Ffestiniog Railway

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Ffestiniog Railway


Merddin Emrys at Tan-y-Bwlch
Gauge: 2 ft
No. of stations: 10
Track: 13.5 miles
Owned by: Festiniog Railway Company
Operated by: Festiniog Railway Company

The Ffestiniog Railway is a narrow gauge heritage railway in Merionethshire. It runs on a single line roughly 13½ miles long climbing from the harbour at Porthmadog in Caernarfonshire up to the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Merionethshire, which was the original reason for the line. It is a major tourist attraction located mainly within the Snowdonia National Park.

The railway's official, statutory name is the Festiniog Railway, given in the private Act of Parliament which created it, but the double-F spelling is the operational name, which reflects the current spelling of the destination town. It is known in Welsh as Rheilffordd Ffestiniog.

The railway climbs through forested and mountainous scenery, on a single track throughout with four intermediate passing places. The track gauge is 2 ft allowing trains to be used either on the Ffestiniog or on its sister line, the Welsh Highland Railway, which is operated by the same company. The first mile of the line out of Porthmadog runs along the Cob, the dyke across the River Glaslyn which created the Traeth Mawr and the town of Porthmadog.


The railway company, the "Festiniog Railway Company" was created by a private Act of Parliament (2 William IV cap.xlviii), enacted on 23 May 1832, which makes it the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It was founded with capital mostly raised in Dublin by Henry Archer, the company's first secretary and managing director, in order to bring slate down from the mountains to the docks at Porthmadog. As a narrow-gauge line it survived the amalgamation into four large groups in 1921 and at the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 it survived as it had been closed for traffic, despite vigorous local lobbying for the Ffestiniog to be included.

The Earl of Merioneth at Tan-y-Bwlch, c. 1900

Various important developments in the Railway's early history were celebrated by the firing of rock cannon at various points along the line. Cannon were fired, for instance, to mark the laying of the first stone at Creuau in 1832,[1] the railway's opening in 1836,[2] and the opening of the Moelwyn Tunnel in 1842.[3] The passing of a later act for the railway also saw cannon celebrations but, on this occasion, a fitter at Boston Lodge, who was assisting with firing, lost the fingers of one hand in an accident.[4]

Horse and gravity operation

The line was constructed between 1833 and 1836 to transport slate from the quarries around the inland town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coastal town of Porthmadog where it was loaded onto ships. The railway was graded so that loaded wagons could be run by gravity downhill all the way from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port. The empty wagons were hauled back up by horses, which travelled down in special 'dandy' wagons. To achieve this continuous grade (about 1 in 80 for much of the way), the line followed natural contours and employed cuttings and embankments built of stone and slate blocks without mortar. Prior to the completion in 1844 of a long tunnel through a spur in the Moelwyn Mountain, the slate trains were worked over the top by inclines (designed by Robert Stephenson), the site of which can still be seen but there are no visible remnants.

Up to six trains daily were operated in each direction and a printed timetable was published on 16 September 1856 by Charles Easton Spooner who, following his father, served as Manager and Clerk for 30 years. It shows departures from the "Quarry Terminus" (later referred to as Dinas) at 7:30, 9:28, 11:16, 1:14, 3:12 and 5:10. Trains waited ten minutes at the intermediate stations called Tunnel Halt, Hafod y Llyn and "Rhiw Goch". The fastest journey time from Quarry Terminus to Boston Lodge was 1 hour 32 minutes, including three stops. From Boston Lodge, the slate wagons were hauled to and from Porthmadog harbour by horses. Up trains took nearly six hours from Boston Lodge to the Quarry Terminus and each train ran in up to four sections, each hauled by a horse and comprising eight empty slate wagons plus a horse dandy. This timetable gave a maximum annual capacity of 70,000 tons of dressed slate.[5] Two brakesmen travelled on each down train, controlling the speed by the application of brakes as needed. At passing loops, trains passed on the right and this continues to be a feature of Ffestiniog Railway operation.

There is evidence for tourist passengers being carried as early as 1850 without the blessing of the Board of Trade but these journeys would also observe the timetable.

