The Oldest Independent Railway Company in the World
One of the Great Little Railroads of Wales
Part 1: The Beginning of the Ffestiniog Railway
Back in the 18th century, the part of Wales that Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog now occupy was a remote mountain region. A tidal river in the area, the river Glaslyn, was impossible to cross without a long detour inland. Then, in 1811, W. A. Maddocks, an MP, began reclaiming land around the Traeth Mawr and built the ‘Cob’. The Cob was a large embankment constructed across the estuary. It diverted the river, making a natural harbour. The harbour was called Port Madoc, what is now Porthmadog.
At the same time that this construction was going on, slate deposits were being taken from the mountains around Blaenau Ffestiniog by pack animal and farm carts over rudimentary roads down to the nearby River Dwyryd. There the slate was loaded into shall-draft boats heading downstream to sea-going sailing ships.
In 1830, two men, Henry Archer and James Spooner got together and made a survey of the area, then oversaw construction of a 23 ˝ inch gauge railroad from the slate mines down to Porthmadog. Gravity allowed the trains to run down the route and across the cob to the port and the sailing ships. The train wagons were small enough to be easily loaded and handled by men, and horses pulled the empty wagons back up the mountain.
By 1840 the increased trade made steam a necessity, but it was thought to be impracticable on a narrow gauge line. As well, carrying passengers was illegal on narrow gauge railroads. It wasn’t until 1863 that it all came together, and four small steam locomotives were put into service. The Princess and the Mountaineer started in 1863, and a year later the Prince and Palmerston began service.
People were finally allowed aboard, and low four-wheeled open carriages that placed people back to back were brought into use. (Some still survive). By 1867 two more engines, the Welsh Pony and the Little Giant arrived. The busy traffic called for doubling the line, but the cost made it impracticable. Locomotives that were able to pull longer trains and still get around sharp curves and up steep gradients were invented by Robert Fairlie.
They were known as double-bogie engines—one long boiler with central fireboxes with each end of the boiler mounted on a swivelling powered bogie. The first one, Little Wonder, was put to use in 1870, and many improved ones followed. From 1873 this bogie principle was applied to passenger and goods coaches. This pioneering work was recognized by a commemorative plaque presented to the Ffestiniog Railway in 1985 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
By 1872 inland railways began to overtake coastal sea transport. Other trains arrived in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the decline of the Ffestiniog railway began. New roofing materials and a series of strikes hastened the decline of the slate industry. By 1920 tourists brought as much income to the Ffestiniog Railway as the slate industry did.
Along came the Second World War, putting paid to the tourist traffic and most of the slate indsutry. Roads took the place of rails after the war. The rail line closed in 1946, and everything was abandoned where it stood.
Part 2: The Rescue of the Ffestiniog Railroad
In 1951, a group of interested persons met to plan the rebuilding of the railway line to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Clearance of the line began in 1954, and by 1955 a limited service was instituted from Porthmadog across the Cob to Boston Lodge. Three years later trains were running to Penrhyn, then to Tan-y-Bwlch. Work continued, with part of the line having to be re-routed due to a reservoir being built, flooding part of the original line. In 1977 a tunnel, the Moelwyn was completed, bridges were built and a deviation line was completed to Tanygrisiau.
One mile remained to bring the line back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The historic completion, the first time since 1957 that the track was continuous from Porthmadog to Glan-y-pwll, occurred on May 24, 1981, and on May 25, 1982 the line was completed to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Two years later, the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog re-opened.
Today both steam and diesel trains operate on the line, with new locomotives being built in the 1980’s. The rail line, at the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, is one of north Wales’s top tourist attractions. Railway exhibitions, special vintage weekends, Friends of Thomas the Tank Engine weekends, guest driver programs, and other activities are put on by the railroad. Much credit today as well as in the past goes to the dedicated volunteers who were involved in the rebuilding of the railroad and continue their service in its running. Riding the scenic Ffestiniog Railway is a special treat during a visit to Wales.
Website: Fest Rail for timetables, tickets, route map, events schedule.
The Ffestiniog Railway has retail outlets at three of its stations: Blaenau Ffestiniog, Tan y Bwlch and Porthmadog with a selection of model railway items, railway related books and videos, “Thomas the Tank Engine" die-cast models, and souvenirs.
Information and images courtesy of the Ffestiniog Railway Company, Railway Archive, Michael Seymour (research, maps, drawings); Prince and Palmerston by Gordon Rushton; Llyn Ystradau by Kevin Haywood.
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