Travel

Welsh steam trains slated for success

Dwarfed by the mountains, a Little Train appears even smaller.
Dwarfed by the mountains, a Little Train appears even smaller. Ffestiniog Railway Company

WHEN a group of Welsh businessmen decided in 1863 to use steam engines to haul slate from the mountainous inland of Wales to export wharves on the coast, there was much chortling from cynics across the border in England.

Among them was Robert Stephenson, son of railway pioneer George Stephenson, and who like his father was a railway engineer and locomotive builder, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer responsible for England's Great Western Railway.

The reason for their mirth was that they were building trains that would run on tracks a generous 1435mm wide giving comfort and speed for long passenger and freight trains pulled by large and powerful locomotives, while the steam railway proposed for Wales would run on puny, unstable things of less than a mere 597mm.

"Locomotives for such a narrow line will not have the power to haul wagons loaded with heavy slate," the critics scoffed.

"It is all an unsafe folly."

But with booming demand for slate, the Welsh ordered four Lilliputian-size steam engines for their Ffestiniog Railway Company (in Welsh Rheilffyrdd Ffestiniog Ac Eryrl).

Until then their "slate trains" were operated by a simple combination of horse-power and gravity.

And as if the ghosts of those rail pioneers are today rubbing the noses of their detractors into the slate their little trains once hauled, Ffestiniog is now the world's oldest surviving railway company.

The Ffestiniog Railway Little Train in spectacular Snowdonia National Park.
The Ffestiniog Railway Little Train in spectacular Snowdonia National Park. Ffestiniog Railway Company

Next March celebrates 150 years since the introduction of its first steam engine and as a member of The Great Little Trains of Wales is one of Britain's major tourist attractions, with its sister company the Welsh Highland Railway carrying 300,000 guests a year between them.

And that tiny first steam engine, that was called Princess and which went into operation in 1863, is still around today, currently enjoying a make-over for those 150th anniversary celebrations after somewhat bizarrely being "conserved" since 1981 in the bar of a Welsh pub.

When the "railway" opened in 1832 slate mined from around the mountains of North Wales was loaded into rail wagons at Blaenau Ffestiniog, and allowed to free-run by gravity 21.7km downhill to the wharves of Porthmadog - with two brakemen in a rear wagon controlling their speed.

And a horse was carried in another wagon called a "dandy," to haul the eight empty wagons back up to the mines.

But such was world demand for Welsh slate, particularly for making roofing tiles, that the rail company realised it needed to get its trains back into the mountains faster than its horses could haul them.

It decided in 1863 on its diminutive little steam engines.

They proved an instant success, and it's known that many visitors to Wales would also request a quite illegal ride into the mountains in the empty steam-hauled slate wagons, prompting the railway to build pint-sized passenger carriages that it added to its slate trains to earn extra income from locals and tourists.

But by the 1940s new roofing materials were replacing slate, many overseas markets had been lost during two world wars, tourists in the 1930s had turned to the motor-car and charabancs (long wheel-base, open-air sightseeing vehicles,) and the little trains of the Ffestiniog Railway were considered outdated and run-down.

An early double-ended Fairlie steam engine, restored and back in service.
An early double-ended Fairlie steam engine, restored and back in service. Ffestiniog Railway Company

Thus the railway closed in 1946 - but dedicated rail enthusiasts refused to see it die, and miraculously between 1954 and 1982 re-opened it by largely volunteer labour section-by-section along nine stations as a tourist line.

And as part of the track had been submerged when a new dam was built, they also had to construct a 4km deviation and blast a 280m long tunnel through solid granite.

Three of the original steam engines were restored together with recovered historic carriages and put back into service, while others including a unique double-ended Fairlie were more slowly restored for increasing tourist runs from Porthmadog through the spectacular Snowdonia National Park to Ffestiniog.

The first, Princess was not deemed capable of running again and was spruced up and "conserved" in the bar of Spooner's Pub in Porthmadog - where it remained until several weeks ago, when it was moved to London for a makeover to look nice for next year's 150th anniversary celebrations of the world's first narrow gauge steam railway.

For more details visit www.festrail.co.uk.

 

>> To read more travel stories

Topics:  britain holiday steam trains travel wales



Loud party makes for an expensive night

Party host fined $300 at Corindi Beach over the level of his music.

Police fine party host for loud music

A December drink sees seven drivers land in court

Coffs Clarence police have caught seven motorists over the limit at the weekend.

Seven drivers nabbed over the limit behind the wheel

Four people charged by shooting strike force

NAMBUCCA SHOOTINGS: Police release images relating to Nambucca Heads investigations.

Detectives renew appeal for information on shootings

Local Partners

Relief for storm affected farmers

NSW Government's announces it will provide Agriculture Natural Disaster Relief following wild storms in early August.


Man builds playground entirely out of packing tape

Artist Eric Lennartson is in the process of completing his huge tape sculpture at the Ipswich Art Gallery.

VIDEO:And here's where you can play on it.

Countdown to Woodford Folk Festival begins

ECONOMIC BOON: Woodford Folk Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.  Photo Contributed

The first larger-than-life inhabitants have stepped into Woodfordia

'I need to do what I can': 65km walk for cancer patient

Karlee Robinson is walking from Caloundra to Noosa for her cousin Aaron Parker, who has terminal brain cancer.

What do you do when someone you love has terminal brain cancer?

Hacksaw Ridge wins big in first round of AACTA Awards

Luke Bracey and Andrew Garfield in a scene from the movie Hacksaw Ridge.

THE major awards will be handed out on Wednesday night.

Paris Hilton fumes at clumsy partygoers

A reveller spilt their drink on Paris Hilton's DJ decks

Winnie Harlow isn't a role model

Winnie Harlow insists she isn't a role model.

Felicity Jones proud of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story role

Felicity Jones feels it is "important" for a woman to head Rogue One

Kiwi's plea to Ellen DeGeneres to save bakery after quake

Ellen... we need your magic.

Family had to be helicoptered out after powerful quake

Seacrest: Things are "going better" for Kim and Kanye

Ryan Seacrest says things are "going better now" for Kanye West

Banks reclaim Gladstone homes as job losses bite

LONG FALL: Property experts Heron Todd say, based on key market indicators, Gladstone is still travelling to the bottom of the market, with property prices set to get cheaper.

Property valuers say Gladstone housing market hasn't hit the bottom

The million dollar property to test Mackay's market

This Victoria St building will go to auction Tuesday and investors will be watching closely to see how much it sells for.

'High profile architect designed CBD asset' goes to auction

Chinese locked out of Australian property market

The rules are different if you're a foreigner

The buyer was from China - the trouble started right there

Morrison signs off on new affordable rental model

Australia's Treasurer Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference after a meeting of the Council of Federal Financial Relations at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.

Scott Morrison signed off on development of a new financing model

Elegant coastal living in Corindi

BEACH IN THE BACKYARD: Meander 110m from the back door to the beach.

Elegant coastal living in Corindi

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!