Friday, 16 June 2017

A bit of narrow gauging in North Wales

I love the narrow gauge railways of North Wales. I have travelled the Ffestiniog Railway countless times over the decades, and experienced the much more recently re-opened Welsh Highland Railway on a few one-way trips (twice northbound, and once southbound), but had never done a return trip.

I felt the need to spend a couple of days in Porthmadog, where Harbour Station is the common terminus for one end of both railways. Each is two foot gauge, each is steam hauled, but they have very different characters.

The Ffestiniog is a one-time gravity worked slate railway (later converted to steam), bringing the product down from the Blaenau Ffestiniog quarries to the sea at Porthmadog for shipping to UK and world markets.

The Welsh Highland was a short lived conglomeration of narrow gauge lines between Porthmadog and Dinas, on the north coast of Wales. It failed in the early years of the last century, but was, amazingly, re-incarnated by the Ffestiniog Railway several years ago, extended at both ends beyond its original limits, and now runs from the same Harbour Station as the Ffestiniog Railway, to Caernarfon on the North Wales coast.

I booked a hotel in Porthmadog for two nights commencing Monday 12th June, and bought a train ticket Wilmslow to Porthmadog return (£29 for one of the most scenic rail journeys in UK; far cheaper than the petrol I'd use if I drove; and so much more enjoyable! Who says UK has high rail fares?).

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

Approaching Fairbourne on the Cambrian Coast line in an Arriva Wales train from Shrewsbury to Pwllheli, which I will ride as far as Porthmadog

Barmouth, a little further up the Cambrian Coast line

That afternoon I was seated in the train about to ascend the Ffestiniog Railway line to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and back. Our locomotive, Double Fairlie 'David Lloyd George', having coaled and watered, here makes its way past my carriage window to the head of the train.  

The locomotive was built in 1992 at the railway's Boston Lodge works, and is the most recent Double Fairlie locomotive in the world and also the most powerful locomotive on the railway. It was originally built to burn oil rather than coal. It was returned to service in May 2014 following overhaul, fitting of new power bogies, and conversion to coal firing.

Very welcome on a warm afternoon; Welsh Farmhouse Cider served by on board stewards at table. Note the map of both the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways etched into the table top.

As the train climbs from the coast up the continuous grade towards its upper terminus, the views over the Vale of Ffestiniog open out

The railway is built on a constant gradient falling towards the coast, as it was originally gravity-worked; trains of slate wagons ran down to the sea by gravity alone, under the control of a brakesman. The horse that would haul the empty wagons back up to the slate quarry rode in a horse wagon on the back of the train. A result is that line zig-zags its way down the valley side to maintain the constant gradient, so I was able to photograph our locomotive (above) from my seat on the train.

In the 1950s, before the railway was restored, a hydro electric power station was built near Tanygrisiau. Its reservoir flooded the original track bed and in the 1960s and early '70s the railway built a 'deviation' around the flooded section incorporating a spiral to gain height, and a new tunnel to replace the flooded one. The original track bed can be seen (above) entering the northern end of the reservoir.

The power station reservoir seen from its dam. The power station itself can be seen on the right shore of the reservoir, our train have just passed behind it to reach this point.

At the Blaenau Ffestiniog terminus, 'David Lloyd George' runs around its train for the journey back down to Porthmadog

Before coupling onto the train, the locomotive takes on water to replenish its tanks. The fireman has to clamber up to wrap the 'bag;' (canvas water pipe) around the water crane after use, presumably to keep it out of the reach of vandals. 

On the Double Fairlie, the driver stands on the right, the fireman on the left, with the one-piece boiler passing between them through the cab. The loco has two fireboxes, both on the fireman's side, and two injectors, one on each side. It also has two regulators, one for each power bogie.

The Ffestiniog abounds in lovely detail, like these highly varnished benches on the station platforms. They must have quite a number of dedicated volunteers.

Back at Porthmadog, 'David Lloyd George' is uncoupled from the train to run forward to the coaling and watering point. When the incoming Welsh Highland Railway train arrived at Porthmadog from Caernarfon, its Garratt locomotive was coupled to the Double Fairlie, and pair set off across the Cob to Boston Lodge for disposal. 

