By Christopher Harvie
In 1966 I spent Easter working on the Festiniog Railway, then running about half its length from the old slate port of Porthmadog towards Blaenau Festiniog and its moonscape of derelict slate quarries and their gigantic tips. The brightly-coloured little trains with their tourists looked like caravanned gypsies camping out on a World War I battlefield. Perhaps a telling simile as the man who won the war, David Lloyd George, had started as a ‘damned little Welsh attorney’ in a Porthmadog office. Across the Vale of Festiniog, above Maentwrog, was rising the immense bulk of Trawsfynydd nuclear reactor. Remember when this magic was going to produce power ‘so cheap we won’t have to bill you’?
Trawsfynydd stopped generating in 1996 and is slowly being demolished, though the reactor core will be around for a few thousand years. But within sight of the ruin, the steam technology of Lloyd George’s day has undergone a spectacular – and remarkably cheap – renaissance. In 2011 the last three miles of the Welsh Highland Railway will reopen, after the Channel Tunnel link the longest railway completed in Britain, certainly the most spectacular, and built to a budget which wouldn’t pay the Celtic team for a year.
But the Welsh Highland is the Ross County of railways, so in Scotland, with a farmyard full of transport turkeys, we had better pay attention to it.
Not least because the line was, at one stage, Scots-owned. In the 1900s the Edinburgh electrical contractors Bruce Peebles bought the struggling concern, which then ran from Dinas, near Caernarfon, to Snowdon Ranger, just under the great peak – a route that lost traffic when the rack railway reached the summit in 1896. The nearby Festiniog didn’t just carry vast cargoes of slate in its tiny trucks, it pioneered narrow gauge lines as a means of catering for tourists in spectacular scenic areas, and the Scots (with an eye on the ingenious Swiss) had electrification in mind. Then World War I intervened, the slate traffic collapsed and the WHR struggled until the 1939 war finally did for it. By 1980, when the Festiniog had been revived and with it another eight Welsh lines, much the WHR’s trackbed had vanished.
So had traditional tourism to the boarding houses of the North Wales coast and Cardigan Bay. But the upgrading of the A55 to Holyhead had brought Snowdonia within easy reach of Manchester and Liverpool and it faced the fate of the Lake District after the completion of the M6 to Kendal and Penrith, to drown in a flood of cars each weekend. The Festiniog’s desire to resurrect its neglected cousin came at just the right time. John Prescott, briefly in charge of transport, gave the go-ahead in 1998. The Lottery and the Welsh Assembly Government chipped in £ 5 million each, volunteers and donations made up the rest of £ 25 million, and next year the last, level stretch opens to Porthmadog. Level the rest of the line is not, rising to a summit of 600 feet north of Beddgelert with dramatic views of the Snowdon massif, then rushing down the Gwyrfai valley to terminate under Carnarfon’s walls. New roads would have blasted the charm out of the region; save for the smoke and steam as a train passes, the six-foot way of the WHR can hardly be seen.
A genius for picking up old materiel, adapting and converting it accounted for much of the saving. Trawsfynydd might be dead but the Festiniog’s works at Boston Lodge converted the big South African engines which pull the ten-carriage trains; the track came from Austria and Poland. Much of the labour was from volunteers. Result: an important tourist line, two-thirds of the length of our Fort William-Mallaig superstar, built for a tenth of the prospective cost of the Edinburgh-Galashiels line, an infinitesimal proportion of the second Forth Road Bridge. Considering tourism in the age of Peak Oil, the railway enthusiasm of the Welsh (who have since 1999 reopened fifty miles of line to Scotland’s fifteen) has been money spent wisely and well.