Monday, 23 September 2013

The Welsh Highland Railway

This is an outing we have have been meaning to do ever since the amazing project to re-instate the Welsh Highland Railway between Caernarfon and Porthmadog was completed a few years ago.

Me, Malc, and Pete had got ourselves a 'Ffestiniog Round Robin' ticket each which gave us travel on the national railways in North Wales, and a one-way trip on the narrow gauge steam Ffestiniog Railway (with 'Manchester Extension' to extend its validity east of Crewe). Interestingly, the ticket was in two parts, designated 'From WILMSLOW to FFEST ROUNDROBIN' on the 'OUT' ticket, and the reverse designation on the 'RETURN' ticket. One wonders, on a circular journey like this, where 'OUT becomes 'RETURN'. The ticket cost £23.75 with a Senior Railcard.

Here's our timetable for the day from our home station of Wilmslow:

Wilmslow                 07:46d
Crewe                      08:05a 08:23d
Chester                    08:46a 08:55d
Llandudno Junction  09:43a 10:28d
Blaenau Ffestiniog    11:30 a
Blaenau Ffestiniog 11:50d                  Porthmadog 13:00a      Ffestiniog Railway
Porthmadog 14:15d                           Caernarfon 16:40a        Welsh Highland Railway
Bus to Bangor -            30 minute journey 4 times an hour
Bangor                   18:09d              
Chester                   19:25a 19:35d                                   
Crewe                    19:54a 20:11d                         
Wilmslow               20:27a

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

Malc and Pete board the 07:46 class 323 EMU from Wilmslow to Crewe this morning. From there the usual 'Crewe Shuttle' DMU took us to Chester where we joined an Arriva Wales class 175 to Llandudno Junction.

The itinerary allows a break of just over 40 minutes at Llandudno Junction, which is ideal for a loo break, cup of tea, and perhaps a bacon butty from the station buffet before boarding the Class 150 DMU (above) for the scenic trip up the Conway Valley to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Emerging from the tunnel at Blaenau one finds that the lovely scenery of the valley has been replaced by depressing grey slate heaps

Even this imaginative column by the station unfortunately perpetuates the 'nothing here but slate' impression one, perhaps unfairly, gets of the town

Boston Lodge-built Double Fairlie 'Merddin Emrys' had brought the Ffestiniog Railway train up from Porthmadog, and would be our motive power for the next stage of our outing

The Fairlie has a fairly easy task as it heads downhill to Porthmadog

'Merddin Emrys' comes off the bottom of the spiral and rejoins the original Ffestiniog trackbed at Dduallt. The original trackbed was flooded uphill from here when the Ffestiniog power station was built, one of the first pumped storage power stations in the UK. The 'Ffestiniog Deviationists' had to engineer a new trackbed at a higher level alongside the power station lake, bore a new tunnel at the Dduallt end, then build a descending spiral to bring the trackbed down to the level of the original trackbed at Dduallt station.

Much of this section of the Ffestiniog Railway has its views obscured by vegetation as it descends the valley side. Here is a rare glimpse down the valley between the regiments of lineside trees.

Our train rattles downhill towards Porthmadog

Pete and Malc in our coach on the Ffestiniog. The stewards came round taking orders for drinks and snacks but not until about halfway through the journey. Consequently I had to cancel my order for a drink as it still hadn't arrived by quite late in the journey; I'd have ended up gulping it down as  the train pulled into Porthmadog. Start taking your orders earlier, lads!

Crossing the Cob; a view of Borth-y-Gest

Much construction work is in progress on the Cob at Porthmadog to accommodate Welsh Highland Railway trains. At present they depart from the Ffestiniog Railway platform onto the Cob drawn out usually by a diesel locomotive, to allow the train engine (often an ex-South African Gorton-built Garratt) to attach, and the train to reverse and leave Porthmadoc over the Britannia Bridge and the road crossing.

Malc enjoys a pint of excellent local beer (as did Peter and me) in Spooner's Bar on Porthmadog station. Here he stands next to an unusual resident in the bar; a Hunslet quarry locomotive.

Here is a close look at that beer- Snowdonia Ale. Quite superb!

We bought tickets at Porthmadog for the Welsh Highland Railway journey to Caernarfon - the highlight of our trip. We decided to splash out and go first class in this Pullman-style coach. The single fare to Caernarfon for oldies is £20.40, and the supplement for first class is an extra £10.00. It's certainly worth paying for the comfort of the generous armchair seats and the ambiance of this coach. If you're lucky (we weren't) the first class coach will have an 'observation end' and will be at the back of the train to allow unobstructed views. We saw this on a Portmadog-bound train and presume the railway only has one such vehicle hence not having one on our train.

