Porthmadog Harbour Station, waiting for our engine to arrive across the Cob.
The website, The Great Little Trains of Wales, lists ten preserved narrow gauge railways, all but one in the north of Wales. The newest and the longest of these is the Welsh Highland Railway, mostly operated using unique Garatt type locomotive. The recently completed line only opened for through trains a few months before my visit.
There are standard gauge steam railways here as well. In general, the British Isles are home to more steam and railway preservation than can reasonably be imagined by this American. And they all seem well patronized. The British treasure their heritage, and that very much includes their railway heritage.
Setting the points at Porthmadog.
Railroads aren't the only reason for a trip to North Wales, of course. The area is one of the most picturesque in the UK. Snowdonia National Park, 838 square miles (2,170 km2), occupies much of north-western Wales. Within its borders Mt. Snowdon at 3,560 feet (1,085 m) is the highest mountain in Wales. Throughout the region, narrow, winding lanes, often bordered with hedge rows or rock walls, pass through rolling, green hills and higher mountains. Sheep are often encountered on the road. Pleasant small farms, pastures and an occasional small village, mostly built from native stone, dot the landscape. Castles along the scenic coast of the Irish Sea and along the English borders are a constant reminder that relations were not always peaceful between England and Wales.
A World War I vintage, armor plated, Simplex shunting engine was the first thing to arrive across the Cob from Boston Lodge Works.
The line was first opened in 1922, but ceased operation after only fifteen years in 1937. Much of the rails and equipment went to the war effort, but by 1960, efforts were underway to revive the line.
Second to arrive was our unusual locomotive, Garratt 2-6-2+2-6-2 Number 87.
The rebuilt railway is 25 miles long and designed to support speeds of 25 miles per hour. Wales' longest narrow gauge runs north from Porthmadog, over scenic Aberglaslyn Pass to Caernarfon, on the east bank of the Menai Straits. After years of rebuilding by dedicated volunteers, the first through train of the restored railway ran in February 2011, only months before my visit.
A closer look.
Due to the expected traffic and grades up to 2.5%, larger locomotives than originally used (or those used by other Welsh narrow gauge lines) were needed. Most trains are now pulled by Garratt type locomotives. These articulated locomotives are of a unique design: boiler, water and fuel space are all mounted on a frame and that on two complete bogies or "engines". For the WHR, these bogies consist of a frame with cylinders and either two 2-6-2 or two 0-4-0 bogies.
A nice farm house north of Porthmadog.
Our train was pulled by Number 87, a 2-6-2+2-6-2 turned out by Cockerill of Belgium in 1937. This locomotive had spent its workaday life in South Africa.
There are four tunnels along the line.
Historically and again today the WHR has been closely associated with the Ffestiniog Railway. Both lines use the same station in Porthmadog, share the locomotive facility at Boston Lodge and even utalize a common website.
The countryside became more wooded as we approached Aberglaslyn Pass.
The morning of our ride was a fine, sunny Welsh day with pleasant termperatures and just a trace of fog off the Irish Sea. I was careful to arrive with a little extra time before departure to take a few pictures. Our train stood ready except for motive power. In anticipation of the arrival of our engine, I watched as points were set.
Smoke could be seen in the slightly foggy air above Boston Lodge about a mile away near the distant end of the Cob. Soon something was coming but not what I expected. This first arrival was a bit unusual: a WWI era, gasoline powered, Simplex shunting engine with some of its armor plating still intact. The 40 hp engine was acquired by the Ffestiniog and WHR in 1923 and is sometimes known as "Mary Ann". It was the first locomotive to operate on the revived Ffestiniog.
The Simplex was soon followed by our locomotive, WHR Engine Number 87. I had only a few minutes to take pictures before departure time.
At the pass hikers awaited our train.
The route of the Welsh Highland is through pleasant, thoroughly green Welsh countryside. Much of the ride is within Snowdonia National Park. We passed a few small towns off in the distance, a nice stone farmhouse, lakes, rivers, tunnels and, of course Aberglaslyn Pass, the high point on the railway scenically although not by elevation. It is, and has been for years, a popular hiking spot. To rebuild the railway, it was necessary to provide a foot path between the track and the river to accommodate hikers and fishermen who had been using the old grade for years.
Garratt Number 143, built in 1958, was the last locomotive built by Beyer, Peacock and Company in Manchester.
All too soon, the massive Caernarfon Castle came into view and we had reached our destination. The castle was built as an English stronghold following Edward I's invasion and colonization in 1283. A Roman fort and a Norman castle had preceded it.
Several small villages could be seen a little off the railway.
The first season of trains from Porthmadog to Caernarfon provided very limited through service (one through train in each direction the day we rode), so after lunch and a little sightseeing, we returned on by the regular local bus service.
Widening of the north end of the Cob is already completed with the goal of adding a second boarding platform to the Porthmadog Harbour Station. Although more through trains are already scheduled for 2012, work will not be completed at the station until late 2013 or early 2014 due to the limited window for making changes.
One of several lakes on the descent to Caernarfon.
Of all The Great Little Trains of Wales, the Welsh Highland and the Ffestiniog are the big operators. Both were very busy when we were there. Operations were very professional, and everything seemed to run like clockwork.
Caernarfon Castle took nearly fifty years to construct beginning in 1283.
Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways
Gwynedd, LL49 9NF
Web site: http://www.festrail.co.uk/
Telephone: 44 1766 516000
Fax: 44 1766 516005