A twisty tale


WHR ex SAR NGG 16 garratt – will it get round the tram track? (source Wikipedia)

Most British railway enthusiasts will know something about the remarkable restoration of the Welsh Highland Railway. After 18 years since the current rebuilding of the line started, completion of track laying on the last missing section of line is only weeks away. Railway magazines have been carrying long articles in anticipation of the WHR’s ‘Golden Spike’ ceremony, which will result in Europe’s longest 1ft 11 5/8in (600 mm) gauge railway. The combined WHR and Ffestiniog Railway will stretch from Caernarfon to Blaenau Ffestiniog, a distance of 40 miles (64 kilometres).

The original WHR railway was never very successful commercially, the last train ran in 1937 and most of the track was lifted in 1941. The first rebuilt section of the new WHR – from Caernarfon to Dinas – was opened in 1997, 60 years after the line’s closure. The tale of WHR’s rebirth always generates a great deal of interest in enthusiast circles in Poland. There is a huge contrast between the official support and financial assistance received by the WHR during the last 10 years, and the official indifference and lack of financial support received by the ‘preserved’ Polish narrow gauge railways. It is particularly sad that many of Poland’s narrow gauge lines which had survived into the 90s were demolished during the last decade.

The major reconstruction of the WHR is being carried out by the Festiniog Railway Company. (The Ffestiniog Railway itself was rescued by oblivion by the efforts of volunteers and a businessman called Alan Pegler in 1954.) Another group (now known as WHR Ltd), which had been working to reopen the Welsh Highland Railway since 1960, have established a museum and a short demonstration line at Porthmadog. While relations between FRC and WHR Ltd have greatly improved, it was not always so, the FRC being involved in an attempt in the 1980s to turn the WHR trackbed into a long-distance footpath! The plan to the reopen the WHR was the subject of three public enquiries, a court case and an appeal. Matters in dispute included which company – the WHR or the FR – should have the right to reopen the line, and whether the line should be allowed to reopen at all. In two cases the Minister overruled the recommendation of the inspector appointed to oversee the inquiry! Today, after experiencing the popularity of the section of the line already open to the public and seeing all the progress that has been achieve on the ground, it is difficult to understand that officials were prepared to block the opening of the line because sections might have been needed for road improvements.

The revival of the WHR has given the British railway heritage movement several important ‘firsts’. It was the first closed line which was the subject of a proposal that it should be reopened and run by volunteers. (Nothing happened at the time, it was 1941 and the middle of WW II, but the suggestion was remembered when a group of railway enthusiasts met in Birmingham 1950 to discuss the closure of the Talyllyn Railway and formed the first railway preservation society in the world.) It is the first reopening project where a minister has overruled his inspector’s recommendation. John Prescott decided that the environmental advantages of tourists visiting the Snowdownia National Park by WHR train rather than car were greater than any possible negative impact of the railway on the National Park. It was the first heritage railway to have a crossing on the level with a British main line railway and to incorporate a section of running in the middle of a busy main road.

At this point the tactful thing to do would be to pat the FR and WHR on the back and leave them to it, but then the whole point of BTWT is to discuss matters which lesser publications miss out. It is the cross-town section of the new WHR which has raised the curiosity of our own chief mechanical engineer. He points out that the inroad section is sharply curved and is being laid in tram rail. Now the whole point about tram track is that it is great for trams; trams either have two axles or run on short wheelbase bogies. On this basis he postulates that the FR’s two-axled Prince or double Fairlies should take to the tram track like a duck to water, but what about the Welsh Highland Railway’s new engines acquired from South Africa?

