Cheap Railways

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The 100 or so tramways of the 18th century that preceded the first proper railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, were associated with mining ventures with a predicted amount of traffic, and the cost of the line was part and parcel of the whole venture.

The L&M connected two large and surely growing centres, and hoped to corner a lot of freight traffic from the existing but congested parallel canal; passenger traffic was an unknown. The L&M was built with high standards of curve and gradients, because the capabilities of the feeble locomotives and brakes were undetermined. "Overbuilding" made sense as this allowed traffic to grow significantly into the future.

Even before the L&M opened in 1830, several other interconnecting railways such as the Grand Junction Railway, were already under construction using the same track gauge.

At about the same time, the Festiniog Railway was forming. It also connected a mine with a port, for slate traffic rather than coal, and its end points were little more than villages. "First" or capital costs had to be minimised. Expected freight traffic was presumably expected to be modest quantities of a high value traffic, rather than a large quantity of a lower value traffic, namely coal.

While the L&M attracted a lot of interest, once it converted from horse power to steam power, both nationally as well as internationally, the Festiniog was also to attract attention internationally as it offered hope for lower cost railways in remote parts of the world, where distances were vast and populations sparse, the opposite of the L&M.

Reducing "First" cost[edit]

While the L&M had its challenges, the FR had its own:

  • fairly rugged terrain.
  • need for a long tunnel, which was initially implemented as two cable-hauled inclines.
  • a needed to increase the distance between its endpoints to keep the gradients gentle and steady, not that the proper gradient was theoretically known at that time.
  • initially built with horse haulage with light rails.
  • need for steady falling gradient to suit gravity operation.
  • by 1865, traffic had increased enough to justify change to locomotive haulage, including heavier rails.

Alternative plans[edit]

Incline planes[edit]

When the L&M was opened in 1830, it was not yet known how steep a gradient their locomotives were capable of climbing. The profile of this line had two 1 in 100 inclines on either side of Rainhill suitable for cable haulage should the early locomotives be too feeble.

The FR was indeed with two temporary inclines to avoid the need to build a long tunnel in the initial stage.

(QNNA) This begs the question whether the FR could have been built with a series of incline planes on a straighter, shorter and steeper route than was actually chosen.

The L&M did have a cable worked incline from Liverpool station down a 1 in 48 gradient in tunnel to riverside wharves.

The LNWR also had a cable worked incline from Euston to Camden Town up a 1 in 50 gradient. Both of these inclines were replaced, when stronger locomotives arrived.

High Adhesion Locomotives[edit]

Tractive effort can be increased, by among other things, increasing the weight of the engine, with a commensurate increase in the weight of the rails, and strength of the track.

On the Camden Tram in N S Wales, a railway in all but name, the challenge of a very steep gradient of 1 in 19 was overcome by two phases of increase in locomotive weight and strength of track. However, the lessons learned here, from 1882, cannot of course be applied retrospectively to the Festiniog Railway.

Spooner, the engineer of the Festiniog, does not appear to have attempted to survey a line with gradients as steep as 1 in 19 like the Campden Tram, with say heavy 107lb/yd rails, etc., so we will never know.

Double locomotives[edit]

Tractive effort can be increased by operating two or more locomotives, though this incurs the cost of two or more crews.

(QNNA) Double engines such as the Fairlie locomotive appeared in about 1865; other than the need for flexible steam joints, which may well be difficult to design and make, could the Fairlie have been invented earlier?


Rack railways date from Blenkinsop around 1804, well before the FR era. Could this cog system have been used to build a short but steep Festiniog railway?

The success of the Fell rack system on the Mont Cenis Railway c1867 came too late to influence the FR.


Some advocates of the narrow gauge argued that narrow gauge waggons had less deadweight than the equivalent standard gauge waggons.

On the other hand, railways with their reduced friction, etc., are energy efficient, and this coupled with the low cost of fuel, means that the deadweight issue is less important.

Gauge and Break of Gauge[edit]

(QNNA) FR and the various tributary quarry tramways seem to have shared the same narrow gauge, though it is not clear at time of writing, which came first. See Quarries and template:Quarries (table).

A common gauge allows, in principle, for loaded slate waggons to travel from quarry to port at Portmadoc without transhipment at a possible break of gauge at the junction between quarry and main lines. It is suspected that slate is brittle, and unnecessary transhipment handling should be avoided.

