History of the FR

From Festipedia, hosted by the FR Heritage Group

A brief history of the Festiniog Railway before preservation[edit]

First a short note about spelling. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Festiniog was correctly spelt with one F, but during the twentieth century, Welsh spelling has been revised, so nowadays Ff is correct. Similarly, Port Madoc, Portmadock, Portmadoc and Porthmadog have been correct at different periods.

Background and horse era[edit]

Land reclamation in a remote backwater[edit]

For more information, see wikipedia:Traeth Mawr.

In the eighteenth century, when Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog did not exist, this part of Wales was a remote mountain area. As far back as 1798, William Alexander Madocks had acquired land and soon afterwards carried out reclamation projects, first on the north shore of Traeth Mawr, which then extended several miles inland toward Pont Aberglaslyn. His first embankment still exists for a mile alongside the track of the Welsh Highland Railway until the bank turns north near Portreuddyn Castle. This was successful in reclaiming land for agriculture; Madocks then began his work culminating in the great embankment, the Cob, across the estuary, completed in 1811-12.

Boston Lodge and the Cob[edit]

The workmen for this project were housed in a building at the eastern end of the Cob, where the workshops of the Railway are now. Since Madocks was the Member of Parliament for Boston in Lincolnshire, the building was named Boston Lodge. At the other side of the estuary the Cob diverted the River Glaslyn, which scoured a channel to form the natural harbour that was to play a dominant role in the history of slate mining and the Ffestiniog Railway. The bridge, known as Britannia Bridge, was perhaps built on dry land c.1809 before the Cob was complete. Its lower levels up to the arches are possibly the work of Jesse Hartley but the top levels have been altered. The town that swiftly grew up around this harbour was named Port Madoc, known today as Porthmadog. Madocks sponsored an Act of 1821 which declared it lawful for any tramroad arriving at the east end of the Cob to operate over it; this is why the FR to this day has a wayleave over the Cob but does not own it. There cannot be many railways still operating under an Act of 1821!

Slate transport …[edit]

Meanwhile, high in the mountains around Blaenau Ffestiniog, slate deposits were being exploited from about 1760 in small quantities and laboriously taken by pack animal or farm carts over rough roads down to the River Dwyryd. Here the slate was loaded into shallow-draft river boats for transport downstream where it was loaded yet again, this time into sea-going sailing ships at the anchorage of Ynys Cyngar, a mile south-west of Portmadoc. The first tramway in a quarry in Blaenau was in use by 1804.

… and ideas for its improvement[edit]

In 1830, shortly after Madocks's death, Samuel Holland, who was quarrying slate at Rhiw, joined Henry Archer, a young businessman from Dublin, to promote the Festiniog Railway, incorporated by Act of Parliament on 23 May 1832. James Spooner from Worcestershire was responsible for the survey and construction of the Railway. There is some evidence that Spooner had worked for the Ordnance Survey - in any event he was an uncommonly accomplished surveyor who laid out the Railway's route of rather more than 12 miles on a remarkable continuous gradient from Blaenau to Boston Lodge. The route, whose final mile crossed the Cob, let loaded slate trains run down by gravity, while the horses that were used to haul the empty waggons back up the line could feed and rest in dandy waggons.

Track gauge[edit]

The 23.5 inch gauge, being that used in the quarries, was wide enough to let the horses work efficiently when pulling the empty waggons and narrow enough to let the Railway negotiate the sharp curves made necessary by the mountainous terrain. The waggons were also small enough to be loaded easily and man-handled in the quarry and at the port. Most of them carried two tons of slates; some later ones carried three tons but they were less popular because it was harder work to load the slates into their middle, and some of the quarry branches had insufficent clearance so the three-ton waggons could not pass.

First decades of steam[edit]

Modern motive power and ideas for illegal traffic[edit]

As slate traffic increased, the horse and gravity system of operation came under strain and thoughts turned to the steam engine - an improvement that would also let the FR develop from a mineral tramway into a public passenger carrier. But in the 1840s steam locomotives on so narrow a gauge were thought impracticable; and after 1846 carrying passengers on new railways of less than the British standard gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches was illegal.

Introducing steam …[edit]

These factors delayed the introduction of steam and it was only after Charles Easton Spooner (James's son) took control of the Railway in 1856 that he looked more closely into the question of steam locomotives. Some diplomatic finesse was needed, but as the FR had been opened before the 1846 Act, the Board of Trade was satisfied that the law was being observed. In 1862 the FR invited tenders to design and build and in 1863 contracts were signed with George England and Co., London, for four small locomotives. In July 1863 The Princess (as originally named) and Mountaineer were brought to Caernarfon by rail and thence to Port Madoc by horse and wain; they entered service in October. The other two, The Prince (also as originally named) and Palmerston, arrived in 1864.

