Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Ffestiniog Railway

Unparalleled comfort
on the Ffestiniog

The Railway Today

The Ffestiniog railway today is, in many respects, a modern narrow gauge railway. Although remaining loyal to steam traction and having a superb stud of historic motive power, the railway has embraced modern technology in every other aspect of the running of its 14 mile line.

The traveller on the Ffestiniog is treated to a comfortable journey from the delightful and historic port of Porthmadog situated at the inland end of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales, across the Cob (which serves to separate the reclaimed land in the old Glaslyn estuary from the sea) and then up an almost continuous gradient to the ancient slate quarrying town of blaenau Ffestiniog high in the mountains. Much of the journey is within the Snowdonia National Park amongst some of the most rugged and beautiful mountain scenery in Wales. The traveller may even have light refreshments served, at his seat, during the journey if he wishes.

Double Fairlie Loco
A Double Fairlie Loco
Arrives at Porthmadog Station

Current motive power on the Ffestiniog is varied with diesel haulage on the first train of the day and a variety of steam power working the later trains. Engines include two of the three larger Hunslet locos from the Penrhyn quarry on the lighter trains, Mountaineer, built for service at the front in the first world war and of course the immensely powerful Double Fairlie engines built specifically for the Ffestiniog. The striking appearance of these unique locos has made them a trademark of the railway. The oldest of the Fairlies is over 125 years old while the youngest was built by the preserved railway at their Boston Lodge works in 1979. The Double Fairlie Design was immensely successful with hundreds built for service all over the world but the Ffestiniog owns the only surviving examples.

History and Origins

Like many of the Narrow gauge railways the Ffestiniog began as a horse drawn tramway. It was engineered with a continuous falling gradient from blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. This was essential to the method of operation which involved the horses hauling the empty wagons to the summit where they boarded a 'dandy cart' on a loaded train which ran down under gravity. The operation of the gravity trains would certainly excite comment from the safety authorities if it was done today. These trains had up to 120 laden wagons with a total weight of 400 tonnes, at least one out of every four wagons had a crude hand brake and up to three railwaymen would run along the train on top of the load adjusting these brakes. Officially limited to ten miles an hour it is said that they often reached forty on the few straight sections, one imagines an emergency stop would have taken some time!

By the late 1850s it became apparent that the horse drawn tramway did not have the capacity to serve the quarries while several schemes to extend standard gauge steam railways to Ffestiniog threatened the railways very existence.

Under the circumstances Steam power seems an obvious development now but in the 1860s all expert advice said that steam would never work on so narrow a gauge. With the railway fighting to increase efficiency simply to survive the experts were ignored and in 1863-4 four steam engines built by George England and Co were delivered, one of these, Prince, still hauls trains on the Ffestiniog today.

Little Wonder
Little Wonder
The First Narrow Gauge
Double Fairlie

On 6 January 1865, following a successful board of trade inspection, the railway was opened to passengers. It soon became apparent that the small tank engines, although an improvement on the horses, lacked the power for the Festiniog's curves and gradients. George England and Company supplied Little Wonder, designed to Robert Fairlie's Patent, this revolutionry machine had two boilers with her weight carried on two four wheeled bogies with all eight wheels powered. Little Wonder showed in trials that she could haul a heavier train against the gradient than any previous engine and could ride easily around the tight curves at speeds of 35mph. Sadly Little Wonder herself was short lived because of detail design problems but later double fairlies were immensely successful and engines of this type over 125 years old are still in service on the Ffestiniog.

In the ensuing years the Ffestiniog prospered and became a model for narrow gauge railways all around the world as prominent engineers from many countries visited North Wales to see its extraordinary railway. For a time the short lived Welsh Highland Railway (now undergoing restoration) enjoyed a through connection to the Ffestiniog via Porthmadog High street. Unfortunately for the Ffestiniog Railway standard gauge eventually arrived at blaenau Ffestiniog and the slate traffic carried by the narrow gauge line declined, with the railway finally closing just after the end of World War II.

Perversely, total abandonment of the Railway was prevented as it was established by act of parliament and could only be abandoned after a further act, which the railway company could not afford! The railways track bed remained and simply fell into disuse and decay.

Following the lead set by Tom Rolt and his friends a little further south on the Talyllyn a group of enthusiasts sought to restore the railway but, in 1952, they were faced by an uncooperative railway management. Little could be achieved until they had acquired the shares, the majority of which were bought by Alan Pegler and placed in a non-profit making trust.

Following the discovery that the new management excluded the volunteers from involvement in the operation of the railway (although quite happy to use the free labour) the separate Ffestiniog Railway Society was set up, to raise funds and provide labour whilst being represented on the board by a special representative.

After so much neglect even finding the track was a challenge in places and clearing it was hard work indeed but little by little the service was restored over more and more of the railway, but a much more major obstacle was about to become apparent.

The British Electricity Authority proposed a Hydroelectric power scheme which involved the building of a dam and the acquisition of a part of the Ffestiniog track bed which would be flooded. As the railway was disused no compensation would be payable. After a 15 year legal battle the Ffestiniog finally secured a handsome sum in compensation and used it to build a new upper part to the line incorporating a spiral (the first in Britain) at Dduallt to climb above the new lake and a new tunnel with generous loading gauge that finally allowed more spacious passenger accommodation on the railway.

Prince passes under the bridge at Dduallt
and, after sweeping round the spiral,
passes over the same point

The upper terminus of the railway was eventually restored to a new combined Ffestiniog and BR (now Railtrack) station at blaenau Ffestiniog, this gives the modern railway the unusual luxury of a connection to the national rail network at both ends!

Comments on this Railway

Add your comment on this railway.

John   27 Aug 2012
I first visted the FR in August 1959 and was a volunteer for many of the intervening years. It is undoubtedly a wonderful railway and, for me at least, the line remains a place of narrow gauge magic, history and development.
Graham Rouse   02 Nov 2011
My wife and i travelled on this railway in september 2011. It was well worth the 5 hour drive from surrey.
Peter   30 Apr 2011
I have travelled on this railway many times as a child and later as an adult, it is always an enjoyable experience.
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