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A trip on the Welsh Highland Railway, October 2019

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
At 26 miles, the Welsh Highland Railway is the longest of the Welsh Narrow Gauge Railways and runs through Snowdonia National Park between Porthmadog and Caernarfon. The line has been rebuilt along the trackbed of a line that closed in the 1930s and runs through an area of disperse settlement and isolated farms. The only settlement of any size is Beddgelert and that is little more than a big village. It was hardly surprising there was insufficient traffic for the line to run at a profit. Even now, most of the stations are unmanned halts.

The complete return journey takes nearly six hours. Gradients are steep and trains are pulled by Beyer Garrett locos bought from South African Railways as these are the only narrow gauge steam locos powerful enough to pull ten coaches on these gradients.


A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RAILWAY


With the rapid development of the slate industry in North Wales, a series of narrow gauge railways were built to carry slate from the quarries to sailing ships for transport around the world.

The C19th saw the rapid growth of standard gauge railways in North Wales. Following the success of the Ffestiniog Railway (FR), Charles Spooner conceived the idea of a series of narrow gauge branch lines, known as the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (NWNGR) to serve smaller settlements and quarries in North Wales. In 1881, a narrow gauge railway was opened from Dinas Junction, a station on the Caernarfon to Pwllheli line, to Rhyd Ddu at the foot of Snowdon. This had a short branch line to the Bryngwyn slate quarries. At the time this was the closest railway to Snowdon, so it was heavily promoted as a tourist ride.

In 1901, another narrow gauge railway, the Portmadoc, Beddgelert & South Snowdon Railway (PBSSR) was proposed to take over the route of the Croesor Tramway from Porthmadog to Beddgelert and then to a newly constructed hydro electric station in Nant Gwynant. This also served the South Snowdon slate quarry. Construction started in the Aberglaslyn Pass in 1905 with plans to build as far as Beddgelert and South Snowdon. Money ran out and construction came to an end leaving the Aberglaslyn tunnels and other abandoned earthworks. The Croesor tramway continued to bring slate down from the Croesor valley.

In 1914 local authorities promoted a light railway order to take over the NWNGR and PBSSR and complete a link between the two. Now known as the Welsh Highland Railway (WHR), the completed line opened in 1923. There was never enough traffic to justify the railway and despite marketing attempts to promote it as a circular tour, it never made a profit and was unable to pay off its loans. By 1924 passenger traffic just ran for a few months in the summer and goods traffic on demand. The slate industry was in decline and tourists preferred the convenience of the motor bus.

After a relatively good season in 1933, the Ffestiniog Railway put forward a plan to run both railways and signed a 42 year lease on the WHR. Traffic decreased even further and the last passenger train ran in September 1937. All traffic was suspended from June 1937.

During the Second World war. much of the railway’s equipment was requisitioned for the war effort.

Following the success of restoring the Ffestiniog Railway from 1954, the Welsh Highland Light Railway (1964) Co Ltd was set up from a base at Gelert’s Farm and ran along a short stretch of track alongside the Cambrian Coast Main Line, known as Beddgelert Siding. They had ambitious plans to rebuild the railway, which came to nothing as they were unable to gain access to the old trackbed, which was in the hands of the Official Receiver.

In 1989, the FR made a bid to acquire the WHR trackbed from the Official Receiver, with plans to rebuild the WHR from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. Following several years of heated argument between the FR and 1964 Company, a High Court hearing, three public inquiries, and an appeal, the Secretary of State eventually granted the FR permission to rebuild the WHR.

Work began in 1997 from Caernarfon. The 1964 Company reached an agreement with the FR to rebuild the line to Pont Croesor and to operate trains on this section, until it was required for completing the route to Harbour Station. They began work but it was hampered by the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 and work came to a stop. The 1964 Company is now rebranded as the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway and runs from its station near Network Rail’s Porthmadog Station along one mile of track to Pen y Mount where there is a connection to the WHR.

The WHR eventually reached Porthmadog Harbour station in 2011.

Over the years we have travelled different sections of the line but never done it in full. It was time to remedy that and in October 2019, I booked a return ticket for the full line. This isn’t cheap at £41.50 for the round trip but if you have a child under 16, they get free travel with one fare paying adult.

In October there were just two trains running. I caught the train from Porthmadog which gave me just over an hour in Caernarfon before returning to Porthmadog.