… and passenger trains[edit]

There are reliable accounts of carriages being set on the Railway by 1850 to carry adventurous visitors. No details have survived of these unofficial carriages. It was said by old employees of the Railway that at first, the Company could not legally charge passengers a fare, so carried them free and charged for their hats, coats, and umbrellas. This legend is also told of other early mineral lines. At the end of 1864, the Board of Trade gave the Railway permission to run passenger trains, the first in Britain on so narrow a gauge. New carriages were providedː these four-wheelers were very low, with people sitting back to back to keep the weight as central as possible. Some of these Small Birminghams are still available for service. In addition, from 1866 primitive open carriages offered a cheap service for quarrymenː these were later replaced by enclosed but still basic carriages. Traffic increased and two more engines, Welsh Pony and Little Giant, arrived in 1867.

Hitting the wall and breaking through it: the Fairlie engine[edit]

However, the limitations of a single line were becoming too restrictive and in 1869 an Act was passed permitting the line to be doubled.

This would, however, have been extremely costly but instead the Railway was approached by the engineer Robert Francis Fairlie, who had ingeniously designed a locomotive that could pull longer trains and so improve the capacity of the line. The problem had been how to build a more powerful locomotive that could nevertheless get around the sharp curves and up steep gradients. The solution was a double Fairlie bogie engine. It looked like two locomotives back-to-back but was in fact one long rigid boiler with central fireboxes and driving position. Each end of the boiler was mounted on a swivelling powered bogie. The same principle is used in most of today's diesel and electric locomotives

In 1870, before a distinguished assembly of railway engineers, including an Imperial Russian Commission, the first Festiniog Double Fairlie engine Little Wonder was demonstrated and proved to have more than double the power of the earlier locomotives. This impressive demonstration of the capability of a narrow gauge railway was but one of the ways in which the Festiniog Railway pioneered their development throughout the world.

More engines for the growing traffic[edit]

Soon the Railway introduced improved Fairlie engines. In 1872 James Spooner entered service, followed in 1876 by a single-bogie version Taliesin. Boston Lodge, which had by now become a fully equipped workshop, rose to the task of building two more double engines, Merddin Emrys in 1879 and Livingston Thompson in 1886. It is interesting to record that when the Railway required a new large locomotive in 1979 it again chose the double Fairlie design for Earl of Merioneth, which was also built at Boston Lodge. Other Fairlies were completed there in 1992 and 1999.

Pioneering bogie carriages[edit]

From 1872 the bogie principle was applied to passenger carriages but, because of the nature of its principal traffic - slate - bogie goods vehicles were not developed; they could not go up inclines into the quarries. The passenger carriages 15 and 16, were possibly the first bogie carriages in service in Great Britain and were the first iron-framed bogie carriages in the world. Both these vehicles are still in service.

Technical recognition[edit]

This pioneering work in the 1860s and 1870s and its contribution to British exports worldwide was recognised by a commemorative plaque presented to the Ffestiniog Railway in 1985 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The plaque is on display at Harbour Station, Porthmadog.

Towards and into the motor car era[edit]

Railways take over from ships[edit]

By 1872 coastal sea transport was being overtaken by the network of inland railways; as well as slates being taken to Porthmadog, exchange sidings with the Cambrian Railway were built at Minffordd. Shortly afterwards other standard gauge railways, the London & North Western (1879) and the Great Western (1883), arrived in Blaenau Ffestiniog from Llandudno Junction and Bala respectively. They were able to take slates direct without using the Festiniog Railway, and as far as slate traffic was concerned, the heyday of the railway was coming to an end.

Tourism grows …[edit]

Although the standard gauge railways captured a share of slate traffic, they also brought visitors to the area. The increasing importance of tourism was accelerated by the development of the motor car after the turn of the century.

… but slate industry declines …[edit]

The popularity of new roofing materials and a series of disastrous strikes in 1900 to 1903 hastened the decline of the slate industry, and by the 1920s the Railway depended as much on its summer tourists as on its traditional slate traffic. There was even a new railway, the Welsh Highland Railway, built to link the former North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways to the Festiniog, thus making a continuous narrow-gauge route from Dinas (near Caernarfon) to Blaenau Ffestiniog. This line was opened in 1923 but the combined journey time was too long for an average day trip and lack of traffic in two slumps doomed the venture to failure.

… and so does the railway.[edit]

The outbreak of the Second World War cut short the summer holiday season in 1939 and on 15 September passenger services ceased. Slate continued to be carried in small quantities during the war, being transhipped to the standard gauge at Minffordd. Hopes of a revival in this traffic after the war were not realised and by 1945 there was no money to rehabilitate the worn-out track and rolling stock. The quarries found that more versatile road transport could meet their distribution needs, so on 1 August 1946, before the start of the quarry holidays, the last train ran. Officially the line closed on 9th August. The original Act of Parliament had made no provision for abandonment, so everything was left where it stood, exposed to souvenir hunters, vandals and the weather.

