Welsh Highland Railway restoration


Welsh Highland Railway restoration

The restoration of Welsh Highland Railway has a colourful and complex history. This article provides the modern history:

Welsh Highland Railway Limited

After the 1944 winding up of the old 1922 company, a few articles appeared in the railway press suggesting its rescue and plans were also put forward for long distance footpaths. The first real moves to restore the Welsh Highland Railway began in 1960/1, when a group of enthusiasts formed the Welsh Highland Railway Society with the aim of restoring part or all of the railway. The society formed a limited company, called Welsh Highland Light Railway (1964) Limited with Bill Brown as its first Chairman, to operate the railway. This company is now called the Welsh Highland Railway Limited (WHR Ltd), now promoted as Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog) to differentiate from the WHR (Caernarfon). This suffixed naming will, by agreement, discontinue when phase 4 of the WHR is completed in 2009 and both the FR and WHR(P) are connected to the full WHR Caernarfon-Porthmadog line.

In late 1973, after lengthy negotiations, WHLR (1964) Ltd purchased from British Rail the Beddgelert (standard gauge) siding site, which it proceeded to develop as a base for a restored (narrow gauge) line. By 1980, it had established a depot and workshops and built a short length of line with a station at Porthmadog (WHR), which was inspected by Major Olver of the Department of Transport and opened for tourist passenger service on 2 August 1980 and a temporary terminus at Pen-y-Mount. This railway is laid on a former standard gauge spur from the Cambrian Railways, that was originally intended as the start of a standard gauge railway to Beddgelert.

In 1987 WHR Ltd completed the restoration of the only surviving steam locomotive owned by the original line Russell. This engine's complex history has been the subject of several books, and its escapes from the scrapman and return to Wales have made it one of the most famous narrow gauge locomotives in the world. It was finally rescued for preservation by the Birmingham Locomotive Club in 1955 and saw display for ten years at the Talyllyn Railway before being donated to the WHR Ltd in 1965.

Controversy and complication

In order to begin the restoration of the line, WHR Ltd (or any other organisation so interested) needed to gain access to the track bed of the original railway. The 1964 Co started negotiations with the liquidator of the original 1922 WHR company and the nearby councils to find a way forward. The original 1922 WHR company, which held statutory powers to run the railway and owned the track bed itself had a complex legal status as all of its directors, officers, its Company Secretary and even many of its shareholders had died. Not only that but its registered address had been destroyed and one of many problems which prevented a quick way of bringing the company out of liquidation was that shares could not change ownership fully, as the now moribund company had to be informed of all such changes, before they could be completed! This was complicated by the fact that the original 1922 Company was not a normal limited company (it would have been long gone had it been), but instead was formed by statutory powers and thus had a different standing in law.

During the negotiations, indeed when a price and contract had been agreed, the company's liquidator A Thomas died and the assets of the 1922 Company were then placed in the hands of the Official Receiver (O.R.). It was not always understood that the statutory nature of the railway meant that it could not be sold off piecemeal and that either an abandonment order (which extinguished the statutory powers that the trackbed enjoyed) or a transfer order (which transferred those powers to a new company - strictly ONLY another railway company) were the only ways that the trackbed could be released. Despite this, some parts of the trackbed were sold (notably at Dinas and Rhyd Ddu) by the liquidator and claims for adverse possession were also numerous (an example being Snowdon Ranger station building). For many years the O.R. demanded (following legal advice) that any purchaser of the assets must first be able to take on the liabilities of owning the trackbed (claims, fencing, etc) and secondly must apply for an abandonment order, even if they then wished to restore the railway! The mechanism of using a transfer order wasn't always well understood and became important later at the High Court hearing.

After the 1944 winding up, the liquidator and later the OR was mostly interested in obtaining the best deal for the debenture holders, who had large debts which were secured against the railway's land. However, the documents showing what land was secured against which debentures were not complete and record keeping appeared poor within the 1922 Company. Hence the O.R. believed that the best deal would be for the trackbed to be sold off in one piece and any resulting funds would then be distributed amongst the debenture holders. This placed the debenture holders in a very strong position. Following council boundary changes the main debenture holders were the Department of Transport (some 42%), CCC (later Gwynedd CC) 17.7%, Meirionnydd DC 3.5%, Dwyfor DC 13%, McAlpines 11.8%, Branch Nominees Ltd 11.7% with 0.1% thought untraceable through a Mrs Conbran/Sir John Stewart. In addition to the likely 'loss' of this substantial capital, debenture holders (mainly Gwynedd County Council (GCC), the successor to Caernarfonshire County Council), had also run up costs maintaining the railway's structures since closure.

Of the shares in the 1922 some 88.4% was known to be held by HJ Jack and his successors.

During the early years of negotiations with the O.R., the sometimes fleeting interest of outsiders (a couple wishing to build miniature railways on the trackbed), cycling and walking charities who wished to open up the trackbed as a footpath/cycleway and GCC's own surveyors (who listed some 15 points where road improvements would effect the railway) hampered progress. However, the establishment of Beddgelert Siding as a base in Porthmadog and an important win at a local Public Inquiry to ensure that the restoration of the railway to Pont Croesor from Porthmadog was included in the Local Plan, brought eventual progress.

