Gravity slate trains
Gravity slate trains are loaded slate trains worked down hill without any locomotive attached, relying only on gravity to propel them. Whilst not unique to the Festiniog Railway, gravity trains are particularly associated with that line.
The Festiniog Railway was originally surveyed by James Spooner with gravity working in mind and had a continuous gradient all the way from the terminus at Blaenau Ffestiniog to Boston Lodge. The last mile or so across the Cob is on the level. Gravity trains continued to operate on the Festiniog Railway until the withdrawal of the passenger service at the start of the Second World War.
Gravity working was used to a limited extent on works trains after the railway's revival in the 1950s and '60s. More recently demonstration gravity slate trains have been re-introduced as an attraction at events and on other special occasions.
Old company gravity working
When the Festiniog Railway opened in 1836 all "down" trains were worked by gravity. The "up" trains were horse-hauled - the horses riding back down again in special dandy wagons. At this time the gravity trains reached a speed of around 10 mph running in short trains of up to eight waggons (the number that could be hauled back up by the horse). As the railway got busier the horse-hauled up trains were run in several portions whilst the gravity trains began to get longer. Gravity trains at this time ran as far as Boston Lodge where the waggons were weighed before being dispatched to the harbour at Portmadoc. The gravity trains at this time ran a section at a time before pausing at the horse stations to pass and change horses with an up train.
The introduction of steam locomotives in 1863 allowed the gravity trains to become non-stop workings, a form which they maintained until they ceased in 1940. When passenger trains were introduced in 1865 they were initially also run down the line under gravity in portions: goods waggons then passenger carriages and finally the locomotive (to give a shove if required?). This practice was deprecated by the Board of Trade and by 1871 all traffic but slate descended behind the locomotive. The practice of running slate trains down by gravity continued right up to the start of WW2.
In 1871 the railway opened a new weigh house at Minffordd in conjunction with the opening of the yard there. This meant that the gravity trains now stopped here to be split into portions for the yard and for onward transport to Portmadoc.
Operation of the trains
The trains were assembled at the junction of the branches to Dinas and Duffws from smaller gravity trains which ran to this point from the quarries or were brought here by the Top Shunting Engine. Waggons would be removed for other destinations in Blaenau and the remaining ones rearranged to ensure those with brake handles were correctly distributed. There needed to be two braked waggons at the front and the rest evenly distributed throughout the train. The train would be started as soon as possible after the departure of a down passenger train in order to reduce the effect on the timetable of any delay to the gravity run. The gravity would then follow the passenger all the way to Tan y Bwlch or Minffordd running one section behind. Following the granting of the Light Railway Order in 1923 and the simplification of the signalling this practice was changed as passenger working became slower and the potential for delay became less.
In the days before the granting of the Light Railway Order speeds of up to 40 miles per hour could be attained by the well-oiled gravity trains, even on the section after the stop at Minffordd. However stops were sometimes made along the way. The first of these potential stops was at Tanygrisiau where waggons were picked up from the quarries there. An allowance was made in the timetable for the Top Shunter to come and give the train a push here if it failed to restart. In later days the locomotive followed as far as the tunnel as sheep and trespassers were so often encountered on the line above that trains were obliged to run at reduced speed.
