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Cambrian Coast Railway Lines
Aberystwyth to Pwllheli, Cardigan Bay, Wales, UK
Cambrian Coast Railway Lines
associated engineer
Benjamin Piercy
Henry Conybeare
George Owen
Alfred Jones Collin
date  1861 - 10th October 1867
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SH622149
ICE reference number  HEW 1227
photo  © Alan Fairweather and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The Cambrian Coast Railway lines were constructed as a single-track system that ran north from Aberystwyth in Wales, around the Cardigan Bay coastline to Pwilheli, with a branch from Dyfi (Dovey) Junction to Machynlleth. They were part of a larger network known as Cambrian Railways, which had inland lines that eventually covered the England/Wales border area from Wrexham to Brecon. The coast route includes trestle viaducts and significant coast protection works, and remains in use as part of the modern Cambrian Coast Railway.
The original coastal lines were constructed under powers conferred by Parliament through the Aberystwyth & Welsh Coast Railway Acts. The first Act, dated 22nd July 1861, incorporated the railway company and enabled construction of a line between Aberystwyth, Penmachno and Porthmadog with a branch from Penmachno to Machynlleth, bridging the Dyfi Estuary and connecting with the Newtown & Machynlleth Railway.
The thew Aberystwyth & Welsh Coast Railway was a vital link with the lines of other local railway companies, and received investment from some of them. The new company's directors included George Hammond Whalley (1813-78), chairman of the Llanidloes & Newtown line, and Edward Williams, chairman of the Oswestry & Newtown line. Benjamin Piercy (1825-88) was the company’s chief engineer from 1861, and on 20th February 1862, Thomas Savin (1826-89) was appointed contractor.
Construction began on the 34km Machynlleth to Aberystwyth section. However, the ground wasn't suitable for founding the proposed Dyfi Bridge for the onward line to Penmachno. The route was abandoned in favour of one that followed the Dyfi Estuary shoreline and the coast. Work on the line north of the estuary started in April 1862.
On 29th July 1862, a second Act allowed the company to raise additional share capital and increase borrowing, and also authorised construction of a line from Porthmadog to Pwllheli with branches from Barmouth to Dolgellau and from Pwllheli to Porthdinllaen (not constructed).
The lines were built to standard gauge (4ft 8.5in or 1.435m) and were put into operation in stages. The section from Machynlleth to Borth opened on 1st July 1863, and the Aberdovey to Tywyn section opened on 24th October 1863, with a ferry across the estuary from Borth to Aberdovey connecting the two rail lines. The Borth to Aberystwyth line opened for freight on 23rd June 1864, with passenger services from 1st August.
During 1864, an internal power struggle between the railway company’s chairman and the contractor, who was being paid mainly in shares, resulted in the resignations of the chairman and the engineer. Henry Conybeare (1823-84) took over as chief engineer for the works.
The Cambrian Railways Company was incorporated as a separate entity on 25th July 1864, following the amalgamation of four smaller Welsh railways. On 5th July 1865, the Cambrian & Coast Railways (Amalgamation) Act made the Aberystwyth & Welsh Coast Railway part of the Cambrian Railways, from 5th August 1865, and also sanctioned the Aberdovey to Dyfi Junction stretch of the line. By this time, the railway between Tywyn and Penmaenpool was open.
On 5th February 1866, the contractor withdrew from the works in financial difficulties. Conybeare carried on the works northwards from Tywyn to Pwllheli and had completed all but the Barmouth Viaduct by June 1866, presumably with direct labour from the railway company.
The Board of Trade inspected the line and found it to be not entirely satisfactory. Consequently, in November 1866, Conybeare was dismissed and replaced by George Owen (c.1827-1901), the Cambrian Railways engineer and Piercy’s former assistant.