In the late 1980s, WHR Ltd and GCC began a project to gain joint control of the trackbed and to begin rebuilding the railway in stages. The scheme involved GCC receiving ownership for a nominal sum (£1 - it was still owed a lot of money), and then leasing parts of it back to the new company. Various plans were put together and various starting points were discussed, including Rhyd Ddu, Beddgelert ("Some work was started in the late 1970s to facilitate clearance of the flooded Royal Goat hotel cutting. This utilised rail recovered from the abandoned Croesor Railway.") and others. It was the stated intention of GCC, and a requirement of the O.R., however, to apply for an abandonment order, which would have removed the statutory designation of the track bed as a railway and consequently the council might have decided to use it for non-railway purposes, such as the much talked about footpaths or road improvement/bypass schemes. One particular issue was a road improvement scheme at Waunfawr which was proposed to sever the trackbed, with any prospective restorer of the line having to pay for a bridge. This scheme and many of the others mooted never came to pass and the only scheme that may yet, is the proposed Porthmadog bypass, of which, construction is now due to start in 2010.

The risk that GCC would not open all of the track bed up for railway restoration and that a substantial amount of it could therefore be lost to footpaths or road schemes led a group called Trackbed Consolidation Limited (TCL) to be formed in 1983, mostly from WHR (1964) Co members and directors to consider other methods for reopening as much of the railway as possible.

Involvement of the Ffestiniog Railway

The involvement of the Ffestiniog Railway (FR) in the future of the Welsh Highland was first revealed in 1990, and came as a shock to many in the UK railway preservation community as it was very much secret (an anonymous bidder was known to have placed a bid for the assets through solicitors to the OR, but the identity of that bidder had remained secret) and further negative publicity was generated for the Ffestiniog Railway when a leaked memo later confirmed that its initial aim was to block the development of a competitor on its doorstep. This secrecy and move to block a rival remains controversial even today, although relations are now positive and cooperative.

The Ffestiniog Railway had, in 1982, completed the full restoration of its line from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog at considerable expense and having had to construct a considerable deviation using volunteer labour when parts of the old line were flooded as part of a hydro-electric power scheme. Considering the financial position of the FR in the mid 1980s therefore, the FR was clearly worried about the appearance of a competitor on its doorstep in Porthmadog.This view was shared by the local district council too.

The first attempt by the FR was to try and buy the trackbed, and offer it to Gwynedd County Council, with caveats to prevent its use as a railway. (This was revealed in leaked documents at the first Public Inquiry [http://www.whr.co.uk/history/confid88.htm WHR Confidential Letters] ] ). It must however be noted that this proposition was raised at an similar time to many other discussions, including the interest of a Mr Ellerton, a wealthy man who also had designs on parts of the trackbed for a miniature railway scheme. Mr Ellerton had also tried to court WHR Ltd and TCL to be part of his scheme too. His main plan was to provide a miniature railway from Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu, to be opened in stages.

However, the FR was not able to change GCC's policy of supporting WHR Ltd and the OR remained minded to sell to GCC/WHR Ltd as outlined above (abandonment order, lease to Pont Croesor, possible extensions later). This was mainly as the OR felt that a public authority was better placed to take on the trackbed liabilities, and was a major debenture holder (and thus a preferential creditor) itself. In order to continue an interest in the WHR, the FR had to reveal its position and was unmasked as the previously anonymous bidder (it had to if it wished to continue to be part of the future of the WHR as the OR was still minded to sell to GCC). This caused a significant backlash from WHR Ltd and much of the railway press.

At this time, there was a considerable shift in the policies of the FR, helped by a number of new directors and officers who pushed (and financed) a greater involvement in the restoration of the WHR.

The FR first offered to act as 'landlord' of the track bed, leasing the section to Pont Croesor to WHR Ltd (and later other sections), whilst protecting the FR. This was rejected by WHR Ltd, who had by this time obtained planning permission to rebuild to Pont Croesor and had submitted a light railway order for this section. WHR Ltd remained committed to its partnership with GCC.

TCL, who had split from WHR Ltd (see above) were at the same time, attempting to revive the original WHR 1922 company, which still held the operating rights to the railway. This had previously been thought to be too difficult or even impossible. It was originally the intent of TCL to provide the track bed to WHR Ltd.

TCL was, after much detective work, able to trace and purchase a great deal of the share capital and debentures of the original company. However, they were not able to acquire more than 75% of the debenture holdings, as a significant proportion were still held by the local councils. The 75% figure was important as it was believed that it would allow a scheme of financial reconstruction of the 1922 company to be agreed.

An initial meeting was held to try and revive the company, but was adjourned when the Department of Transport announced it would sell its debentures (some 42% of the total) to the highest bidder. These were won by the West consortium (WestCo), which was linked to TCL. All seemed set for a TCL 'victory' at the reconvened meeting, but one council (Dwyfor), at the last minute, changed its mind and voted with others, including GCC, to block the move.

Following the rejection by WHR Ltd of the FR plan to act as landlord, the FR now changed tack again and realised that the only way to challenge the High Court case brought by the OR to sell the assets to GCC was to commit to building the railway itself. However, the FR was not a shareholder or debenture holder in the old company and thus it had no 'way in' to be part of the High Court case. TCL, after considerable expense on behalf of its members notably J Ewing, C Lodge and members of the Preston family, found itself unable to raise the funds to be part of the High Court case itself either. It also had made an offer to the OR of some £10,000 for the trackbed, far exceeding the standing offer of £1 from GCC.

