Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon)

The Railway Today

One of the Garrets at Caernarfon Station
Comfortable passenger accommodation on the WHR

This ambitious 2' gauge railway is the longest narrow gauge railway in the country and at the time of writing the restoration project is almost complete. Curiously the terminus in Caernarfon, which is in sight of the famous castle, is several miles from any part of the orginal Welsh Highland Railway! But from this superb location, in one of the tourist capitals of Wales the railway begins its journey.

Four miles from Caernarfon the trains arrive at the smart little station of Dinas, which was the terminus in the first few years of restoration. Following further hard work services now continue past through Waunfawr station, also the terminus for a time, and now continues through some of the greatest scenery in Britain on it's way to Porthmadog, the sea and the Ffestiniog Railway.

The tracklaying is now complete including some interesting tramway style sections through Porthmadog town and the last section into Portmadog whould be opened in Late 2009 this will not only enable a journey of 25 miles in length but will also connect with the Ffestiniog railway at Harbour Station opening up the possibility of changing there and enjoying a forty mile one way journey by narrow gauge steam train.

A section of particular note is The Aberglasyn pass south of Bedgellert. The railway drops down a series of steep horseshoe curves at Bedgellert to the head of the pass where it runs alongside the river in the bottom of the majestic valley. As the route continues through the valley the river cuts downward leaving the railway perched on a ledge high above the river until the railway dissappears into a substantial tunnel. Whether visited on foot or by train this location boasts some of the very best scenery in Britain; the village of Bedgellert is also well worth a visit. The Aberglaslyn Pass is without doubt the jewel in the crown of this railway, indeed many would say it is the jewel in the crown of Wales.

The railway passes picturesque lake XXXX Crossing the river Glaslyn at the head of the Pass
View from the train passing through the Pass Now high above the river and about to enter the tunnel

The Locomotives

Not content with working on the longest narrow gauge project in Britain the WHR has by far the most powerful 2' gauge locomotives ever operated in Britain. The Garratt is a type of articulated loco which has three separate frames; a power unit at each end with running gear and powered wheels, similar to a conventional locomotive, while the central unit with boiler and cab has no wheels but is carried on the two power units. The design allows the carriage of huge amounts of fuel and water and a much larger boiler than could otherwise be mounted within the loading gauge, the resulting locomotive can be very large and powerful whilst still able to negotiate tight curves and fit a limited loading gauge.

The Welsh Highland Railway appear determined to make the exotic Garratts a symbol of the Route just as the Double Fairlie is synonymous with the Festiniog line, although in the case of the Garratts there is no historical reason for this!

The Garratts on the WHR were built in Britain for service overseas and include the very first Garratt (K1) built by Beyer Peacock in 1909 for service in Tasmania where it served for twenty years. Although K1 is of such historical significance three other Garratts built by Beyer Peacock for service in South Africa in 1958 will see more service than K1. Not all the trains are hauled by the Garratts as the railway also has a number of conventional steam and diesel locomotives.

By narrow gauge standards the Locos and the trains
are big. But they are still dwarved by the Welsh Landscape.

History and Origins

The Welsh Highland Railway (Light Railway) Company was formed in 1922. The WHR took over the existing North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways and the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway Company who, between them, ran railways over much of the line which was to become the Welsh Highland Railway and had powers to construct the remainder.

A train enters the tunnel in the
aberglaslyn pass circa 1925

Finance was raised from a mixture of local council and Government sources to the tune of just short of £70,000 and work commenced in March 1922. The company had to undertake major refurbishment and upgrade work on the existing railways as well as construction of 8.25 miles of new track. Once finished the line was 22 miles long running from Dinas to Portmadoc and continuing through the town itself with a section of line laid down the high street to reach the harbour and connect to the Ffestiniog Railway's Harbour Station.

In its early years the only locomotive in good condition was a very over worked Russell and locomotives were borrowed from the Ffestiniog when needed. In 1923 Colonel Stephens (a larger than life character involved in Light Railways all over Britain) became locomotive superintendent and purchased Baldwin No. 590 an American built ex war department locomotive, providing some welcome relief for Russell.

The railway never attracted the level of traffic which would have made it profitable and In 1927 was taken into receivership. The line struggled on under the receiver but underwent steady decline until, on 1st July 1934, the railway passed into the control of the Ffestiniog for a nominal sum in the hope of keeping it open.

For a time the railway had a brief resurgence as the Ffestiniog management invested in improvements, sadly these were inadequate or cosmetic and the Railway closed completely in 1937.

Comments on this Railway

Add your comment on this railway.

A.Lapworth   05 May 2013
I visited the railway in 2011 and it is undoubtedly the most outstanding narrow gauge railway in Britain. The Beyer-Garratts are very charismatic and are fascinating to watch in operation. When the scenery is added its unbeatable! I travelled by train and finally bus to Caernarfon and took the train all the way to Porthmadog where I stayed a few days, using the railway for transport. Walks included taking the morning bus to Pen-y-pas (the easiest way to ascend Snowdon) and then carrying on over and down to Rhyd Ddu or Snowdon Ranger stations to take the train back. I also took the train to Rhyd Ddu and walked back over the Snowdon south ridge and down the Nant Gwynant valley to Beddgelert and caught the train back. On my return I took the Ffestiniog to Blaenau and then British Rail from there back home. A memorable holiday and I hope to repeat the visit in future.
Dave   28 Sep 2012
We had a fantastic day on the Welsh Highland Railway, a day trip from Beddgelert, where we were camping, into Caernarfon. Best day out of our holiday. Highly recommended.
John   27 Aug 2012
Together with the Ffestiniog Railway it represents the pinnacle of modern narrow gauge in the UK.
David Taylor   02 Feb 2012
A wonderful achievement to restore such a scenic railway.
Skip Navigation Links.
Show Location Map
As well as maintaining this site Nick is an IT professional. For more information visit Nick's personal page or see Nick on LinkedIn.