The Talyllyn Railway (Rheilffordd Talyllyn) is a narrow gauge preserved railway in Wales running for 7.25mi from Tywyn on the Mid-Wales coast to Nant Gwernol near the village of Abergynolwyn. The line was opened in 1866 to carry slate from the quarries at Bryn Eglwys to Tywyn, and was the first narrow gauge railway in Britain authorised by Act of Parliament to carry passengers using steam haulage. Despite severe under-investment the line remained open, and in 1951 it became the first railway in the world to be preserved as a heritage railway by volunteers.
Since preservation, the railway has operated as a tourist attraction, expanding its rolling stock through acquisition and an engineering programme to build new locomotives and carriages. In 1976, an extension was opened along the former mineral line from Abergynolwyn to the new station at Nant Gwernol. In 2001, the preservation society celebrated its 50th anniversary, and in 2005 a major rebuilding and extension of Tywyn Wharf station took place, including a much-expanded facility for the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum.
The fictional Skarloey Railway, which formed part of the Railway Series of children's books by the Reverend W. Awdry, was based on the Talyllyn Railway. The preservation of the line inspired the Ealing Comedy film "The Titfield Thunderbolt".
Name and Gauge
The origin of the railway's name is uncertain: it may refer to the parish of Talyllyn, which contains its eastern terminus, or it may come from Tal-y-llyn, a large glacial ribbon lake at the foot of Cadair Idris 3mi further east. The 2ft 3in gauge of the track is unusual, and was shared by only three other public railways in the United Kingdom: the nearby Corris Railway (which predated the Talyllyn), and the subsequent Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway and Campbeltown and Machrihanish Light Railway.
Origins and construction: up to 1866
Slate quarrying began in the hills above Tywyn in the 1830s, but although many small quarries and test levels were established, only one major quarry was developed in the region, at Bryn Eglwys, 7mi north east of the town. Underground working began in the early 1840s, and by 1847 the quarry was being worked by local landowner John Pughe. The finished slates were sent by packhorse to the wharf at Pennal, transferred to boats for a river trip to Aberdyfi (also known as Aberdovey), and then finally loaded into seagoing vessels, a complex and expensive transportation arrangement which limited the quarry's output. In 1861 the outbreak of the American Civil War cut off supplies of cotton to the mills of the north west of England and as a result a number of prosperous mill owners looked for new business opportunities to diversify their interests. One such owner was William McConnel of Lancashire who, in 1859, had purchased a house near Dolgellau, north of Tywyn. In January 1864, McConnel formed the Aberdovey Slate Company, which leased the land including Bryn Eglwys from the landowner, Lewis Morris of Machynlleth.
McConnel set about improving Bryn Eglwys to increase its output and in 1865 his company earmarked money for the construction of a narrow gauge railway connecting the quarry with the port of Aberdyfi. The standard gauge Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway was expanding rapidly from its base at Machynlleth, however, and in 1863 had reached Tywyn, so McConnel decided to build his line from the quarry to Tywyn, as the nearest point where slate could be transferred to the standard gauge railway. This was despite the line's initial isolation from the rest of the system because of difficulties in bridging the estuary of the Afon Dyfi to the south. An Act of Parliament (28 and 29 Vict, cap cccxv) allowing the company to operate passenger trains as a public railway was given Royal Assent on 5 July 1865, and the company appointed James Swinton Spooner as engineer for the construction. He laid out plans for a relatively straight line climbing steadily from Tywyn to the quarry and work quickly got underway. By September 1866 construction had advanced to the point where the Board of Trade inspector Captain Henry Tyler could make an initial inspection and report.