Hafod y Llyn was replaced by Tan y Bwlch around 1872. Dinas Station and much of that branch is now all but buried. It was removed many years ago. Whilst these two place names existed in the past on the FR, they also existed on the Welsh Highland Railway, albeit some 10 miles+ to the northwest of the originals.

Police force

The railway employed just one police officer. Board of Trade returns for 1884 show a police inspector was based at the company's head office.[6]

Steam and gravity operation

"The Princess" with passenger train at Porthmadog harbour station c. 1870
Double Fairlie locomotive James Spooner

In October 1863, steam locomotives of the 0-4-0 type were introduced to allow longer slate trains to be run and this also enabled the official introduction of passenger trains in 1865: the Ffestiniog was the first narrow-gauge railway in Britain to carry passengers. In 1869, the line's first double Fairlie articulated locomotive was introduced and these double-ended machines have since become one of the most widely recognised features of the railway.

Down trains continued to run entirely by gravity but faster up journeys and longer trains increased line capacity. A new timetable dated October 1863 shows six departures daily from each terminus at two hour intervals, starting at 7:00 am and taking 1 hour 50 minutes including stops (totalling 20 minutes) at Tanygrisiau, Hafod-y-Llyn and Penrhyn. Trains passed only at Hafod-y-Llyn (from 1872 Tan-y-Bwlch). When passenger services started, the usual practice was for locomotive-hauled up trains to consist of loaded general goods and mineral wagons, followed by passenger carriages, followed by empty slate wagons with brakesmen. Down trains were run in up to four separate (uncoupled) portions: loaded slate wagons, goods wagons, passenger carriages and, finally, the locomotive running light. This unusual and labour-intensive method of operation was short-lived and eventually the passenger and goods portions were combined into a single train headed by the locomotive.

The loaded slate trains continued to operate by gravity until the end of passenger services in 1939. Slate trains eventually became very long - trains of less than eighty slate wagons carried two brakesmen but over eighty wagons (and this became common) required three brakesmen. About one wagon in every six was equipped with a brake, the others being unbraked. Trains continued to pass at Tan-y-Bwlch and, to a lesser extent, at Minffordd. The Summer timetable for 1900 had nine trains daily in each direction and trains had been accelerated to one hour from Porthmadog to Duffws including stops at Minffordd, Penrhyn, Tan-y-Bwlch, Dduallt (request), Tanygrisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog (LNWR) and Blaenau Ffestiniog (GWR). Speeds in excess of 40 mph were then normal.[7]

The original passenger coaches (some of which still survive) were small four-wheeled vehicles with a very low centre of gravity. In 1872, the FR introduced the first bogie carriages to operate in Britain, Nos 15 and 16, which were also the first iron-framed bogie coaches in the world.[8] The continuous vacuum brake was installed in 1893. The line was fully signalled with electric telegraph and staff and ticket working. Electric Train Staff instruments were introduced in 1912 and they continue in use to the present day.

Decline of slate and development of tourism

The Earl Of Merioneth at Portmadog

By the 1920s, the demand for slate as a roofing material dropped owing to the advent of newer materials and to the loss of the overseas trade during the First World War. As a result, the railway suffered a gradual decline in traffic.

In 1921, the Aluminium Corporation at Dolgarrog in the Conwy Valley bought a controlling interest for £40,000 and began to run the Ffestiniuog and the Welsh Highland in concert; in 1923, the two lines were joined at a station called "Portmadoc New". The Welsh Highland line was almost totally dependent on tourism which proved slow to develop, because firstly, of two slumps in the early 1920s and early 1930s; secondly, the rise of road traffic including 'charabancs'; thirdly the unreliability of the railway with its (even then) ancient carriages and increasingly decrepit locomotives. The Welsh Highland Railway was taken into receivership in 1927, lost the Moel Tryfan slate traffic in 1935 and closed to passengers at the end of the 1936 season and to goods in 1937.