TCL and WestCo were introduced to the board of FR and first WestCo, then later TCL, agreed to join forces with the FR to challenge the High Court case, to propose a new plan to restore the whole WHR and also to start at Caernarfon, not Dinas, linking to a town with a major tourist attraction already - the castle. The plan is to create a green transport corridor that complements the heritage of the FR. This represented a major change in FR policy and although the reasons are clearly complex, it is certainly true that the directors of the FR were far more positive about the WHR than in any period prior to that. Furthermore, funds were forthcoming from a director (M Schumann) for the not insubstantial work required to develop the proposals and prepare for the necessary planning applications. However, it was necessary to first challenge the OR's plan to sell to GCC.

The shares and debentures owned by TCL and the West Consortium (WestCo) were transferred to the FR trust, who were able to take part in the High Court case and also to try to validate the transfers in the old 1922 company and thus revive it. This was ruled 'wholly misconceived', mainly as the transfers were unable to be completed as the company was moribund. It was also made clear formally at this point that any applicant for a transfer order would have to rebuild the railway and must be a railway company, which was fine as the combined FR/TCL plan was to do just that. The judge did not pass judgement on the OR's application, but instead left time for both parties to apply for a transfer order and for a Public Inquiry to decide who should restore the railway. The judge also further stated that he was suspicious of GCC's motives for the rest of the trackbed past Pont Croesor.

Both groups duly applied for a transfer order, ensuring that either plan would involve the rebuilding of the whole route, something that had very much been in doubt previously due to the aforementioned road schemes, attitude of GCC etc. By the early 1990s the 'competitive' Public Inquiry for a transfer order was held at which the inspector was faced with three options: a partnership between the WHR Ltd and Gwynedd Council; the proposal led by the Ffestiniog Railway/TCL and the option to grant neither a transfer order.

The independent inspector after having presided over a 4 week Public Inquiry and after reviewing all the submitted evidence found in favour of the WHR Ltd and Gwynedd Council, but the then Transport Minister, John MacGregor, over-ruled the decision (on the day he resigned), in favour of the FR/TCL, mainly on the grounds that the FR scheme would not involve a public body or funding and the consequent risks. WHR Ltd considered appealing, but this would have been a very expensive option.

After this, the FR Trust formed a subsidiary company called the Welsh Highland Light Railway to rebuild the railway. This second section of the new WHR, between Caernarfon & Dinas, was opened in 1997, but did not form part of the old WHR route, it was in fact part of the old LNWR standard gauge line to Afon Wen and was built under a Light Railway Order. That line was, in fact, originally a narrow gauge line being part of the Nantlle Railway built at 3' 6" gauge running from Nantlle to Caernarfon Slate Quay.

The 1998 Agreement

In 1998 the FR applied for a Transport and Works order (TWA), necessary as the law had changed, replacing the Light Railway Order procedures, to complete the railway from Dinas to Porthmadog. After long negotiations, including an WHR Ltd objection submitted against the TWA, WHR Ltd agreed to withdraw this in return for a role in the rebuilding project. The agreement [ [http://www.whr.co.uk/WHR-Ltd/ffr-agrmnt/98-jan-final.html 1998 agreement] ] was signed in 1998, and meant the FR would begin rebuilding from the north end of the line and the WHR Ltd would expand its railway from the south onto the original WHR trackbed towards Pont Croesor. The agreement also established the conventions of referring to the two ends of the line using the names Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) and Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog). This agreement ensures that the new WHR both operates as a viable passenger and also a heritage attraction. WHR Ltd own the original WHR locomotive 'Russell' which it is hoped will be ready for the grand opening in 2009 [ [http://www.russell2009.fr Restore Russell] ] , a Baldwin loco similar to '590', purchased by Col Stephens for the WHR in the 1920s and a series of heritage coaches, either rebuilds or restoration projects. A full heritage train (incorporating both original and cut-down carriages) should be ready within a few years of the whole railway reopening. Further plans to add to the 'heritage experience' of WHR Ltd include an extension to an already extensive 'hands-on' museum and further restoration of wagons and artefacts.

But before the rebuilding could go ahead, a second Public Inquiry (for the Transport and Works order) had to take place. The inspector found against the proposal, mainly as he felt that the burden of benefit had to be higher as the railway was sited in a national park), but this was overturned by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at a time when the Government was actively promoting alternatives to the car. This go-ahead was however conditional on the commissioning of reports into the stability of rocks in the Aberglaslyn Pass. Despite much delay this was achieved just before the powers were devolved to the new Welsh Assembly Government. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/380254.stm BBC News: Go-ahead for Snowdonia railway] ]

A further legal challenge, meaning even more delay, was then mounted by the National Farmers' Union, but this failed.

The Future of the Railway

Three phases of the WHR have been opened since 1997 (Caernarfon-Dinas, Dinas-Waunfawr, Waunfawr-Rhyd Ddu), in addition to WHR Ltd's section at Porthmadog to Pen-y-Mount. More work is continuing, with an extension from Pen-y-Mount to Traeth Mawr (nearly half-way to Pont Croesor) now open. It is worth noting that the Traeth Mawr extension was completed with volunteer labour. Phase 4 of the line (Rhyd Ddu - Porthmadog), which incorporates the Pen-y-Mount to Traeth Mawr section is due to open at Easter 2009, although the construction company intend that it will be materially complete in late 2008.

