1 Welsh Highland  Railway locomotive Russell at beddgelert 1900 Phil Marsh collection

North Wales narrow gauge railways make a perfect weekend away!

Published 10th June 2013

Ffestiniog Railways’ 150 years of steam in Snowdonia.

The Ffestiniog Railway (FR) celebrates 150 years of steam and shares national network links with neighbouring narrow gauge lines.

The early May Bank Holiday saw the Ffestiniog Railway celebrate the 150th anniversary of introducing steam locomotives to this hitherto gravity and horse worked line. While the FR was not quite the first narrow gauge line to try steam on such a narrow (a shade under 2ft) gauge, the transformation produced by the introduction of steam locomotives was immense. A lesson followed avidly around the world.

London Transport and Snowdonia Railways’ share 150th anniversaries

That the ‘FR150’ celebration takes place in the same year as London Underground celebrates its own 150th anniversary is coincidental, but there are links. London Transport Museum contracted the Ffestiniog to undertake the magnificent restoration of 1892-built Metropolitan Railway ‘Jubilee’ first class carriage No. 353.

This was at the centre of LT’s own celebrations – and as rail.co.uk has already reported, the FR’s 150-year old George England 0-4-0STT Princess was displayed at Paddington station following a glorious cosmetic restoration.

600 years of FR loco history

The Ffestiniog rightly made a big deal of its 150 years of steam anniversary with a four-day event (May 3-6) which drew well over 4,000 passengers to the top left corner of North Wales.

At the centre of everything were the four surviving George England 0-4-0STTs (of six) which introduced steam power to the Ffestiniog. These comprised newly overhauled and back in service Prince together with operational Palmerston (both 149 years old), recent recipient of a makeover Princess (150 years) and the relative youngster Welsh Pony (‘just’ 146 years old) cosmetic restoration of which was completed on May 1, just in time for the event.

On the slate

The highlight had to be the spectacular departure from Harbour station on the late afternoon of May 4 of a quadruple-headed slate train, smoke billowing across the Glaslyn estuary from the chimneys of all four England engines representing a total of almost 600 years of FR loco history.

All four? Indeed, while Prince and Palmerston may have been the pair producing steam, Princess and Welsh Pony had ‘theatrical’ fires in their smokeboxes to ensure they looked the part!

The event also featured line-ups, cameos including a team of men hauling Princess aboard a ‘cart’ (a wagon concealed under covers with false road ‘wheels’) across Britannia Bridge recreating its delivery in 1863 and a horse pulling a ‘last’ train of slate wagons. Special operations included Hunslet 2-4-0STTs Linda and Blanche running facing Caernarfon, with Palmerston similarly turned to make a May 6 trip over the Welsh Highland to Beddgelert with a replica 1923 train.

Steam, diesel and petrol at the other end of town

The main focus of Bank Holiday narrow gauge action in Porthmadog was understandably at the Ffestiniog’s Harbour station, terminus of the FR itself and the revived Welsh Highland Railway to Caernarfon.

But there was plenty going on at the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, just across the road from the Network Rail station at the Tremadog end of town.

Passenger operations featured steam and diesel, the former worked by Bagnall 0-4-2T Gelert, the latter a rare appearance by 0-6-0DM LyD2 No. 60. In addition, small internal combustion locomotives relocated to WHHR following closure of the Abbey Light Railway were demonstrated by ex-ALR volunteers, mainly in the yard at Gelert’s Farm although they also hauled a train of WHR goods stock to Pen-y-Mount. The WHHR also has an excellent museum/display building worth a visit in anyone’s book.

Visit North Wales narrow gauge by using the Big Railway

The Ffestiniog Railway (Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog) has three national network links. Porthmadog main line station is an easily doable walk along the town’s main street from the FR’s Harbour station, which also provides connections with the Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog to Caernarfon) while Minffordd station further along the Cambrian Coast Line is but a flight of steps from the FR station.

Blaenau Ffestiniog has a terminus station shared by the FR and the Conwy Valley line joining the national rail network at Llandudno Junction. As mentioned, the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway is located literally across the road from NR’s Porthmadog station.

But why limit yourself to three narrow gauge lines, not to mention the splendid routes traversed by the Cambrian Coast and Conwy Valley routes. Further south the Cambrian Coast line has a station at Fairbourne – adjacent to the 12.5in ‘minimum gauge’ Fairbourne Railway.

Rails to the sand dunes

The Fairbourne Railway has a charm all its own amid the narrow gauge railways in North Wales. The gauge may be small but the locomotives are near-scale replicas of 2ft gauge engines and they haul trains along the coast through the sand dunes to Penrhyn Point, opposite Barmouth with views across the estuary which include the famed Barmouth (standard gauge) bridge.

The Fairbourne steam fleet currently comprises 0-4-0ST Sherpa, 2-6-2T Yeo and 2-6-4T Russell representing locos from the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and Welsh Highland Railway respectively.

Newly returned to service following extensive reconstruction as a double-ended loco is A1-1A diesel Tony (previously named Lilian Walter) while out of ticket 0-6-4ST Beddgelert is displayed in what is being developed as a museum, pending funds becoming available for an overhaul.

The Fairbourne Railway has been struggling latterly following the death of a benefactor who largely financed its operating losses. Reductions in staff and much support from the local community and the line’s volunteer society have helped to stabilise the situation and ensure finance is available to run for a full 2013 season, but the railway needs to attract more passengers and cash.

Written by Cliff Thomas

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