The Ffestiniog Railway continued to operate its slate traffic, a workmen's train on weekdays throughout the year and a summer tourist passenger service. Ordinary passenger services ceased on the FR on 15 September 1939, shortly after the outbreak of Second World War. The workmen's passenger service ran for the last time on Saturday, 16 September 1939. Slate trains were from then onwards operated three days each week but gravity operation was discontinued. Slate traffic ceased on 1 August 1946, apart from the section from Duffws to the North Western yard through Blaenau Ffestiniog town centre, which was leased on 7 October 1946 to the quarry owners. This provided the railway company, which retained the services of a resident manager at Porthmadog, with a small income throughout the moribund years.

The original Act of Parliament which permitted the building of the line, made no specific provision for its closure or abandonment. Although the main line had ceased functioning, the company could not dismantle the railway, so the track and infrastructure were left in place. Another Act of Parliament could have been sought to cancel the old one but the Company did not have the money for such an action. However, without maintenance, it soon became overgrown and unusable.


David Lloyd George takes on water at Blaenau Ffestiniog

From 1949, various groups of rail enthusiasts attempted to revitalise the railway. In 1951, railway enthusiast Alan Pegler was approached by friends to buy and clear the outstanding debt on the derelict Ffestiniog Railway, to enable its purchase. Lent £3,000 by his father, he and the volunteers obtained control of the company on 24 June 1954. Pegler was appointed the new company's first Chairman, with the objective to operate the railway as a tourist attraction, and gradually restore the line to working order. Pegler later released complete control of the company without any personal financial gain to Ffestiniog Railway Trust, which still owns and runs the railway today.[9][10]

The restoration of the complete railway was not helped by the decision by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in 1954 to build the Ffestiniog Pumped Storage Scheme, including the creation of Tanygrisiau reservoir (Llyn Ystradau), which flooded part of the northern end of the line. The Festiniog Railway Company was able to obtain compensation in 1972, after the second-longest legal battle in British legal history, having taken eighteen years and two months. Two years later, as a result of the case, Parliament passed the Land Compensation Act 1973.

On 18 August 1954, before commencing the restoration, in an inspection, the first of many, Colonel McMullen of the Ministry of Transport, Railways Inspectorate, accompanied by Pegler, several directors and other supporters, walked the line from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. The work of restoration began on 20 September 1954 when Morris Jones, the foreman fitter who had last worked for the railway in March 1947, rejoined the staff to complete the rebuilding of the locomotive 'Prince' on which he had been engaged when the works closed. He was joined at Boston Lodge works by two volunteers, Bill Harvey and Allan Garraway.[11] The completion of sixty years service with the FR by Robert Evans (for almost 25 years as Manager) was marked on 6 November 1954 and a special train was run (with difficulty) from Minffordd to Porthmadog to celebrate the occasion and convey Mr Evans, his wife, Alan Pegler (Company Chairman) and guests en route to a clock presentation ceremony.[12] Mr Evans continued in service as Manager until his retirement on 1 June 1955 when Allan Garraway was appointed as Manager.

The first public passenger train from Porthmadog to Boston Lodge ran on 23 July 1955. Prince returned to service on 3 August 1955 and, following extensive boiler repairs, Taliesin, then the latest of the FR Fairlie articulated engines, returned to service on 4 September 1956. The passenger service was extended to Minffordd on 19 May 1956, to Penrhyn on 5 June 1957 and to Tan-y-Bwlch on 5 April 1958. Increasing traffic was putting severe demands on the track - over 7 miles had been reopened in four years. A long period of consolidation, rolling stock restoration and track renewal followed before the extension to Dduallt on 6 April 1968. Extension to Dduallt was celebrated on 28 May 1968 by the re-introduction of the Ffestiniog Railway Letter Service.