The completed railway of nearly convert|28|mi|km will be owned by the FR. The WHR Porthmadog to Pen-y-Mount section (under a mile and not on the old WHR route) remains the property of WHR Ltd.

WHR Ltd will have some operating rights allowing it to run its heritage trains north from its terminus at Porthmadog, and the FR will have similar rights to run into the WHR Ltd's Porthmadog (WHR) station, should they be required. The Ffestiniog Railway has said it intends to run its WHR trains into its own Porthmadog Harbour station, though this arrangement has been a source of concern from some residents (see below). A plan for a new 'gateway' station on the old Porthmadog Co-op site has been dropped when the price rose above the a level that the project could afford. This site will now be a Wilkinsons hardware superstore.

In the medium to long term the FR has a business plan, published recently in the FRS magazine, which shows that the railway will try and fund further improvements to the carriage fleet, the provision of new station buildings at Blaenau and Caernarfon, a more powerful main line diesel loco, new loco and carriage shed facilities, station shelters at sites like Waunfawr and hopefully a halt at Nantmor, following a favourable vote within the local community.

Some members of the FR society remain concerned regarding the impact of the project on the FR itself and on the impact to the FR's heritage particularly at Harbour Station and Boston Lodge works. The FR board say in return that this will be a manageable effect and negative competitive effects could have happened without FR intervention anyway. The firm belief of the FR board is that the new WHR will be profitable and allow for extra funds to be invested in the railways in the future, whilst having protected the FR from potentially very damaging competition.

Obstruction and objections

A number of local residents protested against the rebuilding of the Welsh Highland Railway. Their reasoning was along the lines that the railway would damage the sensitive landscape and environment of the Snowdonia National Park, one of Wales's most beautiful areas.

Some residents in the village of Beddgelert have objected to the railway because they fear it will bring increased road traffic to the tourist village. For this reason the Snowdonia National Park Authority has stipulated that trains should not terminate in the park except at Rhyd Ddu, until the railway is finished in 2009.

Also, the railway company will not provide a car park at Beddgelert station and there will be no direct road access to the station. Access will be via a public footpath from the central car park.

Relations with some of the community in Beddgelert have remained difficult in more recent times, mainly because of the company's plans for the station there. The railway sought powers to construct a large building, but some residents expressed concern that it would be intrusive and too close to their homes. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_west/4415774.stm BBC News: Steamed up over railway station] ] . Planning permission for a slightly modified building was subsequently granted, though with a condition that the railway company should not have a cafe on the site. The railway is currently appealing against this decision and consequently no building work has begun on the building, other than the casting of a foundation slab.

The WHR rebuilding has also been the subject of more direct action in the past. One local resident near Plas-y-Nant, upon hearing that the construction of the railway was to go ahead, tipped a large mound of manure onto the original alignment. When the railway station at Rhyd Ddu was being completed, vandals used spray paint in various places to spell out "Dim WHR" (No WHR). This included signs, rocks and the container holding the small construction diesel "Dolgarrog". However, this graffiti was relatively small scale and was removed quickly.

The day before the visit of HRH Prince Charles to Rhyd Ddu, when a test train was being run to ensure smooth operation the next day, a football-sized rock was found placed on the track. Fortunately this was spotted, the train stopped and the rock removed. [ [http://www.isengard.co.uk/Rhyd%20Ddu%20Opening.htm Construction News] ]

The Snowdonia National Park Authority changed its position to one of opposition regarding the rebuilding of the railway. This decision was successfully challenged at a further Public Inquiry. The objections were political and were found not to be based on proper grounds.

The site of the Porthmadog terminus has also been a source of some debate in the town, as some locals have suggested that WHR trains should terminate at the WHR Ltd station to avoid excessive train movements across Porthmadog High Street and the consequent delay to traffic. Although the impending construction of the Porthmadog bypass, should solve this issue and much of the current delay is due to unphased pedestrian crossings along the High Street anyway.

Two Welsh Highland Railways

Today there are two parts of the Welsh Highland Railway open, one in Porthmadog (which opened in 1980) and one for thirteen miles (19 km) out of Caernarfon (which opened from 1997 to 2003).

The WHR Ltd's existing line, known as the "Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog)" continues to develop the heritage atmosphere of the old railway. Original locomotives and stock are being restored to a high standard. The WHR Ltd has received much acclaim for the interactive tour of the sheds, which all passengers get as part of their train ride. In 2005, the WHR Ltd celebrated 25 years since the rebirth of the Welsh Highland with increased passenger numbers, and the entry into service of a second original Welsh Highland carriage.

The WHR Ltd extension has since made progress northwards using volunteer labour from their existing terminus at Pen-y-Mount to a new loop at Traeth Mawr which opened on 23rd March 2007.

The Caernarfon end of the line to Rhyd Ddu is currently convert|13|mi|km long, constructed with the help of a grant from the Millennium Commission. It was inaugurated by the visit of HRH The Prince of Wales on 30 July 2003. Prince Charles travelled from Waunfawr to Snowdon Ranger in a replica NWNGR coach hauled by the Ffestiniog Railway locomotive 'Prince' and from Snowdon Ranger to Rhyd Ddu, he rode on the locomotive footplate.

Funding for Phase Four, the final section of the line from Rhyd Ddu to Porthmadog, was announced in September 2004, thanks to a package of grants from the European Regional Development Fund, the Welsh Assembly Government and private donations. The public appeal has become the most successful public railway appeal ever according to Steam Railway magazine.

