History of the WHR: 2 - The WHR

The outcome of the enquiry was the incorporation on the 30th March 1922 of a new company under the Light Railways Acts of 1896 and 1912 called the Welsh Highland Railway (Light Railway) Company. It acquired from the 1st January 1922 the undertakings of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (NWNGR) and the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway Company (PBSSR) together with the powers of these companies relating to the building of railways between Caernarfon and Portmadoc. The authorised capital of the Company was £120,000, but only £90,000 was issued, fully paid, to the two undertakings acquired, in lieu of purchase money; £40,000 to the NWNGR and £50,000 to the PBSSR. No dividend was ever paid on these shares.

The Government agreed to subscribe an amount to the debenture stock of the Company equal to half the cost of completing the railway between Dinas and Portmadoc, providing the sum advanced did not exceed £37,500. The Ministry of Transport duly advanced £35,774 to the Company. It was stipulated that the Compnay could not raise more than a total of £175,000 in share and loan capital without the Minister's consent. Local authorities contracted to take debenture stock in the Company as follows: Caernarfon County Council £15,000; Caernarfon Corporation £5,000 (in respect of the proposed line from Dinas to Caernarfon); Gwyrfai Rural District Council £5,000 (£2,000 of which was in respect of the Dinas-Caernarfon link); Glaslyn Rural District Council £3,000; Deudraeth Rural District Council £3,000; Portmadoc Urban District Council £5,000. As the Dinas-Caernarfon link was never built, the £7,000 for this section was never subscribed, but the remaining £29,000 was duly forthcoming.

Construction

In January 1922, the survey for the connecting section between between Croesor Junction and South Snowdon was commenced by Sir Douglas Fox & Partners and the contract for the building of the line was given to Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons on the basis of their experience of railway work, although theirs was not the lowest tender. The work was commenced in March 1922. Attention was first given to reconditioning the old NWNGR section between Dinas and South Snowdon: this was re-opened for passenger traffic on the 31st July 1922. Although initially planned, passenger services were never re-introduced on the Bryngwyn branch however; for the rest of the life of the railway, this branch remained goods only. Russell was the mainstay of the services during 1922 and the first six months of 1923, with Moel Tryfan only being used in an emergency, being in need of urgent repairs. Work was then commenced on the new 8¼ mile linking section and in reconditioning the Croesor Tramway line between Portmadoc and Croesor Junction.

The track was relaid between Portmadoc and Croesor Junction to make it suitable for steam traction. The bridge at Pont Croesor, previously largely of wooden contruction, was replaced with a series of steel girder bridges. The original route planned by the PBSSR had involved a gradient of 1 in 28 on a three mile section between South Snowdon and Beddgelert. In order to ease these, the Company sought and obtained an Amendment Order in February 1923 which gave it powers to abandon the partially constructed PBSSR route and to purchase land to reduce the gradient on this section to 1 in 40 with curves of a minimum radius of three chains instead of the much tighter curves envisaged by the PBSSR.

The linking section was completed early in May 1923 and a series of trial runs carried out. The first, on 12th May 1923, consisted of a Ffestiniog Railway locomotive, Palmerston , ten loaded slate wagons and an open toastrack coach to carry the W.H.R. directors and representatives of the contractors. Further test runs were carried out on the 15th, 19th, and 22nd May prior to Ministry inspection on the 24th May 1923. The completed railway was officially opened for passenger traffic on 1st June 1923.

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

locomotive
Moel Tryfan

The new railway was now faced with an acute shortage of locomotive power. Only Russell and Moel Tryfan remained from the NWNGR days. Although these had been sufficient to maintain the reduced goods-only traffic on the NWNGR in its final years, and even the re-introduced passenger service prior to the opening of the complete line, they were insufficient to handle the proposed volume of traffic on the new line. Moel Tryfan was out of service by November 1922 and in need of a complete overhaul before it could be run again. Under these circumstances the WHR considered the re-purchase of Gowrie , the former NWNGR locomotive. An engineer from the Ffestiniog Railway was despatched to Wakes yard to inspect the engine. His report, possibly influenced by stories of previous unreliability, was against the re-purchase however.

It became necessary to borrow Ffestiniog Railway engines to make up for the shortage. Most of the passenger trains in 1923 were worked by the Ffestiniog's England locomotives, although it was not unknown for the Double-Fairlie engines to work straight through from Blaenau to Dinas Junction. This loan of locomotives was not as unusual as it might at first appear. The Board of Directors of the Ffestiniog Railway at the time was Henry Jack, Chairman (also Chairman of the W.H.R.), Sir John Stewart and Evan Davies (both also directors of the W.H.R.).

two locomotives; drivers posing
The WHR's 590 and the Ffestiniog's Little Giant at Dinas Junction.
two trains; staff posing
Russell and 590 at Beddgelert Station.

