In the 1700s, when Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog did not exist, this part of Wales was a remote mountain area. In the last few years of that century, W.A. Madocks had acquired land and soon afterwards carried out land reclamation projects culminating in the great embankment – ‘The Cob’ – right across the Glaslyn estuary, literally creating a new harbour, called Port Madoc, known today as Porthmadog.
The workmen for this huge project were housed in a building at the eastern end of the Cob, where the workshops of the Railway are now situated. Since Madocks was the MP for Boston in Lincolnshire, he called the building ‘Boston Lodge’. The Cob took 4 years to complete, but only a year later partial rebuilding was required when high tides and a storm breached it.
At a similar time, high up in the mountains around Blaenau Ffestiniog, slate deposits were being exploited in small quantities and laboriously taken by pack animal and farm carts over rough roads down to the River Dwyryd. Here the slate was loaded into river boats for transport downstream where it was loaded yet again, this time into sea-going sailing ships. This long-winded system was expensive both in the time taken and the quantity of broken slates during transport.
In 1830, shortly after Madock’s death, Samuel Holland, who was quarrying slate at Rhiw, joined Henry Archer, a young businessman from Dublin, to promote the Festiniog Railway, incorporated by Act of Parliament on 23 May 1832. James Spooner from Worcestershire was responsible for the survey and construction of the Railway.
The route, whose final mile crossed the Cob, enabled loaded slate trains to run down by gravity while the horses that were used to haul the empty wagons back up the line could ride, feed and rest in ‘dandy’ wagons.
The 23.5 inch gauge (just short of 2 feet), corresponding to that being used in the quarries, was wide enough to allow the horses to work efficiently when pulling the empty wagons and narrow enough to enable the Railway to negotiate the sharp curves made necessary by the mountainous terrain. The wagons were small enough to be loaded easily and man-handled in the quarry and at the port.
As slate traffic increased, the horse and gravity system of operation came under strain and thoughts turned to the form of power then making such an impact on transport elsewhere – the steam engine. But in the 1840’s, steam locomotives on so narrow a gauge were thought impracticable; in fact carrying passengers was illegal on new railways of less than the British standard gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches.
These factors delayed the introduction of steam and it was only after Charles Easton Spooner (James’ son) took control of the Railway in 1856 that he looked more closely into the question of steam locomotives and eventually contracts were signed with George England and Co., London, for four small locomotives. In July 1863 ‘The Princess’ and ‘Mountaineer’ were delivered and they entered service in October. The other two, ‘The Prince’ and ‘Palmerston’, arrived in 1864.
In the same year, the Board of Trade gave the Railway permission to run passenger trains, the first on a narrow gauge in Britain.
The four-wheeled carriages were very low to keep the weight as central as possible and some of these unique vehicles survive as part of the Railway’s valued heritage. From 1866 primitive carriages also offered a cheap service for quarrymen.
As traffic increased two more, slightly more powerful engines, ‘Welsh Pony’ and ‘Little Giant’, arrived in 1867. By then the limitations of a single line were also becoming restrictive due to the sheer quantities of slate being transported and in 1869 an Act was passed permitting the line to be doubled.
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.
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. This group included Allan Garraway who was later to become General Manager, a position he was to hold until 1983. In 1954, after many difficulties, a controlling interest in the company was acquired by Alan Pegler, whose shares were subsequently transferred to a charitable trust – the Ffestiniog Railway Trust. Guided by a wholly volunteer board of directors, enthusiastic volunteers and a small paid staff set about rebuilding the line to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
On 23 July 1955, after a formal Ministry of Transport inspection, a passenger service started from Porthmadog across the Cob to Boston Lodge, first with a small Simplex diesel and then with steam locomotive ‘Prince’, which had meanwhile been reassembled. In 1956 services were restored to Minffordd and in that autumn the double Fairlie loco ‘Livingston Thompson’, by this time renamed ‘Taliesin’, ran trial trips. Easter 1957 saw trains running to Penrhyn and in the summer a tremendous effort was made to get the track cleared to Tan-y-Bwlch, the service beginning at Easter 1958.
Meanwhile, in 1954 the British Electricity Authority had produced a scheme for a hydroelectric power station near Tanygrisiau designed to boost the national grid at peak demand times. The Festiniog Railway opposed the Parliamentary Bill in 1955 because its route was to be flooded by the lower reservoirs of the scheme. At this time the Authority regarded the Railway’s directors and supporters as mere amateurs ‘playing trains’ and compulsory acquisition of the line above Moelwyn Tunnel went ahead in 1956.
However, the company was determined to build back to Blaenau, so it decided to reopen the line as far as Dduallt, the last station before the reservoir (this was achieved in April 1968). By establishing its commercial and tourist value it would prove that it had a legitimate compensation claim and would then, somehow, reinstate a line around the reservoir.
A key event in 1962 was the survey for a route on the east side of the reservoir which gained height by a spiral around Dduallt and rejoined the old line at Tanygrisiau by running over the crest of the Authority’s dam. In 1964 the company and its supporters announced their determination to build this line with largely volunteer labour, no money and no plant, across land they did not own!
To allow work to start on this Deviation, land was given to the Railway by the Economic Forestry Group and on 2 January 1965 the first sod was turned. Many of the ‘Deviationists’, as the workers on the project became known, had no interest in railways as such, relishing rather their weekend battles with stubborn rock and glutinous peat amid superb mountain scenery as a change from their full-time activities.
Meanwhile, on the working part of the Railway, traffic was growing steadily; all the existing carriages were overhauled, new ones were being built and much of the track was being relaid.
In 1970 an alternative route to the west of the Tanygrisiau reservoir was agreed and the Dduallt spiral, required to raise the line was completed in 1971. In the same year the crucial legal battle for compensation, which had been going on since the 1950s (!), culminated in a hearing at which the Company was awarded £106,000 for loss of profits. But much more was needed of both money and resources to get to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
First there was a new Moelwyn Tunnel, completed in 1977, which allowed trains to run as far as Llyn Ystradau, just short of the new power station. Then bridges had to be built over the four power station water pipes to reach Tanygrisiau and get back on the old track bed.
On 24 June 1978 the opening of the deviation between Dduallt and Tanygrisiau was celebrated with speeches, a party and a ‘golden spike’ ceremony. The ‘seemingly impossible’ had been achieved.
Only one mile of track remained to be restored to bring trains back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, but there were still many problems. The rock face just beyond Tanygrisiau was unstable and a serious rock fall demanded costly repairs when money was tighter than ever.
Meanwhile, it had been generally agreed that Blaenau Ffestiniog would benefit from a joint British Rail/Ffestiniog Railway station near the town centre. By autumn 1977, Gwynedd County Council adopted a scheme to allow the Ffestiniog Railway access to the centre. Without financial support at national level, and internationally from the European Economic Community, the work could not have been completed as early as 1982. As with the Deviation, the slog back to Blaenau became a joint effort of Company, volunteers, engineering contractors and labour provided under a Manpower Services Commission scheme. The Deviation organisation was reshaped and ‘Project Blaenau’ was launched in July 1980 to coordinate the volunteer share of the work.
Work was pushed ahead despite appalling weather to reach the opening date, 25 May 1982, the 150th Anniversary almost to the day of the Company’s first Act of Parliament. This was the day towards which all efforts since 1951 had ultimately been directed; the Ffestiniog Railway once again ran from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The Rt. Hon. George Thomas M.P., then Speaker of the House of Commons, officially opened the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog on 30 April 1983.
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 major reconstruction of Porthmadog Harbour and Caernarfon Stations is now complete.
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!