Words and images by Allen Jackson.
The Llangollen Railway is a fragment of a line that originally ran from Ruabon, just south of Wrexham, to Dolgellau, just east of Barmouth, a holiday resort on Cardigan Bay in north west Wales. The north and mid Wales holiday resorts were serviced, in railway terms by the London and North Western’s (LNWR) line from Chester to Holyhead and the main resort of Aberystwyth by the Cambrian Railway which had been tipped to become part of the LNWR on grouping but ended up with the GWR. Barmouth had the potential to rival the other resorts but only had a roundabout Cambrian route or an equally roundabout route via Afon Wen.
The GWR built the route through largely uninhabited country from a junction at Ruabon to Dolgellau or Dolgelley as the original Act of Parliament had it. The Welsh were not the only victims of having their place names defiled but it must be remembered that the clerks drawing up these documents were not blessed with formal education until the latter part of the 19th century.
The line was built, in 1868, through beautiful scenery for 54 miles and therein laid its weakness as a source of trade for the undertaking. Apart from Bala, Corwen and Llangollen there was scarcely a habitation of any size that would generate traffic for the railway. Optimism in Victorian times was boundless or at least more extensive that it was to become in later years. Fortunes had been won in the mid-19th century but these were mainly on lines that had expanding populations or large coal traffic.
However there was enough traffic on the Ruabon to Llangollen section to justify it being equipped with double track, to some extent the Musical Eisteddfod held every year had some impact. In around 1906 the GWR built two standard waiting shelters and increased the platform lengths to accommodate Eisteddfod traffic. These extensions remain to this day.
The whole branch was slated for closure under the Beeching plan but some of it was closed early in December 1964 after flooding. The section from Ruabon to Llangollen survived until 1968 with freight traffic. Carter’s Seeds had a presence at the goods shed at Llangollen.
Llangollen station re-opened in 1975 thanks to the Flint and Deeside Preservation Society and the line was progressively re-opened first to Pentrefelin Sidings then Berwyn, Deeside Loop, Glydyfrdwy then Carrog. Carrog was to remain the western terminus for some years as the big push to Corwen took place. As I write this in July 2022 Corwen is likely to be the railway’s western terminus in 2023. A complete station has had to be created together with the signal box from Weston Rhyn which used to sit on the Wrexham Shrewsbury line. Another part of the line around Lake Bala was relaid with narrow gauge track and that became the Bala Lake Railway in 1972. They have aspirations to re-enter Bala Town which had been part of the branch to Blaenau Festiniog.
Figure 1. Is a map I’ve borrowed from the GWR Manor Locomotives book of the Ruabon to Dolgellau section. The figures in the boxes in green beginning 78 are examples of the Manor Class workings over this line. Near Llanderfel, not far from Bala, a special halt was constructed in 1889 for the visit of HM Queen Victoria to Sir Willam Watkins-Wynn and his stately pile nearby. From the map it can be seen that 7827 Lydham Manor was a frequent visitor to the Ruabon to Dolgellau line. The engine now resides on the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway in Devon which also features in the book.
Figure 2. GWR 7822 Foxcote Manor bring a short demonstration freight into Glydyfrdwy station on its way to Carrog. The signal box in the background controls the single line working hereabouts and was originally at Leaton near Shrewsbury on the Wrexham line. The first wagon in the consist is a SHARK wagon which were attached to ballast trains. The ploughs are to evenly spread the ballast after it has been tipped from, usually, side tipper wagons. Track workers would then have to tamp and pack the ballast using picks and shovels. The brakes would be applied by the guard manually in the van with a rotating wheel. April 2008.
Figure 3. GWR Heavy Freight Consolidation 2-8-0 no 3802 drifts into Carrog station just in time for lunch at the station café. The 28XX class locos were introduced by Churchward in 1903 and were the largest heavy freight locos of their time in the UK. They were such a success that Collett continued the class into the 1930s and 1940s. This example, 3802, was built in 1938 and saw extensive GWR and BR service until 1965 and like so many others ended up at Woodhams Scrapyard in Barry. The engine was restored at Llangollen and entered traffic in 2005. August 2020.