The Llyn Ystradau Deviation

Tanygrisiau reservoir from the deviation

Between 1965 and 1978, the Ffestiniog Railway Deviation, a long diversionary route of two and a half miles was built between Dduallt and Tanygrisiau in order to avoid the works of Ffestiniog hydro-electric power station and its reservoir (Llyn Ystradau). The Deviation (this is the conventional name for such railway works) was built mostly by volunteers. At the southern end is the spectacular Dduallt spiral formation (unique on a public railway in the United Kingdom). It was constructed with its bridge entirely by volunteers and gains an initial height rise of 35 feet in order (after a further mile of new volunteer built railway and a new tunnel) to clear the flooded track bed north of the former Moelwyn tunnel, which is plugged near its normally submerged northern end. Parts of the trackless former route can be clearly seen below the new route between Dduallt and the old tunnel.

The new 310-yard long tunnel was constructed between 1975 and 1977 by three Cornish tin mining engineers with a small team of employees. It had to be blasted through a granite spur of the Moelwyn mountain. The tunnel plant included stone crushing and grading plant to produce track ballast and other aggregates from the spoil for use on the railway. Following completion, the new tunnel first had to be lined throughout its length with liquid cement reinforced with steel mesh in a process called 'shotcreting'.

A pull and push service, officially called The Shuttle and powered by diesel locomotive Moel Hebog with carriage 110, was operated from Dduallt to Gelliwiog from 26 May 1975, during two summers, to enable tourists to experience the Deviation route in advance of the opening of the new Moelwyn Tunnel.

North of the new tunnel is a long stretch along the west bank of the new reservoir. Full-length passenger trains first ran from Dduallt through the new tunnel to a temporary terminus known as 'Llyn Ystradau (now dismantled) on 25 June 1977. This station was alongside the Tanygrisiau reservoir but passengers could not leave the station other than by train as it was on Central Electricity Generating Board land without public access.

The remaining section included some specialised engineering work at its summit where the new line passes over the power station pipelines. This was followed by two public road crossings with automatic signalling, during a fall in height to rejoin the old route in Tanygrisiau station, which was reopened on 24 June 1978.

The largely volunteer group building the Deviation was officially called the Civil Engineering Group but its members were popularly known (and are still remembered) as the Deviationists who completed an enormous task over 13 years.

Project Blaenau

Double Fairlie locomotive David Lloyd George at Blaenau Ffestiniog
Taliesin at Porthmadog

The completion of the railway through to Tanygrisiau left the railway with just one and a half miles to go to its goal of Blaenau Ffestiniog but the complexities of reconstructing that unique but very derelict urban section of narrow gauge railway took a further four years. As well as 1½ miles of new track and its formation, which was the responsibility of the Ffestiniog Railway permanent way department and its volunteers, much other work needed to be done. Most of the work, like the deviation itself, was undertaken by volunteers who, in many cases, assumed full responsibility for the design as well as the execution of discrete projects, each under a volunteer project leader. There were four decrepit footbridges each needing to be demolished and rebuilt to the new loading gauge. The decrepit steel bridge across the Afon Barlwyd required total replacement, with timber (Karri) beams using the original abutments and piers. The new deck is formed of old rails. Walls and fences throughout had to be repaired or replaced. These and the many other varied tasks formed Project Blaenau.

A new joint station was created at Blaenau Ffestiniog; British Rail commenced using the new station on 22 March 1982 and Ffestiniog trains returned to Blaenau on Tuesday, 25 May 1982, marking the 150th Anniversary of Royal Assent to the Festiniog Railway Act of 1832. The joint station was officially opened on 30 April 1983 by George Thomas, Speaker of the House of Commons, who unveiled a plaque that records his visit.

With the major project of track restoration to Blaenau finally complete, attention could be turned to other matters. More Fairlie locomotives were built or restored and new carriages were built. At Minffordd, a new hostel was built for volunteers who support the permanent staff by working in every department of the railway. Stations were given new buildings, canopies and platforms, often replacing the previous temporary structures and improving the image of the railway for the future.

