70 years ago… (part 1)

by

porthmadog

Welsh Highland Railway (ex South Africa Railway) Beyer Garratt NGG16 No.87 poses with Ffestiniog Railway locomotives at Porthmadog in a dress rehearsal for today’s golden spike ceremony. Picture is a still from a You Tube clip from a DVD available from the WHR.

(Click to see video on You Tube.)

Yesterday, a short panel of track was laid next to the Ffestiniog Railway’s Porthmadog Station completing the £28 million rebuilding of the Welsh Highland Railway. Today’s ‘golden spike’ ceremony will mark the reconnection of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways and the creation of a combined 40 mile (64 km) 1ft 11½ (600 mm) gauge heritage railway running through some of the most stunning scenery in Britain. Our heartiest congratulations to the Festiniog Railway Railway Company, the Welsh Highland Construction Ltd, the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway and all those who kept the dream alive and turned it into reality.

Today’s ceremony commemorates the completion of the UK’s, and arguably Europe’s, most ambitious heritage railway restoration scheme. But few, if any, of those attending today’s event will realise that they are also witnessing the completion of a volunteer-assisted railway restoration scheme that was the first ever such scheme to be proposed anywhere in the world. For it was some 70 years ago that a group of railway enthusiasts first discussed the possibility of forming a railway society and using volunteer labour to reopen and operate a closed railway. And it was the Welsh Highland railway, which had closed in 1937, which was the focus of their attention. With dark clouds looming over Europe nothing came of the idea at the time and most of the Welsh Highland railway track was lifted in aid of the war effort in 1941.

In 1950, at a special meeting in Birmingham regarding the impending closure of the 2ft 3in (686) gauge Talyllyn Railway (TR), Owen Prosser, one of the enthusiasts who attended, recalled the volunteers formed into a railway society formula proposed before WW II for the WHR, and commended it to those seeking ways to keep the TR in in existence.

The TR went on, under the leadership of Tom Rolt, its first general manager, to become the first line to be saved and restored by a railway preservation society. The now proven methodology, was successfully replicated to create hundreds of heritage railways all around the world.

Returning to our tale of the WHR, after the 1941 track lifting, only the branch leading to the Croesor slate quarries remained, but that, apart from a few hundred yards, was lifted in 1948. One WHR locomotive, Baldwin 4-6-0T, 590 was cut up for scrap, another, Hunslet 2-6-2T, Russell, was put to work mining ironstone in Oxfordshire and a third, Moel Tryfan, remained in bits at the Festiniog Railway Company’ s Boston Lodge works only to be scrapped in 1954 to provide much needed funds to kick start the restoration of the FR. It seemed that the WHR was doomed and destined to be sold off as lots of little parcels of land – a fate that befell another 1ft 11½ railway, the picturesque Lynton and Barnstaple Railway in Devon.

But it was not to be. The line’s particular legal status made it difficult for the line to be legally abandoned, even if the track was no longer present. Apart from some property at a couple of stations which were sold off by the receiver of the bankrupt pre-war company, the railway land remained intact, large sections becoming a unofficial footpath through some of the most attractive scenery in the Snowdonia National Park.

In 1961, the Welsh Highland Railway Society was born and the campaign to rebuild the railway started in earnest. The early preservation history of the WHR is complex and contentious. Suffice it to say that the early WHR restoration pioneers had to deal with road ‘improvements’ which would have obliterated key sections of the line, a proposal to turn the line into a long distance footpath, a proposal to run a 12¼ inch gauge miniature railway over the most scenic section of the line and hostility from local residents and farmers.

Finally, in the early 1990s, when at last the project to restore the WHR looked set to go ahead, the original WHR pioneers were faced with the decision of the then Transport Minister, John MacGregor, that it was not they, but the Festiniog Railway Company. who were to build the new Welsh Highland Railway. Eventually after a period of hostilities the two groups reached agreement. The original WHR group would concentrate on building up a heritage museum and their own short demonstration line at Porthmadog, and enjoy ‘running rights’ over the WHR ‘main line’. The main burden of negotiating for funds, restoring the railway formation and relaying the line would fall on the FR.

The original campaigning group, whose name changed over the years – Welsh Highland Railway Society, Welsh Highland Railway (1964) Ltd, Welsh Highland Railway (Portmadog) – now trades under the name Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, while the FR manages the WHR under the brand The Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon). Detailed negotiations regarding WHHR running rights over the WHR are continuing, and we hope that the ‘feel good factor’ from today’s ceremony will spill over and assist both groups to negotiate a detailed operating agreement which will be of benefit to both parties.

BBC News:

Sources – the railways:

Sources – legal and restoration history

WHR route:

With the earthworks still fresh, the course of the rebuilt WHR can easily be traced on Google Maps. Why not start at Dinas Junction (see below) and trace the line of the railway back to Porthmadog?

A good idea of the scale of the work that was involved in restoring the WHR can be obtained by looking at photographs of one particular location through the ages. Here we have arranged links to photographs of –

Dinas Junction Station:

Source websites for the above:

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One Response to “70 years ago… (part 1)”

  1. Robert Hall Says:

    I hadn’t been aware of the pre-war initiative to save the WHR on an enthusiast-volunteer basis. Thanks for info. If I have things rightly, there was in the USA a couple of years later, a similar “might-have-been-the-first”, likewise aborted by Second World War events. The last 2ft. gauge line in the state of Maine with a passenger service, the Bridgton & Harrison, was abandoned in late 1941. Enthusiasts over there, were seeking to take the line over; but Pearl Harbor and what followed, brought those plans to nothing. Some locomotives and stock of the B&HRR survived – ran for quite a number of years on a shortish line new-created post-WW II elsewhere in New England, which is now defunct; but I understand that the locos and vehicles are still around.

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