Figure 4. GWR Large Prairie 5105 Class number 5199 uses the crossover at the end of Llangollen station to run round its train. The signaller has just returned the right hand signal to danger behind the engine although this is the end of the line. The River Dee bridge shows how close the railway is to water here and the Royal Hotel over the bridge would welcome fairly well-off guests years ago. The Berwyn Mountains surround Llangollen and the river to make a delightful spot. 5199 was built in 1934 and spent the first fourteen years of its life on Birmingham commuter trains, the original raison d’être of the class.
Figure 5. GWR 64XX Pannier Tank is at Glydyfrdwy Station with an autotrain headed east for Llangollen. An autotrain permits a steam engine and coach or coaches to travel both ways without the need to run round at a terminus. When the train is travelling in the direction shown, i.e. away from the camera a driver sits in the front of the first coach and signals to the fireman who is still on the engine. The driver can also operate the regulator and vacuum brakes from the auto coach. This saved massive amounts of time on short branch-line runs and the Gobowen to Oswestry service could notch up as many as 31 return trips in a day. They were an early version of multiple units. The 64XX class was a modern auto engine introduced by Collett in 1932 with a 4 foot 7 and a half inch driving wheel diameter and a fairly small boiler, although the pannier tanks make the boiler seem as big as other pannier tank classes. These engines could manage up to four auto-trailers but were more comfortably loaded with two. In Llangollen Railway service the engine can pull as many as five BR Mark 1 coaches. September 2012.
Figure 6. The engine in this shot is a one off of only one ever preserved. The Dukedog class were so called as they were an amalgamation of two classes the ancient Duke 4-4-0s and the less old Bulldog. A lighter engine was required in the 1930s for lines such as the Cambrian and the Bulldog frames and running gear was mated with the lighter Duke boiler. They were originally named after Earls of the Realm and their lordships kicked up a fuss about their names on such old looking locomotives so the names were transferred to some of the newly built Castle Class 4-6-0s. 9017 is at Carrog on a recreation special. The locomotive’s regular home is the Bluebell Railway. April 2009.
Figure7. Barely visible in the last shot is the GWR Small Prairie that double headed the special with 9017. 5526 is a later series engine with increased water capacity of 1300 gallons. It bears the yellow route disk indicating it can travel over lightly laid lines. The Ruabon to Dolgellau route was a blue route indicating it can take Manors, 28XX and other heavier engines. The Festiniog Specials were used to convey members to the Annual General Meeting at Portmadoc in the 1950s and 1960s using classic traction wherever possible. April 2009.
Figure 8. 6430 is on non auto-fitted duty at Berwyn station where the train length comfortably exceeds the platform’s ability to accommodate it. The fence on the viaduct was introduced to impede the progress of excited passengers wishing to take an early dip in the River Dee rather than take the more conventional exit from the carriage to the platform. On the left is the Chain Bridge which has a nearby hotel named after it. Thomas Telford’s road to Holyhead is behind the station building. On the opposite bank is the Llangollen canal where the modern traveller can indulge in a horse drawn canal barge trip which is somewhat more leisurely and relaxing than the train. The road, railway and canal all co-exist together here. July 2009.
Figure 9. 3802 and 5199 are in steam beneath the footbridge at Llangollen station and contribute to the overall scene with the railway running cheek by jowl with the River Dee. The waters have speeded up at this point and are often used for kayaking and white water work. The original 1860s station building near the footbridge is complemented by the later early 20th century structures, one of which can be seen to the left of the photo. April 2006.
Figure 10. A more recent image is this one of BR Class 26 number 5310 at Llangollen. It has brought its train into platform 1 and is now running round, given the ‘off’ from the semaphore signal. These engines spent most of their BR service lives in Scotland but 5310 has been a Llangollen Railway resident since 2009. July 2022.
Figure 11. Llangollen Goods Junction Signal Box is the end of the double track section from Llangollen and the beginning of the single track westwards. A 5310 crew member is surrendering the token for the single line section to Glydyfrdwy whilst the crew of the Class 109 Diesel Multiple Unit is awaiting the passage of 5310 to free up the section to Glydyfrdwy and the issue of a token as authority to proceed. The signal cannot be pulled off until the occupying 5310 token has been returned to the token machine in the signal box. July 2022.
Read more of Allen Jackson's work here: Allen Jackson We Are Railfans Articles
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