Tyler's report led to an unusual alteration, as it was discovered that the loading gauge of the line was too small. The internal width of the overbridges was only 9ft 1in, but the railway's passenger carriages were 5ft 3.5in wide, leaving less than 2ft clearance on either side, less than the minimum required clearance of 2ft 6in. To alleviate this problem, McConnel proposed that the doors on one side of each carriage be permanently barred and the track slewed off-centre beneath the bridges to allow adequate clearance at least on the side with doors, which would allow passengers to get out of the carriages if the train stopped underneath a bridge. Tyler agreed to this arrangement, and to this day all carriages on the Talyllyn have doors on one side only, an unusual feature for a public railway which is shared (albeit for different reasons) with the neighbouring Corris Railway. Tyler also required that improvements be made to the railway's first two steam locomotives, as locomotive No.1 suffered from excessive "vertical motion" and No.2 was said to suffer from "horizontal oscillation". No.1 was returned to its manufacturer where a set of trailing wheels was added to reduce the rear overhang, and the springs on No.2 were adjusted and the crank pins shortened to reduce its oscillation.
Tyler did not approve the opening until his listed improvements were completed. During the first half of 1866, the various changes required were made and construction of the line was finished, and in October 1866 the railway began an unofficial passenger service, despite not being authorised by the Board of Trade. Passengers were carried "at their own risk" and possibly free of charge until the line was officially sanctioned. In November of that year, Tyler returned to Tywyn and re-inspected the railway following which, subject to some further minor improvements, he approved its formal opening for passenger service. The first public passenger timetable was issued in December 1866, and the first purpose-built, steam-worked, narrow gauge public railway in Britain opened for service.
Prosperity under McConnel: 1866–1880s
The railway opened with two locomotives, one carriage and several goods vehicles in use and was operated under a "one engine in steam" policy to ensure that two trains could not collide. Initially the working locomotive was housed in a wooden shed at Ty Dwr on the mineral line above Abergynolwyn station, while the main engineering works at Pendre were constructed. The Pendre works opened on 17 February 1867 and from then on trains began working from Pendre instead of Abergynolwyn.
At the time of the line's opening, stations were provided at Pendre and Abergynolwyn. In 1867, the halt at Rhydyronen opened, followed by Brynglas and Dolgoch in 1873. Some time shortly after the opening of the railway a branch to Abergynolwyn village was provided. A steep incline dropped from the mineral line east of Abergynolwyn station to the village below, where a series of tram lines radiated. Coal, building materials and general goods were delivered down the incline and the contents of the village cesspits were hauled back up for disposal along the lineside.
The railway used steam locomotives from the start, unlike its neighbour the horse-drawn Corris Railway. The original two engines, although of entirely different design, were both purchased from Fletcher, Jennings & Co. of Whitehaven in Cumbria, and both are still in service, 140 years on, although so many of their parts have been replaced down the years that much of their present-day component metal is not original. The Talyllyn's rare gauge is thought to have been adopted to match that of the Corris Railway, and the line's two original steam locomotives were among the earliest engines built for such a narrow gauge. No.1 Talyllyn is an 0-4-2ST (saddle tank) and No.2 Dolgoch is an 0-4-0WT (well tank). The line carried slate from the quarry to the wharf at Tywyn and general goods along its length. Public passenger trains initially ran between Abergynolwyn, Dolgoch and Pendre stations only; quarrymen were carried on unofficial trains that continued on from Abergynolwyn to the foot of the Alltwyllt incline in Nant Gwernol gorge.
The line operated successfully during its early years, serving the quarry and the local district. By 1880, Bryn Eglwys employed 300 workers and was producing 8000 tons of finished slate per year, all shipped via the railway. Passenger traffic was substantial, rising from 11,500 passengers carried in 1867 to over 23,000 (roughly equivalent to 40,000 passenger journeys) in 1877.
From the 1880s onwards the "Grand Tour" was a popular option with tourists. This used charabancs to link the Talyllyn and Corris railways via Tal-y-llyn Lake and Cadair Idris, returning on Cambrian Railways trains. The last two decades of the 19th century saw a decline in the demand for slate and many smaller quarries fell on hard times, including Bryn Eglwys, where by 1890 production had halved to 4000 tons a year. In 1896, production at the Penrhyn Quarry in north Wales, one of the largest producers of slate, was stopped due to labour disputes, resulting in a temporary increase in demand at other quarries. McConnel expanded production at Bryn Eglwys to take advantage of the sudden demand, but only with the aim of maximising profits during the remainder of his lease, which was to expire in 1910. He built new trial levels without proper provision for the removal of overburden and pushed the limits of safe working in the existing chambers. As McConnel's lease drew to its close, there was no prospect of a further lessee coming forward and work began on dismantling the quarry's equipment.
