Gauge: 1ft 11½in (600mm)
The Festiniog Railway was opened in 1836 to connect slate quarries around Ffestiniog with William Madocks’ harbour at Portmadoc. The Railway received its parliamentary assent after three attempts. Money came from Ireland and Henry Archer was the first Managing Director. James Spooner surveyed the route and produced a plan that would allow maximum economy in operation.
Slate was brought from the quarries down inclines to two branch-lines which joined at where Blaenau Ffestiniog would develop. From there the line descended for 12¼ miles to its terminus in Portmadoc Harbour. The route wound along the contours in sharp curves, made a U-bend around a side-valley, crossed embankments built to a height of 60ft with dry-stone walls, followed ledges cut in rock and through two tunnels. On this track loaded wagons were able to descend all the way by gravity. Horses returned empty wagons to the top in two stages and rode down again in dandy-wagons. Down trains took 1hr 40mins but up-trains took 5hrs 50mins
James Spooner was the driving force behind the railway from 1836 till his death in 1856, first as Clerk to the Company and from 1845 as Secretary as well. His successor was his son, Charles Easton Spooner.
It was C.E. Spooner who transformed the line into a miniature main line of worldwide influence. Until then the only passengers had been quarrymen. The scenic nature of the route had been recognised, and Spooner realised that tourist and local passenger traffic could be approved by the Board of Trade if track was improved and locomotives introduced.
In 1863 the first steam locos were delivered, four 0-4-0 saddle tank locos with tenders, built by George England & Co., of London. One, Prince, still survives in working order. Regular passenger service began on 6 January 1865. The locos did not prove powerful enough for uphill work with passenger carriages and a train of empty slate wagons. Shorter, more frequent trains were required, but a double track would be needed at huge cost. Spooner found an answer in Robert Fairlie’s double engines which provided greater power and flexibility. Little Wonder, a Fairlie loco built by G. England appeared in 1869 with great success. Up journeys now took less than two hours. It was Little Wonder ‘s trials that convinced so many at home and abroad of the usefulness of narrow gauge. More Fairlie locos appeared on the Festiniog. A further innovation, in 1871, was the first use in Britain of American-style bogied carriages.
The Festiniog conformed fully with the Regulation of Railways Act of 1889. By 1893 block signalling, interlocking of points and signals and vacuum brakes had been introduced and steel rails laid throughout the length. The electric train staff was introduced in 1912.
Between 1867 and 1910 slate traffic almost always exceeded 100,000 tons annually. It was still carried in long gravity trains controlled by brakesmen riding the load. Slate went to Portmadoc until 1872 when an exchange of traffic to Cambrian Railways was opened at Minffordd. The L&NWR opened a branch line to Blaenau in 1881 followed by the GWR in 1883, giving each a share in the slate output. This had effects on the prosperity of the Festiniog. After 1897 slate carriage by the Festiniog declined sharply. Increasing use of roof tiles and imported slates reduced demand for the Welsh product and road transport provided more competition.
In 1923 Col. H.F. Stephens was appointed Civil Engineer and Locomotive Superintendent. Stringent economy was the watchword of Stephens’ Kent-based operation and, with little understanding of the local situation, a Light Railway Order was obtained granting exemption from statutory signalling regulations. These methods were disliked by the Festiniog’s loco crews who insisted on the restoration of protected single line working.
After 1925 road transport began to take its toll of passenger traffic too. Income fell and maintenance suffered. Unreliable connections with the main line were the consequence. By 1939 slate tonnage was a mere 30,000. All passenger traffic ceased on the outbreak of war in 1939 and slate trains were stopped in 1946.
For several years suggestions of a rescue were put forward. A Society was formed, but unlike the Talyllyn Railway, Festiniog proprietors had no faith in a revival. The Society had to buy them out and in 1954 a Holding Company was formed to do this. A separate Festiniog Railway Society was formed for fund raising and as a pool of volunteers. A short public service began in July 1955 as the track was slowly cleared.
Then a formidable obstacle was hit. The British Electricity Authority (later CEGB) announced its intention to compulsorily purchase a part of the Festiniog’s right of way to flood it by a new reservoir. A 15 year legal battle ensued after which the Authority yielded, and the railway won compensation for loss of profit. The line was eventually completed with a deviation which included a tunnel and a feature new to Britain, a double spiral completed in 1971.
Valuable publicity had been gained with the legal struggle. A new station, shared with British Rail, opened at Blaenau Ffestiniog on 23 May 1982, exactly 150 years after the passing of the Festiniog Railway’s Act of incorporation. The Festiniog is more than a preserved railway, it connects two standard gauge lines. New station buildings have been built at Portmadoc and a fully computerised booking system, the first on a British railway, was inaugurated in 1985.
On closure 1946
1 Princess of 1863; 0-4-0 tank
2 Prince 0-4-0 tank
3 Taliesin Single Fairlie (Vulcan Foundry) of 1876; 0-4-4 tank. Withdrawn 193?
3 Earl of Merioneth Double Fairlie of 1885; 0-4-4 tank. Originally Livingston Thompson then Taliesin
4 Palmerston of 1864; 0-4-0 saddle tank
5 Welsh Pony George England of 1867; 0-4-0 saddle tank. Withdrawn 1938
10 Merddin Emrys Festiniog Railway Works of 1879; 0-4-4 tank
Mountaineer American Locomotive Co. of 1917
Linda Hunslet Engine Co. No. 590 of 1893; 0-4-0 tank. Ex-Penrhyn Quarry
Blanche Hunslet Engine Co. No. 589 of 1893; 0-4-0 tank. Ex-Penrhyn Quarry
11 Petrol loco
101 Simplex 40 HP petrol tractor No. 507 of 1917. Ex. WD
Conway Castle Planet Diesel of 1958; ex RN