Trains are operated by staff and volunteers of both the Ffestiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon). With the commencement of public services between Caernarfon and Dinas in 1997, all train operations on the Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) have been directly controlled from the central control office at Porthmadog Harbour railway station and this continues.

The agreement signed between the former rivals means that Phase Four has seen the Welsh Highland Railway Limited playing a role in the reconstruction of the line. Fittingly, in October 2005, it was the volunteers of the original revival company who laid the first lengths of track in the final (southern) phase, an emotional moment for many of that organisation's long standing members.

Phase 1: Caernarfon to Dinas

The first three miles (5 km) of the WHR (Caernarfon)'s route uses the abandoned standard gauge trackbed between Caernarfon and Dinas and was officially opened on 13 October 1997. This part of the line originally formed a route from Bangor to Afonwen, which used to link the North Wales Coast Line with the Cambrian Coast, until the closure of the Caernarfon-Afonwen section in 1964: the Bangor - Caernarfon section was closed in 1971.

The North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways had previously obtained powers to construct an extension from Dinas to Caernarfon and these had been transferred to the Welsh Highland Railway but had not been exercised despite their declared intentions.

The trackbed from Caernarfon to Dinas and beyond, owned by Gwynedd County Council, was opened as a footpath and cycletrack, Lôn Eifion, in the 1980s and this now runs parallel to the railway. Between Caernarfon and Dinas south, the railway formation is leased to the Ffestiniog Railway for 999 years. The Phase 1 work included the creation of narrow gauge stations in St. Helen's Road adjacent to the slate quay in Caernarfon and on the site of the former standard gauge station at Dinas: the intermediate halt at Bontnewydd was built in 1999, following requests and a petition from villagers.

Between Caernarfon and Dinas the route was originally part of the narrow gauge (3'6") Nantlle Railway from 1828 until conversion in 1867 to standard gauge as part of the Carnarvonshire Railway later absorbed by the LNWR, and in turn the LMS and British Railways, up to closure in 1964. There are places between Caernarfon and Dinas where the route diverged from the 1828 original, whose remains can still be seen. Just outside Caernarfon, on the western side of the track, an old Nantlle tunnel can be seen adjacent to the propped bridge. Near the bridge at Bontnewydd, on the eastern side, may be seen the old Nantlle embankment, and the arch of the original river bridge, which still stands over 130 years after being abandoned.

Two original NWNGR buildings remain at Dinas. The station building has been restored to its original purpose and, as far as practicable, its 1923 external appearance. Significant historical, practical and financial assistance with this was given by the Welsh Highland Heritage Group and by others. The Welsh Highland Railway was presented with a "Railway World" "Ian Allan National Railway Heritage Award" at a ceremony at Dinas on 12 May 2001. The original NWNGR goods shed has been restored to railway use, principally as a workshop.

Dinas has two NWNGR railway yards, the north yard, which was used during the closure period by Gwynedd County Council as an engineering depot, and the south yard, which was being used by Welsh Water. These yards had been previously sold off by the Official Receiver and had to be bought back. The north yard contains the station building and goods shed and a large carriage shed built since restoration. This yard, which is separated from the smaller south yard by a public road and linked by the former standard gauge bridge, also houses the railway's engineering department and construction company. The south yard contains the engine shed and locomotive workshops.

The actual work of reconstruction fell into two parts, the first, the preparation of three miles (5 km) of trackbed (including a granite ballasted surface) and stations, and the realignment of the Lôn Eifion cycleway and footpath alongside, was undertaken by civil engineering contractor John Mowlem plc in a contract worth £750,000 in December 1996. This major work started on 6 January 1997 and in addition involved also the strengthening and waterproofing of two river bridges, Pont Seiont at Caernarfon and the viaduct over the Afon Gwyrfai at Bontnewydd. First the formation above the bridges was stripped down to the brick arches, which were found to be in good condition 130 years after their construction. The tops of the arches were then backfilled with concrete, and a waterproof membrane added before remaking the formation. This contract was substantially completed during June 1997.

The large Funkey diesel locomotive had been delivered to Dinas and stored in the Goods shed on 14 January 1997 but nothing more could be done at Dinas until access to the formation was obtained in mid-May 1997 and this enabled the start of the second part of the reconstruction task, which was undertaken by Ffestiniog Railway subsidiary company Welsh Highland Light Railway Ltd assisted by very many volunteer groups. Foremost in this was the Welsh Highland Railway Society's volunteer "Black Hand Gang" who made a tremendous contribution. Many other volunteer groups made valuable tracklaying visits including teams from the Llangollen Railway and the Mid-Hants Railway. However, the gang that came up from WHR (Porthmadog) as part of their "Civil's Week programme" set a remarkable record for the most track laid in a single day.

For the restoration of WHR (Caernarfon), the Ffestiniog Railway imported not only South African steam engines (nevertheless built in Manchester by Beyer Peacock and Company as recently as 1958) but also the rails and steel sleepers on which to run them. This track included eighty completely made up panels of convert|2|ft|m|abbr=on gauge (adjusted before use to 1ft 11½ins gauge) straight track (for the laying of which a special rail mounted track laying gantry was built by Winson Engineering Ltd). The greater part of the rail came with a job lot of steel sleepers, clips, screws, bolts and fishplates, all to several different patterns and these had to be sorted by WHR and FR volunteers before they could be used. The bulk of the track including all the curved sections was built up on site with rails moved forward to the railhead using specially built rail grab trolleys known as RRMs - "Roland's Rail Movers", named after WHLR Ltd construction manager Roland Doyle. These proved to be a highly successful innovation and they have been used on all subsequent tracklaying. Amusingly, they have also acquired the nickname "Roland Rats", a title believed to have originated among the track gangs at the Porthmadog end, who also use the same technology.

