WELSH HIGHLAND AMBITION
the reawakening of the Welsh Highland railway is one of preservation’s greatest triumphs, but it’s not quite ‘finished’, as GORDON RUSHTON explains.
Anyone visiting the temporary Welsh Highland Railway (WHR) booking office at Caernarfon may be forgiven for making unfavourable comparison with the fine, fully signalled terminal at Porthmadog. Until now the excuse would be that, like Caernarfon Castle itself, Caernarfon station was unfinished. But not for much longer, because people have been digging deep in their pockets to support the building of a top-quality terminal station. Not so terminal, though, that the WHR couldn’t regain the tunnel under the town for railway use if the opportunity presents itself, and grand enough to offer visitors the facilities they now expect. Building work has now begun on this crowning glory - the culmination of a new steam railway line running 25 miles from the Ffestiniog Railway’s (FR) terminus at Porthmadog to Caernarfon. Like Caernarfon station, the Welsh Highland Railway was ‘unfinished’ when it opened in 2010, but the glory of an almost 100% steam railway has been steadily added to every year since then. To run a railway with two trains in service together, and steadily growing traffic, demands enough carriages of the right quality, and reliable locomotives to haul them - and the story of steam locomotives on today’s WHR is quite special, not least owing to the daunting terrain they cross.
The railway offers challenges, 2ft gauge or not. Almost at the platform end at Caernarfon the gradient steepens to 1 in 50, which is not welcoming to a cold steam locomotive. And there’s about two miles of 1 in 40 a short way out of Dinas towards Rhyd-Ddu as a reminder not to mess with this part of Wales! Although the journey out from Porthmadog is like a billiard table for the first five miles, it suddenly rises with a vicious 1 in 40 climb after Hafod-y-Llyn, and this goes on almost without interruption for the next five miles along with curves of 55-metre radius. This is twice as steep as the 13-mile long FR, so the WHR was a sombre prospect for the railway restorers - until it was remembered that it had already solved this problem, or rather Beyer Peacock in Manchester had. It was clear from the start that the WHR was going to work hard for its living –- indeed, many people promised failure and economic disaster at an early date. Herbert Garratt and Beyer Peacock, however, saved the day. Garratt’s famous prototype ‘K1’ had been returned from Tasmania, and the Ffestiniog had bought it when Beyers closed. It stood idle for many years, with no one willing to butcher it to fit the Ffestiniog loading gauge. It was a reminder of the solution for which no one had yet found a problem. When that problem came, it coincided with the availability of a prime answer. The closure of the 610mm narrow gauge lines in South Africa offered examples for sale of the powerful ‘NGG16’ 2-6-2+2-6-2 Beyer Garratt locomotives - and the Ffestiniog bought two. The first little stretch of the WHR opened, with the three miles between Caernarfon and Dinas proving to be a perfect testing ground for Nos. 138 and 143. The calculation that they would each be able to pull 12 cars on a dry rail was confirmed. Efficient sanders have been fitted to achieve the same performance on a wet rail. Then, a curious phenomenon came to visit as the railway escaped from Dinas and made its way into the mountains. There were knocks on the door from people offering generous projects to run their Garratts in regular service on the WHR. Such kindness has really solved the motive power problem in the most glorious way. The ‘not finished’ nature of the WHR meant a meagre five carriages to its name when starting to run the first three miles, but this number of vehicles increased steadily, gradually loading the locomotives as the railway got longer. By the time the full length opened, with stock borrowed from the Ffestiniog, the two rakes comprised up to ten cars each and
there was the demand for two trains per day. Fortunately, the first of the extra Garratts - a Belgian-built machine, No. 87 - was overhauled and working. No. 140 was also available, but kept as a kit of ‘ready parts’, with the locomotive’s identity set by the boiler and cradle (so No. 140 will appear in due course). Yet this was too close to the edge with a 100% steam railway running two trains a day. In 2016, No. 87 ran 13,189 miles and No. 138 ran 14,120 miles – and when running that far, reliable backup is essential. Fortunately, again through generosity, Garratt No. 130 is now surging towards completion with a new boiler, No. 109 is awaiting overhaul as a kit of parts at Dinas, and a spare boiler is now out to tender for repair. The objective is to be ‘safe’ for motive power, so that overhauls find the pace that is affordable – this has happened.
