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Ffestiniog Railway
Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales, UK
Ffestiniog Railway
associated engineer
James Spooner
Charles Easton Spooner
Robert Stephenson
date  26th Feb 1833 - 20th April 1836, Jan 1840 - Nov 1844, 1851
era  Georgian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SH571384
ICE reference number  HEW 647
photo  © Martin Bodman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
A narrow gauge railway constructed to transport slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export. It was first powered by horses and waterwheels, and later by steam. In the 21st century, the Ffestiniog Railway joined with the Welsh Highland Railway to extend the route to Caernarfon. The railway still runs steam trains, ever popular with passengers, and remains in private ownership.
On 25th May 1832, Royal assent was granted for the Festiniog Railway Company to construct a railway or tramroad to link the slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog with the harbour at Porthmadog. The Company was authorised to raise capital of £24,185 with loans of £10,000.
The railway was designed by surveyor James Spooner (1789-1856) and his two sons, James Swinton Spooner (1816-84) and Charles Easton Spooner (1818-89). It passes through mountainous terrain on its way to the coast, descending 213m in 21km with an average gradient of 1 in 92 and maximum of 1 in 80. The carefully graded route necessitated the construction of slate embankments up to 18.3m high with near vertical sides.
The railway had termini at Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog Harbour with intermediate stations at Tanygrisiau, Dduallt, Tan y Bwlch, Plas Halt, Penrhyndeudraeth, Minffordd and Boston Lodge Halt. At the south west end, the single track line crosses the Afon Glaslyn and Afon Dwyryd to Porthmadog on the (higher) south side of the causeway known as Y Cob (SH572384 to SH584378).
James Smith of Caernarfon was appointed the contractor. On 22nd December 1832, it was specified that Smith would construct the formation, supply the stone sleepers and lay the track. The railway company would provide the rails, chairs and rolling stock.
The narrow gauge (597mm or 1ft 11.5in) was the same as used in the quarries, ideal for negotiating the sharp bends dictated by the topography and having wagons small enough to be loaded and manoeuvred by hand. Horses pulled the empty up-going trains, except on the inclines at Moelwyn where the trains were winched upwards. Going downhill the loaded slate trains ran under gravity, with the horses riding in special ‘dandy’ wagons.
On 26th February 1833, the first stone was laid near Creuau, north west of Tan y Bwlch. By April 1834, Smith was no longer on the contract. His work was taken over by the railway company and completed with direct labour.
Smith’s inclines over the hill at Moelwyn proved to be unsatisfactory and were redesigned by Robert Stephenson (1803-59). In June 1835, rebuilding the inclines began and the completed line opened on 20th April 1836. In September 1836, a waterwheel was installed to provide the necessary traction power for the winches at the north Moelwyn incline.
Tunnels soon replaced the inclines. In January 1840, work commenced on the 667.5m Moelwyn Tunnel (SH679428) through hard cyanite rock. It was designed to fit the trains, and was only 2.4m wide and 2.9m high, with three circular ventilation shafts. It opened in November 1844. The 54.9m Garnedd Tunnel (SH657413), north of Tan y Bwlch, was constructed in 1851.
In 1854, a cast iron bridge (SH647415) was constructed to carry the railway over the B4410 road west of Tan y Bwlch Station. Its single arch has a 5.5m skew and 3.7m square span.
In 1856, Charles Spooner assumed control of the railway, introducing steam locomotives in 1863. The first two, Princess and Mountaineer, were delivered on 28th July and went into service on 23rd October. Two more locomotives, Prince and Palmerston, were delivered the following year.
In 1864, the track was modified for passenger traffic and new signalling installed. This was the first British passenger service on a narrow gauge railway. Initially, passengers were carried free, in low four-wheeled carriages. The fare-paying service began on 6th January 1865.
In 1867, two more powerful engines arrived, Welsh Pony and Little Giant. The volume of slate being transported suggested two tracks were required. However, instead going to the expense of doubling the line, the railway turned to engineer Robert Francis Fairlie (c1830-85). He had designed and patented a doubled-ended locomotive capable of pulling longer trains around curves and on steep gradients.