Access to Dinas South Yard (site of the original engine sheds) was obtained on 11 August 1997 and existing buildings were converted for use as the locomotive depot. The depot, together with the line to Waunfawr is now reached via the standard gauge overbridge and the low narrow gauge overbridge now provides a road link between the two yards.

Tracklaying, including pointwork at Dinas and Caernarfon was mostly completed by mid-September 1997, three miles (5 km) in four months and a truly remarkable achievement. Two steam locomotives ("Beyer-Garratt 138" and FR "Mountaineer") and five new carriages were delivered to Dinas on 23 September 1997. A whole team of inspectors from the Ministry of Transport descended on the railway on 2 October 1997 to make a very thorough inspection, over several days, not just of the line of railway, but also the entire stock of locomotives, carriages and wagons. After the company had fixed items in the snagging list, provisional approval was given for the line to open for a six-week trial period subject to the receipt of a light railway order, which was granted on 9 October 1997. Public passenger service started on Saturday, 11 October 1997. The line was officially opened on 13 October 1997 by the Mayor of Caernarfon, Mrs Mair Williams, with speeches from the Chairmen of the Welsh Highland Railway Society and the Ffestiniog Railway Company, and also from Dafydd Wigley MP, and a representative of the Millennium Commission.

Phase 2: Dinas to Waunfawr

Having passed under Dinas station bridge and skirted the south yard, the Caernarfon - Dinas section of the restored Welsh Highland Railway joins the first four mile (6 km) section of the original North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways line and runs north-westwards gaining height and giving views across Caernarfonshire towards Caernarfon and Anglesey. Beyond Tryfan Junction the route climbs westward along the valley of the Afon Gwyfai to Waunfawr. Phase 2 was reconstructed in under twelve months and reopened to Waunfawr on 15 September 2000 at a cost of approximately two million pounds. It had been hoped that this section would open in May, but a particularly wet winter severely delayed construction work.

It had not been possible to start construction work on phase 2 immediately, first the grant of a Transport and Works Order permitting the reconstruction from Dinas to Porthmadog was required and this involved a second public inquiry and then a long wait for a decision by the Deputy Prime Minister, which resulted in the grant of The Welsh Highland Railway Order 1999, made 30 June 1999 and which came into force on 21 July 1999. Only then could contracts be let and start dates agreed.

Unlike phase 1, a main Civil Engineering Contractor was not employed. All construction work for phase 2 was carried out by Welsh Highland Light Railway Ltd as the main contractor with civil engineering work being undertaken by local North Wales based civil engineering contractors. Four such contracts were granted. Unlike phase 1 where the trackbed was tidy and in use as a cycletrack and footpath, the first contract let for phase 2 involved site clearance and fencing of the four mile (6 km) route and this was let to Achnashean Contractors Ltd, of Llandygai. Significant bridge reconstruction work was needed for six overbridges, two underbridges and many drainage channels and culverts. The rebuilding of one of the underbridges was undertaken largely by volunteers, two contracts were let for the other bridge and culvert works, in the event, both were awarded to Mulcair Ltd of Caernarfon. A major contract for the reconstruction and ballasting the trackbed was let to Jones Bros. Ruthin [Civil Engineering] Co. Ltd. In addition, a firm of Consulting Engineers (Symonds Group Ltd, of Colwyn Bay) was employed with a Resident Civil Engineer based at Dinas, acting as a link between WHLR Ltd and the outside contractors, and ensuring smooth running of the contracts.

Tracklaying on phase 2, as on phase 1 was undertaken by Welsh Highland Light Railway Ltd using Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway staff and volunteers including notably the Welsh Highland Railway Society North Wales Group track gang who laid the first main line section in April 2000. The rails, sleepers and fastenings again came mostly from South Africa where they had been first used on the lifted Umzinto-Donnybrook line. The entire four mile (6 km) tracklaying was completed in under six months.

The intermediate station at Tryfan Junction has not been re-opened. The derelict station building was carefully surveyed and tidied to industrial archaeology standards by the Welsh Highland Heritage Group and secured for rebuilding at a future date. Tryfan was the junction with the branch line to Rhostryfan and Bryngwyn. At Bryngwyn a 1 in 10 balanced inclined plane owned by the Welsh Highland Railway led to an upper plateau from where quarry owned lines radiated to several slate quarries in the Moel Tryfan and Nantlle area. Although slate traffic continued as required until final closure in the 1930s, passenger trains ceased to operate on the branch in 1916. It is intended that the branch will become a public footpath. The station at Waunfawr was opened in part-completed form, with only one platform face completed: the footbridge which connects it to the car park (shared with the The Snowdonia Park Hotel) was not completed until September of the following year. Completion of works on the "snagging list" meant that final approval from HM Railway Inspectorate was not received until 21 September 2001, marking the formal completion of Phase 2.