The gravity trains would be controlled by two brakesmen (or, after 1902, three if more than 80 waggons in length). They would run along the top of the train, moving from waggon to waggon, in order to apply and release brakes along the length of the train. The leading brakesman was provided with a hunting horn to warn of the train's approach. The photo here shows at least two brakesman manning the train. The Rev J Timothy (Timmy) Phillips gave a graphic description of a Festiniog brakesman and his work in the railway's heyday:
This rara avis (the brakesman) appeared at his best in his winter plumage, when he looked like an Esquimau in mourning. He must have been encased within layers upon layers of winter clothing, for he always looked as broad as he was long; and the process of disrobing, at the close of the day, must have resembled the continuous peeling of a Spanish Onion. And, believe me, he needed them all, for I know of no more blood-curdling, marrow freezing occupation than his anywhere this side of Siberia. He would go to work at 5.30 a.m., sitting on the ledge of the last empty truck of the long 'run' behind the workmen's train - exposed to all weathers. On reaching Blaenau, he and his mate would take charge of the loaded slate train and bring it down to Minffordd. There was no such thing as a brake-van in those days, no shelter of any kind. Watching old Griffith Jones, Bryn Nazareth, going about his business used to send a cold shiver down my spine. Seated calmly on an engineless train careering headlong in the direction of Cae Mawr where there was a drop of 100 feet; he would jump up suddenly and stand bolt upright, placing his famous brass trumpet to his lips, and sounding an alarm that would drive the fox from his lair, scatter the chickens in all directions and fling wide the gates at Corn Pickin! This solemn ritual having been duly observed, he would turn on his heel, and run, as fast as his legs could carry him, in the opposite direction - on top of the train that moved like "The Thundering Herd" or the "Charge of the Light Brigade" - occasionally bobbing up and down to adjust a brake, and then doing physical jerks to keep himself warm, and he would arrive at Minffordd and take his seat once more on the ledge of the last wagon going up!
The next potential stop was on the steeply graded section at Tafarntrip above Tan y Bwlch. The brakesmen would have looked across the valley to observe the train they were going to cross at Tan y Bwlch and if it were running late slowing down or stopping here allowed for an easier start than stopping in the station itself.
Arriving at Minffordd the train would be stopped on the mineral line above the weighbridge and the train cut into portions depending on where the waggons needed to end up. The portions were then run over the weighbridge and weighed on the move to the nearest quarter of a ton. Those waggons destined for the harbour at Portmadoc were switched on to the main line where a new train was made up.
The remaining waggons departed under gravity for Boston Lodge. Officially the train was to slow down for Boston Lodge curve and stop on the embankment to allow the Bottom Shunter to propel it the rest of the way to Portmadoc. Often, however, the gravity train would thunder round the curve and leave the shunting locomotive behind and proceed all the way to Harbour Station or even over Britannia Bridge and around the harbour without stopping.
From the 1920s most slate movements between Minffordd and Harbour were worked by the Bottom Shunting Engine, by then usually either the Simplex or Baldwin tractor. This loco would also move empty wagons from Minffordd Yard to the Long Siding beside the main line.
At Harbour station the empty wagons were assembled on a special siding (or latterly on the line from the wharves) and the departing passenger service would back onto the waggons after departing from the platform. Further waggons would be attached at Minffordd from the Long Siding. Charles Easton Spooner reckoned over 100 waggons could be attached to the rear of a train hauled by a Double Fairlie.
If a rear brakevan were provided the brakesmen would ride there but if not they would need to ride in the waggons to provide braking. This braking was particularly necessary because the waggon portion of the train would be slipped from the passenger portion at the Dinas/Duffws junction and brought to a stand by the brakesmen ready for the top shunter to move the waggons to the quarries.
Accidents and incidents
Gravity trains are not easy to stop and as might be expected a number of incidents occurred over the years.
On one occasion just after the First World War a train hit a sleeping greyhound near Tanygrisiau resulting in the first few waggons dangling over the side of Dolrhedyn Road Bridge, the slate from them narrowly missing the chapel minister walking below. Fortunately the leading waggon was the other way round to normal so the brakesman fell onto the cutting side and not over the edge!
The most frequent cause of accidents was faulty wagons, particularly in the days of iron axles of dubious quality. On one occasion a waggon axle broke and the waggon became wedged in the cutting at Cwm Orthin siding. The rest of the train piled up behind, completely filling the cutting. Another axle failure resulted in a waggon dropping through a kitchen roof near Moelwyn Mill, fortunately no-one was inside.
No gravity brakesman was ever killed in the course of their duties. One was once injured passing under a bridge which led to the introduction of the "rat tail" gantries to warn of their approach. One of the few accidents caused by human error was when a loaded gravity train ran into Minffordd and collided with a second already in the platform. Luckily the driver of an adjacent passenger train had the forethought to reverse out of the station and avoid the ensuing pile-up. One wagon was even pushed over the bridge onto the GWR platform below.