In 1869, the first Fairlie double-bogie engine Little Wonder was delivered to the Ffestiniog Railway. It was demonstrated to have more than double the power of the railway’s earlier locomotives. In 1871, the first bogie carriages in Britain were brought onto the line.
At its peak the railway had 1,095 four-wheeled springless slate wagons and a number of other wagons and passenger carriages. In the late 1890s, it was carrying over 132,000 tonnes of slate annually. In 1925, it carried 208,000 passengers.
However, the railway’s fortunes waned along with the decline of the slate industry. On 15th September 1939, with the outbreak of war, passenger services ceased. On 1st August 1946, the line closed.
In September 1951, the Festiniog Railway Society was founded to rebuild the railway. Incorporated as the Festiniog (now Ffestiniog) Railway Society Ltd in December 1954, it took ownership of the line and restoration work commenced, carried out mostly by volunteers.
On 23rd July 1955, after a Ministry of Transport inspection, the first passenger service was run over the west end of the route, 1.6km from Porthmadog across Y Cob to Boston Lodge. In 1956, the track was extended to Minffordd. In 1957, the line reached Penrhyn and in 1958, Tan y Bwlch, making a total length of 12.1km.
In 1963, a new hydroelectric power station was commissioned at Tan y Grisiau — the Ffestiniog Pumped Storage Scheme. Electricity is generated by discharging water from the upper reservoir at Llyn Stwlan (SH665443) through tunnels to the turbines at the power station (SH679444) on the banks of the Tanygrisiau Reservoir. Water stored in this lower reservoir is pumped back to Llyn Stwlan to complete the cycle.
The construction of the storage scheme meant that parts of the original railway track — north from Dduallt to Tanygrisiau Reservoir, including the Moelwyn Tunnel — now lay below the level of the water. The tunnel was sealed and the line abandoned.
However, the Ffestiniog Railway Society was determined to find an alternative route. On 2nd January 1965, a diversion was begun near Dduallt Station. On 6th April 1968, the line opened between Tan y Bwlch and Dduallt (SH678420).
Following a lengthy court case, compensation was paid to the society. Volunteers relaid the line on a different alignment west of Tanygrisiau Reservoir with a temporary halt at Llyn Ystradau. The work included a full clockwise loop at Dduallt (completed 1971), the only railway spiral in Britain, to raise the line and a new 250m long Moelwyn Tunnel (constructed 1975-7), with a sprayed concrete lining.
On 24th June 1978, the new line between Dduallt and Tanygrisiau opened to rail traffic. On 25th May 1982, the railway re-opened from Tanygrisiau to Blaenau Ffestiniog, recreating its full route. On 30th April 1983, Speaker of the House of Commons George Thomas (1909-97) officially opened the new terminus at Blaenau Ffestiniog.
In 1985, computerised ticketing and accounting were introduced. In 1988-9, automated signalling was installed at the Tan y Bwlch and Minffordd passing loops.
In the 1990s, the Ffestiniog Railway became involved in the restoration of the Welsh Highland Railway from Porthmadog to Caernarfon, linking the two into one 64km route. The Welsh Highland Railway operated between 1922 and 1937. It grew from several 19th century railways between Porthmadog and Caernarfon, beginning in 1828 with the horse-powered Nantlle Tramway.
From 1997, the Ffestiniog Railway gained control of the Welsh Highland Railway’s track bed and restored the line in stages working southwards from the Caernarfon end. In 2003, the railway re-opened to Rhyd Ddu. In early 2008, track laying was completed to Porthmadog. In 2009, public services started to Beddgelert and Hafod y Llyn, reaching Pont Croesor in 2010. In April 2011, the final section opened enabling through trains between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Caernarfon.
Contractor (1833-4): James Smith of Caernarfon
Contractor (1834-6): direct labour
Contractor (reservoir bypass, 1965-8): volunteer labour
Steam locomotives (1863): George England & Co of London
Carriages and signalling (1864): Brown Marshalls & Co of Birmingham
RCAHMW_NPRN 34660 [main], 305758, 309125, 404322, 41443, 41314, 41298, 34934, 34944, 41441, 407723, 34938
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH Wales

Ffestiniog Railway