Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Snowdon Mountain Railway

The Railway Today

The Snowdon Mountain Railway carries visitors effortlessly to the summit station, easily the highest railway station in Britain. The gradients of up to 1 in 5.5 are surmountable only because this is Britain's one Rack Railway. The Summit Station is a modest 66' of steep but easy footpath below the Summit of Snowdon which, at 3560 feet above sea level, is the highest point in England and Wales. Although rack railways are used elsewhere in the world (notably Switzerland) this railway provides a spectacular experience which is unique in Britain.

Although, on a fine day, the summit of Snowdon is within reasonably easy reach of the fit walker, many people would never visit it without the railway. The views that gradually expand during the climb are staggering, both those of the surrounding mountains and those more distant vistas that expand to encompass Anglesey, The Isle of Man and the Wicklow Mountains of Southern Ireland. Sadly on many days the views are masked by cloud but the weather changes quickly here and even if it is cloudy on parts of the ascent it may well be clear on the summit.

A steam hauled train high in the mountain near Clogwyn
Clogwyn Station

Quite apart from the view the railway itself offers much of interest with its mixture of Swiss technology and Swiss built Steam engines with rugged British Diesels. The Llanberis Terminus is always a busy scene in the tourist season and, with limited space on the trains the traveller should be prepared to claim his seat (through the railway's booking system) in the morning, and travel later in the day, alternatively you can book by phone before your travel day. Although trains run from mid March to the beginning of October before mid May or after the end of September the upper part of the line is likely to be snow or ice bound with the trains terminating further down the mountain. Even in summer high winds can often close the upper part of the line but even a shorter journy terminating short of the summit is a spectacular experience. Travellers should be warned that it may be very much colder near the summit than in Llanberis, I can vouch for this personally having been transported from shirt sleeves spring weather in Llanberis to a bitterly cold Clogwyn station amidst howling wind and crunching hoar frost, although we enjoyed an unforgettable trip complete with spectacular views I think all the passengers were quite happy to return to Llanberis rather than ascend the remaining 1000 feet or so to the summit.

The railway has embraced modern technology with diesel traction rubbing shoulders with the steam engines and a computer controlled railcar set but even the most hardened steam enthusiast would be hard pushed to complain about diesel haulage as the train climbs the magnificant mountain which inspired its construction. Of all British railways, this one must be uniquely difficult and expensive to operate with its complex permanent way under attack from the worst of the Welsh weather every winter and every train trying to push the track down the steep gradients as it goes.

Sadly people persist in using the railway track as a path to the summit, official advice is not do this (even when the line is closed) as it is unsuitable and dangerous and has been the scene of fatalities in the past. The railway has also helped in mountain rescues, on occasion bringing injured climbers back to civilisation, although this is more often the work of helicopters nowadays.

Busy scene outside the Llanberis HQ of the SMR
The superb new Summit Visitor Centre

Facilities at both termini are excellent, Llanberis station has a pleasant cafeteria and shop, while it's location right in the town ensures that most other facilities are to hand. Llanberis is also the home of the Padarn Lake Railway covered elsewhere in these pages. At the summit there is a new visitor centre designed by Ray Hole architects and completed in 2009, this centre is designed to be sympathetic to the mountain environment and features huge windows with spectacular views across the Snowdon range and across to Ireland.

History and Origins

The desire to tame the highest mountain in England and Wales with a railway is perhaps characteristic of the Victorian era which spawned it. Following almost 50 years of debate on the possibility, work started in 1894 with the formation of the Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company.

The railway was built on the north western slopes of the mountain from the attractive town of Llanberis nestling between the mountains to the summit station. Construction was rapid with the first passenger train running on April 6 1896, a day which culminated in the railway's only fatal accident (following a locomotive derailment). Ironically the unfortunate person who died did so when he jumped off the train, all the passengers who kept their seats were uninjured. This accident resulted in closure while the entire line was fitted with a modification to the rack system and since reopening in April 1987 there have been no further serious accidents.

The single track line has passing places at Hebron, Halfway and Clogwyn stations and on a busy day several trains can be seen at various places on the line. The trains powerful locomotives haul themselves laboriously up the mountain, pushing their single coach at five miles an hour, but who would feel safe at higher speeds on such a railway? Who would want to rush such a journey anyway?

Curiously the coach is not actually coupled to the locomotive, simply resting against it on the slope, this is a precaution so that if the locomotive leaves the track (it never has since that fateful first day) the coach need not follow it. All the steam locomotives were built in Switzerland at the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works and all the Diesels in Britain by the Hunslet engine company. In a departure from tradition the railway acquired a diesel railcar set in 1995, this can be run as a one, two or three car train and certainly brings modern technology to the railway with its computer controlled electric transmission system!

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