Welsh Highland Railway
Note: Not connected with The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway.
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 line has been restored as a heritage railway.
The original railway was never a commercial success and went into receivership in 1927. The service however continued, operated by the Ffestiniog Railway Company under a newly-signed 42-year lease, but only survived from 1934 to 1936. 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 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 1 ft 11½ in (597 mm) 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.
1941 "The Welsh Highland Railway was purchased for dismantling by George Cohen, Sons and Co. As a consequence, some 1200 tons of relayable rails, several thousand sleepers, and a considerable tonnage of scrap will become available for the national war effort. The railway runs for about 28 miles from Portmadoc to Dinas Junction, in Caernarvonshire. It has not paid for many years past, although there was at one time a fair traffic in timber, as well as in slate from the neighbouring quarries. It was originally called the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway, and was opened in 1875 from Dinas Junction to South Snowdon. In 1923 the name was changed to the Welsh Highland, and an extension built to Portmadoc, joining up with the Festiniog Railway of the same gauge. In 1934 the line was leased to the Festiniog and three years later it was closed to all traffic by that company. There are two locomotives, a Russell 2-6-2 tank, built in 1906, at Hunslet Foundry, and a Baldwin 4-6-0 tank, built at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, U.S.A., in 1917."
As the modern WHR includes an extension north to Caernarfon, it is worth mentioning that the section of line between Dinas and Caernarfon was constructed as standard gauge in the 1860s by the Caernarvonshire Railway (later the LNWR) on parts of the Nantlle Tramway (a 3ft 6in gauge horse drawn tramway, that survived, albeit truncated at Talysarn until the 1960s).
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. 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.
The project to restore the Welsh Highland Railway began in 1961, 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), also known as Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadog).
Sources of Information
- The Engineer 1927/04/08
- The Engineer 1941/07/25