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Ffestiniog Railway, Gwynedd, North Wales


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The Ffestiniog Railway is a preserved narrow gauge railway in the top in the top left hand corner of Wales. It was originally built to carry slate from the hills above Blaenau Ffestiniog to the slate wharves at Porthmadog. It is now a popular tourist attraction, providing much needed employment and bringing tourist money into the area.

Some of the pictures have been scanned from slides taken in the 1980s and 1990s, which explains the slight colour cast in some of them. Others were taken using a digital camera in 2019.


Some of the best roofing slate is found in North Wales. Originally this was carried by pack horses down to wharves on the River Dwyryd and then taken by boats downstream to be loaded into larger sea going sailing ships. Not only was this slow, it also resulted in a lot of broken slates.

At the start of the C19th, William Madocks, a local landowner planned to develop the area and improve its transport links with the rest of the world. This included the construction of a massive embankment called the Cob across the Glaslyn estuary. As well as reclaiming a large area of agricultural land this, it was hoped the cob would provide a direct transport link to Porthdinllaen, one of the proposed ferry terminals for Ireland.

It was a massive undertaking which bankrupt Madocks. Plans to develop Portdinllaen failed as Holyhead became the preferred route. However, the building of the Cob lead to the River Glaslyn scouring a natural harbour which was capable of handling sea going vessels. A settlement quickly grew up around the area named Port Madoc (later renamed Porthmadog).

Samuel Holland, a slate quarry owner realised the possibilities of shipping slate out of Port Madoc and, with Henry Archer, a young business man from Dublin, obtained an Act of Parliament for the construction of a railway from the slate quarries in the mountains above Blaenau Ffestiniog to the harbour. James Spooner was responsible for surveying and constructing the line.

The line was built to a gauge of 23.5” which was that used in the quarries. This was wide enough for horses to walk between the tracks and narrow enough to negotiate tight curves. The first slate trains ran in 1836. The line was carefully graded with cuttings and embankments so that loaded slate wagons would run down by gravity with horses riding in special dandy carriages. The horses pulled the loaded slate wagons across the Cob to the slate wharves and then pulled the empty wagons back to the quarries. The down trip took 90 minutes; the return trip nearly six hours.

(This picture was taken in 1986 during the 150th celebrations of the Ffestiniog Railway.)

Gravity trains are still run on special occasions, with brakesmen sitting on the wagons to control their speed.

As slate traffic increased, horses were no longer able to cope with the hundreds of wagons. In 1856, Charles Easton Spooner, the son of James, looked at the use of steam locos. He asked for tenders to design a narrow gauge steam loco powerful enough to work the steep gradients and small enough to cope with the tight curves on the line. Contracts were signed with George England and Co for four locos. The Princess and Mountaineer were delivered in 1863, soon followed by The Prince and Palmerston.

As well as slate, the trains now carried general goods. The Board of Trade gave the railway permission to run passenger services in 1864, the first on any narrow gauge railway.

The first carriages were small four wheeled boxes used to carry quarrymen, often referred to a ‘bug boxes’. These were a wooden box with benches round the walls and small, open square windows. In the centre is the vacuum break, under a metal cover, which provides extra seating. There was no heating and no lights. It can’t have been very pleasant on a cold dark winter’s morning.

Slightly more comfortable coaches were provided for other passengers. They had a long wooden seat, described as a knife board bench along the length of the coach. Some have glazed windows, others are half glazed. A padded cushion provides a degree of comfort.

The observation coaches were similar but have a wire mesh across the opening rather than windows and a padded PVC seat.

There was also a totally open wagon, known as the flying bench, which has a leather apron across the front of the bench seat.

The break van had a wooden seat and can take a few passengers as well as luggage, push chairs and wheelchairs. It also has small square windows. The rear one gives good views back along the track, making you realise just how little clearance there is in places between coaches and the sides of cuttings.

The railway still has some of these coaches which are run on special occasions and are affectionately referred to as ‘The Flying Flea’. Doors open outwards, so are locked by the guard before the train leaves to stop them flying open during the journey.