Haydn Jones era: 1911–1950
The Bryn Eglwys quarry was the primary employer in the Abergynolwyn district, so its closure caused significant distress. Local landowner Henry Haydn Jones purchased the company in 1910, the same year he was elected the Liberal MP for Merioneth, and reopened the quarry in January 1911. He did not have any capital to invest in the quarry, however, and the first workings reopened were on the "Broad Vein", which yielded relatively hard slate that was less popular and harder to sell. The lack of an available market for this output forced the quarry to switch to extracting softer slate from the "Narrow Vein" but, because Haydn Jones could not afford to open new workings into the Narrow Vein, he resorted to the dangerous practice of narrowing the columns that supported the roofs of the underground chambers. This practice had begun under McConnel's ownership and Haydn Jones continued it throughout his ownership of the quarry. A brief construction boom after the First World War saw production return to around 4000 tons per year.
The 1920s also saw an upsurge in holiday traffic, as Britain recovered from the war and tourism gained in popularity. The Talyllyn saw summer passenger numbers grow significantly and regularly had to supplement its formal passenger stock with slate wagons fitted with planks as seats. An unusual tourist service offered by the railway was to hire a slate wagon, which would be left at Abergynolwyn. At the end of the day the tourists would return to Tywyn in the wagon, powered by gravity. This service was discontinued in the early 1930s. The additional income from the tourist trade defrayed some of the costs of operating the railway, but never enough for it to make a profit during Haydn Jones' ownership.
The lease on Bryn Eglwys expired in 1942, but was extended on an annual basis. In 1946 the weakened columns gave way in a significant collapse and the quarry was deemed unsafe and closed immediately. Haydn Jones had promised to continue operating the railway as long as he was alive and so, despite the closure of the quarry, the railway continued to run trains on a shoestring budget. In 1947 the British railway system was nationalised and the Talyllyn was one of the few operating railways not included. The reasons for this are unclear, but it is significant that all official mention of the railway had ceased several decades before and it is likely that the line was simply forgotten by officialdom. Between 1947 and 1949 the railway ran a passenger service two days a week. On 2 July 1950 Haydn Jones died and closure of the railway seemed inevitable, but the line continued to operate for the remainder of the summer season, ending on 6 October.
During the Second World War and in the period immediately afterwards several enthusiasts, particularly from the Birmingham area, had become aware of the narrow gauge railways of Wales and there had been suggestions that one of the lines, most probably the Ffestiniog Railway, could be saved. In the summer of 1950, Tom Rolt wrote a letter to the Birmingham Post newspaper suggesting that a rescue of the Talyllyn be undertaken. He received sufficient positive response for a meeting of interested enthusiasts to be held on 11 October 1950 at the Imperial Hotel in Birmingham. Around 70 people attended the meeting and Rolt proposed the formation of a committee to look into the acquisition of the railway. With the support of the meeting, the committee met for the first time on 23 October and immediately entered into negotiation with Haydn Jones' executors.
The transfer of ownership to the committee was legally complex, but both parties agreed that all shares in the railway company would be transferred from Haydn Jones' estate to a new company called Talyllyn Holdings Ltd., whose board consisted of two directors from the executors and two from the committee. The transfer took place on 8 February 1951, at which point the newly formed Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society effectively took control of the railway. The Society immediately began to publicise its efforts, hoping to raise funds and find further volunteers to help reopen the railway, and by May nearly 650 members had joined the society. The railway re-opened under the control of the Society for the first time on the Whit Monday bank holiday, 14 May 1951, with trains running between Wharf and Rhydyronen stations. Regular trains began to run on 4 June and continued through the summer.
