Busy Saturday at Tan y Bwlch© Copyright Derek Benett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
The Ffestiniog Railway is a narrow gauge heritage railway, located in Gwynedd, Wales. It is a major tourist attraction located mainly within the Snowdonia national Park.
The railway is roughly 131⁄2 miles (21.7 km) long and runs from the harbour at Porthmadog to the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, travelling through forested and mountainous scenery. The line is single track throughout with four intermediate passing places. The track gauge is 1 ft 11 1⁄2 in (597 mm) allowing trains to interwork through to the Welsh Highland Railway (operated by the Ffestiniog). The first mile of the line out of Porthmadog runs atop an embankment locally called “the Cob”, which is the dyke of the Traeth Mawr “polder”.Porthmadog to Ffestiniog Railway – Taken from near the Boston Lodge Depot, and looking over the Cob towards Porthmadog.© Copyright Eirian Evans and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
The railway company is properly known as the “Festiniog Railway Company” and this anglicised contemporary spelling is the official title of the company as defined by the Act (2 William IV cap.xlviii) that created the railway. It is the oldest surviving railway company in the world (although not the oldest working – a record which goes to the Middleton Railway), having been founded by the Act of Parliament on 23 May 1832 with capital mostly raised in Dublin by Henry Archer, the company’s first secretary and managing director. Most British railways were amalgamated into four large groups in 1921 and then into British Railways in 1948 but the Festiniog Railway Company, in common with most narrow gauge railways, remained independent. In 1921, this was due to political influence whereas, in 1947, it was left out of British Railways because it was closed for traffic despite vigorous local lobbying for it to be included.
Various important developments in the Railway’s early history were celebrated by the firing of rock cannon at various points along the line. Cannon were fired, for instance, to mark the laying of the first stone at Creuau in 1832 the railway’s opening in 1836, and the opening of the Moelwyn Tunnel in 1842. The passing of a later act for the railway also saw cannon celebrations but, on this occasion, a fitter at Boston Lodge, who was assisting with firing, lost the fingers of one hand in an accident.Boston Lodge Railways Works, Gwynedd – The engineering works for the Ffestiniog Railway locomotives and carriages. “Prince” and “Lilla” are simmering gently.
© Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Horse and gravity operation
The line was constructed between 1833 and 1836 to transport slate from the quarries around the inland town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coastal town of Porthmadog where it was loaded onto ships. The railway was graded so that loaded wagons could be run by gravity downhill all the way from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port. The empty wagons were hauled back up by horses, which travelled down in special ‘dandy’ wagons. To achieve this continuous grade (about 1 in 80 for much of the way), the line followed natural contours and employed cuttings and embankments built of stone and slate blocks without mortar. Prior to the completion in 1844 of a long tunnel through a spur in the Moelwyn Mountain, the slate trains were worked over the top via inclines (designed by Robert Stephenson), the site of which can still be seen but there are no visible remnants.
Up to six trains daily were operated in each direction and a printed timetable was published on 16 September 1856 by Charles Easton Spooner who, following his father, served as Manager and Clerk for 30 years. It shows departures from the “Quarry Terminus” (later referred to as Dinas) at 7:30, 9:28, 11:16, 1:14, 3:12 and 5:10. Trains waited ten minutes at the intermediate stations called Tunnel Halt, Hafod y Llyn and “Rhiw Goch. The fastest journey time from Quarry Terminus to Boston Lodge was 1 hour 32 minutes, including three stops. From Boston Lodge, the slate wagons were hauled to and from Porthmadog harbour by horses. Up trains took nearly six hours from Boston Lodge to the Quarry Terminus and each train ran in up to four sections, each hauled by a horse and comprising eight empty slate wagons plus a horse dandy. This timetable gave a maximum annual capacity of 70,000 tons of dressed slate. Two brakesmen travelled on each down train, controlling the speed by the application of brakes as needed. At passing loops, trains passed on the right and this continues to be a feature of Ffestiniog Railway operation.
There is evidence for tourist passengers being carried as early as 1850 without the blessing of the Board of Trade but these journeys would also observe the timetable.
Hafod y Llyn was replaced by Tan y Bwlch around 1872. Dinas Station and much of that branch is now all but buried. It was removed many years ago. Whilst these two place names existed in the past on the FR, they also existed on the Welsh Highland Railway, albeit some 10 miles+ to the northwest of the originals.