A link between the Cambrian Coast Railway line and the wider Cambrian Railways network was established on 14th August 1867, and the coast route opened fully on 10th October 1867. It included connections to the Carnarvonshire Railway (opened 1862) at Afon Wen, the Newtown & Machynlleth Railway (1863) at Machynlleth and the Bala & Dolgelly Railway (1868) at Dolgellau. Standard gauge connections were also made to the narrow gauge lines of the Ffestiniog Railway (opened 1836) at Porthmadog, the Talyllyn Railway (opened 1866) at Tywyn and the Vale of Rheidol Railway (opened 1902, taken over by Cambrian Railways 1913) at Aberystwyth.
By this time, Alfred Jones Collin (d.1916) had taken over as chief engineer, after Owen resigned in 1897 at the age of 70, becoming a consultant to the railway until 1898.
The finished route of the Cambrian Coast Railway covers some 113km. It hugs the coastline from Aberystwyth to Tywyn almost continuously, with tracks on both sides of the Dyfi Estuary. North of Tywyn the line skirts the sea briefly as it passes through Llangelynin, Barmouth, Llanaber, Harlech, Porthmadog, Criccieth and Afon Wen, finishing at Pwllheli.
The line has impressive timber trestle viaducts built with openable spans over the Dyfi Estuary (SN694978) and over the Mawddach Estuary at Barmouth (SH622151), which is 699m long. Smaller timber trestle viaducts bridge the Rivers Llyfnant (SN696977) south of Dyfi Junction, Leri (SN616929) at Ynyslas, Dysynni (SH566029) north of Tywyn and Dwyryd at Pont Briwet (SH618383) near Penrhyndeudraeth.
The railway has long stretches of level, or near level, track along the shore, though there are sections east of Barmouth and near Porthmadog at a 1 in 50 gradient. About 48km of the line is subject to coastal hazards, and coast protection works in these areas requires continuing maintenance.
At Llanaber, the railway runs close to the water and protection works include huge concrete blocks chained together. At Gallt Ffynnon yr Hydd, south west of Friog, the line is cut into a cliff ledge. Owing to the unstable hillside here, a 6.4kph (4mph) speed limit was imposed initially and later upgraded to 24.1kph (15mph) after drainage improvements to the road above.
Under the powers of the Railways Act (19th August 1921), the Cambrian Railway Company was amalgamated with the Great Western Railway on 25th March 1922, with full effect from 1st January 1923. At the time, it was the largest independent Welsh railway company to become part of the Great Western.
In 1934-36, after fatal accidents resulting from landslides (in 1883 and 1933), Great Western Railway built a reinforced concrete avalanche shelter (SH604114) at Gallt Ffynnon yr Hydd to protect the line from rock falls. It has a 305mm reinforced concrete roof slab, some 55m long, supported on reinforced concrete arches. It was the only railway avalanche shelter in Britain until about 1970, when another was built at Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland.
The majority of the original Cambrian Coast Railway lines are still in regular use by modern trains. The section between Morfa Mawddach and Dolgellau, south of the River Mawddach, closed on 18th January 1965. In the 1970s, 16km of track bed from Barmouth Junction Station to Dolgellau was converted to a cycle route and bridleway, now known as the Mawddach Trail.
The original Dysynni Bridge has been replaced by a steel plate girder bridge of three spans, supported on two pairs of cylindrical steel caissons in the river. Grade II* listed Barmouth Viaduct underwent extensive work in the 1980s to protect it against attack by marine borer, and to close its swing span.
In 2014, a new reinforced concrete bridge replaced the timber structure at Pont Briwet and passenger rail services began using it from September. The original Grade II listed timber bridge was then demolished, in preparation for the building of the new accompanying road bridge, which was completed in 2015.
Contractor: Thomas Savin
Research: ECPK
"The Cambrian Railways: A New History" by Peter Johnson, Oxford Publishing Company, Hersham, Surrey, 2013
"The Story of the Cambrian: A Biography of a Railway" by C.P. Gasquoine, Woodall, Minshall, Thomas & Co. Ltd, 1922
"Description of viaducts across the estuaries on the line of the Cambrian Railway" by Henry Conybeare, Minutes of ICE Proceedings, London, pp.137-145, January 1871
reference sources   CEH Wales

Cambrian Coast Railway Lines