In the early years of preservation, the line struggled to operate using the original rolling stock. When the line was taken over in 1950 Dolgoch was the only operating locomotive and it was apparent that it was in need of a major overhaul. To enable operations to continue two further steam locomotives, Nos.3 and 4, were purchased from the recently closed Corris Railway in 1951 and named Sir Haydn and Edward Thomas respectively. Because both railways were built to the unusual gauge of 2ft 3in it was relatively easy to adapt the Corris locomotives to work on the Talyllyn. No.3 became the first new locomotive to travel on the railway for over 90 years in 1951, but it frequently derailed, and on inspection it turned out that the Talyllyn track was laid approximately half an inch (13mm) wider than the official gauge, a deliberate policy by the old company to accommodate the long wheelbase of Talyllyn. Both Talyllyn and Dolgoch had unusually wide wheel treads that allowed them to stay on the wide-of-gauge track. This problem was eventually cured by relaying the railway to its correct gauge and altering Talyllyn's trailing wheels to allow them to swivel horizontally, shortening the locomotive's fixed wheelbase. No.4 was unserviceable when it arrived, but John Alcock, the chairman of the Hunslet Engine Company, was a member of the Preservation Society and had No.4 overhauled free of charge at his works.
Another early addition to the locomotive fleet was No.6 Douglas, donated to the society by the Birmingham engineering firm Abelsons Ltd. This locomotive was built for the depot railway serving RAF Calshot where it worked until 1945, and, after rebuilding from its original 2ft gauge, it entered service in 1954. Through the 1950s the volunteers and staff members of the TRPS rebuilt the line and rescued it from its state of decay, during a period characterised by a "Boy's Own comic spirit of adventure, involving enthusiasm, ingenuity and a fair degree of irresponsibility".
On 22 May 1957 the BBC produced a live outside broadcast from the railway, during which Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Huw Weldon commentated on a trip from Dolgoch to Abergynolwyn. The publicity from this broadcast drew substantial numbers of visitors to the railway that summer, with more than 57,500 passengers carried, and this increase in revenue in turn enabled the railway to continue to improve its infrastructure and provide tourists with a better experience. The following year locomotive No.1 Talyllyn returned to steam after an extensive overhaul.
An important development during this period was the establishment of the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn Wharf station. The first exhibit for what was to become the museum was a locomotive donated in 1952 by Guinness from their recently closed St. James's Gate Brewery railway. In 1954 the Preservation Society agreed to start work on a formal museum and exhibits from around the United Kingdom were acquired to form the nucleus of the collection. In 1955 work started on converting the old gunpowder store at Wharf station into a temporary museum building, and in 1956 the first exhibit arrived at Tywyn.
Securing the infrastructure: 1960–1969
The 1960s proved to be a decade of consolidation for the Talyllyn. Pendre works underwent several much-needed expansions, adding additional covered storage for carriages and more workshop room. Modern machine tools, along with proper lighting and a new power supply were added. Substantial improvements to Tywyn Wharf station were also made, along with continued relaying and upgrading of the track to Abergynolwyn. Passenger numbers continued to climb after the BBC broadcast of 1957; in 1960, 67,000 passenger journeys were made, increasing to 78,500 in 1964. In response to this growing popularity the railway undertook a programme of new rolling stock construction.
By the early 1960s Tywyn Wharf station was in need of major improvements. Before preservation, the station had contained only a fan of sidings, which meant that there was no way for the locomotive of an arriving train to run round the carriages. As a result, trains were pushed from behind as far as Pendre, where the locomotive could be moved past the carriages to the front of the train. A loop was installed at Wharf for the first time in August 1952, to avoid having to propel trains to Pendre, but in the winter of 1964/65 a major upgrade of the station was carried out. This improved the track layout and extended the original office building to provide covered accommodation for passengers and a shop.
As passenger numbers continued to grow during the late 1960s it became clear that further motive power was needed, especially as the rebuilt No.1 was not performing well. The Talyllyn's unusual track gauge and restricted loading gauge meant that it was unlikely that a locomotive could be found that could work on the line unaltered, so in 1969 a 3ft gauge steam locomotive was purchased from the Bord na Mona (Irish Peat Board) with a view to rebuilding it for use on the Talyllyn. This locomotive was unofficially known as Irish Pete, a nod to its original use.