After fully reopening in 1982 and carrying 200,000 passengers annually, the railway became the largest Welsh tourist attraction after Caernarfon Castle. Many saw this as the result of Pegler’s drive and ability to inspire others with his unquenchable enthusiasm to fulfil his dream. Pegler, who remained fully involved with the railway until his death in 2012 as President, was appointed OBE in the 2006 New Year Honours in recognition of his contribution.[9][10][13]

Tourism and heritage

One of the earliest references to tourism is in the LNWR Tourist Guide for 1876, which waxed lyrical about the Ffestiniog Railway, which it illustrated with a drawing of a lady in Welsh national dress (then still in regular local use) travelling on a Ffestiniog Railway up train (since many empty slate wagons – with two standing brakesmen – were attached at the rear) with the caption "On the Ffestiniog Railway". The guide uses the "double F" spelling throughout.[14] It was, however, in the inter-war years from 1919 to 1939 that tourism, though always valued, came to acquire a major importance.

Since restoration commenced in 1954, tourism has been the only significant source of income.

Today the railway is promoted as one of The Great Little Trains of Wales, a joint marketing scheme launched in 1970 that encompasses ten narrow gauge railways in the country, mostly found in north and mid Wales.[15]

Train on the Cob

See also

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Ffestiniog Railway)


  1. Carnarvon Herald, 2 March 1833
  2. Carnarvon Herald, 23 April 1836
  3. Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald, 4 June 1842
  4. North Wales Chronicle, 17 July 1869
  5. Festiniog Railway Gravity Trains ed. Peter Johnson (Festiniog Railway Heritage Group, 1986) ISBN 0-949022-00-4 page 4
  6. "Festiniog Railway Police". British Transport Police. Archived from the original on 29 September 2006. http://web.archive.org/web/20060929093509/http://www.btp.police.uk/History+Society/Publications/History+Society/Constituent+Force/Railway+Police/Festiniog+Railway+Police.htm. Retrieved 27 July 2009. 
  7. The Festiniog Railway, James I C Boyd, 1959, Volume II (page 372)
  8. The Festiniog Railway, 1836-1966: 130 years in pictures. The Festiniog Railway Company. 1966. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Obituary - Alan Peglar". Daily Telegraph. 25 March 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9156363/Alan-Pegler.html. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Obituary - Alan Peglar". The Times. 25 March 2012. http://www.whrsoc.org.uk/WHRProject/2012/AlanPeglerTheTimesObituary.pdf. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  11. Festiniog Railway Magazine (FR Society), No 86, Page 32.
  12. Festiniog Railway Magazine (FR Society), No 85, Page 22.
  13. le Vay, Benedict (2008). Britain from the Rails: A Window Gazer's Guide. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 15. 
  14. Festiniog Railway Magazine (FR Society), No.90, Page 2
  15. Yarborough, Bruce. "The Great Little Trains of Wales website". Great Little Trains of Wales. http://www.greatlittletrainsofwales.co.uk. Retrieved 6 April 2008. 