RISING TO CHALLENGES
Pressure never eases, though, as efficient marketing and sales increases passenger numbers - and a struggle has been taking place to keep pace with passenger demand by offering two, comfortable ten-car corridor trains of full-width WHR loading gauge stock. The new Caernarfon station allows room for 12-car trains to operate on the WHR when necessary, as they do on the FR, so an order for new coaches is being tackled at the FR’s Boston Lodge works. It has built the new ‘Super Saloons’ at a cost of £130,000-200,000 each, and continues to build more for both railways. Caernarfon station will enable 12-car trains and expanding passenger numbers will mean that the current fleet of Garratts are going to have to work rather harder. Fortunately, the Ffestiniog ‘Super Saloons’ have the same level of comfort as a WHR saloon, which is the reason for building them! A new Ffestiniog corridor train is steadily emerging from the Boston Lodge
carriage workshop, vehicle by vehicle. It’s designed to run through services from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Caernarfon, when needed, and that will make it the longest heritage railway run in Britain nearly 40 miles - by a 2ft gauge train. Soon No. 130 will join the ‘NGG16’ fleet that will comprise Nos. 87, 109, 130, 138, 140 and 143. The awesome point to make about the progress being made is how the money is found for it. There are splendid schemes underway within preservation, especially for locomotives, but the cost of retrieving the WHR was £28m and £14m of that was raised from sponsors and membership over the 20 years that it took to build. Some £14m was given by the State, but then economic studies show that the combined FR and WHR put back some £25m per year into the local economy, so the grants were good for both parties. You don’t often come across figures, but they are important: without fundraising, nothing would ever happen. The F&WHR needs 40 ‘Super Saloons’, including observations and service cars - that’s £6m to find over the building period for the fleet (and then they have to be maintained and sheds need to be built to put them in). The seven ‘NGG16’ Garratts cost just under £500,000 each for a major overhaul and restoration, so that’s £3m, and this doesn’t include any purchase price, nor running maintenance. Added together, this part of the expensive game of trains already nearly reaches £10m. Rebuilding Caernarfon station to offer visitors the facilities they need and persuade them to access the National Park by train (saving perhaps 100,000 car journeys on National Park roads) is impressive. Even more so is the fact that Caernarfon Castle and WHR ‘anchor’ people in the town by luring a flood of over 200,000 visitors a year to spend money and improve commercial prosperity. Perhaps for that reason the £2.5m station scheme has been generously grant aided, but it doesn’t come free. The Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland must provide £420,000 towards that. Along with all the expenditures mentioned (locomotives and carriages) and not mentioned (other new stations, sheds and workshops to keep the new equipment sheltered and operational, track, wagons, and a myriad of other things) the WHR is always looking at ways to raise essential funds. One successful route has been in arranging fun and interesting events aimed at encouraging as many people as possible to visit and enjoy all that steam has to offer. And two forthcoming events are sure to prove appealing to enthusiasts and families alike - ‘Super Power - Welsh Highland Stars’ on September 15-17 and a ‘Victorian Weekend’ on October 6-8, where you’ll perhaps get a glimpse of some of the secrets behind closed doors. The railway looks forward to seeing you there!
Snowdon serenity: Garratt No. 138 drifts downhill away from Beddgelert with a train for Porthmadog.
A Garratt-hauled train snakes through the Aberglaslyn Pass.
One of the power bogies for Garratt No. 130, under overhaul, arrives at Dinas.
An artist’s impression of the new station to be built at Caernarfon.
‘Super Saloon’ No. 119 was outshopped in September 2014 and was built thanks to a £100,000 donation from supporter Margaret Ritchie.
No. 119’s interior features panoramic windows and laser-cut maps of the F&WHR on each table.