The Welsh Highland Railway (WHR) is a narrow gauge railway in Wales, which originally ran from Dinas near Caernarfon to Porthmadog, with a branch line to Bryngwyn and the slate quarries at Moel Tryfan. The main line is in the process of restoration as a heritage railway. As of 2008 two sections of the line are open, a 13 mile section Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu which is operated by the Festiniog Railway Company and a 1 mile section at Porthmadog which is operated by Welsh Highland Railway Limited. The full line from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, originally planned to open at Easter 2009, is now due to open in stages, at Easter 2009, from Rhyd Ddu to Beddgelert, with the complete run opening in Mid May 2009.
The line opened to passengers in 1923 but was never a commercial success and went into receivership in 1927. The service however continued, operated by the Festiniog Railway Company under a newly-signed 42-year lease, but only survived until 1937. Thus the WHR managed only fourteen years of operation, and the longest narrow gauge railway in Wales closed. The track was lifted during scrap collections in World War II.
The restored line is known as both Rheilffordd Ucheldir Cymru and Rheilffordd Eryri in Welsh. Rheilffordd Ucheldir Cymru - Welsh Highland Railway - has been used since 1980 by the Company operating the Porthmadog end of the line. Rheilffordd Eryri - literally Snowdonia Railway - is a brand name used by the Caernarfon end. The original Welsh Highland never had an official Welsh translation of its name, despite running through the heartland of the Welsh language. Locals tended to refer to it by informal names such as Y Lein Bach or Lein Bach Beddgelert (the little Beddgelert railway).
The Welsh Highland Railway was formed in 1922 from the merger of two companies - the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (NWNGR) and the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway (PBSSR) (successor to the Portmadoc, Croesor and Beddgelert Tram Railway).
The Croesor tramway had run from Portmadoc since 1863 up into the Croesor Valley and the slate quarries in this area. This was a horse worked line laid to a nominal 2 foot gauge.
The NWNGR had originally built a gauge line from a junction with the standard gauge London and North Western Railway line at Dinas to Bryngwyn with a branch from Tryfan Junction via Waunfawr to Llyn Cwellyn (Snowdon Ranger). The line was opened in 1877 and was extended to South Snowdon (Rhyd Ddu) in 1881, a total of 9 miles. This closed to passengers in 1916, but goods traffic continued up to its absorption by the WHR in 1922.
In 1902, the newly-formed PBSSR took over the failed Portmadoc, Croesor and Beddgelert Tram Railway with the aim of extending it to South Snowdon slate quarry in the Nant Gwynant Pass. Work was abandoned by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, although the tunnels through the Aberglaslyn Pass were mostly complete. By 1921, the NWNGR, the PBSSR, the Snowdon Mountain Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway were in common ownership and controlled by the owners of the Aluminium Corporation and the North Wales Power and Traction Company with headquarters at Dolgarrog.
In 1922 the order was made to create the Welsh Highland Railway (WHR), mainly funded by loans from the Ministry of Transport and Carnarvonshire County Council in the hope that it would help regenerate the area's economy and keep struggling quarries open. McAlpine & Sons were contracted to refurbish the existing lines and complete the link between Rhyd Ddu and Croesor Junction, thus creating a railway that ran from Dinas to join the Ffestiniog Railway at Porthmadog and which was opened in 1923.
The WHR venture was not a success and the hoped-for revenue from quarry traffic never materialised. When these hopes were dashed, the railway turned to another market; tourism. The owners tried to attract visitors by opening the first narrow gauge buffet car and by painting their carriages bright colours, including yellow and blue. However, these ideas did not work because the early tourist industry did not provide sufficient visitors to make the railway pay, especially during the Depression. Competition from buses which ran a faster and more regular service from Caernarfon and Beddgelert also played a part. The last passenger train ran on 5 September 1936 and the Welsh Highland Railway was formally closed on 1 June 1937. The majority of the track was removed for scrap during the Second World War.
Various legal manoeuvres followed this, including a serious application to turn the route into a long-distance footpath. Although these plans were ultimately unfruitful, they ensured that the trackbed was kept mainly intact, rather than sold off bit by bit, which would have made restoration much more difficult and potentially expensive. However, some parts such as the sites of Rhyd Ddu and Dinas stations were sold off.
In 1961 a small group of railway enthusiasts, who had been inspired by the successful preservation of the Talyllyn Railway, formed the Welsh Highland Railway Society to preserve and restore the line. Construction of the line started in the 1970s following the acquisition of the old slate exchange sidings from British Railways. Tourist passenger services started in 1980 and the first restoration of Russell was complete in 1987, with a second, and more complete restoration to 1906 condition, is scheduled to be completed in 2009.
