Ffestiniog railway at 150

Published Tue, 2015-04-14 14:26

The four-day event on the Ffestiniog Railway from 1 to 4 May 2015 marked a significant anniversary in the history of this pioneering narrow-gauge railway as it marked the 150th anniversary of the introduction of officially timetabled passenger trains to the line. The Ffestiniog — the oldest surviving railway company in the world still to be operating — has its origins as a slate-carrying line from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog.

Established by Act of Parliament in May 1832, construction of the 1ft 11½in-gauge line took place between then and 1836. It was designed in such a way that the loaded slate wagons headed downhill to Porthmadog powered only by gravity with the empty wagons being towed uphill by horses. Inclined planes were used to cross the Moelwyn Mountains until the completion of a tunnel in 1842. The expansion of the slate industry, a reflection of the construction boom in Britain following the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the population, resulted in the Ffestiniog Railway’s capacity being inadequate and, in the early 1860s, it was decided to explore the possibility of using steam. The experience of constructing steam locomotives to such a narrow gauge was limited but a manufacturer — George England & Co — was found to construct the first two locomotives — Mountaineer and The Princess — which were both delivered in 1863.   The arrival of these steam locomotives made the operation of longer slate trains practical and, for the first time in 1865, timetabled passenger trains were operated — the first narrow-gauge railway in Britain to carry passengers officially. It is likely that tourists were carried as early as 1850 although this was wholly unofficial and without the sanction of the Board of Trade.
Almost from the start of its passenger services, the Ffestiniog was a pioneer. In 1872 it introduced two new carriages — both of which still survive in regular service — that were the first bogie coaches to be operated on any British railway; these were also the first iron-framed bogie coaches to operate anywhere in the world. Like a number of other Welsh narrow-gauge railways, the Ffestiniog escaped both the Grouping in 1923 and Nationalisation in 1948 to remain an independent company, but economics were more difficult to avoid. Although there were attempts to make economies during the interwar years, when the history of the line was dominated by the king of Britain’s light railways, Colonel Holman F. Stephens, the Ffestiniog struggled although the summer-only passenger service survived. It was last to operate on 15 September 1939; suspended as a result of the outbreak of World War 2 it was not to be resumed when peace returned in 1946. The operation of slate trains continued during World War 2 but much reduced on the pre-war level and, by 1946, had effectively ceased except for a limited service, operated by the quarry itself, between Duffws and Blaenau Ffestiniog town centre for onward shipment by rail. As the original 1832 Act did not include any specific clauses to permit closure and dismantling, the Ffestiniog gently rusted away until, in 1954, enthusiasts led by the late Alan Pegler — famous later as the saviour of Gresley Pacific No 4472 Flying Scotsman — acquired the original company and the long process of restoring the line began.

In November 1954 the first special train was operated but it was not until July 1955 that passenger services were reintroduced to the section from Porthmadog, across The Cob, to Boston Lodge (where the railway’s workshops were and are situated). Services were extended in three stages to Tan-y-Bwlch: to Minffordd in May 1956, to Penrhyn in June 1957 and to Tan-y-Bwlch in April 1958. Of the line’s original 13½-mile length, more than half had been restored. It was, however, not until April 1968 that the line was further extended, this time to Dduallt. Heading towards its original terminus at Blaenau Ffestiniog was, however, a challenge as beyond Dduallt part of the trackbed had been lost as a result of the decision taken in the mid-1950s by the Central Electricity Generating Board to construct an artificial lake to serve the hydro-electric power station.

The reopening through to Blaenau Ffestiniog required the first significant civil engineering project of the railway preservation age — the construction of a 2½-mile diversionary route that saw the railway bypass the flooded section of trackbed. Work started in 1965 and, from 1975 until 1977, a shuttle service operated from Dduallt to Llyn Ystradau to enable passengers to experience the new ‘deviation’ route; the line through to the original trackbed at Tanygrisiau opened throughout in June 1978. The final extension, seeing the line reach a new joint station in Blaenau Ffestiniog, was opened in May 1982.

The Ffestiniog Railway, with its unbroken history, is fortunate that much of the original equipment — locomotives and rolling stock — has survived and was available to tell the story of this pioneering narrow-gauge line. The event over the May Day Bank Holiday saw much of this equipment in use. Each of the four days had a separate theme: Friday 1 May — the early days of Ffestiniog Railway passenger services; Saturday 2 May — the heyday of passengers services, recreating the scenes from before World War 2 and the era of Colonel Stephens; Sunday 3 May — the early preservation era; and, Monday 4 May — the story of the Ffestiniog from the 1980s through to the modern age.



Peter Waller