Snowdonia's newest railway

Thursday 08 October 2015

The Industrial Revolution led to mills, factories, mines and quarries appearing all over Britain. The railways were vital to the success of these ventures. Trains brought in raw materials and exported the products from each site but also transported the mill workers, factory workers, miners and quarrymen.

I'm sure that the view at the time, was that they would never get railways to the mines and quarries high up in the mountains of Snowdonia. However, Victorian engineers weren't daunted. I don't think they grasped the concept of impossibility. Instead they just went ahead and built railways everywhere there was sufficient demand . The trains also proved popular with visitors to North Wales and as ambitions escalated, a railway was laid to the top of Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales. Many of these railways are now preserved and as "The Great Little Trains of Wales" are now among the biggest visitor attractions in North Wales.

One such line is the Welsh Highland Line. This snakes between Caernafon and Porthmadog. It started out as two separate lines. One line ran from Caernafon to the slate quarries and mines on the flanks of Snowdon. This route proved popular with hikers taking the Rhyd Ddu path to the summit of Snowdon. The other line ran from Porthmadog towards Beddgelert. Again, it was principally a mineral railway. They were eventually joined together in 1923. But by this time quarry traffic had declined and passengers were switching to road transport. It closed in 1936.

Work to rebuild the West Highland Railway began in earnest in 1997. Now Caernafon and Porthmadog are once more connected by rail. In fact trains will eventually be able to travel all the way to Ffestioniog on the parent company railway, a total length of 40 miles.Caernafon Castle

The West Highland Railway station is close to UNESCO Listed Caernarfon castle.Interior Pullman Car

The railway provides a Pullman Observation carriage for First Class passengers. Refreshments are sold on board. These include some of the Award winning Real Ales brewed in Snowdonia.  All normal services are accessible by wheelchair users as the carriages are new. Special Heritage trains could use older rolling stock and might not be accessible. Porthmadog, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Caernarfon and Rhyd Ddu Stations all have ramps designed for wheelchair users. Phone and book spaces before travelling.
Locomotive West Highland Railway

The line uses ex South African railways Beyer-Garrat locomotives. These are the most powerful narrow gauge steam locomotives in the world. Some of the locomotives were the last to be built in Beyer Peacock's Manchester works in 1958.

Mountain bikes

The trains carry bikes. You can hire Mountain bikes in Caernafon. Phone to book space on the train in advance. Rhyd Ddu is a popular destination for mountain bikers. From here there are trails that climb the lower slopes of Snowdon or take the downhill 'Lôn Eifion trail back to Caernafon. Rhyd Ddu is also one of two stations which gives access to paths leading to the summit of Snowdon.

Train and quarry

The train approaches a slate quarry. One of the reasons the line was built in the first place.
Aberglaslyn PassThe Aberglaslyn Pass, just below Beddgelert is one of the highlights of the trip.  I have good memories of walking the disused trackbed with my school. Now, a new footpath visible in this photo, has been built closer to the river.

Cows at Pont Croesor

On this trip my destination was Pont Croesor, between Porthmadog and Beddgelert. Cows graze close to Pont Croesor station, with Snowdon mountain in the background. There is an RSPB Osprey Centre very close to this stop which is popular with visitors.

Getting there:
There is ample parking near the station. Buses take thirty minutes to reach Caernafon, from Bangor Mainline Railway station.
Parking is more limited and the town can get congested in summer, although the new by-pass opened in October, so maybe it will be quieter next year. If travelling on the Ffestiniog Railway as well as the West Highland the company advises parking at Ffestiniog. Porthmadog mainline railway station 15 minutes walk from the West Highland / Ffestioniog Railway station.
The Snowdon Sherpa bus serves both Rhyd Ddu and Waunfawr stations connecting with Beddgelert, Betws y Coed and Porthmadog.

An Adult Third Class Return between Caernafon and Porthmadog currently costs £32 return or £23.15 one way. Numerous concessions are available. First Class supplements vary according to the distance travelled (Caernafon to Porthmadog £10). Bikes and dogs are carried for a supplement of £2.50.
Welsh Highland Railway

All photographs by the author.

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