Ffestiniog Railway History
Part 5 - Recent Times
Extending to Blaenau Ffestiniog marked the end of the pioneering era but new challenges were ahead. Economic recession and the popularity of cheap overseas package holidays caused a fall in traffic. There was a backlog of maintenance work, bank borrowings were high, the longer line was more expensive to operate and fuel prices were rising sharply. It was now necessary to improve the locomotives, rolling stock, signalling and amenities and to modernise behind the scenes to improve efficiency. With grant-aid assistance and sponsorship, platform canopies and toilets were built, car parks resurfaced and the double Fairlie 'Merddin Emrys' rebuilt.
Automated signalling at Tan-y-Bwlch and Minffordd passing loops were completed in 1988 and 1989 respectively and work proceeded on automating the remaining level crossings. Computerised ticket issuing and accounting, introduced in 1985, further reduced costs and a debenture stock issue, launched in October 1987, eliminated the high bank borrowings. More variety was introduced to the liveries of locomotives and carriages and the appearance of the Railway has been made more attractive through the efforts of a 'Parks and Gardens' volunteer section, which builds and stocks colourful flowerbeds, tubs and hanging baskets.
More attention has been given to displaying the Railway's heritage, with one notable example being the refurbishment of the double Fairlie loco 'Livingston Thompson' for display on loan at the National Railway Museum in York. In 1999, following an appeal, Boston Lodge built a replica of 'Taliesin', the FR single Fairlie and other heritage projects have included the development of a gravity slate train and assistance from the heritage lottery fund in the renovation of historic carriages.
The railway also looked forward, with innovations including a powerful diesel locomotive capable of hauling FR trains at line speed - 'Vale of Ffestiniog' was converted from one of two bogie diesels purchased as part of the new Welsh Highland Railway (WHR) project and was sponsored by National Power. Earlier, a push-pull set of carriages had been developed, allowing the train to be driven from a special compartment at the rear, avoiding the need for the locomotive to run around.
Following the closure of the Beyer-Peacock works, the FR saved the pioneer Garratt locomotive 'K1', which had spent its early life in Tasmania. The locomotive became an exhibit at the National Railway Museum after plans to convert it to fit the FR loading gauge were dropped, so as not to affect the heritage outline of this historically important locomotive.
In the 1990s, the FR became involved with the Welsh Highland Railway (WHR) again with a plan to start at Caernarfon, rebuilding back to Porthmadog and connecting with the Ffestiniog to create a 40 mile railway - a new "Great Railway Journey".
In 2003 the line was reopened as far as Rhyd Ddu and tracklaying was completed through to Porthmadog in early 2008, with the volunteer track gangs building a new railway the same length as the Ffestiniog in just three years. During the space of just one week, the tracklayers built a mile of railway!
Public services started to Beddgelert, then Hafod y Llyn in 2009 and Pont Croesor in 2010. The final link to the FR will open in April 2011, finally enabling through services to operate between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Caernarfon.
But even with the tracklaying phase complete, the railway is far from finished. There are station buildings to be completed, new carriages to be built and a major reconstruction of Harbour Station is now underway. This will allow trains from both railways to use the station simultaneously.
All this will take time, effort and money, as will the never-ending task of maintaining a 40 mile railway and 80 miles of fencing.
Railways are never 'finished', so why not ask how you can help the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland keep their place as the very best heritage railways in the UK, if not the world!