These were soon replaced by larger iron frame bogie coaches. The earliest coaches date from 1873 and the Ffestiniog Railway was the first railway in the World to use bogie carriages. Coaches have a central first class compartment with plush padded seats, giving a comfortable ride. Next to the first class are the second class compartments with upholstered bench seats and backs. At either end are the third class compartments. These originally just had wooden seats, but now have a cushion to give extra padding.

At the end is what is described as the curly roof van. This has guard’s compartment, luggage compartment and a small compartment for dogs.

Windows are opened and closed by thick leather straps. When shut, the window rests on a wooden ledge and they do rattle a lot during the journey. Compared with modern coaches, the windows are small and views restricted.

Some of these are still in use and look resplendent in their dark maroon and cream livery.

As traffic increased, the railway ordered two larger locos, Welsh Pony and Little Giant, but it was soon realised more drastic action was needed. An Act was passed to double the line but this would have been extremely expensive. The solution was the unique double Fairlie engine, designed by Robert Fairlie, with a single firebox and two boilers mounted on their own set of bogies. This allowed the locomotive to swing round tight curves and is the principle used in many modern diesel and electric locomotives.

Little Wonder was the first loco to be built and rapidly lived up to her name, having more than double the power of the earlier engines. The first train in September 1869 consisted of 111 slate wagons, 6 carriages, 60 passengers and 12 goods wagons. James Spooner soon followed. By now, Boston Lodge Works was a fully equipped workshop and Merrdin Emrys was built here in 1879, quickly followed by Livingston Thompson.

By 1872, coastal sea transport was being replaced by standard gauge railways. Exchange sidings were built at Minffordd for transhipment onto the Cambria Railway. The London and North Western Railway arrived in Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1879 quickly followed by the Great Western Railway to Minffordd and Pwllheli. Although they captured an increasing percentage of slate traffic, they also brought tourists to the area.

By the start of the C20th new roofing materials became popular. Linked with a series of disastrous strikes, the slate industry was in steep decline. Slate traffic plummeted. The railway was increasingly dependent on summer tourists, marketing itself as the ‘Toy Railway’.

Passenger and goods traffic continued to drop with the arrival of buses, lorries and the motor car after the First World War. Maintenance was poor and there were regular disruptions to the service. Passenger services were suspended at the outbreak of the Second World War, although some slate continued to be carried until 1946 when the line closed. The Act of Parliament needed to establish the railway had no provision for its closure, so everything was left where it stood.


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The legend of the Ffestiniog ran deep. In 1951 a small group of supporters, on the initiative of Leonard Heath-Humphreys, met in Bristol with plans to reopen the railway. In 1954, Alan Peglar paid off the outstanding debts of the derelict railway and gained control of the company. He was appointed the first chairman with Allan Garraway as General Manager.

The track was still in place, although in poor condition. The first passenger service ran across the cob in 1955 pulled by Mary Ann, a small Simplex diesel, before being joined by Prince.

The route was extended to Minffordd in 1956 when double Fairlie Livingstone Thompson, renamed Taliesin and later Earl of Merioneth, joined the locos in service. By 1957 the line had been extended to Penrhyn and Tan y Bwlch in 1958.

Additional locos were needed and Linda and Blanche were bought from the nearby Penrhyn Slate Quarry in 1962 and 1963.

Moutaineer, an ex World War 1 loco built by the American Locomotive Company, arrived in 1967.

Plans to extend the line back to Blaenau hit a problem as a pumped water storage reservoir and power station had been built at Tanygrisiau, drowning the top section of the line.

In 1954, the British Electricity Authority proposed a scheme for a pumped water electric power station at Tanygrisiau, designed to boost the national grid at peak demand times. The Festiniog Railway opposed the plan which involved flooding part of the route with a reservoir but British Electricity Authority challenged this as they regarded the Railway’s directors and supporters as mere amateurs ‘playing trains’. Compulsory acquisition of the line above Moelwyn Tunnel went ahead in 1956.

Not to be defeated, the Ffestiniog Railway gradually restored the line to Dduallt, reaching there in 1968. This validated its statement of the commercial and tourist value of the railway and became the basis for a legitimate claim to compensation. The Ffestiniog Railway Company took the electricity company to court and after a long legal battle succeeded in winning compensation of over £100,000 for loss of profits.

