Double Fairlie, the Earl of Merioneth, ready to depart on an early morning train. The croud was so large that that day a diesel was added.
Britain is not only the birthplace of the steam railway but also of narrow gauge steam railways. For this narrow gauge enthusiast, a trip to Wales was a visit to the origins of it all. That might not be enough, but for the fact that the UK is also the birthplace of railway preservation. The British clearly have a passion for their past -- including steam railways.
Early users of rails for easy movement of heavy wagons were mostly mining and industrial. These early tramways were constructed in a variety of gauges. The wheel gauge selected by Stephenson is often said to be approximately the same as Roman cherriots and more recent roadway carrages as well. Probably, it just happened that the Northumberland mining tramways George Stephenson experimented with were of a gauge of four-feet eight and one-half inches, so that gauge became his standard by default. Others picked other gauges so that when the first railways open to the public were being constructed, there was no standard. Notably, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a diminutive man known for extraordinary projects, established a network of broad gauge railways. Brunel built his railroads to a gauge of seven feet and one-quarter inch.
The British parliament passed the Gauge Act in 1846 ruling that new passenger carrying railways in Great Britain should be built to a standard gauge. After considerable investigation, George Stephenson's gauge of four feet eight and one-half inches, then referred to as "narrow gauge" (as opposed to Brunel's "broad gauge"), was selected. Naturally, this was a severe blow to the Brunel's already vast Great Western Railway.
In North America, prior to the Civil War at least seven gauges were used - gauges from four feet eight and one-half inches to six feet. The most common gauge in 1861 was, however the Stephenson gauge constituting 53% of the railroad mileage in the US and Canada. During the US Civil War, the military railways were significantly hampered by the limitations of non standard gauges - freight and passengers had to be moved from car to car often even from station to station. Some standard was clearly needed. In 1863 a second Pacific Railroad Act set the gauge for the Pacific Railroad and its branches to Stephenson's gauge. Thereafter, four feet eight and one-half inches became the de facto standard for future railroad construction in the US and for compatibility conversions.
Porthmadog harbor hasn't seen a slate schooner in years.
But just when all this seemed settled once and for all, the narrow gauge movement began. Some disparagingly described it as "narrow gauge mania," "narrow gauge fever" or a "remarkable delusion." Major promoters of narrower gauges, at least for specific applications, were Robert F. Fairlie (1831 - 1885) in Great Britain and William J. Palmer (1836 - 1909) and Edward Hulbert (1823 - 1888) in the United States.
In 1870 Fairlie declared that, "Every inch added to the width of a gauge beyond what is absolutely necessary for the traffic adds to the cost of construction, increases the proportion of dead weight, increases the cost of working, and, in consequence, increases the tariffs to the public, and by so much reduces the useful effect of the railway."
Double Fairlie David Lloyd George, with an uphill train, waits for the staff at Tan y Grisiau.
Back in the US, Hulbert organized two Narrow Gauge Conventions, held in 1872 and 1878, to promote the narrow gauge cause. The promises of lower construction costs, especially in mountainous terrain, lower equipment costs and lower operational costs, especially where the market was not large, seemed compelling to some. Others, notably Matthias N. Forney, the influential editor of the Railway Gazette, opposed it. Despite opposition, a significant boom in the construction of narrow gauge railroads resulted.
At the US narrow gauge construction peak in 1878, 35% of all common carrier railroad miles constructed were narrow gauge, most commonly three foot gauge. Common carrier mileage peaked in 1885 when 18,529 miles of narrow gauge were in operation, not including non-common carriers such as lumber lines and mining railroads. Following the rush to build was a rapid decline, but quite a few narrow gauge lines were still operating well into the 20th century. Among these were unconverted portions of General Palmer's Denver & Rio Grande (the D&RG was renamed Denver & Rio Grande Western following several reorganizations and consolidations).
The Ffestiniog, narrow gauge and the US
The Ffestiniog Railway was founded by an act of Parliament on May 23, 1832. It was constructed to a gauge of one foot eleven and one-half inches, was 13 1/2 miles long and was built on a relatively steady one percent grade. The line was opened for traffic in 1836 using horses to pull empty cars upgrade to the slate mines at Blaenau Ffestiniog (elevation 730 feet) and gravity to take the loads down to sea level at Porthmadog for loading on sailing ships. Steam was introduced to the line in 1863 because, by that time the slate business was so good that horses couldn't keep up with the traffic. In 1865 the line began carrying passengers.
In late 1870 while on his honeymoon Palmer visited the Ffestiniog which had become Fairlie's demonstration project. Palmer was already planning to build a railroad, primarily north to south, starting in Denver. The General met with Robert Fairlie who was already promoting both his concept of narrow gauge railways and his unusual locomotive design.
Fairlie patented his double-bogie, articulated locomotive in 1864. The design was basically two boilers joined at the firebox and resting on two powered trucks (bogies) each free to pivot relative to the boiler and frame. Advantages included the power of two engines controlled by a single crew, flexibility, no weight on unpowered wheels and a firebox not restricted by the width of the wheels and frame. The Little Wonder was the second locomotive, designed and built to his patent for the Ffestiniog Railway. The engine was completed in 1869 and was extensively tested, extensively promoted and considered a great success.
The driver is actually operating two engines: note the twin regulators.
