Do you want a taste of American railroading without travelling there? Experience in the heyday of the famed 2ft gauge networks of Maine (USA) near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales in the Brecon Beacons.
All this is possible plus the enjoyable experience of riding a train into parts of the Brecon Beacons National Park only otherwise accessible by hiking?
The 2ft gauge Brecon Mountain Railway which runs from a purpose built station and workshops complex at Pant, near Merthyr Tydfil. Merthyr, at the head of the valleys of South Wales, is a place steeped in industrial history, but across the hills to the north a wholly different vista awaits – and the railway, opened in June 1980, was built to take you to see it.
Baldwin 4-6-2 tender locomotive No. 2, a product of Philadelphia built in 1930, came to South Wales via South Africa. Its working life hauling limestone near Port Elizabeth came to an unfortunate end in 1974 when a runaway incident left it so damaged it was treated as an insurance write off. The locomotive was totally rebuilt in the works at Pant and has a new life hauling carriages designed and built by the railway. These vehicles are not based on a specific railroad from across the Pond, but their large windows (to give the best view of the scenery) and end balconies leave little doubt as to American influence. And just take a look at the last vehicle in a BMR train – nothing other than a caboose!
The railway needed a brake vehicle with sliding doors on the side capable of accommodating passengers in wheelchairs. The man behind this railway, Tony Hills, ‘just happened’ to have a set of original drawings for a 1903-vintage Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes Railroad vehicle which fitted the bill perfectly. The resulting almost exact replica is most definitely a piece of Maine railroading in South Wales!
When the Brecon Mountain Railway opened to the public in June 1980 trains comprised a single coach hauled by ex-slate quarry Hunslet 0-4-0ST Sybil. As the railway became ever more successful and train lengths expanded, the mainstay of motive power became 1908-built Arn Jung 0-6-2WTT Graf Schwerin-Lowitz. This attractive little tender locomotive ran like a sewing machine year after year.
Latterly, however, the big Baldwin has become the locomotive of choice. The biggest reason? The ever-spiralling cost of oil.
The Baldwin might weigh 47 tons but it is coal fired and costs about £120 a day to run. Graf Schwerin-Lowitz is oil-fired, and burns around £240-worth of oil per day. A no-brainer as the expression goes.
Buying a Brecon Mountain Railway ticket entitles you to visit a viewing gallery overlooking the fabulous workshop facility at Pant. A call in September revealed the usual Aladdin’s Cave of narrow gauge treasures.
Dominating the scene are the restored frames of another big Baldwin. Built in 1898 as a 2ft gauge 2-6-0 tender loco for the Mogyana Railway in Brazil, it was converted to 2ft 6in gauge when sold to a sugar mill in Northern Brazil. At Pant restoration has included converting it back to 2ft gauge and addition of a trailing wheelset, making it a 2-6-2. The chassis is about complete with work on the boiler, likely to take all of 2012, now to be undertaken. The cab also has to be constructed.
Also on view is the chassis of Sybil (dwarfed by the Baldwin!) under overhaul plus her boiler, which has been the subject of major reconstruction. Two further chassis’ are also being overhauled, ready to receive respective newly built boilers standing alongside. Standing? Indeed so, both are vertical boilers. One is 1897-vintage Pen-yr-Orsedd (the same slate quarry which was once Sybil’s home) De Winton 0-4-0VBT Pendyffryn, the other 0-4-0VBT Redstone which dates from 1903 and is a scaled down version of a 3ft gauge De Winton which worked at Penmaenmawr Granite Quarry built by the quarry’s foreman fitter for the owners children!
The trio of petite steam locos under restoration will be housed in a small museum at Pontsticill (part-way along the line) together with working stationary steam engines. Doubtless the locos will occasionally be steamed on the tracks at Pontsticill overlooking Taf Fechan Reservoir!
Also in the works was a large diesel acquired from Russia which is almost completely stripped down for overhaul and re-gauging, plus a couple of wooden box vans. A gold star if you correctly guessed these are indeed replicating Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes vehicles!
What is not on view is the collection of components being produced towards construction of a pair of new-build locos. These will be near-replica Baldwins based on - yep, you guessed it! – Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes engines. Specifically, 2-4-4 No. 10 (built 1916) and 2-6-2 No. 23 (built 1913) for which Tony Hills has some of the original drawings.
Many heritage railways have extension plans. The Brecon MR has an extension, but is yet to open it. The present line is a three and a half mile ride from Pant to Dolygaer, where the loco runs round and returns to Pontsticill where it pauses awhile before continuing back to Pant. A two mile extension to Torpantau has been complete for some time but will not be opened until the second Baldwin enters service and two more carriages have been built.