Phase 3: Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu

The line from Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu climbs the steep valley of the Afon Gwyrfai, past Llyn Cwellyn all the way to its source in Llyn Gader. It was the final and most scenic section of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways Moel Tryfan Undertaking to be built, originally opened throughout in 1881. It was re-opened for public passenger service on 18 August 2003.

For Phase 3, the Ffestiniog Railway's subsidiary engineering company Welsh Highland Light Railway Ltd was the main contractor, but with its Managing Director, Roland Doyle, acting as Resident Engineer on site. Posford Duvivier (Caernarfon office) were retained as civil engineering consultants and supervisors for the specialist contractors, principally Jones Bros. Ruthin [Civil Engineering] Co. Ltd. All tracklaying for the six miles (10 km) of railway was again undertaken by direct labour with significant volunteer involvement but in addition direct labour and volunteers undertook the formation construction, ballasting and drainage work on almost half the length of trackbed. There were eight major bridge contracts:
* Three were NWNGR road overbridges requiring significant lowering of the trackbed (including two under the A4085 at Pont Betws and Castell Cidwm).
* A new overbridge was needed to provide caravan access to the Bryn Gloch caravan park.
* Three existing river underbridges (over the Afon Gwyrfai) between Betws Garmon and Plas-y-Nant were not strong enough for further use. The bridge at Betws Garmon was completely replaced and the other two at Cae Hywel and Plas-y-Nant were refurbished and strengthened, and
* The spectacular Glan yr Afon bridge was strengthened and fully refurbished.

Track supplies for Phase 3 were also obtained from South Africa and, including some existing stocks, the following were needed: Over 15,000 ex Donnybrook steel sleepers with rail fastening kits and about convert|12|mi|km of new rail, which was rolled in South Africa to the same pattern as the Donnybrook rail (30kg per metre, in 18 metre lengths). Unfortunately, owing to mishandling by the shippers in South Africa, about half the rail was bent on arrival and had to be re-rolled in England at the expense of the South African shippers or their insurers.

Railway work in the Snowdonia National Park was subject to certain restrictions and in particular was not able to commence until rock stabilisation work in the Aberglaslyn Pass was completed to the satisfaction of the Snowdonia National Park Authority. This work included the raising of an existing retaining wall to reduce the risk of rockfall onto the line and rockbolting and other work within two of the three tunnels. This contract, with a value of about £200,000 was undertaken by Colin Jones (Rock Engineering) Ltd of Porthmadog, specialists in this field. Consultants in this field Ove Arup and Partners, who surveyed Aberglaslyn during the Transport & Works approval process, oversaw these remedial works which started in November 2000 and were completed during March 2001.

The line runs south from Waunfawr to Betws Garmon, where reconstruction started in October 2000. Tracklaying started in early 2001 south from Waunfawr and met track being laid north from Betws Garmon in May 2001. This was the only section on which work was permitted until the Aberglaslyn works were completed and this coincided with the 2001 UK foot and mouth crisis, a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease, resulting in movement restrictions throughout North Wales and putting most of the railway works on hold for several months.

The original Betws Garmon station was some distance from the straggling village of that name. It was the location of sidings and short branch lines serving local quarries. One such line crossed the road and ran to Hafod-y-Wern slate quarry (closed mid-1920s). More recently, this quarry has supplied crushed slate waste used to consolidate the WHR track foundations prior to ballasting.

Further south, there is a new halt at Plas-y-Nant (opened in 2005), which is actually more conveniently situated for Betws Garmon village than the original station. During reconstruction this was the site of a track materials depot and siding (now removed). Further south again, the halt at Snowdon Ranger marks the start of one of the paths to the summit of Snowdon.

Tracklaying north from Rhyd Ddu station started in May 2001, with an engineering base established there. The station itself was constructed in 2003, although it was much modified in 2005/6 as part of the Phase 4 works. The first steam train to operate over Phase 3 ran from Waunfawr to Plas-y-Nant on 26 July 2003 and then through to Rhyd Ddu on 28 July. In all, a total of 28 test trains were run in July and August 2003 in order to meet HMRI requirements.

Phase 3 was officially opened by The Prince of Wales on 30 July 2003 when a 'Royal Train' comprising three coaches hauled by the Ffestiniog Railway locomotive No. 2 'Prince' ran from Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu carrying Prince Charles and about 100 invited guests. The Prince travelled in the replica North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways Carriage No. 24 from Waunfawr to Snowdon Ranger and from there to Rhyd Ddu he rode on the footplate of 'Prince'.

However, the first public passenger trains from Caernarfon for Rhyd Ddu did not run until 18 August 2003. One of the invited guests on the first train that day was Mr. Richard Williams, who had travelled on the original Welsh Highland Railway opening train in 1923: 80 years later, the WHR was open to Rhyd Ddu again.

The future

WHR (Porthmadog)

Preparations are in hand to make sure that the completed Welsh Highland will be more than a scenic train ride. The WHRL is busy restoring original WHR locos, carriages, vans and wagons to ensure that an authentic WHR heritage train can also run on the completed line. Plans are being drawn up to develop the existing Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog) to offer shorter train rides and an enhanced museum experience.