Our locomotive for the trip on the WHR was one of the ex-South African Garratts. Here it is being coaled and watered at Porthmadog.

The Garratt waits for its train to be positioned out of the station and onto the Cob by diesel locomotive 'Vale of Ffestiniog' before positioning on the front of it to take us to Caernarfon

Here's a video of our WHR train departing Porthmadog, crossing the Britannia Bridge, and then the main road before heading north for Snowdonia. Click on the link below:

Porthmadog departure

The weather had started dull and overcast as we left Wilmslow, but had steadily improved all morning. As we left Porthmadog and skirted the Glaslyn estuary, it had got about as good as it could be.

But some low cloud lurked in the hills

Heading for the highlands of Snowdonia, along the flatlands of the Glaslyn estuary

The luxurious interior of our Pullman coach with the steward taking orders; in plenty of time for them to be delivered early in the journey!

The distant, lefthand, of the peaks here is mount Snowdon

Not a cloud in the sky!

The River Glaslyn seen from the train as we follow its valley northwards into the hills

At Beddgelert our loco crew 'put the bag in' to replenish the Garratt's thirst after the strenuous climb from the coast. And of course, there is plenty of climbing yet to come.

The locomotive was built for South African Railways, where it spent its working life

The fireman has put a round on (the fire) and has left the firehole doors partly open with the blower on to allow 'top air' onto the fire to maximise combustion of gasses coming off the fire, thus extracting more energy from the fuel and helping to prevent dense smoke issuing from the chimney. Good firing practice that you don't always see!

To put more coal on, the fireman fully opens the firehole doors. Despite the blower being on, this picture clearly shows the combustion of gasses above the fire and that combustion being drawn out of the firebox towards the relatively oxygen-rich air in the cab (flames can be seen burning outside the firebox here). If the blower were turned off, there would be a nasty flash-back of fire into the cab as these gasses found oxygen in the cab and burned there rather than in the firebox. That's why one should never open the firehole doors on a steam locomotive without first turning on the blower to draw the fire forward through the boiler tubes towards the smoke box.

The Garratt's makers' plate showing she was built at Beyer Peacock's Gorton factory in Manchester in the surprisingly late year of 1958

The platform at Beddgelert is built on the ruling gradient of the line (about i in 62), so the station buildings are higher off the ground at one end than the other, to ensure that they are level

Climbing towards Meillionen; the lineside trees can make the tracks damp and even the mighty Garratts have been known to slip here

Here are links to 3 videos of the train under way north of Beddgelert. Plug in a headset  and turn up the sound, then click on the links to see them:

As we pounded up the valley we could see camera flashes from Snowdon's summit as tourists took pictures of the view, including what must have been our tiny train as seen by them as its smoke and steam plume would be marking our distant progress 

A zoomed-in view of Snowdon's summit, showing the new cafe there

Looking out of the other side of the train the views were just as impressive

Another view to the west

Now descending towards the north coast of the Lleyn Penninsula, the train approaches Llyn Cwellyn

Lleyn Cwellyn reflects the perfect blue sky

Out of the hills now, in the flat lands by the north coast of Llyn

At Bontnewydd the WHR takes the trackbed of the former BR line from Caernarfon to Afon Wen (closed and lifted in the 1960s) for the final few miles to Caernarfon. Above, looking across to the isle of Anglesey.

The WHR terminates near Caernarfon Castle. The Garratt draws forward onto the head shunt prior to running around its train, while Peter and Malc head for the town for the bus to Bangor and the train from there home to Wilmslow.

Our last view of the WHR as we cross the foot bridge to the town at Caernarfon. The coach nearest the camera is the our Pullman, the Garratt having now run around the train.

We walked into the town centre to catch the bus to Bangor. Our FRR rail tickets were accepted by the bus driver as valid, which is good as our English bus passes do not work in Wales. We had a wait of forty five minutes or so at Bangor station for the crowded Arriva Wales 2-coach Class 158 from Holyhead to Birmingham. At Llandudno Junction it coupled onto the rear of another such unit which was nearly empty, so we moved forward into that for the rest of the journey to Chester.

At Chester a near-empty Virgin Voyager for London Euston was waiting. It soon filled up! We were glad we only had to travel one stop (to Crewe) on this overcrowded, noisy, smelly, and uncomfortable train. A much more comfortable and quieter Virgin Pendolino whisked us home the last lap from Crewe to Wilmslow. We finished the day with a meal and a pint or two at the Bollin Fee where Ivan joined us before driving us home.

So ended a really good day out. Garratt steam locos, wild mountain scenery, a luxurious Pullman coach... and absolutely superb weather.


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