The longest little railway

Porthmadog on the North Wales Coast is about to achieve a world first, having no fewer than three narrow gauge railways open for business. Already it is the terminus of the Ffestiniog Railway and early next year, it will be connected to the Welsh Highland Railway, creating the possibility of a 40 mile trip from Caernarvon to Blaenau Ffestiniog. .

The grandly named Welsh Highland Railway is actually a collection of disconnected narrow gauge slate railways which never, apart from in its inaugural year, 1923, made money and was mostly closed during the war. Now, though, it currently running more than  20 miles from the foot of the castle Caernarvon to Pont Croesor, half a dozen miles short of Porthmadog and famous for its Osprey Centre but offering little else other than an excellent fried food van and a small shop. However, the line has been completed through to Porthmadog and already special trains are being run to test the line with the expectation of a full service from Easter.

This is no mean achievement, a testimony to the work of hundreds of volunteers who with a bit of professional help and a few million from the lottery have recreated a long lost railway that snakes through a wonderfully varied countryside of rivers, forests, and the foothills of Snowdon rising to 650ft, with, at times, almost Swiss-style gradients and back down again.

The project, a perfect exemplar of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept long before the Prime Minister’s pet expression had seen the light of day, has, though, had a bumpy ride. The work of recreating the line, which is now owned by the Ffestiniog, started with the relatively straightforward section from Caernarvon to Dinas in 1997, and then proceeded section by section through the hills had to overcome numerous obstacles, both physical and political.

Rail enthusiasts have a tendency to be have like cats in a sack and the numerous local political and legal disputes redolent of 19th century railway wars, which reached the High Court on no fewer than three occasions, were more likely to derail the project than the engineering challenges of recreating a line, parts of which date back to the very early days of railway history in the 1830s.

Indeed, this history of local conflicts explains why there is a third line at Porthmadog, the Welsh Highland (Porthmadog) Railway, which remains independent of the Ffestiniog, and operates from a smaller station on the other side of town. It only runs a mere half mile to Pen-y-Mount but is nevertheless thriving and actually has a better bookshop than its more powerful neighbour but was the loser in the dispute to gain control of the old Welsh Highland trackbed.

It was the supporters of the smaller railway which originally first thought of reopening the Welsh Highland back in 1964 but never mustered the money or the volunteer numbers required to do it, and the Ffestiniog, with far more financial backing and clout within the corridors of Whitehall, eventually took over most of the trackbed thanks to a decision which went all the way up to John Prescott, the then transport secretary.

The result, though, is exciting, the longest ride on a narrow gauge railway in Britain, and arguably the most scenic as it goes through more open and, at times, more spectacular country than the Ffestiniog. John Stretton, author of five books on the two railways, ‘this is unique in the world. Nowhere else have volunteers rebuilt more than twenty miles of narrow gauge railway.’

From Port Croesor, the line runs along the plain and then up, alongside the rushing waters of Afon Glaslyn and to the Aberglaslyn Pass, the most picturesque section – we know this because the National Trust adjudged it the most scenic spot in Britain. The tunnel taking us out of the valley almost seems too small to accommodate us, and then we reach Beddegelert, virtually the only place with any significant signs of human habitation on the whole line. The summit of the line is at Pitts Head after a series of spectacular zig zags and then the train starts descending with swirling round Snowdon, offering views of the mountain from numerous angles. Even the flatter stretch at the end of the line to Caernarvon, the marshy fields and glimpses of the Menai Strait offer enough to keep one looking out of the window.

Our journey was enlivened by the deep bass – and  suspiciously thespian – voice of the train guard, singing out the names of the stations, quite unnecessarily but very entertainingly, since they are very well signposted. We eschewed the luxury observation car, a recent innovation that is at the back of the train and affords the passengers sitting in comfortable armchairs an almost 360 degree view of the vista for a few extra quid, but wish we hadn’t.

The beauty of the countryside, the accurate recreation of the railway and the excellent tea and scones available on board – shame about the plastic plates – provide plenty for the casual tourist, but for the rail enthusiast there is almost a surfeit of goodies. The highlight is definitely the four Garratt locomotives which look like they are pulling themselves apart since the boiler in the middle is attached on either side to an engine unit, thus doubling the power of the locomotive. Those on the Welsh Highland come from South African railways and are reckoned to be the most powerful narrow gauge locomotives in the world. Because of the extra traction the two sets of articulated bogies offer, they can handle the steep gradients in the wet Welsh hills.

When the connection in Porthmadog, offering the trains a brief ride along the main road, rather like a tram, is completed, there is the potential of a 40mile journey up and down the mountains. However, because there is a slight difference in what is called the loading gauge – the size of the tunnels and bridges – between the larger Highland and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, the former’s trains cannot travel the whole length, but it is expected that the occasional special train may travel the whole length of the railway. But given that this will take a minimum of four hours each way and cost in the region of £45 return, only the hardiest enthusiast is likely to undertake the trip. Best, instead, to start at Porthmadog and explore each railway in turn.

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