task over 13 years.
Project Blaenau Edit
The completion of the railway through to Tanygrisiau left the FR with just one and a half miles to go to its goal of Blaenau Ffestiniog but the complexities of reconstructing that unique but very derelict urban section of narrow gauge railway took a further four years. As well as 1½ miles of new track and its formation, which was the responsibility of the FR permanent way department and its volunteers, much other work needed to be done. Most of the work, like the deviation itself, was undertaken by volunteers who in many cases assumed full responsibility for the design as well as the execution of discrete projects, each under a volunteer project leader. There were four decrepit footbridges each needing to be demolished and rebuilt to the new FR loading gauge. The primitive railway bridge across the Afon Barlwyd required total replacement but in similar form. Walls and fences throughout had to be repaired or replaced. These and the many other varied tasks formed Project Blaenau.
One major task near Tanygrisiau was the responsibility of Gwynedd County Council, which had at some time after 1955 taken advantage of the absence of trains to demolish what was probably Britain's lowest road under railway bridge. In early 1980, therefore, they replaced Dolrhedyn bridge and even managed to give it a few inches extra headroom for road vehicles.
Civil engineering contractors were employed in conjunction with British Rail and Gwynedd County Council for the new route with its bridges and roadworks and the new joint station on the former Great Western Railway station site. British Rail commenced using the new station on March 22, 1982. Ffestiniog trains returned to Blaenau on Tuesday, May 25, 1982, thus marking the 150th Anniversary of Royal Assent to the Festiniog Railway Act of 1832. The new joint station with British Rail at Blaenau Ffestiniog was officially opened on April 30, 1983 by George Thomas, Speaker of the House of Commons, who unveiled a plaque that records his visit.
With the major project of track restoration to Blaenau finally complete, attention could be turned to other matters. More Fairlie locomotives were built or restored, and new carriages were built. At Minffordd a new hostel was built for volunteers, who support the permanent staff by working in every department of the railway. Stations were given new buildings, canopies and platforms, often replacing the previous temporary structures, and improving the image of the railway for the future.
Welsh Highland Railway Edit
In 1988 the Festiniog Railway Company was involved in a controversial plan to stop the neighbouring Welsh Highland Railway being rebuilt, as it was concerned at the effect a nearby heritage railway competitor could have on the FR business. The initial plan would have involved the FR Company buying the original track bed of the WHR from the old company's receiver and giving it to Gwynedd County Council, provided no railway-related developments were allowed on the land. This was greeted with dismay by the WHR Company, which had been attempting to preserve the line since the 1960s.
This action may have delayed the start of rebuilding of the Welsh Highland Railway, although the alternative plan was dependent on the continued co-operation of Gwynedd County Council to ensure that the track bed was used solely for railway purposes. This was not guaranteed, as pressure from various groups who objected to the rebuilding of the railway was significant, and it was the stated intention of the council to apply for an abandonment order on gaining the track bed. This would have left the track bed open for use in other ways such as footpaths, road improvement schemes etc., as the statutory designation of the track bed as a railway would have been discontinued. Over the years, the presence of plans for footpaths and roads had indeed made it difficult for anyone wishing to rebuild the line.
This led a group to form called 'Trackbed Consolidation Limited' and, after some detective work, TCL managed to trace and purchase shares and debentures in the original WHR company. They felt that an alternative plan was available, one where the original company could be brought out of receivership. It was originally the intent of TCL to provide the track bed to the WHR Company to rebuild the line.
TCL were introduced to the FR and decided that the aims and objectives of TCL and the FR were similar, thus since 1990 the FR company has been totally committed to the reopening of the Welsh Highland Railway. All TCL-owned shares/debentures were transferred to the FR.
The next few years were marked by protracted legal procedures before the assets of the old company could be transferred and before final consent to rebuild the railway was given. The first section from Caernarfon to Dinas was opened and operated by the FR on October 11, 1997. This section was not hampered by these extended legal procedures and was built as a Light Railway Order, as it was not part of the original Welsh Highland Railway route and the site of Dinas station had been sold off and thus was not part of the assets of the old WHR company.
Restoration to Waunfawr was completed in 2000 and to Rhyd Ddu in 2003. Reconstruction of the remaining section through to Porthmadog is in progress from both ends, and track has reached Pont Croesor from the north.
The completed Welsh Highland Railway, or Rheilffordd Eryri, will comprise parts of the former London and North Western Railway, North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways, Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway and Welsh Highland Railway. In 2009 the Ffestiniog Railway intends to reconnect with the rebuilt Welsh Highland Railway at Harbour Station, linking Caernarfon to Porthmadog. The FR will also link with the WHR at Pen-y-Mount Station, north of Porthmadog.