Steam and gravity operation
In October 1863, steam locomotives were introduced to allow longer slate trains to be run and this also enabled the official introduction of passenger trains in 1865: the Ffestiniog was the first narrow-gauge railway in Britain to carry passengers. In 1869, the line’s first double Fairlie articulated locomotives was introduced and these double-ended machines have since become one of the most widely recognised features of the railway.Down trains continued to run entirely by gravity but faster up journeys and longer trains increased line capacity. A new timetable dated October 1863 shows six departures daily from each terminus at two hour intervals, starting at 7:00 am and taking 1 hour 50 minutes including stops (totalling 20 minutes) at Tanygrisiau, Hafod-y-Llyn and Penrhyn. Trains passed only at Hafod-y-Llyn (from 1872 Tan-y-Bwlch). When passenger services started, the usual practice was for locomotive-hauled up trains to consist of loaded general goods and mineral wagons, followed by passenger carriages, followed by empty slate wagons with brakesmen. Down trains were run in up to four separate (uncoupled) portions: loaded slate wagons, goods wagons, passenger carriages and, finally, the locomotive running light. This unusual and labour-intensive method of operation was shortlived and eventually the passenger and goods portions were combined into a single train headed by the locomotive.
The loaded slate trains continued to operate by gravity until the end of passenger services in 1939. Slate trains eventually became very long – trains of less than eighty slate wagons carried two brakesmen but over eighty wagons (and this became common) required three brakesmen. About one wagon in every six was equipped with a brake, the others being unbraked. Trains continued to pass at Tan-y-Bwlch and, to a lesser extent, at Minffordd. The Summer timetable for 1900 had nine trains daily in each direction and trains had been accelerated to one hour from Porthmadog to Duffws including stops at Minfford, Penrhyn, Tan-y-Bwlch, Dduallt (request), Tanygrisiau, Blaenau (LNWR) and Blaenau (GWR). Speeds in excess of 40 mph (64 km/h) were then normal.Porthmadog – “Blanche” ready to haul the next train to Blaenau Ffestiniog – Porthmadog expanded rapidly as a slate exporting port. Welsh slate was in high demand as a construction material in the English industrial cities, and was transported to the new port by horse drawn tramways. The Ffestiniog Railway, opened in 1836, was later converted to steam operation, and trains ran straight onto the wharves. By 1873 116,000 tons (117,800 t) of slate were being shipped out of Porthmadog.© Copyright Ken Bagnall and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
The original passenger coaches (some of which still survive) were small four-wheeled vehicles with a very low centre of gravity. In 1872, the FR introduced the first bogie carriages to operate in Britain, Nos 15 and 16, which were also the first iron-framed bogie coaches in the world. The continuous vacuum brake was installed in 1893. The line was fully signalled with electric telegraph and staff and ticket working. Electric Train Staff instruments were introduced in 1912 and they continue in use to the present day.Dduallt Station, Ffestiniog Railway – The station at Dduallt taken from a Ffestiniog Railway train on the spiral track.© Copyright Gordon Cragg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
From 1949, various groups of rail enthusiasts attempted to revitalise the railway. Eventually, on 24 June 1954, a group of volunteers funded by Alan Pegler purchased the company to run it as a tourist attraction and gradually restored the line to working order. This was not helped by a decision by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in 1954 to build the Ffestiniog Pumped Storage Scheme, including the creation of Tanygrisiau reservoir (Llyn Ystradau), which flooded part of the northern end of the line. The Festiniog Railway Company was able to obtain compensation in 1972, after the second-longest legal battle in British legal history, having taken eighteen years and two months. Two years later, as a result of the case, the British Parliament passed the Land Compensation Act 1973.