The SAR NGG 16 Class Garratts are the largest locomotives ever built for the 2ft gauge. As far as their curve riding ability is concerned they are essentially two 2-6-2 locomotives coupled back to back. The WHR also has two SAR NG 15 Class 2-8-2 locomotives. Now, a two foot gauge engine with a fixed wheelbase of three or even four coupled axles will go round very sharp curves, provided that the gauge is increased by about half an inch. And here we have the basic problem, you cannot gauge widen tram track because the back of the wheel is being held by the reverse flange of the rail! At this point the editor is glaring and pointing out that the above will only make sense to 2 out of the 100 or so readers who enjoy BTWT daily. However, the problem does give rise to the interesting speculation that when the complete WHR opens for passengers in Easter 2009, WHR trains might have to stop at Portmadoc New (the site of the WHR Ltd museum), where short wheelbase FR engines would take over the haulage of the trains and work them through the sharply curved, tram tracked town section to Porthmadog (FR). So with our congratulations for progress achieved to date and best wishes for the future, we will follow the remaining chapters of the WHR story with a great deal of interest!


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8 Responses to “A twisty tale”

  1. Colin Lea Says:

    Just a quick correction – the ‘Inquiry’ you mention to decide which company would rebuild the WHR was not a Public Inquiry – it was a High Court case brought by the Official Receiver. There were indeed 2 Public Inquiries, one for the TWA order and the other due to a change in policy by the National Park. There was also an attempt by the Farmers’ Union to challenge the TWA decision too! If you count the early Inquiry into the policy of the local council towards the resoration of the WHR to Pont Croesor from Porthamdog, it’s actually three Public Inquiries, a high court case and an appeal. All of which just delayed us getting on with it! Colin

  2. dyspozytor Says:

    Many thanks Colin, I’ve revised the text accordingly. As you are obviously one of the dedicated few ‘making it happen’, how about an article for BTWT describing the WHR rebuilding project from the point of view of those actually doing the job?


    PS. You can e-mail me on railfan(at)go2.pl .

  3. Pedr Says:

    Have no fear about our tram track. The gauge is widened by 10mm in the middle of the 50m radius curve at Britannia Bridge, and a suitable rail with an appropriate flange groove between the running rail and the check rail has been found in Austria.

    There is a notice at the approach to the crossing saying CYCLISTS MUST DISMOUNT.

    The class NGG16 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt locomotives traverse 58m radius curves elsewhere on the railway without difficulty, and of course the radii are even sharper at points (turnouts), check rails and all.

    Relax, sleep well; come and see us this time next year. Croeso i Gymru; welcome to Wales.

    We have been to Poland and admired some of your narrow gauge lines – we were very taken with the marvellous museum at Sochaczew (pardon me if I spell it wrong). the branch line at Smigiel needs someone to go along it with a fishplate spanner to tighten the joints.


  4. dyspozytor Says:

    Dear Pedr,

    Never have we been so pleased to have been told that we are wrong. WE LOVE THE WHR! Thank you very much for your comprehensive reply. We will publish your comment on the main blog as well, because few of our readers trail back to old posts to read the comments.

    Best regards,


  5. Phil Says:

    Not sure if this is of interest to you: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3080/2716568648_ee6869056b_o.jpg

    Tracklaying last week on the tramway section of the Welsh Higland Railway in Porthmadoc. Apparently Austrian engineers had to be brought in to do the work as no-one in the UK could do the job. The section is very nearly finished with rails accross the road bridge at the bottom of town into the FR station. The cost doubled due to major bridge work having to be carried out. The traffic was a nightmare for 3 months while the work was carried out according to one of the bus drivers I talked to.

    More on my trip with several railways at: http://travellingphilbury.blogspot.com/search/label/Wales

    Thanks – keep up the good work !


  6. Ben Fisher Says:

    We can happily report that your fears about NGG16 Garratts having trouble with the sharply curved tram track on the Cross-Town Link were completely unfounded. No. 87 made the first run by steam along the link this morning – without any difficulty, and reportedly even without any flange squeal.

  7. WHR Observer Says:

  8. Railfan Says:

    Today NGG 16 No 87 passed the sharp curve without problems. :-)

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