Pioneers to the rescue[edit]

Bristol Meeting and the Trust[edit]

In 1951, on the initiative of Leonard Heath Humphrys, a small group of people met in Bristol to see if anything could be done to restore the Railway. This group included Allan Garraway who was later to become General Manager, a position he was to hold until 1983. In 1954, after many difficulties, a controlling interest in the company was acquired by Alan Pegler, whose shares were subsequently transferred to a charitable trust - the Ffestiniog Railway Trust. Guided by a wholly volunteer board of directors, enthusiastic volunteers and a small paid staff set about rebuilding the line to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Inspection and trial run[edit]

Colonel McMullen of the Ministry of Transport Railway Inspectorate made an informal visit and advised that the finely engineered track foundations were sound although most of the line was heavily overgrown. Clearance started at Boston Lodge and during the winter of 1954-5 enough track was cleared to enable the Simplex tractor to run through to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Disposal of some equipment to save other. Start of service[edit]

Scrap metal, including many unbraked waggons, was sold to buy necessities, for there was still much to do before passengers could be carried to provide any income. But on 23 July 1955, after a formal Ministry of Transport inspection, a passenger service started from Porthmadog across the Cob to Boston Lodge, first with the Simplex and then with Prince, which had meanwhile been reassembled. In 1956 services were restored to Minffordd and in that autumn the double Fairlie Livingston Thompson, which had been renamed Taliesin c.1932, ran trial trips. Easter 1957 saw trains running to Penrhyn Station and in the summer a tremendous effort was made to get the track cleared to Tan y Bwlch. The service to Tan y Bwlch began at Easter 1958.

Flooded and emerging above[edit]

Hydroelectric plant at Tanygrisiau[edit]

Meanwhile, in 1954 the British Electricity Authority had produced a scheme for a pumped storage installation near Tanygrisiau designed to boost the grid at peak demand times. It was to have upper and lower reservoirs with the power station lying in between. The Ffestiniog Railway opposed the Parliamentary Bill in 1955 because its route was to be submerged by the lower reservoir. At this time the Authority regarded the Railway's directors and supporters as mere amateurs playing trains and compulsory acquisition of the line above Moelwyn Tunnel went ahead in 1956. The company was determined to build back to Blaenau Ffestiniog so it decided to reopen the line as far as Dduallt, the last station before the reservoir. By establishing its commercial and tourist value it would prove that it had a legitimate compensation claim. It would then, somehow, reinstate a line around the reservoir.

Plans for a deviation[edit]

A key event in 1962 was the survey for a route on the east side of the reservoir which gained height by a spiral around Dduallt and rejoined the old line at Tanygrisiau by running over the crest of the Authority's dam. In 1964 the company and its supporters announced their determination to build this line with largely volunteer labour, no money and no plant, across land they did not own!


To allow work to start on this Deviation, land was given to the Railway by the Economic Forestry Group and on 2 January 1965 the first sod was turned. Many of the Deviationists, as the workers on the project became known, had no interest in railways as such, relishing rather their weekend battles with stubborn rock and glutinous peat amid superb mountain scenery as a change from their full-time activities. The Deviationists recruited from around the country and did not poach people from the working railway. Meanwhile, on the working part of the Railway, traffic was growing steadily; all the existing carriages were overhauled, new ones were being built and much of the track was being relaid. On 6 April 1968 Dduallt was reopened.

Spiral and compensation …[edit]

The Dduallt spiral to raise the line was begun in 1965 and largely completed in 1971. In the same year, the crucial legal battle for compensation which had been going on since the 1950s, culminated in a hearing at which the Company was awarded £106,000 for loss of profits - a princely sum at the time - and at the same time an alternative route to the west of the Tanygrisiau reservoir was agreed. The law case took eighteen years and two months, beginning in the House of Lords in 1954 and finishing before the Lands Tribunal in 1972; in legal circles it is noted as one of the longer cases.

… and the light at the other end of Moelwyn Tunnel[edit]

But much more was needed of both money and resources to get to Blaenau Ffestiniog. First there was the new Moelwyn Tunnel, completed in 1977, which allowed trains to run as far as Llyn Ystradau, just short of the new power station. Then bridges had to be built over the four power station water pipes to reach Tanygrisiau and regain the old track bed. On 24 June 1978 the opening of the deviation between Dduallt and Tanygrisiau was celebrated with speeches, a party and a golden spike ceremony. The impossible had been achieved.

Slate can fight back[edit]

Only one mile of track remained to be restored to bring trains back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, but there were still many problems. The rock face just beyond Tanygrisiau was unstable and a serious rock fall demanded costly remedial action when money was tighter than ever.