On 18 August 1954, prior to commencing the restoration, in an inspection, the first of many, Colonel McMullen of the Ministry of Transport Railway Inspectorate accompanied by Alan Pegler, several directors and other supporters, walked the line from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. The work of restoration began on 20 September 1954 when Morris Jones, the foreman fitter who had last worked for the railway in March 1947, rejoined the staff to complete the rebuilding of the locomotive ‘Prince’ on which he had been engaged when the works closed. He was joined at Boston Lodge works by two volunteers, Bill Harvey and Allan Garraway. The completion of sixty years service with the FR by Robert Evans (for almost 25 years as Manager) was marked on 6 November 1954 and a special train was run (with difficulty) from Minffordd to Porthmadog to celebrate the occasion and convey Mr Evans, his wife, Alan Pegler (Company Chairman) and guests en route to a clock presentation ceremony. Mr Evans continued in service as Manager until his retirement on 1 June 1955 when Allan Garraway was appointed as Manager.
The first public passenger train from Porthmadog to Boston Lodge ran on 23 July 1955. Prince returned to service on 3 August 1955 and, following extensive boiler repairs, Taliesin, then the latest of the FR Fairlie articulated engines, returned to service on 4 September 1956. The passenger service was extended to Minfford on 19 May 1956, to Penrhyn on 5 June 1957 and to Tan-y-Bwlch on 5 April 1958. Increasing traffic was putting severe demands on the track – over 7 miles (11 km) had been reopened in four years. A long period of consolidation, rolling stock restoration and track renewal followed before the extension to Dduallt on 6 April 1968. Extension to Dduallt was celebrated on 28 May 1968 by the re-introduction of the Ffestiniog Railway Letter Service.Ffestiniog railway at Minffordd – Trains cross on a wet day on the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway. The Cambrian Coast Line also crosses – it runs underneath the tourist line. Caution – the clearances on the Ffestiniog railway are very tight and it is strongly advisable not to lean out of the window© Copyright Martin Bodman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Tourism and heritage
One of the earliest references to tourism is in the LNWR Tourist Guide for 1876, which waxed lyrical about the Ffestiniog Railway, which it illustrated with a drawing of a lady in Welsh national dress (then still in regular local use) travelling on an FR up train (since many empty slate wagons – with two standing brakesmen – were attached at the rear) with the caption “On the Ffestiniog Railway”. The guide uses the “double F” spelling throughout. It was, however, in the inter-war years from 1919 to 1939 that tourism, though always valued, came to acquire a major importance.
Since restoration commenced in 1954, tourism has been the only significant source of income. The role of the Ffestiniog Railway in the promotion and fulfilment of tourism and in preserving railway heritage has been recognised many times, and notable mentions have included:
- 1964 Wales Tourist Board certificate for conspicuous service to Welsh tourism
- 1972 Wales Tourist Board lists the FR as fifth most popular tourist site in Wales, after Caernarfon Castle, the Swallow Falls, the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff and Conwy Castle.
- 1979 The FR was one of only six sites in Wales to receive the British Tourist Authority’s Golden Jubilee Award.
- 1987 The FR was the outright winner of the Independent Railway of the Year award
- 2004 The “Talking Train” (an internal audio guide) was awarded the Heritage Railway Association ‘interpretation’ Award.
Recognition of the railway’s importance to tourism and heritage has been increasingly marked by financial assistance given to the company towards capital expenditure. Prior to September 1987, the FR had received £1,273,127 in gifts and grants. Of this: £450,476 was Gifts from the FR Society and FR Trust and other supporters; £379,335 from Wales Tourist Board; £134,320 from EEC Grants and £308,996 from other public sources.
Major grants received subsequently have been: In 1989 a grant of £430,000 (£797,572 as of 2011) mainly from The EEC (National Programme of Community Interest for the promoting of tourism in Dyfed, Gwynedd and Powys);] in 1995 a grant of £500,000 (£716,550 as of 2011),to promote work in Blaenau Ffestiniog and in 1998 a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £375,000 (£491,885 as of 2011), for the construction of workshops to facilitate the restoration of historic vehicles.
Today the railway is promoted as one of The Great Little Trains of Wales, a joint marketing scheme launched in 1970 that encompasses ten narrow gauge railways in the country, mostly found in north and mid Wales.Ffestiniog Railway Train Passing Campbell’s Platform – Campbell’s platform is an unstaffed halt on the Ffestiniog Railway which serves the nearby Plas y Dduallt Manor House. The station is for the use of residents and visitors staying at Plas y Dduallt only. The platform was built in the 1960’s when Colonel Andrew Campbell of the Black Watch restored the house.© Copyright Jonathan Simkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.