An exception would be the ___________ quarry which used double flanged waggons which are clearly unsuitable for main line use.

(QNNA) It seems to be the case that originally most of the slate was exported by ship, and it is only later that break of gauge interchange traffic with standard gauge railways, GWR, LWWR and Cambrian Railways developed.

(QNNA) Some of the slate quarries went underground, and where their tramways to follow underground, the smallest possible gauge and loading gauge would have been desirable. Underground quarries would probably best be called undergrounds mines.

Proportional to Gauge[edit]

Some people argued that the cost of a railway was proportional to:

  • 0 - does not depend on gauge
  • 1 - gauge.
  • 2 - square of the gauge. [1]
  • 3 - cube of the gauge. [2]
  • Really?!? They can't all be right!

Narrow gauge railway or no railway[edit]

Some people argued in favour of narrow gauge on the basis that there was often a choice between NG railways or no railways at all.

Festiniog Railway gauge[edit]

The narrow gauge chosen by the FR incidentally also had the advantage that is allowed sharper curves, which reduced "first" costs when following the contours in difficult terrain. Also the smaller loading gauge reduces the cost of smaller tunnels, etc.

  • 7ft 0in - - 149% of SG - claimed advantages include higher speeds, and more comfortable carriages; causes break of gauge. Allows third rail mixed gauge with SG.
  • 5ft 3in - - 111% of SG - too similar, so hardly any advantage; different enough to causes break of gauge. Arguably does NOT allow third rail mixed gauge with SG.
  • 4ft 8½in -- 100% of SG -
  • 3ft 6in - -- 73% of SG - small cost savings at cost of break of gauge. Allows third rail mixed gauge with SG.
  • 2ft 0in - -- 42% of SG - large cost savings so overcomes costs of break of gauge. Allows third rail mixed gauge with SG.

Festiniog Railway loading gauge[edit]

(QNNA) Is it accident or design that the FR loading gauge, especially the height of the tunnels built 1836, turned out to be high enough (9ft 6in) for powerful enough locomotives in 1863, 27 years later? Would these tunnels allow a man riding a horse to ride through without ducking? It is noted than eminent engineers such as Stephenson thought that locomotives on the FR narrow gauge were impracticable.

Transhipment at Break-of-gauge[edit]

Cost of transhipment depends a lot on the proportion of freight traffic that needs transhipment; originally much of the FR slate traffic may have been exported by ship; did this always apply? Transhipment costs also depend on the kind of freight, and the availability of mechanical equipment. Transhipment in rain (needing cover) or at night (needing floodlighting) may incur extra costs.

Piggyback operation[edit]

One way of overcoming a break of gauge is to carry waggons of one gauge on rails on flat waggons of the other gauge. The loading gauge of the other gauge needs to be tall enough to accommodate the extra height needed, not a problem as the narrow gauge rolling stock is quite small. This method was used on the Graig Ddu Quarry.

Wished he had known more[edit]

The Duke of Sutherland (in northern Scotland) "wished he had known more" about the Festiniog Railway and the Fairlie locomotive, because the Duke would have saved a lot of money if he had built the Sutherland Railway as narrow gauge. [3]

Of course a narrow gauge Duke of Sutherland Railway with its break of gauge would have been very inconvenient for heavy military traffic during WW1 and WW2.


Cheap Railways may also be described in other ways:

  • Economic Railways. [4]
  • Railways of the Future. [5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "UNIFORM GAUGE". Bunbury Herald (WA : 1892 - 1919). WA: National Library of Australia. 22 July 1911. p. 3. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
  2. ^ "THE 'CUBE OF THE GAUGE' THEORY". South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 - 1900). Adelaide, SA: National Library of Australia. 28 September 1871. p. 5. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
  3. ^ "THE RAILWAYS OF THE FUTURE". Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong, NSW : 1856 - 1950). Wollongong, NSW: National Library of Australia. 11 October 1872. p. 4. Retrieved 5 October 2015.
  4. ^ "ECONOMIC RAILWAYS". Morning Post (Cairns, Qld. : 1897 - 1907). Cairns, Qld.: National Library of Australia. 7 April 1898. p. 2. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  5. ^ "THE RAILWAYS OF THE FUTURE". Hamilton Spectator (Vic. : 1870 - 1873; 1914 - 1918). Vic.: National Library of Australia. 14 May 1870. p. 1 Supplement: SUPPLEMENT TO THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR. Retrieved 27 September 2015.

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