Fairlie considered this design integral to the success of his system. He argued that by combining his patented locomotives with a narrow gauge, "railways could be built for half the cost of the ordinary plan, with no reduction in capacity." Later he declared that without the use of his engine design, "the value of the narrow gauge at once sinks into comparative insignificance."
While Fairlie patent locomotives were apparently a big success on the Ffestiniog, they never really caught on in the US. The D&RG did try one, named the Mountaineer, but it was never repeated.
The Mason Locomotive Works of Taunton, Massachusetts, held the US patent for Fairlies and actually built one standard gauge Fairlie, the Janus in 1877, but like the Mountaineer, it was never duplicated. Mason had more success with a single boiler, single bogie version of the Fairlie design; Mason Bogies, as they were known, were popular, notably with the Denver South Park & Pacific, a Colorado narrow gauge rival to the D&RG.
Train time at Porthmadog. It was time I headed back to the observation car.
For this Colorado narrow gauge devotee, a trip to the Ffestiniog Railway is a kind of pilgrimage. I had been here before: this was actually my third ride. Porthmadog is home terminal to both the Ffestiniog and the associated Welsh Highland Railway. The Ffestiniog is probably the most popular and best known of all the "Great Little Trains of Wales," the website for which lists ten preserved narrow gauge railways.
Boston Lodge Works are located at the south end of the Cob.
We arrived in Porthmadog to find it a very busy day. The station is at the end of a wharf, but slate schooners no longer arrive here. These days the harbor is filled with pleasure boats. It was a Tuesday in July, and our train was so popular that our double Fairlie, the Earl of Merioneth, suffered the indignity of requiring a diesel helper. Three double Fairlies, with construction dates from 1879 to 1992, run on the road as well as single Fairlie, Taliesin. This Fairlie single was completed by the railway’s own Boston Lodge Works as recently as 1999.
As we passed the works, Linda was receiving some attention.
This time we choose to ride first class. Our observation car at the end of the train was occupied by only one other, a man who had lent a hand, years ago, when the railway was being rebuilt. Unfortunately, I got to talking with him as we both looked out the glass end of the car observing the narrow track and the passing scene, and I missed some good photo opportunities.
The pictoresque old Minffordd station. You can walk to the main line station from here.
The trip is relatively short, only thirteen and one-half miles, but the scenery and infrastructure are beautiful and the railway's operations are fascinating to observe. We started our journey by crossing the long stone Cob (a sea wall to reclaim land from the sea, built in 1811 by William Madocks), then making a sharp turn to the left where we passed Boston Lodge Works. It is here that carriages and locomotives have been maintained, rebuilt and even built new for over 150 years.
We had time to climb off at Tan y Bwlch while awaiting a Porthmadog bound train with Blanche backing.
A better view of Blanche, a 2-4-0T built by Hunslet in 1893.
Intriguing halts with curious Welsh names dot the line: names such as Penrhyn, Rhiw Goch, Tan y Bwlch, and Tanygrisiau.
All too soon we arrived at Bleanu Ffestiniog where we had only a short time before riding the same train back. In contrast to Porthmadog, the town seemed quiet and uncrowded. It is a town built for and of slate.
Blaenau Ffestinaog was a quit place.
At Blaenau Ffestinaog the fireman moves the head-code lamp to the other end of the engine.
Our engines were run around for our return so that the observation car followed directly behind the Earl of Merioneth. One of the highlights of the trip back was watching as the fireman exchanged single track staffs for each signaling block. In was also interesting to watch him dealing with the very confined space to scoop the coal and swing it around to the fire door in the boiler side.
Signalman and fireman exchange staffs at Rhiw Goch.
Ffestiniog in recent times
Unfortunately by 1946, the railway had ceased operation. Since it was created by an act of parliament, however, it could only be dissolved by another act of parliament, and instead it simply languished.
In 1951, a controlling interest in the company was acquired by Alan Pegler (of Flying Scotsman fame). Shares were subsequently transferred to a charitable trust: The Ffestiniog Railway Trust. A volunteer board of directors, enthusiastic volunteers and a small paid staff set about rebuilding the line.
On July 23, 1955, passenger service was resumed operating from Porthmadog across the Cob to Boston Lodge. The first trains used a small Simplex diesel and then steam locomotive Prince. In 1956 services were restored to Minffordd and that autumn the double Fairlie "Livingston Thompson," renamed "Taliesin," ran trial trips. By spring of 1957 trains were running to Penrhyn and as far as Tan-y-Bwlch a year later.
Then the real challenge began. Because of the recent construction of Tanygrisiau reservoir, "The great deviation" was required beginning with the Dduallt spiral to raise the line to a new, higher grade. The spiral was completed in 1971.
Water in the Tanygrisiau reservoir was low; we could see the old grade from the "great deviation".
Blaenau Ffestiniog was reached on May 25, 1982 in time for the 150th anniversary of the Company's enabling Act of Parliament.
The current day Ffestiniog is an endearing reminder of once great and influential events early in the the narrow gauge movement. Even Robert Fairlie conceded that the Ffestiniog's chosen gauge was a just a bit too narrow for most projected narrow gauge railways he envisioned. Most were indeed built to a wider gauge than Ffestiniog's one foot eleven and one-half inches. Still, in its day as a slate hauler and again today as a tourist hauler, the gauge works very well indeed.
Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways
Gwynedd, LL49 9NF
Web site: http://www.festrail.co.uk/
Telephone: 44 1766 516000
Fax: 44 1766 516005