This locomotive crisis was partly relieved when Colonel Stephens, who had been appointed Locomotive Superintendant and Civil Engineer of the railway on 1st April 1923, purchased Baldwin 590 , built in March 1917, from Messrs E.W. Farrow & Sons of Spalding. This ex-War Department locomotive was one of many Baldwins built for use on the Western Front during the First World War. 590 had Walschaerts valve gear, square cased side valves on the top of the cylinders and a large sandbox. It had 8 x 12 inch cylinders, 2ft coupled wheels, a grate area of 5.6 sq ft and a heating surface of 254.5 sq ft. The total wheelbase was 12ft 2in, and tank capacity was of 496 gallons. The weight in working order was 14½ tons and working pressure was 140lb/sq in (although this has been stated as 178lb/sq in). In fact it had scarcely been altered from the condition in which it worked the Military Light Railways in France. The locomotive was to prove unpopular in service, giving a rough ride and being very prone to slipping. It was mainly used as a spare engine, although it did haul passenger trains. It was more usually to be found, at least in the early days, at work on the Bryngwyn branch. Moel Tryfan was duly taken into Boston Lodge Works and, after a complete overhaul, returned to service sometime after July 1923.

590 is described further and illustrated here.

There was also a shortage of rolling stock. Once again the deficiency was made up by loan of Ffestiniog stock. Six new open "toast-rack" carriages with light roofs of War Department design were acquired from Robert Hudson Ltd of Leeds. In later years one of the original NWNGR coaches was converted into a refreshment car, apparently around 1928, in an attempt to give the railway more appeal to the tourist.

The Fall into Receivership

Correspondence between Boston Lodge and Colonel Stephens reveals that all was not well with the Welsh Highland finances from the start. Economies were made with men being laid off at Dinas Junction and all repairs being carried out at Boston Lodge. Traffic on the new railway did not reach the projected figures and the person who took the blame for this was Henry Jack, who resigned as Chairman with effect from 1st November 1924 and was replaced by Colonel Stephens. His first actions were to have Moel Tryfan and Russell cut down in size to enable them to run on the Ffestiniog's more severe loading gauge to facilitate through working from Dinas to Blaenau. This was successful in the case of Moel Tryfan and the outward effect of having the cab roof lowered and the chimney reduced in size merely gave the engine a Ffestiniog appearance. Due to the larger boiler of Russell , however, the cut down was not a success. On a test run, Russell stuck in the Moelwyn tunnel and had to be reversed out, never to try this route again.

With the failure to pay an ordinary dividend on the shares and with the railway defaulting on debenture interest payments, a receiver was appointed in March 1927. The slate industry had declined and the amount of freight the railway carried was well below expectations whilst passenger traffic had never reached its projected figured due to the slow, infrequent and unattractively timed service. The timetable allowed 2 hours 10 minutes for the through journey from Dinas to Portmadoc, compared with a time of between a half and a third of that by road transport.

In 1929, Russell was in need of re-tyring and his wheels were sent to Hunslet Engine Co. Ltd, but when the work was finished the financial state of the railway left left it unable to pay. Russell was to remain out of service for nearly two years until the County Council stepped in and paid the bill so that the wheels could be returned and Russell put back into service.

Various attempts at economies were made, each reducing further the appeal of the railway to the public. By 1931 passenger trains ran only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reflecting the fall off of the slate trade, goods trains ran only Tuesdays and Thursdays. In 1933, a small halt was established at Portmadoc immediately to the north of the Cambrian railway. Here passengers had to alight and cross the Cambrian on foot into Portmadoc New (1923) station, where a connecting service, provided by the Ffestiniog, would run them into Portmadoc Harbour station. In this was the Welsh Highland trains could avoid crossing the Cambrian line and so save paying the expenses of manning and signalling the crossing.

In November 1933, the joint committee representing the local authorities with investments in the Company decided to ask the debenture holders to close the line. But the point was raised that the section between Portmadoc and Croesor Junction waas essential if the hoped-for resurgence of the slate industry happened for the quarries in the Croesor Valley. The suggestion was made that Portmadoc Urban District Council could take over this section and the rest closed. Negotiations were attempted with numerous organisations, including other railways. After prolonged negotiations, an agreement was reached on the 1st July 1934 whereby the Welsh Highland Railway was leased to the Ffestiniog Railway at a nominal rent of one pound for the first six months and subsequently for a percentage of the traffic receipts.