Various solutions were considered, including building a new route round the east side of the new reservoir, before it was decided to build a spiral to take the railway above the level of the reservoir. This is the only spiral on a British railway. Trains would reach Dduallt beneath a new spiral bridge and then do big loop before crossing over the spiral bridge, gaining in height and then running along the hillside above the level of the lake.

Land was given by the Economic Forestry Group and work began on the Deviation. This was built entirely with volunteer labour using the same techniques as the railway navvies a hundred years earlier. A new tunnel had to be dug as well as bridges across the four water pipes to the power station and a new station at Tanygrisiau.

It took a further four years to get back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, with the input of EEC money. It was agreed that Blaenau Ffestiniog would benefit from a new joint station serving both British Rail and the Ffestiniog Railway.

Since then, there has been another period of consolidation, improving rolling stock and buildings.

Earl of Merioneth was withdrawn from service in 1971 as it boiler was life expired. This was eventually restored as a museum exhibit, with its original name of Livingstone Thompson, and is now in the National Railway Museum in York.

Merddin Emrys underwent a major overhaul in the 1980s and for a white was painted in Ffestiniog Railway Green before being repainted in its now maroon colour.

A new double Fairlie, also named Earl of Merioneth/Iarll Merionnydd was built at Boston Lodge Works in 1979, the first new loco to be built there after the railway reopened. Money was tight at the time and it is a very utilitarian design with its square water tanks, led to its affectionate nickname of ’Square Tanks’.

Another double Fairlie, David Lloyd George was built at Boston Lodge in 1992 and was followed by the single Fairlie, Taliesin in 1999. In 2010, a replica of a Lynton and Barnstaple Loco has been built, named Lyd.

A new Fairlie Locomotive, to be named James Spooner, is currently being built at Boston Lodge

In the late 1980s, the Ffestioniog Railway bought the trackbed of the closed Welsh Highland Railway and following an acrimonious court case, was granted permission to rebuild the railway from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. Porthmadog station was extended in 2014 to cater for the newly arrived Welsh Highland trains.

History is very important and the Ffestiniog Railway has been a pioneer in railway development. Not only is it the oldest surviving railway company in the world, it was the first to use steam locomotives on a narrow gauge railway. Before then this was thought to be impracticable. It was the first to use bogies on passenger carriages. The iconic double Fairlies were specially designed for use on the narrow gauge railway and proved so successful their design was exported round the world. The Ffestiniog is the only railway still using double Fairlie engines. They have the only spiral on a British railway and introduced computerised ticketing before British Rail.


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The railway has an interesting fleet of engines. Two of the original England locos, Prince and Palmerston are still in regular service, although are normally used to haul the vintage and Victorian sets.

The double Fairlies , Merddin Emrys and David Lloyd George are the backbone of the fleet and in service most days. Earl of Merioneth is currently out of service and in Boston Lodge.

The two Penrhyn Quarry locos, Linda and Blanche affectionately known as 'The Sisters', are still in service.

Mountaineer has been languishing at the back of Boston Lodge Works since 2005 while a decision is made what to do with him.

Taliesin was the fifth locomotive to be built in Boston Lodge. It is a single Fairlie and came in to service in 1999.

Lyd, a replica of a Lynton and Barnstaple locomotive was built in the works in 2010. Along with Taliesin, this is used on shorter trains.

James Spooner is currently nearing completion in the works and is named after the second Double Fairlie to be built for the railway which was scrapped in 1933.

Welsh Pony, another England engine spent many years as a static display outside Harbour Station.

She has been restored to working order by Boston Lodge and returned to service in August 2020.


Princess is restored as a roving ambassador for the Ffestiniog Railway and has been exhibited at Paddington and King’s Cross stations.

In the 1970s the engines were converted to use oil rather than coal. However increasing oil prices means they are again coal fired.

There is an interesting fleet of diesel locos used mainly for shunting around the works and Harbour Station and on work’s trains

Some of the original ‘bug boxes’ and quarrymen’s coaches are still in service as are some of the early bogie coaches with wooden seats. These are featured on the ever popular Vintage weekends when railway staff dress up in Victorian costume and there is a gala atmosphere round the railway. New coaches designed to a high specification have been built at Boston Lodge.

