Tag Archives: Welsh Highland Railway

Porthmadog Again

Ffestiniog Railway's double-Fairlie A few more photos from norh Wales, starting with 1979-built double Fairlie “David Lloyd George” at Blaenau Ffestiniog, having just arrived on the morning train from Porthmadog. It’s still running in grey livery following an overhaul. Despite being one of the “new” locomotives build since preservation, it’s now 35 years old.
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Porthmadog Harbour rebuilt

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Over the winter the Ffestiniog Railway has been rebuilding Porthmadog Harbour station which had become a serious operational bottleneck since the Welsh Highland Railway finally reached Porthmadog. The works are now almost complete, and the station was open for business for the first time on the weekend of 22nd and 23rd March.

Here WHR 138 is running round having arrived with a WHR train from Caernarfon. The locomotive is running on what was originally the single platform road shared by both lines, now part of the WHR side of the station. The nearer of the two tracks is the new platform road. Trains no longer have to reverse in and out of the station as they were doing last summer.

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The Ffestiniog side of the new station. At first glance it doesn’t look that different from how it was before, but the whole layout has been shifted across the now-widened cob to make room for the new WHR platform and run-round loop.

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Slewing the tracks has made room for a new beer garden for Spooners Bar, which will be the ideal place to sup one of the region’s rather splendid ales on a summer evening after a trip up the line.

While this isn’t a construction project on quite the scale of Network Rail’s massive rebuilding of Reading Station, it’s nevertheless another example of railway infrastructure being rebuilt and enhanced to meet the needs of the 21st century.

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Porthmadog

A few photos from my recent trip to North Wales.

Arriva Train 150 at Blaenau Ffestiniog.

We start with the Conwy Valley line, which is possibly the most scenic of the standard gauge line in Wales, the only part of the National Rail network to run into the mountainous heart of Snowdonia. I’m not convinced that the a commuter DMU is really the ideal stock for this route, and I think there’s a good case for running heritage stock, at least during high summer. Doesn’t have to be steam; something like a class 37 and four or five Mk1 coaches would be idea.

Ffestiniog Railway double Fairlie

At Blaenau Ffestiniog we change to the 2′ gauge Ffestiniog Railway, one of the longest established of Britain’s steam tourist lines, for the run down to Porthmadog. Motive power is the 1879-built double Fairlie “Merddin Emrys”, dating from the days when the railway was primarily a slate carrier.

Ffestiniog Railway single Fairle

The Ffestiniog Railway doesn’t consider itself a preserved railway, but a working railway operated to suit today’s needs. While there are several historic locomotives in the fleet, they’ve also got a number of recently built replicas of long-scrapped designs. The single Fairlie “Taliesin” is such a locomotive, built in 1999 using the design of an original locomotive scrapped in 1932.

Replica Lynton & Barnstable

“Lyd”, the newest addition to the fleet is another example, based on the locomotive “Lew” of the Lynton and Barnstable Railway in Devon. The original “Lew” was shipped to Brazil on closure of the L&B in 1937, and its ultimate fate remains unknown.

The Welsh Highland Railway on the climb to Rydd Dhu

The Welsh Highland Railway is the longest narrow gauge line in Britain. The original line opened as a through route from Dinas Junction to Porthmadog in 1922, and closed after just 15 years. The recent reconstruction as a modern tourist railway has been controversial, with big South African Beyer-Garratts brought in to work long corridor trains, a far cry from the small tank engines of the original line. The coaching stock on this train includes a surviving coach from the original WHR, right behind the loco.

Aberglaslyn Pass

The high-season timetable has three services a day, so it’s possible to break the journey for a couple of hours it you start out on the first train and come back on the last. I got off at Beddgelert and walked down the valley to the bridge over Afon Glaslyn to photograph the train I’d been on heading back to Caernarfon.

Aberglaslyn Pass

90 minutes later I’m back at the same spot, on the last southbound train of the day, which crossed the northbound train at Rhyd Ddu, now heading back to Porthmadog through the spectacular Aberglaslyn pass.

Arriva Trains 158 at Porthmadog

And finally, it’s five hours on board an Arriva Trains 158 with non-functional air-conditioning to see the wonderful Panic Room at Bilston. But that’s the subject of another blog post. The Cambrian Coast line is another very scenic route, hugging the coast through Harlech, Barmouth and Aberdovey before heading inland though the Dovey and upper Severn valleys.

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What I did on my holidays, Part 2 – It’s all gone Kettle-shaped

The second part of my holiday took me to from South Wales to the north of the country.