WHR (Caernarfon) - Phase 4: Rhyd Ddu to Porthmadog

A ceremony to launch the start of Phase 4 construction took place at the south end of Rhyd Ddu station site on 1 August 2005, with a ribbon cut by the Rt Hon Rhodri Morgan AM, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government. This will provide the link from Rhyd Ddu to Porthmadog and link into both the WHR(P) and the Ffestiniog Railway at Porthmadog Harbour. The section of the line to Beddgelert passes Pitt's Head, the highest point on the route and into the forest where the new Beddgelert Forest Halt will be located near a campsite. The railway then rapidly loses height via two S-bends before reaching the new station at Beddgelert. By November 2006, construction work had reached the south end of the forest, below the upper s-bend and by October 2007 most of the trackwork was complete through Beddgelert Station, and down the Aberglaslyn Pass, through the tunnels towards Nantmor.

From Beddgelert, the line passes over the new Bryn-y-Felin bridge installed in summer 2006 over the River Glaslyn then along the Aberglaslyn Pass. This section caused controversy in 1995 and 1996, when the land was taken back by the railway. Walkers and environmentalists claimed that an important, albeit unofficial, footpath would be lost, but there was no real justification for this given that the fisherman's path remains usable alongside the railway trackbed. Further claims were made that danger from falling rocks would make the pass unsafe for trains, which led to extensive remedial works to overhanging rocks, retaining walls and paths.

The footpath along the Aberglaslyn Pass trackbed was closed to walkers in 2000 in order to prepare for the rebuilding of the railway. The railway company, along with the National Trust, which owns the surrounding land, worked to rebuild the fisherman's path for use again. Despite the path being fenced off in 2000, the contracts for preparing the trackbed were not let until autumn 2006 and work is expected to begin before the end of the year.

South of the Aberglaslyn Pass, the railway will pass over the new Nantmor road bridge before calling at Hafod-y-Llyn halt shortly before the line leaves the Snowdonia National Park. Just south of here, the line will join the formation of the Croesor Tramway, a quarry railway which had originally been taken over by the WHR in 1922.

At a point along the gentle gradient of the Croesor Tramway, the WHR(C) construction work will meet the WHR Ltd work, which is being extended north to meet it. Immediately north of Pen-y-Mount station, the line will divide into two, with one section continuing to the WHR Ltd terminus - called Porthmadog (WHR) - and the other section continuing to the Ffestiniog Railway's Porthmadog Harbour Station.

The Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog) route to Porthmadog (WHR) station, currently in operation, passes Gelerts Farm Works, the main engineering base of the WHR Ltd, and location of its WHR/FR Museum, before continuing to curve round and terminate parallel to the Network Rail Cambrian Coast line close to the standard gauge Porthmadog station.

The section of the route from Pen-y-Mount to Porthmadog Harbour is known as the "Harbour Branch", or the "Cross Town Rail Link" because it runs through a short section of Porthmadog Town Centre. South of Pen-y-Mount, it runs to the opposite side of Gelert's Farm Works, before crossing the Network Rail Cambrian Coast line over a flat crossing, which was installed in November 2006. After skirting the edge of one of Porthmadog's main town centre car parks, the line will cross the Britannia Bridge over Porthmadog Harbour (shared with road traffic) before entering the Ffestiniog Railway's Porthmadog Harbour station. This will allow through trains to run from Caernarfon to Porthmadog - and theoretically to Blaenau Ffestiniog, creating the longest narrow-gauge railway in the UK.

Trackwork supplies for phase 4 of the new line, after small quantities of South African rail, sleepers and fittings have been used up, have been obtained from EU member state Poland, the entire order, signed on 1 August 2005, 1300 tons of rail, was delivered during 2005 and some was sent direct to WHR Ltd for use between Pen-y-Mount and Traeth Mawr Loop. The sleeper order, comprised just over 21,000 steel sleepers and 84,000 clips similar to the type manufactured by Pandrol. This was enough to complete the railway - though timber sleepers fitted with steel baseplates will be used at stations and in various other locations. These were all delivered in 2005. In order to cope with tight curvature, a range of sleeper gauges has been supplied, sufficient to deal with the entire route.

Following initial trial tracklaying with the new materials and experience with spring clips recently gained by the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway, all Phase 4 track will be laid with specially made 3 mm thick plastic pads between the sleeper baseplates and the rails, and these were ordered and delivered in the first quarter of 2006. All trackwork is expected to be executed by volunteers supplemented by some directly employed labour.

Completion of Phase 4 is planned for Easter 2009, although it is possible that actual trackworks may be completed before the end of 2008, allowing time for testing and certification of the track ready for passenger trains. Although the railway is mostly complete to Beddgelert in 2007, the Snowdonia National Park Authority has stipulated that the station may not be used as a temporary terminus and thus Phase 4 will open when the whole route is complete. By June 2008, tracklaying had reached the Porthmadog end of Pont Croesor bridge, within sight of Porthmadog and there has been considerable activity on the 'cross town link' in the town itself .

Notes

See also

*Welsh Highland Railway
*Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog)
*Ffestiniog Railway

External links

* [http://www.whr.co.uk Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog) - official site]
* [http://www.welshhighlandrailway.net/ Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) - official site]
* [http://whr.bangor.ac.uk Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) - official construction site]
* [http://www.isengard.co.uk/ Rebuilding the Welsh Highland Railway - unofficial site - updated almost daily!]
* [http://www.pontcroesor.co.uk The Pont Croesor Extension]
* [http://www.frheritage.org.uk./cgi-bin/wiki.pl?Home_Page Ffestiniog Railway's Heritage Group Wiki - contains further WHR information]
* [http://www.welshhighlandrailway.net/history1.htm Welsh Highland Railway History]


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