By Cliff Thomas

Railway evolution 215 years after original opening at Penrhyn in August

Published: 18th July 2016

Timetabled trains, closed coaches and extension plans at Bethesda Quarry line

The Penrhyn Quarry Railway (PQR) has introduced timetabled trains for the first time, another step towards evolving into a fully-fledged heritage railway. A diesel-hauled regular train service was operated on July 9 and 16 with timetabled trains also set to operate on August 6, 13, 20 and 27. Site entry, covering unlimited rides for the day, costs £3.00 with at least three trains an hour scheduled to run at 20 minute intervals between 10.00 and 16.00.

Closed coaches from South Tynedale

Hitherto the nominally 2ft gauge line (the original Penrhyn gauge was a very unusual 1ft 10.75ins) has been a demonstration railway which concentrated on holding special event days at the Felin Fawr site, location of the original quarry line’s workshops and foundry, on the outskirts of Bethesda, North Wales. Trains run on a section of original Penrhyn Railway trackbed from Felin Fawr to a locomotive release siding at St. Anne’s, a length of around 300yds.

The passenger stock has been based on open four-wheel Penrhyn Workman’s vehicles. Highly appropriate as these are for a short line, they do not offer any weather protection – and it has occasionally been known to rain in the Snowdonian mountain range……………….

A sign of PQR’s future ambitions was the arrival in June of two wood-bodied carriages which have been leased from South Tynedale Railway where they had become surplus to requirements. The bogie STR carriages are to be overhauled at Felin Fawr but are available for use in the event of poor weather. More significantly, PQR has plans to significantly develop the railway and they will become part of the service train running over an extended line towards the slate quarry.

Visiting steam

One of the newly-arrived carriages, South Tynedale’s one-time buffet car, became the first enclosed carriage to be used on the PQR line during Penrhyn Quarry Railway’s June 25-26 Evolution of Quarry Transport event. This featured three visiting steam locomotives, National Trust’s Ffestiniog-based ex-Penrhyn Hunslet 0-4-0ST Hugh Napier , De Winton 0-4-0VBT Chaloner from Leighton Buzzard Railway and John Sutton’s 2015-built 0-4-0VBT Fernilee which is presently based at Llanberis Lake Railway. The trio operated a rotation of passenger and demonstration slate trains between Felin Fawr and St. Anne’s.

No steam locos are presently based at Felin Fawr, resident motive power comprising Ruston diesel No. 26 and on-loan ex-Abbey LR Motor Rail 20hp Simplex 5859/1934 No. 3 Odin. The next steam to appear at PQR will be over September 17-18 when guest locomotives will be ex-Penrhyn Kerr Stuart 0-4-2ST Stanhope from Apedale Valley LR, Bala Lake Railway-based ex-Penrhyn Hunslet 0-4-0ST Winifred and Avonside 0-4-0T Marchlyn from Statfold Barn Railway.

This event will mark the 140th anniversary of the original Penrhyn main line being relaid to enable the use of steam locomotives, hence its marketing title ‘Penrhyn Redirected’. This will be the first time Stanhope and Winifred have returned to the Penrhyn location since entering preservation in the mid-1960s.

Extension plans

With the present line constituting Phase 1 of reviving the Penrhyn Railway, a £10,000 appeal has been launched to purchase track to extend the line from Felin Fawr southwards towards the quarry. The extension will run on the former track bed (currently used as a footpath/cycleway) skirting the huge tips of waste slate from the quarrying operation to link with Zip World, which claims to be the fastest zip line in the world and the longest in Europe.

The first £2,000 raised will finance track to extend under the road bridge at Felin Fawr site to the foot of the slate tips where a main station would be established. The route of the extension will provide a significantly different scenic experience from other narrow gauge lines in North Wales and link with another major tourist attraction. The additional passenger income it will surely generate will contribute towards PQR’s ultimate aspiration, full reinstatement of the old Penrhyn Railway through to Port Penrhyn.

Line with a long history

The origins of the Penrhyn Quarry Railway date back to the 1801 opening of a horse-worked narrow gauge tramway which linked, via inclined planes, the Penrhyn slate quarry complex at Bethesda with Port Penrhyn at Bangor. Deviations and realignments undertaken in the 1870s produced a direct rail link and enabled the introduction of steam locomotives to transport slate from the quarry to the port.

The railway officially closed on July 24 1962, although some operations continued after this date. The last operational locomotive, Hunslet 0-4-0ST Blanche, left Felin Fawr in December 1963 to go to Ffestiniog Railway, where she remains in service, now as a 2-4-0STT. The six miles of track between Felin Fawr works and Port Penrhyn was lifted in 1965.

Revival 50 years after closure

Planning permission for reconstruction of a section of PQR at Felin Fawr was secured in October 2009. Track for the revived line included original Penrhyn rail recovered from Ffestiniog Railway supplemented by rails from RNAD Trecwn. The celebratory opening of the new line took place on July 24 2012 - the 50th anniversary of official closure, with Bressingham’s ex-Penrhyn Hunslet 0-4-0ST George Sholto (HE 994/1909) visiting for the event. The continuing revival of PQR is being undertaken by local companies Felin Fawr Cyf and PQR Engineering Ltd.

At the end of the 19th century Penrhyn was the world's largest slate quarry with a main pit nearly 1.6 kilometres in length and 370 metres deep and employed nearly 3,000 quarrymen. Although now superceeded in size by slate quarries in China, Spain and USA, Penrhyn remains operational and is still Britain's largest slate quarry, although the workforce is now closer to 200.

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