It was a beautiful morning so I decided to be brave and sit in the open coach at the end of the train. While this has a roof, there is no glass in the windows, making it great for taking pictures. It also means there is no shelter from the elements and seats are wooden benches. On a warm sunny day it is great fun. It was sunny in Porthmadog and again as we dropped down into Caernarfon, but as we ran through the mountains of Snowdonia, the cloud was down on the tops and it was decidedly ‘atmospheric’.

The coach was at the back of the train so gave good views of the train as the line snaked round curves. However on the return trip I was a wimp and sat in a ‘normal’ coach.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
THE GARRETT LOCOMOTIVES

A review of the Welsh Highland Railway wouldn’t be complete without a word about the locos used to haul the trains.


Gradients are steep and curves are tight on the Welsh Highland Railway. Many locomotives do not have the power to cope. The Garretts built by Beyer Peacock in Manchester were powerful locos designed to operate over light track, sharp curves and harsh gradients of lines built to a tight budget. They soon became popular with loco crews.



The boiler is mounted on the central frame with two steam engines mounted on separate frames at each end of the boiler.

Articulation allowed the locomotives to negotiate curves and lighter rails that would have restricted large rigid-framed locomotives. The design aimed to double the power of the largest conventional locomotives, thus reducing the need for multiple locomotives and crews. The design proved so successful the locos were sold to railways across the world.

Three Garrett locos were bought from South African Railways in 1997 to work the line. These included No. 143 was the last Garratt built by the Manchester firm. Not only are these are some of the the most powerful steam locomotives ever built for 2’ gauge, they are also the largest 2’ gauge locos in the world.

For those wanting more information.






 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
THE ROUTE - PORTHMADOG TO NANTMOOR

Porthmadog station dates from 1836 and has been extended many times over the years. It serves both the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways and the platforms were lengthened to allow cross platform interchange between both lines. With its shop and cafe, it is one of the busiest stations in North Wales with around half a million passengers a year.







From Harbour Station, the train runs along the main street crossing over Britannia Bridge. Even though the line has been reopened to Porthmadog for many years, this is still very much of a novelty for visitors to the town who stop in wonder as a massive Garrett and long train crosses the road.

The line then runs along the side of the River Glaslyn which has been tidied up with grass and picnic tables. The disused Snowdon Mill was built as a steam powered flour mill in 1862. It was the home of the Porthmadog pottery for many years before becoming derelict. Although planning permission was granted over ten years ago to turn it into apartments, it is getting increasingly derelict and an eye sore.

The Welsh Highland Railway crosses the Cambrian Coast line on a flat crossing and runs along side of the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway for about half a mile to their terminus at Pen y Mount where it connects into the WHR.

The WHR line runs across Traeth Mawr, the large area of flat arable land reclaimed from the sea when the Cob was built. This is now used for grazing cows and sheep.





To the left are views across to the cliffs around Tremadog, which are popular with rock climbers. Ahead are the Moelwyns and the Matterhorn style peak of Cnicht.





To the right is the mass of Moel Ysgyfarnogod.

Rail and road cross the River Aberglaslyn at Pont Croesor. There is an unmanned halt with a passing loop and trains stop here to change tokens. The station is adjacent to the Glaslyn Osprey Project viewing site where the public can see the nesting place of a pair of ospreys which have successfully raised chicks every year since 2005.Halt. Ospreys have nested here for the last 15 years and there is an RSPB hide over looking the river.



Beyond Pont Croesor, the land becomes increasingly wet and poor with a lot of rushes with small wooded ‘islands’ of higher ground. Ahead is the Pass of Aberglaslyn.



The line approaches Nantmor along the bottom of the cliff face and runs through mixed deciduous woodland. At the end of October the trees were changing colour and glowed golden in the sunshine. Nantmor Halt was built to serve the small settlement near the railway. It is the start of a popular walk through the Aberglaslyn Pass, Sygun copper mine and Cwm Buchan.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
THE ROUTE - ABERGLASLYN PASS TO BEDDGELLERT

The line now enters mixed deciduous woodland and begins to climb to the Pass of Aberglaslyn. The Aberglaslyn Gorge is one of the most dramatic parts of the run. The River Glaslyn has cut a deep and narrow gorge through the mountains which is shared by the track of the Welsh Highland Railway and the A498.

The track runs along the hillside and through three tunnels before emerging into the top of the gorge. Before the railway was rebuilt, this was a popular public footpath. Armed with torches, we had walked through the tunnels many times. The first tunnel is the longest at 300 yards and there is a slight bend and in the centre making it impossible to see daylight.

Now there is a properly made footpath through the gorge below the railway line. It must surely rank as one of the best walks in the area.



















