WHR launches major research competition to celebrate opening
THE Welsh Highland Railway, one of the world’s most iconic narrow gauge lines, has launched a series of activities and events that will culminate next year in the celebration of the centenary of its opening.
At the heart of the year-long project will be a competition sponsored by Heritage Railway for the best piece of original research on the history of the WHR and its predecessor, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways, including the personalities and customers involved.
The competition will be judged by two eminent historians, Dr Dafydd Gwyn and Gareth Haulfryn Williams, and the winner will be announced in June 2023 – exactly 100 years after the opening – and receive a cash prize of £500.
Dr Gwyn is a Bangor-born historian and archaeologist who advised Gwynedd Council on its successful bid for UNESCO World Heritage status for the slate landscape of north-west Wales. He is a trustee of the Festiniog Railway and chairman of the Bala Lake Railway.
A Cambridge University and Dublin Trinity College graduate, he is also the author of a number of studies in industrial-era and post-Medieval archaeology, including a major work on the Welsh slate industry that was published in 2015 by the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments of Wales.
Gareth Williams, who was born in Llandudno, is a former county archivist of Merioneth who retired as head of culture for Gwynedd Council in 2003. Former roles with the Festiniog Railway include trustee, curatorial advisor, and chairman of its heritage company. He is currently archivist of the WHR Society, and has published and broadcast on various aspects of transport and social history and, like Dr Gwyn, is a Welsh speaker.
The origins of what is today’s Welsh Highland Railway go back 145 years to September 1877, when the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways opened a 1ft 11½in gauge three-mile line from Dinas Junction, on the LNWR main line, to Bryngwyn. Its primary purpose was for the transportation of slate, although there was a passenger service to two intermediate stations at Tryfan Junction and Rhostryfan. In 1881 a five-mile second stage was completed southwards, from Tryfan Junction to Rhyd Ddu. Between these two were four stations: Waunfawr, Betws Garmon, Plas-yNant, and Snowdon Ranger, which was also named Quellyn Lake during its history.
Like so many of its peers at the time, the railway struggled financially. In 1910 it was reported that the six-month net revenue had fallen to just £200, leading to negotiations with the LNWR about a sale, but although an acquisition was announced, it was never completed.
In 1916, with the country in the midst of a world war, the railway’s passenger services ceased, and in April 1920 the NWNGR was bought by the Aluminium Corporation of Dolgarrog, which already owned other narrow gauge lines in the region.
Two years later the railway was incorporated into the Welsh Highland Railway, and the seed was sown for a new chapter in the line’s existence. Initially that new chapter made good reading, for in June 1923 the line was extended 12½ miles further south from Rhyd Ddu to Porthmadog, so completing the link to the LNWR at Dinas 22 miles to the north.
Sadly, however, the euphoric mood of this development was soon dissipated by financial reality, and in 1927 the line went into receivership, although passenger services, which had been reintroduced, continued until 1936 and freight traffic until the following year.
Following the end of freight services in 1937, the line lay dormant for several years until much of the rolling stock was sold and most of the track lifted during the Second World War. That, however, was far from the end, for revivalists formed the Welsh Highland Railway Society in 1961 and eventually set up an operating railway close to the original trackbed in 1980. The goal of returning to the
original line proved to be elusive as ever, with years of false starts and frustration. Eventually the Festiniog Railway became involved and the line was reopened in stages. This included in November 1997 a new 2½-mile section between Dinas and Caernarfon, while the final link into Porthmadog was opened to passenger traffic in February 2011.
Nick Booker, chairman of the Welsh Highland Railway Heritage Group, said: “On behalf of the railway’s centenary celebrations committee, I am extremely grateful for the sponsorship of our research competition by Heritage Railway and its sister publication, The Railway Magazine.
“We hope that the submissions will shed further light on the complex history of the railway, the area it served, and the many individuals involved in its planning, construction and operation, and of course its demolition and ultimate restoration.
“It is noteworthy that Heritage Railway and The Railway Magazine have, over the years, played an important role in reporting on the story of the Welsh Highland and its predecessors. We look forward to them continuing to do so, and reporting on a worthy winner to our competition in June next year.”
Robin Jones, editor of Heritage Railway, expressed his pride in the magazine sponsoring the competition. “The Welsh Highland is one of the most iconic and delightful narrow gauge railways in the world, and the research competition will both celebrate the centenary landmark and be a worthy addition to the knowledge of the railway’s history, which is a fascinating one.”
The project is also being supported by the WHR Society, the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, and the Festiniog Railway.
It is now open for the registration of interest to submit an entry. The deadline for submitting entries, of between 3500 and 10,000 words, is February 28 next year.