  • Ove Arup & Partners; Report on a Rock Fall at Penlan, Ffestiniog Railway, 1979
  • E. Beazley; Madocks and the Wonder of Wales, 1967
  • R. F. Bleasdale; Spooner Album, 1887, also repub. with commentary by A. Gray, 2003
  • D. Blenkinsop; Linda & Blanche 1993
  • J. I. C. Boyd; Narrow Gauge Rails to Portmadoc, 1949
  • J. I. C. Boyd; On the Welsh Narrow Gauge, no date (1970s)
  • J. Buck; Discovering Narrow Gauge Railways, 1972
  • D. J. Charlton; FR Spotter's Guide; 2001
  • C. F. Cliffe; Book of North Wales, 1850
  • W. J. K. Davies; Narrow Gauge Railways, 1962
  • R. Edwards & P. Moss (eds); Festiniog Railway Historic Drawings, 1997
  • R. F. Fairlie; Battle of the Gauges renewed, 1872
  • R. F. Fairlie; Locomotive Engines, what they are and what they should be, 1881, reprint 1969
  • Festiniog Railway Co.; Share prospectus, Traveller's Guides, Stock Books, Guide Books (about 40 in all), 1957–2005
  • Festiniog Railway Society; Newsletters 1954-7;
  • Festiniog Railway Society; FR Magazine, quarterly since 1958 - Ffestiniog since 1994
  • A. Gray; The Spooner Album, 2003. See also Bleasdale.
  • N. F. Gurley; Narrow Gauge Steam out of Portmadoc, 1980
  • L. Heath-Humphrys; letter to Railway Gazette, 27 July 1951
  • G. T. Heavyside; Narrow Gauge into the 80s, 1980
  • B. Hollingsworth; Ffestiniog Adventure, 1981
  • F. H. Howson; Narrow Gauge Railways of Britain, 1948
  • P. N. Jarvis; Adeiladu Muriau Cerrig Sych - dry stone walling on the Ffestiniog Railway, 1993, revised edn 1995
  • P. Johnson; Ffestiniog Railway - a View from the Past, 1997
  • P. Johnson; An Illustrated History of the Festiniog Railway 1832-1954, 2007
  • P. Johnson; Immortal Rails; the Story of the Closure and Revival of the Ffestiniog Railway 1939-1983 Vol.I 2004, 2004, ISBN 1-900622-08-4 £35; Vol.II 2005 ISBN 1-900622-09-2 £35. Rail Romances, Chester.
  • P. Johnson; Portrait of the Ffestiniog, 1992
  • P. Johnson; Welsh Narrow gauge; a view from the past, 1992
  • P. Johnson; Welsh Narrow Gauge in colour, 1992
  • P. Johnson & C.M. Whitehouse; Ffestiniog mewn lliw, 1995
  • J. R. Jones & A.Pritchard; Great Little Steam Railways of Wales, 1991
  • F. Jux; British Narrow gauge Steam, 1960
  • R. W. Kidner; Narrow Gauge Railways of Wales, 1947
  • M. Kington; Steaming through Britain, 1990
  • C. E. Lee; Narrow Gauge Railways in North Wales, 1945
  • M. J. T. Lewis; How Ffestiniog got its Railway, 1965, revised edn 1968
  • J. G. V. Mitchell & A.G.W. Garraway; Festiniog in the Fifties, 1997
  • J. G. V. Mitchell & A.G.W. Garraway; Festiniog in the Sixties, 1997
  • J. G. V. Mitchell & A.G.W. Garraway; Return to Blaenau 1970-82, 2001
  • J. C. V. Mitchell, Smith, Seymour, Gray; Branch lines around Porthmadog, 2 vols, 1993
  • F. H. Pole (ed); Welsh Mountain Railways, 1924, reprint 1985
  • J. D. C. A. Prideaux; Welsh Narrow Gauge Railway, 1976
  • P. J. G. Ransom; Narrow Gauge Steam, 1996
  • P. J. G. Ransom; Locomotion, 2001
  • A. Roberts; Gossiping Guide to North Wales, 1879 (the 5/- version is much superior to the 6d edition)
  • L. J. Roberts; Festiniog & Welsh Highland Holiday book, 1923
  • H. R. Schwabe; Mit Volldampf nach Ffestiniog, 1978
  • C. E. Spooner; Narrow Gauge Railways, 1871, revised edn 1879
  • H. Stretton; Past & Present Companion; Ffestiniog Railway, 1998
  • M. J. Stretton; Festiniog Railway in Camera, 1971-1971, revised edn 1999
  • 'Taliesin' (C. R. Weaver et al.); Festiniog Railway locomotives, 1988
  • J. Timpson; Little Trains of Britain, 1992
  • E. Vignes; Étude technique sur le chemin de fer Festiniog, 1878, English translation by Don Boreham 1986
  • F. T. Wayne; "When Accounts become misleading Nonsense", Accountancy, November 1961
  • P. B. Whitehouse; Festiniog Railway Revival, 1963
  • P. B. Whitehouse; Welsh Narrow Gauge Album, 1969
  • P. B. Whitehouse & P.C. Allen; Round the World on Narrow Gauge, 1966
  • P. B. Whitehouse & P.C. Allen; Narrow Gauge the World over, 1976
  • C. Winchester & C.J. Allen,(eds.); Railway Wonders of the World, Vol 2, pp. 1224–28. c. 1938.
  • J. Winton; Little Wonder, 1975, revised edn 1986