The first day was spent on the Welsh Highland Railway. I’d ridden the line three years ago, when it was open as far as Rhyd-Ddu, just short of the summit of the line.  It’s now extended beyond Beddgelert through the famous Aberglaslyn pass to Hafod-y-Llyn, just a few miles short of the ultimate destination of Porthmadog.

WHRGarratt

The climb from Waunfawr up to Rhyd-Dhu is spectacular enough, but the descent down to Beddgelert is even more spectacular, as the line twists and turns Swiss-fashion to lose height. The final section is the most spectacular of all, as the line heads through the steep-sided valley of Aberglaslyn pass, with it’s unlined rock tunnels.  Decades ago, on a wet family holiday, we walked along this route, though the long-abandoned tunnels. Amazing to ride through them on a train.

The WHR has come in for some criticism for not making any attempt to recreate this spirit of the original undercapitalised Colonel Stevens line, instead building a modern tourist railway suitable for the needs of the 21st century, using powerful ex-South African Garrett locomotives rather than the underpowed tank engines of the original line. But I think what they’ve built is a magnificent achievement.

There’s no forward connection from Hafod-y-Llyn, which is a temporary terminus in the middle of nowhere. So you have to ride the train back through Aberglaslyn pass to Beddgelert, where there’s quite a long wait for the bus for Porthmadog. Still, there are far worse places to spend a couple of hours, in the midst of some spectacular scenery.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the Queen’s Hotel, I headed off for Harbour Station for a ride on the famous Ffestiniog railway.  This is one of the longest established preserved railways, celebrating more than 50 years in this form. The locomotive for the day was double Fairlie David Lloyd George, not technically a preserved locomotive at all, since it was built as recently as 1979, albeit to a 19th century design.

FR Fairlie "David Lloyd George"

Then it was the scenic Conwy Valley line to Llandudno Junction. This is one of the most scenic routes on the National Rail network, and really deserves to promoted better as such. I’d love to see a timetable that makes sensible connections with the Ffestiniog at Blaunau, using heritage rolling stock with windows that open. Not neccessily using steam; I think some first generation diesels would do just as well.

Breaking the journey at Bettws-y-Coed was probably a mistake. It’s a beautiful setting, but the place is an appalling tourist trap, full of tacky gift shops selling nothing but tat, and restaurants serving chips with everything.  It’s the sort of tasteless commercialism of which I’m sure that Ayn Rand would have approved.

If you’re based in the north-west, this makes an excellent two-day trip – although it I was doing it again I’d probably stay overnight in Beddgelert and get the bus to Porthmadog in the morning, then take a later train on the Ffestiniog.

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Kettles and Castles

After travelling to North Wales to see Mostly Autumn on the Friday, I decided to make a weekend of it. Not that I didn’t head out of Rhyl on the first train out of town on Saturday morning…

I travelled west to Caernarfon, capital of Gwynedd, starting point of the 60cm gauge Welsh Highland Railway. The original WHR ran from Dinas Junction, a few miles south of Caernarfon, through twenty miles of spectacular mountain scenery to Porthmadoc. The northern section dated from 1875, but the extension to Porthmadoc wasn’t completed until 1923, by which time it couldn’t really compete with buses for local traffic. The entire system closed in 1937, too early to benefit from the postwar tourist boom.

Beyer-Garratt at Caernarfon

The new WHR begins in Caernarfon itself, and runs on the trackbed of a former standard gauge line to Dinas Junction, before running on the original WHR formation.

The engine is by far the largest narrow gauge locomotive running in Britain. It’s an ex-South African 2-6-2 + 2-6-2 Beyer-Garratt, built, I think, in Manchester. It’s more than double the size of the sole surviving locomotive from the original WHR.

Beyer-Garratt South of Rhyd Ddu

The current terminus is Rhyd Ddu, about half-way to Porthmadoc, and half a mile short of the summit of the original line. The remaining section through Beddgelert to Porthmadoc is still under construction, and is due to open in 2009. When complete it will be the longest narrow-gauge line in Britain by a long way.

Caernarfon Castle

Long before the coming of the WHR, Caernarfon has been famous for it’s magnificent castle. There are several well-preserved castles in north Wales, but Caernarfon is not only the most impressive, but the most complete. While it was build by Edward I to oppress the conquered Welsh, I notice it’s now flying the Welsh national flag, not the British one.

Gwynedd Council Building

I’m not sure what to make of this building. It’s the offices of Gwynedd Council, the unitary authority for the top left-hand corner of Wales. The design is so cod-medieval it looks like something out of a Katherine Kurtz novel.

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