Opened in 1923, the Welsh Highland Railway was formed by the merger of several much older railways: the Croesor Tramway, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways, and the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway.
The Croesor Tramway had been opened in 1863. It was purely horse drawn, carrying mainly slate traffic. It extended from Portmadoc to the slate mines surrounding Croesor village. The dubious fortunes of the slate industry always kept the Croesor Tramway in a perilous financial position. The Tramway crossed the Cambrian Coast main-line railway (originally the Aberystwyth & Welsh Coast Railway) on the level. Unfortunately, this level crossing was another contributory factor in the Tramway's commercial failure and the subsequent commercial failure of the Welsh Highland Railway. Although it predated the Cambrian, the Croesor Tramway had to pay an annual rent to the Cambrian for use and maintenance of the crossing - normally the reverse would have applied. In the 1920s, the rent was equivalent to the total railway wage bill for six weeks.
The North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (N.W.N.G.Rly) had been opened in 1877. It ran from Dinas Junction, near Caernarvon, to Rhyd Ddu near Snowdon. An additional branch line to Bryngwynserved the slate quarries around Rhostryfan. As its name implies, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways had been planned to be one of a network of narrow gauge lines through western Snowdonia. Most of this network never came to fruition.
In 1902, the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway (P.B.& S.S.Rly) set about completing the next section of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways network, namely the section from Rhyd Ddu through Beddgelert to Portmadoc. All of the major engineering work was completed, but legal complications always beset the project. The onset of the Great War in 1914 led to its abandonment.
After the Great War, the project was revived, largely as a means to offset the severe unemployment of the time. Finally, in the summer of 1923, the Welsh Highland Railway was able to pull its first passenger trains through the mountains. It operated very much in partnership with the neighbouring Ffestiniog Railway, which shares the same gauge of 600mm (1' 11 5/8") . However, it was never a commercial success - a Receiver was appointed in 1927, and closure finally came ten years later.
The assets were scrapped, and most of the track was lifted in 1941. That would have been the end of it, but for a dedicated group of enthusiasts who, in 1961, formed the Welsh Highland Railway Society. During the '70s, land was been purchased on the old slate exchange sidings in Porthmadog, and the rebirth of the Welsh Highland Railway started. Track was laid and rolling stock acquired, culminating in new passenger services from 1980, and the return to service in 1987 of the famous narrow gauge locomotive Russell.
Many difficulties stood in the way of rebuilding the line through the mountains of Snowdonia, but at last, in 1997, work started on the Welsh Highland Railway Project. Caernarfon is now linked through Dinas (formerly Dinas Junction) and Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu (a distance of 12 miles), thus restoring the former N.W.N.G.Rly. Southward construction continued, and was met by a northward extension of the existing Welsh Highland Railway in Porthmadog. By 2011, the project completed the rebuilding of the former P.B.& S.S.Rly, connecting Rhyd Ddu through the picturesque National Park town of Beddgelert and across Porthmadog town to join with the Ffestiniog Railway at Harbour Station.