By Festiniog standards, Van 59 is relatively recent. It began life in 1923 as a cattle truck built at Swindon by the Great Western for the Vale of Rheidol line, but in 1937 it returned to Swindon for conversion to 2 ft 6 in gauge for the Welshpool & Llanfair line, from whom it was bought by FR in 1959 because of its suitability for re-gauging to two-foot gauge. According to Bob Harris:
W&L volunteers bought it from Potter's in Welshpool just before they were starting to cut it up. It was quite some time before we found out that the FR had bought it earlier (from BR maybe?) and we had to give it up. We stripped the wheel sets out at Castle Caereinion and slewed it over clear of the loop for road collection. Never got our fifteen quid back though!
The re-gauging to 2 foot gauge was done during a conversion to a closed, vacuum-piped stores van by the East Anglian Group of the FRS at Bletchley between 1965 and 1968. For an account of the rebuilding see Ffestiniog Railway Magazine No. 41. On the underframe they found the painted legend "SN 27.4.37" which they thought recorded the time of conversion from 2 ft gauge to 2 ft 6 in. It entered service on the FR in 1968 as Van 9. The railway had recently been extended to Dduallt and Van 9 was used on Sundays to deliver stores to Tan y Bwlch Café and the Bunny Hutch at Dduallt. By the mid 1980s it had been re-numbered to 59, but by those who knew its heritage, it was called the Welshpool Van.
The lack of vacuum brakes meant that a fitted vehicle always had to be marshalled on the uphill side of the van, so in the 1990s it was ingeniously fitted with a modern diaphragm vacuum cylinder beneath the floor. By an arithmetical error of the students preparing the scheme, the brake leverage was miscalculated by a factor of 10, so the brake force was barely enough to hold the van when parked. It was wise to use the highly effective handbrake - the wheel was the original handbrake wheel from Palmerston.
It was fitted with twin doors instead of a drop flap in the 1980s and heavily overhauled in the mid 1990s. In the early 2000s it was fitted with a cycle rack within and a Bicycle sign without, to allow use as a bicycle van on passenger trains.
It was correctly labelled in English on the clock side and in Welsh on the engine side - the Welsh versions have varied, being considered incorrect (a proposition hotly argued), too blunt, or too polite. You can't win.
During the 2002 Gala 59 had a generator installed to allow the C-set to be mains powered during the 84-hour continuous running. Following a previous outing being used as a generator van, for a private charter, louvred doors were also used in place of the solid doors to provide ventilation.
The Welshpool Van had a tare weight of 2 t 15 cwt and was permitted to carry five tons evenly distributed. Bunny Lewis once loaded it with ten tons of cement and took it from Tan y Bwlch to Dduallt; he said it was solid on its springs. It has a wheelbase of 7 ft; this was the longest fixed wheelbase of any vehicle on the FR, but gave no trouble on this account.
Although described as a Covered Van, it could also be also be described as Non-passenger Carrying Coaching Stock (NPCCS) as it appeared in the General Appendix as permitted to be part of a passenger train consist, a feature it had in common with Bogie Waggon 63.
Van 59 was sold to the Vale of Rheidol Railway in December 2014 and has left the Railway. All the FR added stuff such as vacuum brake and hand brake wheel was given back to Boston Lodge. At Aberystwyth it has been rebuilt in its original form as a cattle wagon and had its first outing on 10th November 2017 as Vale of Rheidol No. 38089.
Recently rebuilt van 9 at Boston Lodge
Date: 18 June 1968. Photo: Cyril Perrier
38 years later Van 59 at Boston Lodge.
Date: 04 March 2006. Photo: Kim Winter