Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Llanberis Lake Railway

The Railway Today

Elidir passes under
Vivian Arch
Dolbadarn built in 1922
by the Hunslet Engine Co.
Thomas Bach with
Snowdon in the background

The Llanberis lake railway lies along the northerly shore of Llyn Padarn, a picturesque lake having, at its southern most end, the well known Snowdonia town of Llanberis. The railways headquarters (at which almost all journeys start and finish) is located in the Padarn Country Park at Gilfach Ddu, an area across the valley from the town of Llanberis which boasts tracts of unspoilt woodland and a range of tourist attractions related to the slate industry. Also at Llanberis is the Snowdon Mountain Railway Britain's only Rack railway.

The railway itself is a 2' gauge line of approximately 2 1/2 miles length. Trains are normally steam hauled and the passenger stock has been built on site by the Padarn Lake Railway themselves, while this stock is not the most comfortable, it is more than adequate for the forty minute trip. The journey extends in both directions from Gilfach Ddu first into the town (via a new extension opened in 2003) the returning and running along the lakeside. The journey can be broken at Cei Llydan where the spectacular views available from the railway can be enjoyed at leisure. Snowdon and the lesser mountains dominate the view but the lake itself and the town of Llanberis across the valley add to the scenic splendour.

Three historic Hunslet locomotives work the traffic on the line (augmented by diesels in emergency or for works trains). These tiny locomotives have all seen service in the Dinorwic Quarries where they once hauled short trains of slate wagons at all levels of the quarry.

This railway still retains an element of an industrial purpose. Just to the south of the terminus is a large tunnel mouth with a gate house and security post, beside a concrete out fall into the lake. This is all that can be seen of one of the modern industrial wonders of Wales, if not the World. Through this tunnel access is gained to a massive hydroelectric power station built inside the mountain. There are miles of tunnels here, some carrying roads and some water, some simply housing machinery. The main turbine and generator chamber is said to be the largest underground chamber ever excavated by man. From this incredible place the power goes by underground cable housed in a tunnel which runs alongside the railway, there is also a pumping station here which draws water from the lake to cool the tunnel. When maintenance of the cable, tunnel or pumping station is required it falls to the railway to provide transport for men and machines. The public can go on a bus tour of the power station starting from the 'Electric Mountain' exhibition in Llanberis.

History and Origins

It would be easy to dismiss this railway, built in 1970-71 as a modern tourist railway with no historical perspective but a look at the history of the area shows that it would also be quite inaccurate.

Any traveller through the spectacular pass of Llanberis inevitably notices the contrast between the rugged natural landscape on the west of the road and the odd, blue grey, terraced mountains on the Dinorwic side of the valley. As most would guess the eastern side of the pass is a man made landscape of awesome scale, all the more so when it is remembered that the vast majority of the slate quarrying which produced it predated modern machinery and was produced using hand tools and gun powder.

Commercial Quarrying of slate began at Dinorwic in the early 1800s with the product being shipped around Wales and England by sea. Of course Dinorwic is many miles from the sea and the first part of the journey was by packhorse. In common with other quarries railways came into use and eventually two systems were used by the Quarry company. 2' gauge railways were laid in each level of the quarry and connected by rope worked inclines between the levels, these railways were worked by dozens of small steam locomotives, mainly saddle tanks supplied by Hunslet of Leeds. To transport the slate from Dinorwic to the sea a 4' gauge railway was built running from the quarry to Y Felinheli, the harbour here is still known as Port Dinorwic to the confusion of the less historically aware visitor to the area.

An unusual, but not unique, feature of the system was the avoidance of double transhipment of slate between 2' and 4' gauge vehicles the laden 2' gauge trucks were loaded, four to a wagon, onto special transporter wagons for transport over 4' gauge metals. As a matter of interest on the now long gone Leek and Manifold Light Railway standard gauge wagons were carried on narrow gauge transporter wagons.

Hunslet Locos in Dinorwic Quarry Transporter wagons at Padarn

When the quarry closed in 1969 Llanberis was already a thriving tourist town and in an effort to assist the changeover of the Llanberis economy from slate driven to tourist driven the idea of a tourist railway was pursued. In a neatly symmetrical arrangement men who had lost there livelihood in the quarry were employed to dismantle much of the (now unneeded) 2' gauge equipment in the quarries and transport it to the (now disused) 4' railway track bed by the shores of the lake and there to build the Lake Railway, more or less as it exists today.

Although the railway is not a preserved railway in the sense that it is not the right gauge or type of equipment for its location (or not in the right place) it does commemorate both the 2' gauge tracks in the quarries and the 4' railway to the sea. The railway and the other exhibits of Padarn Country Park (which includes the National Slate Museum) make a worthwhile monument to the 3000 men who once worked the quarries, albeit one that can never rival the spectacle of the quarry workings laying open the side of the Elidir mountain just to the south.

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