As well as its history, it is a superb run and must rank among the best railway journeys in the world. It is best done from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line climbs steadily up the Vale of Ffestiniog and the experience of being behind a double Fairlie working flat out pulling a fully loaded train of ten coaches is exhilarating.
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It is over fifty years since I made my first trip on the Ffestiniog Railway. It had only just been reopened by a band of enthusiastic volunteers and we wheezed our way from Porthmadog to Tan-y-Bwlch and back. I fell in love with the line which seemed to have come out of a Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.

The love affair has lasted and over the years I have made many trips and watched the line gradually reopen back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Things are very different now. Locomotives and carriages have either been carefully restored or new ones built. Carriages are comfortable, with a buffet service and the track is no longer bumpy. Station buildings and gardens have been de-tattified and the Railway takes great pride in its appearance. Buildings are kept painted and gardens planted out with bulbs, shrubs and flowers.

The run is best done from Porthmadog as it climbs steadily out of the Vale of Ffestiniog. The experience of being behind a double Fairlie working flat out pulling a fully loaded train of ten coaches is exhilarating.

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 across the Cob, the embankment built by William Madocks in the early C19th with its stunning views across the River Glaslyn to Snowdon. On a clear day this must rank as one of the best views in North Wales.

Looking the other way is the estuary of the River Glaslyn and the residential development on the site of the old slate wharves.

The line curves and runs past the workshops at Boston Lodge Works with glimpses of the locos being prepared for service or awaiting work in the workshops.

The works are served by the tiny Boston Lodge Halt and are normally closed to visitors except on special railway galas.

The line continues past the cemetery at Minffordd where many railway men are buried and the volunteers hostel, to Minffordd Station.

There is a water tower, tokens are exchanged and trains can pass.

Below is the main line station with the restored Maenofferen slate storage shed.
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After Minnfordd, the line now leaves the valley floor and begins to climb up Gwyndy Bank towards Penrhyn.

Penrhyn Station is built above the settlement of Penrhyndeudraeth.

At the far end of the station is a level crossing for the busy A4085 road to Beddgelert and Caernarfon.

Beyond, the line runs along the bracken covered hillside of Rhiw Goch, where there is a passing loop and tiny signal box, only used when there is a special high intensity service.

There are views down to the River Dwyryd to Harlech Castle on a clear day.

The line now enters the commercial coniferous forest above Coed Cae Fali, and the massive Cae Mawr stone embankment.

Clearances are tight along the line.

Approaching Plas Tan y Bwlch, the coniferous woodland is gradually replaced by mixed woodland. Great efforts have been made over the years to eradicate Rhododendron ponticum which formed a dense undergrowth.

Below the railway line is PlasTan y Bwlch, home of the wealthy Oakeley family, and now the Snowdonia National Park Study centre.

The delightful Plas Halt tucked away among the trees, is the stop for visitors stopping at Plas Tan y Bwlch and also the network of footpaths through the woods. The tiny station is bright and cheerful with masses of daffodils in early spring.

The line contours through the woodland with locos whistling at all the forest road crossings.

This stretch of the line is called Whistling Curve and locos can be heard for several minutes before reaching Tan y Bwlch Station, the mid point of the line.



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Tan y Bwlch
is a small isolated station set high on the hillside among the trees.

It is the mid point along the line and popular with families who break journey here as there is a small play area for children and a cafe in the former goods shed which serves very good homemade cakes.

It is also a good centre for walks with a nature trail dropping down to Lyn Mair in the valley below.

Trains pass here, stopping to take on water and swap tokens. It is a hive of activity when trains arrive, but once they have left, it becomes quiet and peaceful again. The up train is usually the first to arrive and can be heard long before it appears as it does a big loop through the trees around the side of the valley along Whistling Curve.

The up train usually takes on water here.

The house beside the line belonged to Bessie Jones, the station mistress before the line closed, but is now no longer lived in although there are plans to restore it as holiday accommodation when funds are available. The waiting room has a small exhibition about the Railway.

