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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Welsh Highland Railway

In a nutshell

Gauge:         1' 11½"

Length:       25 miles

Opened:      1863 - extended 1923 - closed 1937 - re-opened in phases from 1997 to 2011


View Narrow Gauge Railways in a larger map
View Narrow Gauge Railways in a larger map


Date of visit: 6 May 2013


Key Facts

  • The first part of what is now the Welsh Highland Railway was opened in 1863. This was the horse-drawn Croesor Tramway which ran from Porthmadog to the Croesor Valley. This has now been incorporated into southern part of the railway.
  • In 1877, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway opened a line from Dinas Junction on the LNWR mainline to the south of Caernarfon, initially to Snowdon Ranger and then in 1881 to Rhyd Ddu.
  • In 1923, the Welsh Highland Railway was completed with the link from Rhyd Ddu, through Beddgelert and the Aberglaslyn Pass to link up with the Croesor Tramway.
  • The Depression years of the 1920s was not the most lucrative time to open a new railway and from its inception the WHR struggled financially.
  • The railway limped on until it was put into receivership in 1927 and closing in 1933 when it was leased to the Festiniog Railway Company. The FR tried to make the railway successful through development of the tourist trade but was eventually forced to abandon the railway in 1937 when the it was closed and the stock and track sold off.
  • The restoration of the railway was mired in controversy with both the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway and the Festiniog Railway initially seeking to purchase the trackbed and gain funding to reopen the line. Eventually, the Ffestiniog Railway was successful and through National Lottery funding was able to rebuild and reopen the railway in stages from 1997 to 2011.
  • Restoration began with the completion of the railway from Caernarfon to Dinas along the trackbed of the former standard gauge railway.
  • The final phase of construction was the completion of the link from the WHR, through the town of Portmadog to the Ffestiniog Railway station which entailed the re-installation of the crossing over the standard gauge railway near to the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway station.
  • The original WHR inherited two locomotives from its constituent companies; a single Fairlie locomotive, Moel Tryfan, which survived until 1954 when it was scrapped by the FR; and a 2-6-2T Hunslet locomotive, Russell, which is owned by the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway and is currently undergoing restoration by Alan Keef Ltd. The line also bought an ex War Dept Baldwin locomotive which did not prove to be successful or popular with crews on the railway.
  • The railway now uses a fleet of Beyer-Peacock Garratt articulated locomotives to tackle the tortuous, steeply inclined route. Most of the locos are from South Africa, but the line also possesses a former Tasmanian Railways K class locomotive which was the world's first Garratt articulated loco and
  • The line also has a fleet of diesel locomotives
  • From time to time Ffestiniog Railway locomotives haul trains along the line as they did when the line was first opened
  • The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway also has opportunities to run special trains on the railway, as part of an agreement between the two railways when restoration began. 



My Impressions

This was not the first time I had travelled along or visited the Welsh Highland Railway. I was fortunate enough to travel on the first public train through the Aberglaslyn Pass in May 2009, though for some reason I took only one photo to commemorate this auspicious event!

My visit on this occasion was as part of a visit to the Ffestiniog Railway's 150th anniversay celebrations when I took the opportunity to take a ride on the WHR as a respite from the events on the FR.

Prior to my trip on the railway, I took some lineside shots in the Aberglaslyn Pass. Mainly, I wanted to see the two ex-Penrhyn Hunslet locomotives, Blanche and Linda, hauling a special FR/WHR train non-stop from Blaenau to Caernarfon.

The following day, I travelled the line from Porthmadog to Rhyd Ddu, which I consider to be the most spectacular part of the railway. Mind you, the section from Rhyd Ddu to Waunfawr also has its attractions but it was more convenient for me to change trains at Rhyd Ddu.

Before boarding the train, I was able to watch our loco running round and taking on water at Harbour Station.

 Because the tracks at Harbour Station are not yet aligned for the WHR, trains have to be hauled out from the platform by a pilot loco before the WHR loco is then attached to take the train across the bridge and through the town.
WHR Beyer Peacock loco 138 negotiates the road bridge at Porthmadog
The station platforms at Harbour Station are presently being remodelled and so from Spring 2014, this interesting reverse manoeuvre will no longer be necessary.

The first part of the railway is unspectacular as the line crosses the farmland which was reclaimed from the salt flats when the Cob across the estuary was built in 1811 by William Maddocks who gave his name to the town of Porthmadog (Maddock's Port).

Before long, however, the train starts its ascent towards Beddgelert. Shortly after leaving Nantmor, the train plunges into a 280m long tunnel ......

 ...... before emerging into the Aberglaslyn Pass, where the railway clings to the hillside on a ledge above the river and passes through a further two short tunnels.

After crossing the river on a girder bridge the railway begins a steep climb through woodland towards Beddgelert Station which is located above a short way above the town.

 After taking on water, the train started the next and most tortuous stage of the railway's climb up gradients of up to 1:40 and taking in a series of S-bends to enable it to gain height.

Adapted from:

Towards the end of the climb, the railway emerges from the woodland to cross some heathland and begin its descent towards Rhyd Ddu on the lower slopes of Snowdon. On this particular occasion, this marked the end of my journey and I waited on the platform for the arrival of the train from Caernarfon.

On the journey back, there was an opportunity to wait at Beddgelert for the arrival of a special train from Porthmadog, hauled by one of the Ffestiniog Railway's stalwart 0-4-0 England locomotive, Palmerston.

We passed once more through the woodland below Beddgelert .........

........ and through the Aberglaslyn Pass.

Before entering the town of Porthmadog once more, we passed the link with the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. ........

 ...... before crossing the standard gauge Cambrian Coast Railway ......

...... and then winding our way across the back of the town. We then negotiated the road crossing over Britannia Bridge and was pulled back into Harbour Station by one of the FR's ex Penrhyn Railway locomotives, Linda.

The Welsh Highland Railway is certainly one of the most spectacular of the preserved narrow gauge railways in the UK. As it is now connected to the Ffestiniog Railway the two now boast around 40 miles of continuous railway from Caernarfon to Blaenau Ffestiniog. It is possible on gala days such as this to travel the entire length of the railway non-stop (apart from when the locomotives have to take on water). Personally, I prefer to do the trip in stages as it provides opportunities for me to take lineside pictures. However, if you have not yet had the opportunity to travel on and/or view the railway as it passes through the Aberglaslyn Pass, then it must surely rank as one of the must-see stretches of narrow gauge railway in the country.

I will return! It's about time I traversed the northern end of the railway and gathered a few more lineside shots. Hopefully I'll do that sometime in the summer and can then complete the video of the journeys.


[In preparation] 

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