Gravity trains on the revived FR
During the restoration of the Railway the only gravity workings were those of the PW and S&T depts returning wagons after a day's work, and workings from Dduallt to Tan y Bwlch associated with the Deviation.
The running of trains of slate wagons by gravity was reintroduced about 1986 as an attraction at a Gala and continues on special occasions to this day. The gravity trains are a popular part of special event weekends and are often run on other occasions, for example during filming work or on weekends outside of events for crew familiarisation. Gravity trains outside special events are usually announced on social media to give people an opportunity to view them. The number of wagons in the train has increased over the years and after a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund a train of 51 wagons was restored and ran during the Vintage Weekend, 2002. By October 2013 the gravity train had reached 60 waggons but was sometimes split into two separate 'loaded' and 'empty' rakes at times over the weekend. This practice has continued as the number of available waggons continues to increase thanks to the efforts of the wagon restoration team, further purchases of waggons from the quarries and now the availability of the Waggon Tracks shed to keep those already rebuilt in good condition.
On this page you will see a complete list of the wagons making up the 0945 Dduallt - Harbour demonstration gravity run on 11 April 2011 (39 wagons) and also the long train of 11 Oct 2013 (60 wagons).
Modern gravity train working
Due to the Deviation there is no longer a continuous descending gradient. Modern gravity trains are usually run from either Dduallt or the summit and run to Minffordd or Porthmadog Harbour. Other starting points may be used at events to fit in with the rest of the timetable. The waggons are usually taken to their starting point by a special steam hauled up train, dubbed the "anti-gravity" working. The locomotive will leave the train standing on the mainline and then be locked into a siding, or run to the end of the section, before the gravity working departs.
Modern health and safety doesn't allow for brakesmen to run along the top of the moving train so each braked waggon is assigned a brakesman. The leading brakesman is a qualified driver and directs his other brakesmen (usually volunteers from the locomotive department) to apply their brakes by means of hand signals dictating how many brakes should be applied. Some waggons of the modern train are filled with slate whilst others are loaded with water tanks to increase the available weight. Some of the water tank waggons are fitted with a tap to wet the rail thus lubricating it for the following waggons. The head brakesman is still issued with a horn or bugle to warn of his approach, and a number of the drivers have become well known for their musical ability.
Although modern gravity working is somewhat different from that in the old company days few will forget the sight and sound of seeing one pass them at speed.
A Typical Gravity slate run scene at Minffordd, during the Forties weekend, 2006.
The key reference for gravity slate working is a series of three articles in Festiniog Railway Magazines 44 to 46 by Tom Davies and Will Jones - remembering and talking, Michael Seymour and M J T Lewis looking in old records and Dan Wilson and Norman Gurley listening and writing.
The articles have been reprinted and are available as a booklet from the FR Heritage Group website.
- Tom Davies, Will Jones, Michael Seymour, Michael Lewis, Dan Wilson & Norman Gurley (1969) "Gravity Slate Working−1", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 44, page(s): 16
- Boyd, James I.C. (1975) . The Festiniog Railway 1800 - 1974; Vol. 2 Locomotive and Rolling Stock and Quarry Feeders. Blandford: The Oakwood Press. ISBN 085361-168-8.
- Winton, John (1986) . The Little Wonder: The Story of The Festiniog Railway. London, England, W1: Festiniog Railway & Michael Joseph Ltd. ISBN 9780718109943. OCLC 1858833. pp69-70
- Tom Davies, Will Jones, Michael Seymour, Michael Lewis, Dan Wilson & Norman Gurley (1969) "Gravity Slate Working−2", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 45, page(s): 26
- Payling, David (2017). Fairlie Locomotives of North Wales. Harbour Station, Porthmadog: Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways. ISBN 978-0-901848-14-7. OCLC 1006424938.
- Tom Davies, Will Jones, Michael Seymour, Michael Lewis, Dan Wilson & Norman Gurley (1969) "Gravity Slate Working−3", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 46, page(s): 12