The railway runs from Caernarfon to Portmadog along the trackbed of a narrow gauge line that closed in the late 1930s. The Ffestiniog Railway acquired the track bed from the Official Receiver and after years of legal arguments, a High Court Hearing and three public enquiries they were eventually given permission to rebuild the line starting from Caernarfon. It took nearly 20 years before they reached Porthmadog, using volunteer and paid labour.
At 26 miles, it is the longest of the Welsh Narrow Gauge Railways and runs through Snowdonia National Park. Gradients are steep and trains are pulled by Beyer Garrett locos bought from South African Railways as these are the only narrow gauge steam locos powerful enough to pull ten coaches on these gradients.
We did the short section from Dinas to Caenarfon soon after it opened. This is probably the least scenic part of the line. In the past we have walked long sections of the track bed including through the Aberglaslyn Pass and much of Beddgelert Forest. It was time to do it on the train.
A complete return journey takes nearly six hours which is a long time to be sitting. We decided to just do the section between Porthmadog and Rhydd Ddu. Trains cross here and the return trip would take three hours. This section would take us through Aberglaslyn Pass and into part of Snowdonia National Park.
We arrived at Porthmadog station on a dull rather damp morning with cloud swirling around the hills, not the best of days to see the scenery. A long train of coaches was waiting in the station. The coaches near the entrance were full with a coach party, so we headed down the platform, ignoring the open coach and eventually settled on a coach near the end of the train in the hope that it might be quieter and that we would get good views down the train to the loco. In fact curves are so tight on the line that you need to sit much closer to the loco if you want to see it.
The cob is being widened to build an additional platform. At the moment, WHR coaches have to be pulled down the cob by a diesel (Vale of Ffestiniog when we visited) and the Garrett then couples on to the front of the train just before it is due to leave.
From Harbour Station, the train runs along the main street and over Britannia Bridge. This is still very much of a novelty and provided a great photo opportunity for a coach load of tourists waiting for the Ffestiniog Railway train after us.
The line then runs along the side of the River Glaslyn which has been tidied up with grass and picnic tables. The disused Snowdon Mill gradually becoming increasingly derelict, the rubbish tip and caravan park are less salubrious. It crosses the main Cambrian Coast line and runs alongside the track of the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway for about half a mile to their terminus at Pen y Mount where it connects into the WHR.
Two railways with similar names often causes confusion among visitors. The WHHR was set up in 1964 following the successful reopening of the start of the Ffestiniog Railway. They leased a short section of track known as Beddgelert Sidings from British Rail and began to run trains. Grand plans to extend to Pont Croesor and ultimately Carnarfon hit difficulties as they did not own the trackbed and lacked the resources to buy it. The final straw was when John Prescott ruled in favour of the Ffestiniog Railway rebuilding the line.
The WHR line runs across Traeth Mawr, the large area of flat arable land reclaimed from the sea when the Cob was built. This is now used for grazing cows and sheep. The first stop is Pont Croesor Halt on the River Aberglaslyn with the RSPB hide for watching the resident ospreys nearby.
The ground becomes increasingly poor and acid with a lot of rushes as the train begins to approach Nantmoor on the line of the old cliffs and the start of a good walk up Cwm Bychan to Llyn Dinas. The line now enters mixed deciduous woodland and begins to climb to the Pass of Aberglaslyn through two tunnels at the start of the Pass.
Before the railway was rebuilt, this was a popular public footpath. Armed with torches we walked through the tunnels many times. There was a slight bend and in the centre making it impossible to see daylight. We had forgotten how long they were. There is now a properly made footpath through the gorge below the railway line. It must surely rank as one of the best walks in the area.
After all the rain of the previous days, the river was in full spate and a splendid sight. All too soon we were out of the gorge and running across the flat valley of the Glaslyn. The remains of old tramways can be seen heading to Beddgelert including two stone pillars from a bridge that was never built. In the 19thC there were several abortive attempts to build a railway along here.
Through a narrow cutting, the train arrives at Beddgelert Station, built above the town. This is a popular spot with people getting off to visit the shops, cafe and Gelert’s Grave. It is a popular story, but a 19thC invention…
After Beddgelert, the line continues to climb through steep curves into Beddgelert Forest, managed by the Forestry Commission. Many of the conifers have been felled out over the years and replaced by attractive mixed deciduous woodland. There were still swathes of bluebells covering the ground.
Mellionen Halt serves the campsite set in a delightful setting as long as you don’t mind the midges. This is busy throughout the year.
15 to 25 years ago we used to regularly walk along sections of the trackbed through the forest. It has changed so much with felling and subsequent replanting that we had difficulty recognising where we walked.
Coming up to Pitt’s Had Summit at 650ft, we made an unscheduled stop for the loco to build up steam before the final assault to the top. The line leaves the forest and enters open mountainous countryside. By now the cloud was beginning to lift and there were good views of Moel Hebbog and the Nantlle Ridge to the west. To the east was Yr Aran and the ridge up to Snowdon. In the valley bottom is LLy y Gadair with the remains of a quarry on the far side. On a sunny day this is bright blue.
We pulled into Rhyd Ddu station at the start of one of the footpaths up Snowdon. The train from Caernarfon was waiting to take us back to Portmadog. The loco crew swap tokens and the trains depart. There isn’t time to stop and admire the locos or take pictures.
Only doing the bottom end of the line meant we missed the run beside Llyn Cwellyn along the flanks of Snowdon which is supposed to be one of the best scenic bits. The line then drops down the Gwyrfai valley to Waunfar with its brew pub, a regular entry in the Good Beer Guide and then Dinas and Caernarfon. We will have to come back another time to do this bit. The railway worksheds are at Dinas and there is plenty of parking which can be used as a park and ride for Caernarfon on the train.
There is a buffet service on the train and hot food is served on the morning and lunchtime trains. The additional supplement for first class and the observation coach is £10 and may be worth it for the Caernarfon to Porthmadog run when the coach is at the back of the train.
We enjoyed the trip. It is a very smooth run along well laid track. Scenically it is very good, especially once out of the trees. It is a trip everyone should do at least once in their lifetime!