Interchange at Ffestiniog town centre …[edit]

Meanwhile, it had been generally agreed that Blaenau Ffestiniog would benefit from a joint British Rail/Ffestiniog Railway station near the town centre. By autumn 1977 the Gwynedd County Council had adopted a scheme, involving a road rearrangement, to allow the Ffestiniog Railway access to the centre. Without financial support at national level, and internationally from the European Economic Community, the work could not have been completed as early as 1982. As with the Deviation, the slog back to Blaenau Ffestiniog became a joint effort of Company, volunteers, engineering contractors and labour provided under a Manpower Services Commission scheme. The Deviation organisation was reshaped and Project Blaenau was launched in July 1980 to co-ordinate the volunteer share of the work.

… and the line is whole again[edit]

On 24 May 1981 came the historic day when, for the first time since 1957, the track of the Ffestiniog Railway was continuous from Porthmadog to Glanypwll. Work was pushed ahead despite appalling weather to reach the opening date, 25 May 1982, the 150th Anniversary almost to the day of the Company's first Act of Parliament.

This was the day towards which all efforts since 1951 had ultimately been directed; the Ffestiniog Railway once again ran from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The Rt. Hon. George Thomas M.P., then Speaker of the House of Commons and later Viscount Tonypandy, officially opened the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog on 30 April 1983. A plaque commemorating the event is now on view in the booking hall.

After 1983[edit]

Rising costs here too[edit]

Extending the undertaking to Blaenau Ffestiniog marked the end of the pioneering era but new challenges presented themselves. Economic recession and the popularity of cheap overseas package holidays caused a fall in traffic. There was a backlog of maintenance work, bank borrowings were high, the longer line was more expensive to operate and fuel prices were rising sharply. It was now necessary to improve the locomotives, rolling stock, signalling and amenities and to modernise behind the scenes to improve efficiency. With grant-aid assistance and sponsorship, platform canopies and toilets were built, car parks resurfaced and the double Fairlie engine Merddin Emrys rebuilt.

Diesel haulage and public address, but also new Fairlies[edit]

Costs were reduced, while at the same time the train service was improved by introducing diesel-hauled trains at off-peak times. The diesel locomotive Conway Castle was rebuilt in Boston Lodge workshops in 1986 and this was followed in 1989 by new and refurbished carriages with heating and public address systems, both innovations on the Railway. New Fairlie locomotives were built in 1992 (David Lloyd George, a double engine) and in 1999 (Taliesin III, a single Fairlie, one of a now rare type replicating a favourite locomotive originally built in 1876).

Automation and computers[edit]

Automated signalling at Tan y Bwlch and Minffordd passing loops was completed in 1988 and 1989 respectively and work proceeded on automating most of the remaining level crossings. Computerised ticket issuing and accounting, introduced in 1985, further reduced costs and a Debenture stock issue, launched in October 1987, eliminating the high bank borrowings.

Improving appearance …[edit]

Welsh Pony was brought out of store, being exhibited for some years in front of Porthmadog Harbour Station in its bright red livery and more variety was introduced into the liveries of locomotives and carriages. The appearance of the Railway has been made more attractive through the efforts of a Parks and Gardens volunteer section, which builds and stocks colourful flowerbeds, tubs and hanging baskets.

… and heritage[edit]

More attention has been given to displaying the Railway's heritage both in the Museum at Porthmadog and by refurbishing the double Fairlie engine Livingston Thompson for display on loan at the National Railway Museum, York.

Thus the Railway is being continually developed to keep it as one of the most successful tourist attractions in North Wales, run by both volunteers and permanent staff to give enjoyment to thousands.

Unique features of the Festiniog Railway[edit]

  • It is operated by the oldest railway company in the world, which is also one of few statutory companies still trading in the UK.
  • It was the first sub-standard gauge railway in Britain to be authorised to carry passengers.
  • Prince is the oldest working locomotive on its original railway.
  • Merddin Emrys is the oldest working articulated steam locomotive in the world..
  • Carriages 15 and 16 are probably the oldest surviving bogie coaches in the world, probably the world's oldest sub-metric bogie coaches, possibly the world's first iron framed bogie coaches and almost certainly Europe's first iron framed bogie coaches.
  • The Bug Boxes are quite possibly the world's first (not just oldest) sub-metric gauge passenger coaches still in normal service in the world.
  • Arguably the world's oldest locomotive depot - as a site / institution. Horses are locomotives, if not locomotive engines, and locomotives have therefore been maintained or stored continuously somewhere around Boston Lodge since the opening of the railway.

Pre 1830 1830 - 1862 1863 - 1889 1890 - 1926 1927 - 1946 1947 - 1954 1955 - 1958 1959 - 1982 1983 - 1994 1995 - date

Day Log

Accident Record

Changes Engines People
Dividend Payout Literature BOT/HMRI
History Stations Carriages

See also[edit]


  • The article is based on text from the FR Co. website.