Ffestiniog Railway History

Part 2 - The Fairlie Solution

The doubling of the line would have been extremely costly and instead the Railway turned to the ingenuity of the engineer Robert Fairlie, who had designed a locomotive that could pull longer trains. The problem had been how to build a more powerful locomotive that could nevertheless get around the sharp curves and up steep gradients. The solution was a double-bogie engine, looking like two locomotives back-to-back, but in fact one long rigid boiler with central fireboxes and driving position. Each end of the boiler was mounted on a swivelling powered bogie, allowing the locomotive to swing around tight curves. The same principle is used in most of today's diesel and electric locomotives.

In 1870, before a distinguished assembly of railway engineers, including the Imperial Russian Commission, the first Fairlie double engine 'Little Wonder' was demonstrated and proved to have more than double the power of the earlier locomotives. This was but one of the ways in which the Festiniog Railway pioneered narrow gauge railways throughout the world.

Soon the Railway introduced improved Fairlie engines and in 1872 'James Spooner' entered service, followed in 1876 by a single-bogie version 'Taliesin'. Boston Lodge, which had by now become a fully equipped workshop, rose to the task of building two more double engines, 'Merddin Emrys' (the bard known as 'Merlin' in English) in 1879 and 'Livingston Thompson' in 1886. It is interesting to record that when the Railway has required new large locomotives in it has again chosen the Fairlie double-bogie design for 'Earl of Merioneth' in 1979 and 'David Lloyd George' in 1992, both built at Boston Lodge.

From 1873, the bogie principle was applied to passenger and goods vehicles also. The passenger coaches 15 and 16 were the first bogie coaches in service in Great Britain and were among the earliest iron-framed bogie coaches in the world. Both these vehicles are still in service today.

By 1872, coastal sea transport was being overtaken by the network of inland railways; and as well as slates being taken to Porthmadog, exchange sidings with the Cambrian Railway were built at Minffordd. Shortly afterwards, other standard gauge railways, the LNWR and GWR built to Blaenau Ffestiniog. They were able to take slates direct to other parts of Britain without using the Festiniog Railway, and as far as slate traffic was concerned, the heyday of the railway was coming to an end.

Although the standard gauge railways captured a share of slate traffic, they also brought visitors to the area and the increasing importance of tourism was also accelerated by the development of the motor car after the turn of the century. The popularity of new roofing materials and a series of disastrous strikes hastened the decline of the slate industry, and by the 1920's the Railway depended as much on its summer tourists as on its traditional slate traffic. It was at this time that the Welsh Highland Railway was built to link the former North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway with the Festiniog, creating a circular route from Dinas (near Caernarfon) to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The new line was opened in 1923, with a huge debt burden and with meagre rolling stock. This combined with a long journey time doomed the venture to failure and the tracks of the Welsh Highland Railway were eventually taken up during the Second World War.

The outbreak of the war cut short the summer holiday season in 1939 and on 15 September Festiniog passenger services ceased. Hopes of a revival in slate traffic after the war were not realised and by 1945 there was no revenue coming in to repair the worn-out track and rolling stock. In addition, the quarries found that more versatile road transport could meet their needs. So on 1 August 1946, at the start of the quarry holidays, the line closed. The original Act of Parliament had made no provision for abandonment, so everything was left where it stood, exposed to souvenir hunters, vandals and the weather.

  • Robert Fairlie

    Part 1 - A Railway Is Born

    In the 1700s, when Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog did not exist, this part of Wales was a remote mountain area...

  • Pioneers

    Part 3 - Pioneers To The Rescue

    In 1951, on the initiative of Leonard Heath-Humphrys, a small group of people met in Bristol to see if anything could be done to restore the Railway...

  • The Deviation

    Part 4 - The Great Deviation

    In 1970 an alternative route to the west of the Tanygrisiau reservoir was agreed and the Dduallt spiral was completed in 1971...

  • Recent Times

    Part 5 - Recent Times

    Extending to Blaenau Ffestiniog marked the end of the pioneering era but new challenges were ahead...