Festiniog and Blaenau Railway
Wooden viaduct on the Festiniog and Blaenau Railway near Tan-y-Manod, c. 1875
|Dates of operation||1868–1883|
|Successor||Great Western Railway|
|Track gauge||1 ft 11 3⁄4 in (603 mm)|
The Festiniog & Blaenau Railway (F&BR) was a narrow gauge railway built in 1868 to connect the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog with the slate quarries around Tanymanod and the village of Llan Ffestiniog, 3 1⁄2 miles (5.6 km) to the south. At Blaenau Ffestiniog it made a direct connection with the Festiniog Railway (FR) with which it was closely associated during its fifteen-year life. The railway was purchased by the Great Western Railway in 1883 and converted to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge to extend the Bala Ffestiniog line, a branch of the GWR's line from Ruabon to Barmouth.
The promoters owned the land on which the line was built, so no parliamentary process was needed to incorporate the company or proceed with building, though the operators sought and obtained Board of Trade inspection before opening as if that were a statutory requirement.
Officially the line's gauge was 1 ft 11 3⁄4 in (603 mm), however, a Board of Trade inspection in 1868 recorded it as 1 ft 11 1⁄4 in (591 mm), as did the locomotives' manufacturer's catalogue, repeated in the magazine "Engineer". A survey of the line conducted by Vignes in 1878 gave the gauge as 1 ft 11 1⁄2 in (597 mm). In practice the tolerances were sufficiently tight to allow Festiniog Railway locomotives and rolling stock to use the line, but there is no record of F&BR stock venturing onto FR metals other than transit to Minffordd when their two locomotives made rare visits to Swindon for heavy repair. They are unlikely to have made these trips along the FR in steam and may even have travelled on flat wagons.
By the early 1860s Llan Ffestiniog had largely become a dormitory town supplying workers to the slate industry around Blaenau Ffestiniog. The quarries at Blaenau were connected to the harbour at Porthmadog by the recently built Festiniog Railway (FR) and as a result were able to significantly increase their output and profitability. However the FR was struggling to cope ("hopelessly overburdened" according to the standard work on the F&BR) with the volume of traffic from the quarries and some owners - notably Samuel Holland, later to be a local MP - were looking for other outlets for their product at lower charges.
At the same time, several standard gauge railway companies were looking to extend their lines into the region to tap the demand for slate transport. In particular the GWR-backed Corwen and Bala Railway reached Bala, about 22 miles south of Blaenau in April 1868 and had ambitions to spread further. The LNWR were also making moves from the north, but that played no clear part in the F&BR story.
The quarries around Tanymanod - especially Craig Ddu - were not rail connected and were on the proposed route of a northward extension of the Corwen and Bala Railway. In September 1866 some quarry owners issued a prospectus announcing the formation of the Festiniog and Blaenau Railway Company to construct a line from Llan Ffestiniog to Blaenau where it would connect with the Ffestiniog Railway. In the short term this "poured water into a blocked drain" as the F&BR led only to the overstretched FR, but the line contained the seeds of at least two ambitions-cum-threats: it took a step towards the south where it might eventually meet the Corwen and Bala's ambitions from the south east and the same step south lent itself to ambitions to connect with the Cambrian Railways to the southwest. This latter bore at least legal fruit when the Merionethshire Railway gained parliamentary approval in 1871. That line would have continued from Llan Ffestiniog to a junction just north of Talsarnau, but no construction ever happened, "the threat of it had played its part". The prospectus made brief mention of the line being able to use the FR to "command a very large traffic in goods", but saved its most lavish imprecations for the passenger potential, notably for workmen ("very great") and tourists ("immense").
Although initially promoted as, in effect, a branch of the FR, the F&BR was built on a formation that was designed to be easily converted to standard gauge if and when an extension from the Corwen and Bala Railway approached from the south. Later writers sometimes look at the line's standard gauge successor's sinuous course and conclude it betrays its narrow gauge origins, but the trackbed and bridges were built to accommodate standard gauge trains without alteration and the line's curves' ruling minimum radius was 6 chains (120 m) as opposed to the FR's 2 chains (40 m). Even the line's ruling gradient of 1 in 58 was forced upon it by having to avoid obstacles, the original intention was to have a ruling gradient of 1 in 100. The maximum line speed of 12 miles per hour (19 km/h) was imposed by the Board of Trade, having observed disquietingly higher speeds at inspection. The only feature which had to be rebuilt on conversion was the wooden viaduct between Tanymanod and Blaenau, not because it was too small, but because it was too flimsy. It was rebuilt in stone and stands to this day.