The Ffestiniog in Control

The Ffestiniog immediately tried to brighten up the Welsh Highland Railway as part of a campaign to attract more passengers. Several stations were given facelifts, with light green paint being applied to the stations at Dinas Junction, South Snowdon (Rhyd-Ddu) and Beddgelert. The refreshment room at Dinas Junction was re-openend. The passenger coaches were painted a variety of colours - red, grey, pink, blue and green all being used. Russell emerged from Boston Lodge from repairs painted a shade of light green. 590 displayed a new reddish-brown livery.

small locomotive; footplate staff in conversation with small woman wearing hat etc
Miriam Jones at Beddgelert

Nantmor station was re-named Aberglaslyn . An employee was taken on to meet each train at Beddgelert in Welsh National dress - she was the late Mrs Mirian Jones. 500 sleepers were bought secondhand from the L.M.S.R. and cut in half to provide 1000 narrow gauge sleepers for permanent way repairs. Advertising attempted to attract more holiday makers to make the "round trip" - running from the North West coast by standard gauge to Dinas, then on the narrow gauge through to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and then back to their starting point by standard gauge again. It was a brave attempt but one doomed to failure. In another desparate attempt to save money, all the stations were closed and a conductor/guard travelling ont the train dispensed tickets from the equivalent of a bus conductor's ticket machine.

Decline and Closure

Four and then six trains ran daily in each direction with Beddgelert becoming something like a border town. There was little, if any, through running and trains from both Portmadoc and Dinas met here and then returned whence they had come, passengers having to change trains if their destinations were further north or south. Trains however were not timetabled to arrive at Beddgelert at the same time and the difference in arrival times further increased travelling time and proved unpopular with the passengers. Since 1930 the line had catered for passengers only during the summer season and had run as goods only during the winter months. (In fact there had been an earlier winter closure of passenger services between 15th December 1924 and 30th January 1925. When the service was re-introduced it was on a Friday only basis - Portmadoc Market day). The 1936 summer service duly ceased on 26th September 1936, and passengerservices were never resumed. Goods traffic continued, but this consisted of only one or two trips per week on the Bryngwyn branch and even these ceased on 1st June 1937.

Early on the morning of June 19th 1937, Russell left Dinas Junction to collect all the Ffestiniog wagons on Welsh Highland metals and deliver them to Portmadoc. After leaving these in the siding behind the harbour, Russell ran on to Boston Lodge to collect the Baldwin, which had been sent there for repair. Russell then propelled the Baldwin back to Harbour station and collected all the Welsh Highland wagons in the sidings there. Pushing the Baldwin and pulling the wagons, Russell proceeded to Beddgelert where more wagons were attached and the sorry train continued towards Dinas. At Hafod Ryffyn the overgrown track caused much slipping and the load proved too much. Russell was forced to return to Beddgelert, drop off the wagons, and try again. This time Dinas Junction was safely reached and the Baldwin pushed into the loco shed. The following week Russell returned to Beddgelert for the wagons that had been left behind and proceeded back to Dinas with them, stopping along the way to collect other wagons in sidings along the route. On return to Dinas, Russell was run into the loco shed in front of 590 where they were to remain undisturbed for nearly five years.

An enthusiast who visited the line early in 1939 wrote:

"The locomotive shed at Dinas has a gaping hole in the roof. Underneath, open to the weather, stands Russell in quite good condition and looking well in her light green paint and red buffers. Alongside is 4-6-0 No. 590, painted dark red, but rusty and dirty. About 40 wagons lie in the sidings to the north of the passenger station, in various stages of decay and overgrown with weeds. The track between Dinas and Tryfan Junction is well preserved, although much overgrown."

How long the railway might have lain, rusting quietly away, is anyone's guess but the outbreak of war and the resulting acute metal shortage brought action from the Ministry of supply who, in 1941, requisitioned the metals for £1,280 to assist the war effort. All the surviving equipment, with the exception of Russell , was purchased as scrap by George Cohen, Sons & Co. Ltd in July 1941. The nameplates, numberplates and workplates of Russell and 590 were sent to the York Railway Museum at the instigation of Mr V. Boyd-Carpenter, where they can be seen today.

