Those Little Welsh Trains
At one time the Welsh mountains were a very significant source of minerals and other raw materials, notably slate for roofing. The problem as so often was one of getting it to market, in particular transporting it from where it was mined to where it could be distributed - by ship or later by rail. The difficult terrain in the mountains usually rendered it uneconomic to construct standard gauge rail links direct to the mines, and so the narrow gauge railway provided the solution. The lower cost and flexibility of such lines meant that it was relatively cheap and fairly straightforward to move, for example slate, to wherever it was required. At one time, there were quite a few such narrow gauge lines in existence but most have disappeared with the general decline of slate mining, and just a few remain, preserved for our enjoyment. Below are images from three of them, and though in most respects they are mainly of interest for the visitor, one at least, the Festiniog line, does serve some genuine transport function. There are other narrow gauge railways in Wales as well, for instance the famous rack & pinion railway to the summit of Snowdon, but those will have to wait until another occasion.
The first of these little railways begins at Aberystwyth and passes steadily up the Vale of Rheidol for about 8 miles to its terminus at the well known beauty spot of Devil's Bridge.
It's quite a steep gradient and there has to be at least one watering stop; there are passing loops at several stations.
The locomotives mostly are diesel fired saddle tanks but conventional diesel is also used for shunting in the yard.
Near Devil's Bridge the line passes through some particularly picturesque countryside and there are pleasant walks from some of the simple but well maintained little stations.
A little way further north of Aberystwyth is the little resort of Tywyn from where the Tall-y-llyn Railway travels inland to Abergynolwyn. The first part of the journey through villages such as Rhyd-yr-onnen and Brynglas passes through quiet fields and meadows. After Brynglas however, the ascent steepens all the way to Tam-y-coed and passing through overhanging woods eventually arrives in the clear at Abergynolwyn. From here there are very fine views and walks through neighbouring woods. Not too much further below Gair Goch one reaches the picturesque lake at Tal-y-lyn from which the railway gets its name and where there are fine views toward Cader Idris.
Finally, perhaps by far the best known of all the Welsh narrow gauge railways is the Ffestiniog Railway. This is a substantial enterprise and not entirely run for tourist benefit. The coastal terminus is at Portmadog situated at the northern edge of Traeth Bach estuary at the middle of Tremadog Bay. The station is quite extensive with wide, lengthy platforms and several roads and sidings. An unexpected feature comes immediately on leaving the station when the line runs about ½ mile along the top of a high embankment across the mudflats of the Traeth Bach estuary to Borth-y-Gest at the other end (where some of the rolling stock is kept.) A very unusual feature is the "pushme-pullme" double ended locomotive - in effect two driving units in one locomotive with a common central cab (patented I believe by one, James Faerlie) - this solves some of the inconveniences of reversing or need for turntables though may have difficulties on tight narrow gauge curves.
After Penrhyndeudraeth, around the half way mark, the line climbs quite steeply with a number of long, almost re-entrant turns through wooded landscapes until it emerges into the rather bleak landscape around Tan-y-Griaiau reservoir. The line follows the edge of the reservoir below the heights of Moelwyn Mawr until it slowly curves into Blaenau Ffestiniog. Signs of slate mining are all around in the somewhat forbidding landscape. The station platform adjoins that of the service train - a continued trip from here via Betwys-y-Coed to Llandudno is particularly scenic and worthwhile, or alternatively one can approach the Ffestiniog railway from the northern coast. Whilst at Blaenau Ffestiniog it is worth having a look at a preserved slate mine - to see for oneself the surroundings under which the former miners worked cannot fail to inspire the greatest respect as well as sympathy for the harsh conditions they endured.
I hope these pictures give some idea of what there is for the visitor to these little railways - but if you can ever manage to go out of your way to see for yourself, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
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© Copyright - Stuart Hill. June, 2001