Some bridges were erected during in the lines's later narrow gauge years and on conversion, using metal parapets pre-cast at the Brymbo Foundry. Others of the type also existed on the standard gauge line approaching from Bala. In 2016 at least one such survived between Llan Ffestiniog and Trawsfynydd. There were connections at Board level between these railways and Brymbo.
The line was offered to the Board of Trade for inspection on 13 November 1867, but nothing was done immediately, the Board's report being issued on 26 May 1868, stipulating conditions regarding facing points and the viaduct. The Board followed up on 5 June, informing the company that it had no objection to opening for public traffic, though in fact a passenger service had started on 29 May anyway. For the F&BR's first two months they had to use FB locomotives on contract, as the F&BR's own locomotives were not ready.
The F&BR opened on 29 May 1868 and from 4 August the GWR began operating the Bala and Dolgelly Railway, giving them a route from Ruabon through Bala to Dolgelly (later rewritten as Dolgellau). They also started to plan the Bala and Festiniog Railway to link that line and Bala with Blaenau Ffestiniog, including working arrangements - implicitly mixed-gauge tracks - with the F&BR. On 28 July 1873 an Act of Parliament allowed the construction of that line. As events would unfold mixed gauge would be used ten years later, but only as a temporary measure whilst the F&BR was being converted to standard gauge.
As foreseen in the prospectus, the narrow gauge line's primary traffic was passengers, and workmen in particular, though there is nothing in the records to hint that the predicted "immense" tourist traffic ever materialised. Goods traffic was small by comparison. Receipts in 1879, for example, included £1409 from passengers against £416 for goods.
The February 1878 timetable shows that all trains called at all stations on the line, as follows
- Northbound ("Up")
- Southbound ("Down")
- four public trains running Monday to Saturday
- a morning workmen's train running Monday to Saturday
- two public evening trains on Saturdays only
- a teatime workmen's train on Saturdays only
- The journey time from Duffws (F&BR) to Festiniog was 20 minutes.
- There was no Sunday service.
Duffws was the F&BR's Blaenau station and would become the site of the town's later GWR station, but it was not the Festiniog Railway's Duffws (FR) station. Through passengers from Festiniog (say) to Porthmadog Harbour would alight at the F&BR's Duffws station and walk across Church Street in Blaenau to the Festiniog Railway's completely separate Duffws station. Most trains were timetabled to make this process workable, if tight. Whether connecting trains were held in the case of late running is not recorded.
Ownership and finance
The railway made a working profit every year of its life except 1877, when exceptional expenses from 1876 showed in the accounts. These appear to have been incurred in the Locomotive Department. At that time the directors were aware that they would face significant expenses for renewals before long and in July 1876 struck a prudent deal with the Bala and Festiniog Railway (and behind them, the GWR) who were approaching from the southeast, the essence of which was that the Bala & Festiniog would buy the F&BR for £14000 within three years, take up the B&FR shares and pay the F&BR 5% per annum on the £14000 until the sale was closed. The Great Western Railway took the majority of the shareholding. Thereafter the F&BR's single biggest source of income was the £700 interest. The GWR appear to have agreed to this to get access to the F&BR's trackbed into Blaenau by agreement rather than by compulsory purchase and all the cost, delay and uncertainty that might entail; the F&BR got a very fair price given the bills for renewals which were imminent. From 1877 onwards two sets of accounts were prepared with more than the usual level of opacity.