Demolition

The demolition contractors arrived at Dinas Junction in August 1941 and the undergrowth cleared in the cutting at Dinas. On August 11th a petrol tractor and observation coach started out but broke down near the carriage sheds. The following day another attempt waas made and the train reached a point just beyond Tryfan Junction but had to return to Dinas due to the danger of overhanging branches breaking the glass of the observation coach. The following day a train consisting of the petrol tractor, a bogie flat wagon and a four wheeled wagon set off again. All the level crossings had to be dug out along the way due to the danger of derailment, and Home Guard barricades had to be dismantled at Plas-y-Nant and in the Aberglaslyn tunnel. After dismantling the latter the train again returned to Dinas and the next day was successful in running through to Portmadoc New (1933) Station. This was as far as the train could go as the crossing over the Cambrian line at Portmadoc has been taken out in October 1938 and the crossing box removed at the same time. The line was cut at South Snowdon and worked in two parts, being dismantled towards Portmadoc on the southern half and to Dinas Junction on the northern end. Rails were left in situ between Croesor Junction and Portmadoc (in the expectation of the re-opening of the Croesor Valley quarries after the war) and between Hafod Ruffyn and Pitts Head (for use by the army for gunnery practice against moving targets). When the Croesor Valley Quarries failed to re-open after the war the Croesor Junction to Portmadoc section was lifted in 1948. At the same time much of the Hafod Ruffyn to Pitts Head section was also lifted although the Ffestiniog Railway recovered track from this area in the late 1950s.

bridge piers across wide river; road bridge beside disused railway; mountain panorama beyond
Pont Croesor in 1995
(R.D. Beton)

All the girder bridges, with the exception of Pont Croesor, were left intact. Pont Croesor was dismantled. Station buildings on the former North Wales Narrow Gauge section, all of stone construction but by then largely derelict, were left standing. But the Welsh Highland corrugated iron buildings were dismantled, with the exception of Portmadoc New (1923) Station.

In June 1942 an auction of rolling stock was held at Dinas. Baldwin 590 was cut up there outside the loco shed in August 1942. Russell was sent to the Ministry of Supply to Brymbos, near Wrexham, for overhaul before working on their ironstone quarries at Hook Norton in Oxfordshire. Several of the carriages were purchased by local people and could be seen dotted around the hillsides for years afterwards. Two of these later came into the hands of the Welsh Highland Railway Ltd - the car, known as the Gladstone coach because it was once used by that Prime Minister, and the former refreshment coach.

Epilogue

Prior to the demolition, a suggestion appeared in "The Modern Tramway" magazine. Could not the line be saved and used to carry timber and slate and perhaps even passengers, therefore saving on buses and petrol, both scarce during the early years of the war? Another correspondent suggested in February 1941 that the line be taken over by an enthusiast organisation: an interesting if impractical suggestion in wartime but one which, if it had been adopted, would have preceded the Tallylyn and the start of the preservation movement by more than a decade. A third correspondent expressed the hope that "efforts would be made to re-open this necessary and picturesque railway and that such efforts will be crowned with success."

In March 1941 the Ministry of Transport replied that they understood that the Welsh Highland had been operating at a loss since its opening in 1923 and that there was no prospect of attracting sufficient traffic to the line to warrant its re-opening. The operation of the railway at a loss could not be justified on grounds of local public need and therefore no useful purpose would be served in pursuing the matter at the present time.

The Liverpool & District Federation of the Ramblers Association prepared an appeal which was sent to the local councils in November 1942 asking that the trackbed be converted to a long distance footpath, pointing out the success that the conversion of the former Leek and Manifold Narrow Gauge Railway track into a footpath had had. They had not done their groundwork properly however, and had not realised that the section of the track between Hafod Ruffyn and Pitts Head was in use by the Army, and that the Croesor Junction to Portmadoc section was still intact, hopefully to be re-opened at the end of the war, and so this scheme failed too.

Meanwhile the Ffestiniog railway was left in an unusual position. It still held a lease on the Welsh Highland Railway, which it had been trying to renounce since before the last train. It was not until the 4th November 1942 that they were able to get a Court Order cancelling the lease on the basis that they could not run a service on a line that had been demolished.

The Welsh Highland Railway had lasted just fourteen years. The main reason was that although conceived early it was executed too late to gain a foothold with the public. By the time it finally opened, road transport was gaining the ascendancy and the slate industry diminishing, its product being replaced by roof tiles on new buildings. But it was not to die, however, for an enthusiast group, inspired by the success of the preservation movement in the Tallylyn Railway, would be formed in 1960 with the intention of restoring as much as possible of the glory of the former Railway.