Here is a video of that Welsh Highland train from Caernarfon arriving in Porthmadog, and crossing the Britannia road bridge into Harbour Station:

Next morning (Tuesday 13th) I was back at Harbour station for a trip on the Welsh Highland Railway to its Caernarfon terminus and back. Before my train's stock was shunted into the station I watched the departure of the first Ffestiniog train to Blaenau. Here, Double Fairlie 'Iarll Merionnydd' moves up from the coaling bay to position onto its train. 

'Iarll Merionnydd'  or 'Earl of Merioneth' was built in 1979, the first Double Fairlie built by the restored Ffestiniog Railway, and the only one of its kind to deviate from the classic design with the cuboid side tanks. 

Its days are numbered as it is soon to be withdrawn. Its bogies will be removed for use on New-build double Fairlie "James Spooner".

The Fairlie's cab; the reversing lever is prominent in the foreground (on the driver's side of the cab), while the two regulators (one for each power bogie) can be seen atop the boiler. The boiler pressure gauge is on the forward cab wall, and the driver's boiler water gauge glass can just be seen to the right of the cab, obvious by its black and white striping which makes the water level much easier to see (the diagonal stripes are refracted to horizontal by the presence of water in the glass - or not!).

The Garratts on the Welsh Highland are repatriated ex-South African Railways, most being built in Gorton, east Manchester. Here is our Garratt for the day, no. 87. This one was built by Belgian company Société Anonyme John Cockerill

The signalman chats to the Fairlie's driver just before departure

The Ffestiniog train having departed, our Garratt brings the Welsh Highland stock out of the siding to position it in the platform

Being outside the school holiday season, the trains were not too full. Here is the interior of our Welsh Highland coach.

Our turn to cross the Britannia road bridge, northbound across Snowdonia bound for Caernarfon

On the northern outskirts of Porthmadog the Welsh Highland two-foot gauge tracks cross the Network Rail standard gauge lines (four foot eight and a half inches, above) on a flat crossing. In reinstating the long derelict Welsh Highland Line, the Ffestiniog Railway Company performed many seeming miracles, such as reclaiming disused track bed from farmers who had used it for field access for decades. Not least of their achievements was establishing this flat crossing across Network Rail's main line from Pwllheli to Machynlleth and the associated signalling complications to ensure safe train separation between operations on the two railways.  

Here is a video of our train leaving the Glaslyn estuary and beginning the climb to Pont Croesor:

Click here to see the video

Here is a video of our train setting off from Nantmor, the second station north from Porthmadog:

Last time I travelled this line I had superb weather with great views of Snowdon summit. Not today though, with low cloud over the mountains.

A Garratt in kit form! This dis-assembled locomotive is awaiting attention, stored by the sheds at Dinas.

A Garratt and a castle; our locomotive detached from its train at the Caernarfon terminus, ready to run-around for the return journey.

The station at Caernarfon is temporary, as construction of a new station on the same site is about to commence.

This overhead view of our loco and train at Caernarfon shows how the Garratt's front power bogie carries the water tank while the rear one carries coal as well, the locomotive itself being suspended between the two bogies

'Girl on a train'. At a passing loop on the return journey we passed the Porthmadog - Caernarfon train.

A glimpse of the sea to the south as we approach the Aberglaslyn Pass on our descent from the mountains of Snowdonia to Porthmadog

Here is a video of our train crossing the Britannia road bridge and entering Harbour Station, Porthmadog, this time filmed from the train:

On the morning of Wednesday 14th I walked to Porthmadog station to catch the 09:52 train home. Here's a different view of that flat crossing, where the two foot gauge Welsh Highland line crosses the standard gauge Network Rail line, this time photographed from the Arriva Wales train to Machynlleth and on to Shrewsbury. Note the gates across the narrow gauge line.

Barmouth bridge, viewed from the train on the journey south along the glorious Cambrian Coast line.
From Machynlleth the Arriva Wales class 158 picked up its skirts and sped to Talerddig passing loop on the faster mid Wales line, where we stopped to allow the opposite direction train to pass (all these Welsh lines are single track). After that brief stop we were soon up to speed again, stopping at Caersws, Newtown, and Welshpool before I left the train at Shrewsbury. After a wait in the station it continued on its way to Birmingham International.

 Another Arriva Wales train took me to Wilmslow from Shrewsbury, one of the comfortable class 175 units on a South Wales to Manchester service. I was there by 14:45, in nice time for the 14:54 No.88 bus from the station to home.


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