Many of the trees beyond Tan y Bwlch have been felled and there are good views down to the lovely small lake of Llyn Mair, which supplied water to Plas Tan y Bwlch.

There are views across the Vale of Ffestiniog and to the hills beyond Maentwrog.

The train goes through Garnedd tunnel and runs along a ledge cut out of the hillside. The coniferous woodland is left behind.

The natural oak woodland between Tan y Bwlch and Coed y Bleddiau is part of the Merionydd Oakwoods Nature Reserve. The house at Coed y Bleddiau was originally built to house the line supervisor in 1863 and has no road access, but had its own tiny halt on the railway. It has been carefully restored by the Landmark Trust and is now let as a holiday house.

The line contours round the hillside.

The tiny halt of Campbell’s Platform was built in 1956 for Col. Campbell who lived in the Elizabethan manor house, Dduallt Manor, now renamed Plas y Dduallt. He was a staunch supporter of the railway and had his own locomotive which he used to and from Tan y Bwlch. He was an explosive handler and responsible for most of the blasting for the spiral. Volunteers working on the deviation had accommodation in his outhouses

From Campbell's Platform, it is a short distance across the open hillside to Dduallt, the most isolated station on the railway with no road access.

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is now a quiet request halt, used occasionally by walkers. A stile leads to a footpath to the top of a small hill with an orientation table and good views across the surrounding countryside.

For several years, Dduallt was the terminus of the railway for many years while the diversion was being built, although the passing loop is now a works siding. This is the place of the only railway spiral in Britain.

The station house, Roslyn, hasn’t been lived in since the line closed. Built between the station and a wet marshy area with a small lake, it must have been a desolate place especially in winter. There are stories of the station master going mad from isolation.

A stile leads to a footpath to the top of a small hill abover the halt with an orientation table and good views across the surrounding countryside.

From Ddualt, the line of the old trackbed can be followed to the mouth of the old Moelwyn tunnel.


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After the spiral, the railway line climbs through the trees and out onto the open hillside.
wert ma

Through the new Moelwyn tunnel, the train suddenly emerges into the mountains of Snowdonia with Moelwyn Bach and Moelwyn Mawr looming above the line. This is real mountainous country with bare rocks and steep hillsides with waterfalls tumbling down them after rain. It feels a top coat colder here.

The remains of old quarry inclines can be seen which brought slate down from quarries high in the hills to the Ffestiniog Railway. The most impressive is the Wrysgan incline with a tunnel at the top.

Below the line is Llyn Ystradau, the reservoir for Ffestiniog Pumped Storage Power Station. At periods of high demand water from Llyn Stwlan, in the hills above the power station, is used to produce electricity.

At times of low demand, the water is pumped back up to Llyn Stwlan. The water level in Llyn Ystradau varies greatly during the day. When it is low the line of the original railway can still be seen along with the now blocked entrance of the old Moelwyn tunnel.

The line passes behind the back of the Power Station before crossing two automatic level crossings.

In winter, this can be a very hostile environment.

A small waterfall tumbles down under the track before reaching Tan y Grisiau station.



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Tan y Grisiau
is another request halt, although engines may stop for the fireman to exchange single line tokens in the signal box. This is popular with walkers as it gives access to the Moelwyns and there is a small cafe below the station

At the end of the platform is the remains of the old goods shed, showing how much higher the new line is than the original.

Leaving Tan y Grisiau station. the track runs above the settlement.

Back on the original trackbed, coming into Blaenau Ffestiniog, the massive slate tips dominate the town. Little grows on these apart from a few bushes of Rhododendron ponticum. This also spreads up the hillsides and in June is covered with pink flowers.

The line follows the River Barlwyd which is a milky grey colour from the slate, especially after rain.

Blaenau Ffestiniog station is the end of the line and the Ffestiniog Railway shares a station with the Conwy Valley Line. It has a small shop and toilets. Depending on the timetable, trains have about 20-30 minutes here while the loco runs round and takes water.

The return journey is always a leisurely trip once the train is over the summit near the power station. The exhaust beat changes as the loco is no longer working hard and coasting downhill.



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