The standard gauge Bala and Festiniog line was approaching slowly; given the terrain this was hardly surprising. They incurred significant parliamentary expenses both to gain parliamentary extensions of time to complete the line and to obtain powers to absorb the F&BR (unopposed by the F&BR, as a result of the July 1876 agreement) which they received on 6 August 1880. This was followed on 23 May 1882 by the F&BR directors voluntarily winding up their company, which was "vested in" (taken over entirely by) the Bala and Festiniog on13 April 1883, effectively passing ownership of the narrow gauge line to the GWR. William Davies of Cae'r Blaidd, the F&BR Manager, was appointed Liquidator; he reported his work complete on 21 April 1884. William Davies was a shareholder and director of the F&BR, its manager and its liquidator.
Conversion to standard gauge
The standard gauge Bala and Festiniog Railway opened from Bala Junction to Llan Ffestiniog on 1 November 1882 and work began on converting the F&BR's narrow gauge line to Blaenau to standard gauge. During conversion a third rail was provided to enable the narrow gauge trains to continue operation until conversion was complete. Narrow gauge operation ceased on 5 September 1883. In some cases the third rail was removed and in others it was moved along sleepers to serve as check rails on curves. The formal standard gauge opening was on 10 September 1883, at which time the physical Festiniog and Blaenau Railway ceased to exist.
The conversion process was relatively easy because the F&BR had been built to standard gauge dimensions.
There were differences in location and names between narrow and standard gauge stations:
- The F&BR station at Llan Ffestiniog was Festiniog. It was on the same "campus" as its replacement, also named Festiniog (a hundred years before Welsh spellings were widely adopted)
- The F&BR station at Manod was Tyddyngwyn, its replacement was Manod, slightly south of the Tyddyngwyn site
- The F&BR station at Tan-y-Manod was closed and not replaced as a passenger station, though the site was heavily developed by the GWR for slate transfer and locomotive servicing
- The F&BR station at Blaenau was Duffws (F&BR), its replacement was on the same site, being initially named Blaenau Festiniog. It was renamed Blaenau Ffestiniog Central in 1951, closed to passengers in 1960 and closed completely in 1961. It was demolished in the 1960s and in 1982 became the site of the wholly new BR/FR interchange station which thrives today.
- A temporary F&BR terminus was provided in Blaenau during at least part of the 1882-3 reconstruction period, when Duffws (F&BR) and its environs were being utterly transformed. This was sited near to and named Glynllifon Street.
- The other station on the route was Teigl Halt. This was opened by the GWR in 1931, forty eight years after the F&BR had passed into history.
Published photographs and a Duffws Signalbox diagram show signals at Duffws (F&BR), Tan-y-Manod, Tyddyngwyn and Festiniog. There may have been others. The photographs show single posts with arms pointing left and right in the Ffestiniog Railway's then pattern. The painting on the arms suggests that trains passed to the left on loops. Vignes's 1878 survey stated that the line was operated on the "One engine in steam" method, which contradicts the 1868 Board of Trade's insistence that there be Train staff working. The 1878 passenger timetable could be operated by one engine alone, so it is possible that trains were admitted to the line using the Festiniog's equipment, then run as sole occupants of the route, with points being operated by hands or springs.
Two identical steam locomotives were supplied by Manning Wardle of Leeds. These were 0-4-2STs, works numbers 258 and 259, both built in 1868. They were identified on the F&BR as No 1 Scorcher and No 2 Nipper.
They were not delivered until three months after the line opened. Up to then Festiniog locomotives worked the line, and did so occasionally thereafter if traffic was heavy or the F&BR locomotives were being repaired. Nipper and Scorcher worked for the remainder of the line's existence as a narrow gauge railway. After 1878 they paid visits to Swindon for heavy repairs, travelling via the FR, Minffordd and the Cambrian. They were sold to the Ruabon Coal and Coke Company in 1884. Their final fate is not recorded.
Four four-wheeled passenger carriages were originally supplied to the railway by the Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Company Ltd of Manchester. A further two were supplied by the GWR in 1878 to meet traffic needs. They were all slightly longer, wider and lower than the Ffestiniog Railway's early carriages, with a slightly shorter wheelbase. A contemporary writer made a virtue of their low height, as the wheels were recessed under the seats, giving a lower centre of gravity, smoother ride and more headroom. To the eye both company's carriages bore a family resemblance, with distinctive Lindley oil lamps protruding from the roofs like tin cans. Four of the carriages were Third Class only (one contained a guard's compartment and brake), the other two had three compartments - two Second Class straddling a central First. The company had a seventh carriage, possibly for Directors' and VIP use, but no details survive.