Approaching Beddgelert, the gorge widens into a flat valley bottom. The remains of old tramways can be seen heading to Beddgelert including two stone pillars from a bridge that was never built.

Through a narrow cutting, the train arrives at Beddgelert Station,
www.flickr.com/photos/blue-pelican-railways/33953528010/in/photostream/
built above the town.



This the largest settlement along the line and nestles beneath the mountains at the confluence of the Glaslyn and Colwyn rivers. Depending on the timetable, trains pass here. This is a popular spot with people getting off to visit the shops, cafes, ice cream parlour and Gelert’s Grave.
www.atlasobscura.com/places/gelerts-grave
It is a popular story, but a C19th invention…
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
THE ROUTE - BEDDGELERT TO RHYD DDU

The railway now follows the River Colwyn, beginning its climb along the flanks of Snowdon with the bulk of Moel Hebog on the left.



There are many tight curves as the railway reaches Beddgelert Forest and the tiny Meillionen Halt, built to serve the camp site.



This used to be commercial coniferous forest but the conifers have been felled out and it is now an attractive area of mixed deciduous woodland and the network of forest roads makes this popular with walkers, mountain bikers and campers.







This part of the line has one of the steepest gradients, at 1 in 40, on a railway line in Britain, really putting the massive Garrett locos through their paces as the line winds and turns back on itself.

The line leaves the forest and continues to climb through open open mountainous countryside to Pitt's Head summit. This is named after a massive rock which allegedly resembles the profile of William Pitt the Younger. At 650’ above sea level, this is a really isolated area with little settlement and is hardly surprising the original railway never made a profit.

By now we had lost the sun and cloud was catching the top of the Nantlle Ridge to the left (west). To the right (east) was Yr Aran and the ridge up to Snowdon.





In the valley below is the small lake, Llyn y Gader, with the remains of a quarry on the far side. In the sunlight, the water is deep blue.





Rhyd Ddu Station serves the tiny hamlet of Rhyd Ddu.



In the 1880s the station was advertised as the starting point for the walk up Snowdon. Walkers still use this route, but is less popular than the other routes. Trains also pass here.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
THE ROUTE - RHYD DDU TO CAERNARFON

After Rhyd Ddu, the line continues to drop through the isolated Gwyrfai valley. This is bare moorland with the occasional sheep. It is hardly surprising there wasn’t enough traffic to make the original line viable. The railway runs above the shore of Llyn Cwellyn, and past the tiny unmanned halt of Snowden Ranger, which is the start of another route up Snowden.

Llyn Cwellyn is dammed at the northern end to provide a reservoir supplying drinking water for Gwynedd and Anglesey. To the left is the bare rocky mass of Craig Cwmbychan with Mynydd Mawr behind. To the right, steep slopes climb to Moel Eilio. On a dull day it is decidedly atmospheric.







The line continues to drop, crossing the river several times. Plas y Nant is a tiny halt and easily missed. Much of the funding for the halt was raised by visitors to the now closed Plas y Nant outdoor centre.

The line passes close to the isolated settlement Salem and the tiny church of St Garmon.





The valley bottom is increasingly flat and wide with sheep and cows grazing as the steep mountain sides are left behind.





Waunfawr Station is a short distance south of the settlement. It is one of the larger stations on the line with a water tank, stone station building and a footbridge. Snowdonia Parc Brew Pub is next to the station and was originally the station master’s house.



The railway now leaves the A4085 and follows the river valley down through mixed deciduous woodland. Tryfan Junction Station was the junction with the former main line up to the Bryngwyn Quarries on the slopes of Moel Tryfan. This is now part of a footpath from Tryfan Junction to Waunfawr. The original stone shelter has been carefully restored.



Dinas Junction was the original terminus for the Welsh Highland Railway where it joined the standard gauge line from Pwllheli to Caernarfon. A new station has been built on the site of the standard gauge station. The former goods shed and the original station building have been carefully restored.The Welsh Highland Railway offices, carriage sheds and locomotive depot are here as well as the civil engineering works and sidings. It is the main operational and engineering base for the northern end of the line. Locos stop here to take on coal.





The Lôn Eifion cycle route runs along side the Welsh Highland Railway from Dinas to Caernarfon. Bontnewydd Halt is a small unmanned halt which was built in response to a petition from the villagers.

Land is flat and fertile with views across the Menai Straits to Anglesey.



There are views through the trees to Caernarfon Castle.



The line ends at Caernarfon, where a splendid new station has been built on the site of the old slate quays alongside the Afon Seiont and below the castle. The original main line continued through the tunnel to a station now beneath Morrison’s car park.





 

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