Two locomotives were inherited from the predecessor companies: Moel Tryfan and Russell. When these proved insufficient, Baldwin 590 was acquired by H.F. Stephens and several Ffestiniog Railway locomotives saw regular use on the Welsh Highland Railway throughout its entire pre-closure existence from 1923 to 1937. 590 was planned to be part of a larger fleet to replace Moel Tryfan and Russell but it gained so little popularity that Stephens never bought another. By 1936 Moel Tryfan was out of use at Boston Lodge. When Russell and 590 were withdrawn the following year, they were placed in Dinas shed, but when the Second World War broke out, the Ministry of War came to see about appropriating them for the war effort. After some examination of the engines and questionning of those who had worked them, Russell (regarded as a good engine) was removed for further use, and 590 (seen as an unreliable, rough rider with difficult controls and inadequate adhesion) was broken up at Dinas. Despite the unpopularity of 590, the WHR (Porthmadoc) is currently refurbishing a similar Baldwin to act as a replica.
During the ownership of the WHR by the FR, Moel Tryfan and Russell were cut down to allow them to traverse the FR to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Moel Tryfan proved suitable, but Russell, even in cut down form, was not low or narrow enough to fit the Ffestiniog's the loading gauge. It has now been restored to its original form. Notably, 590 retained its original form until its demise.
|Name or Number||Wheel arrangement||Builder||Date built||Notes|
|Moel Tryfan||0-6-4T||Vulcan Foundry||1875||ex-North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways|
|Russell||2-6-2T||Hunslet Engine Company||1906||ex-Portmadoc, Beddgelert & South Snowdon Railway|
|590||4-6-0T||Baldwin Locomotive Works U.S.A.||1917||ex-War Department Light Railways|
The railway is single track with passing loops, so special measures have to be taken to prevent collisions. There are passing loops at , and which allow up to four trains to operate on the railway at once. The completed line will operate by tokens and be controlled from Porthmadog Harbour station.
There are two exceptions to this token mode of operation, at the Porthmadog end of the line:
The crossing of the Network Rail owned Cambrian coast line is undertaken by a flat crossing. Constructed of a continuous cast lump of manganese metal, the standard gauge section of 113lb rail is continuous with notches cut out for narrow gauge passage. The WHR section is cast in 80lb rail as opposed to the WHR standard 60lb flat rail, which connects the crossing to the WHR narrow gauge lines either side.
The crossing is at the western end of the Network Rail Harlech to Porthmadog signalling section, which is controlled from Machynlleth Control Centre. The crossing is located between two road level crossings, which have been resignalled to control Cambrian line train access to the crossing.
Under agreement with Network Rail, the WHR are required to staff its crossing and all trains must stop. The procedure south of Pen-y-Mount is as follows (the procedure is reversed for north bound trains):
Additionally, a set of hand operated gates are in place on either side on the Network Rail line. These continue the boundary fencing aside all NR track. The northern gate was installed January 2008
South of Cambrian crossing, the WHR cross town link will operate on a "one engine in steam" policy. Trains will move direct to Porthmadog Harbour, where passengers will alight. Due to the initial lack of a run round loop at Porthmadog Harbour on the WHR platform, a spare locomotive to pull the stock back north will be held in a spur line at the former Gasworks in central Porthmadog. Once the southbound train is at Porthmadog Harbour, the driver of the spur held locomotive will request clearance into the Porthmadog section. Once clearance is given, the spur locomotive will proceed to Porthmadog Harbour and connect to the train. The locomotive which pulled the train south will now disconnect. Once the now north bound orientated train has transited the Cross town link section north of Cambrian crossing, the driver of the spare locomotive will request entrance to the Cross town link and proceed to the gasworks spur, where it will be held until the next train transits south to Porthmadog Harbour.
For the 2009 timetable operation, it is proposed to replicate this mode of operation. Having over come Railway Inspectorate concerns over the gradient at Beddgelert station, two sets of WHR(C) carriages based at Dinas will operate the northern portion from Caernarfon to Beddgelert, while a third set will work the southern section, from Porthmadog to Beddgelert.
Although it will be possible to run trains from through to , there are initially no plans to do so, on a regular basis. The WHR is built to a larger loading gauge than the Festiniog railway, and therefore through trains would, of necessity be FR stock.