There were also 19 workmen's carriages built by J.H. Williams & Sons (later to become the Britannia Foundry) of Porthmadog; these were primitive open four-wheeled vehicles. In 1878 the F&BR Board agreed that they be "enclosed" (i.e. have roofs fitted) No record, drawing or photograph of them has been published, either before of after enclosure, but if the work was undertaken they are likely to have ended up resembling their FR contemporaries. A published photograph showing FR workmen's carriages continues the family resemblance, but in their Twentieth Century guise. The sole photo published of the early F&BR workmens' carriages in their original state is so swamped by workmen and their families posing for the occasion little can be inferred, except the possibility that the seating may have been arranged longitudinally facing outwards.
The very small wagon fleet consisted of an unknown number of wagons of similar design to those used on the Ffestiniog Railway. Almost all the general freight and mineral traffic originated on or travelled to the FR using FR wagons. All slate traffic was destined for Porthmadog or Minffordd and it also travelled in FR slate wagons as did the output of all the other Ffestiniog Quarries.
Following the winding-up of the F&BR Company, the narrow gauge railway continued to operate under GWR management until conversion to standard gauge was complete. The stock comprising the two engines, six carriages and 17 workmen's carriages was offered for sale but no offers were received. The stock was then dispatched to Swindon in August 1884 for scrapping and in due course the GWR paid the Bala and Festiniog Railway the scrap value of £178 19s 8d.
- Boyd 1988, p. 47.
- Boyd 1988, p. 49.
- Boyd 1988, p. 53.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 47, 53 and 77.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 77-81.
- Boyd 1988, p. 48.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 50-51.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 55-57.
- Boyd 1988, p. 51.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 50 & 70.
- Boyd 1988, p. 54.
- Southern 1995, p. 84.
- Boyd 1988, p. 74.
- "BRYMBO bridge parapet". flickr.
- Boyd 1988, p. 63.
- Boyd 1988, p. 52.
- Boyd 1988, p. 60.
- Boyd 1988, p. 85.
- Boyd 1988, p. 87.
- Boyd 1988, p. 88.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 62-4.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 64-5.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 52 & 83.
- Boyd 1988, p. 67.
- Festiniog Station and the line via Rail Map Online
- Tyddyngwyn Station and the line via Rail Map Online
- Tan-y-Manod Station and the line via Rail Map Online
- Duffws (F&BR) Station and the line via Rail Map Online
- Glynllifon Street temporary terminus, via Festipedia
- Glynllifon Street Station and the line via Rail Map Online
- Teigl Halt and the line via Rail Map Online
- Boyd 1988, Between pp 54 and 55.
- Boyd 1988, p. 66.
- Boyd 1988, p. 77.
- Richards 2001, p. 97.
- Boyd 1988, p. 76.
- Boyd 1988, pp. 81-2.
- Baughan 1980, p. 87.
- Southern 1995, p. 13.
- Boyd 1988, p. 83.
- Boyd 1988, p. 80.
- Baughan, Peter E. (1991). A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: North and Mid Wales. Regional railway history series (2nd ed.). Nairn: David St John Thomas Publisher. ISBN 978-0-946537-59-4. OL 11571058M. Vol 11.
- Boyd, James I.C. (1988) . Narrow Gauge Railways in South Caernarvonshire - Volume 1. Headington: The Oakwood Press. ISBN 978-0-85361-365-7. OCLC 20417464.
- Richards, Alun John (2001). The Slate Railways of Wales. Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. ISBN 978-0-86381-689-5.
- Southern, D. W. (1995). Bala Junction to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Railways of North Wales. Stockport: Foxline Publishing. ISBN 978-1-870119-34-4. Scenes from the Past No.25.
- Jones, Ivor Wynne; Hatherill, Gordon (1977). Llechwedd and other Ffestiniog Railways. Blaenau Ffestiniog: Quarry Tours Ltd. ISBN 978-0-9502895-9-5.