Extension to Nant Gwernol: 1969–1980
The preservation society had long held ambitions to extend the railway along the former mineral extension from Abergynolwyn to the foot of the Alltwyllt incline, and as early as 1959 work had begun to trace the owners of the land that the extension traversed. Planning began in the mid-1960s, but construction did not start until 1968 when the winding house for the Abergynolwyn village incline was demolished. To bring the line up to passenger standards some of the curves needed to be eased, and this required blasting work, as the line runs on a narrow ledge on the hillside at this point. The extension and new station at Nant Gwernol were opened on 22 May 1976 by Wynford Vaughan Thomas who drove in the ceremonial "golden spike" to complete the extension. Despite this official opening ceremony, minor work still remained to bring the extension to the standard required to run regular passenger trains, but regular train services began on 29 May 1976.
Although the extension of the railway was completed in 1976, work in the vicinity continued with the creation of footpaths connecting to the new station. A new footbridge was built crossing the Nant Gwernol gorge and connecting the station with the existing path on the east side of the river. The bridge and paths were opened on 3 May 1980 by Lord Parry, the chairman of the Wales Tourist Board. By the mid-1970s, it had become clear that passenger numbers were no longer increasing. After 1973, the peak year for passengers on the Talyllyn with 186,000 passenger journeys made, numbers were to decline consistently until the 1990s. Preliminary work on the conversion of Irish Pete for use on the Talyllyn, which had begun in the early 1970s, was put on hold in 1975 and the chassis and boiler were put into storage at Pendre.
With passenger numbers falling and the line extended to Nant Gwernol, the railway entered a period of consolidation. By 1987, the boiler on locomotive No. 6 Douglas was life expired and in need of replacement. Consideration was given to reviving the project to build a new locomotive from the components of Irish Pete instead of purchasing a new boiler for Douglas and in early 1988 work recommenced on the rebuilding of the ex-Bord na Mona locomotive. A new design for a 0-4-2 side tank locomotive was prepared by the railway's Chief Engineer John Bate, which reused the chassis and boiler from the locomotive with a new superstructure and the addition of trailing wheels, and the new locomotive, officially named Tom Rolt after the Preservation Society's first chairman, was put into service on 6 May 1991. During this period further expansions of both Tywyn Wharf and Pendre stations were undertaken and Abergynolwyn station, which had been rebuilt as part of the Nant Gwernol extension in the 1970s, was expanded further to provide an additional attraction at the eastern end of the line.
One major anomaly remained in the railway's operations: the 1889 Regulation of Railways Act had required, amongst other measures, that all British passenger trains be fitted with continuous brakes. McConnel had secured an exemption for the Talyllyn Railway, on the basis that the low speed of operation meant they were unnecessary and that the cost of compliance would bankrupt the enterprise, but by the end of the 1990s the Railway Inspectorate was insisting that the Talyllyn be brought into compliance with the act, a little over 100 years after it had passed. By 2001, the railway had fitted its entire passenger fleet with the necessary equipment, operated by air brake pumps mounted on the locomotives.
New museum: 2001–presen
The Preservation Society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001, and as part of the year of celebrations a major new project was launched to once more extend and improve facilities at Tywyn Wharf station. For many years the station had been home to semi-permanent buildings housing the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, but the new plans for the station included the construction of a new two-storey building to house the museum and the extension of the existing station building to house a new cafe and booking office. Work began on the first phase of the project in January 2002. In 2003 the railway received a £682,500 National Lottery (Heritage Lottery) grant towards the £1,170,000 cost of redeveloping Wharf station, and the new station and museum were officially opened by Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall on 13 July 2005. The railway has seen a steady increase in passengers carried since the turn of the millennium, with nearly 95,500 passenger journeys recorded in 2006, although this figure is still only around half the peak figure carried in 1973.
The Talyllyn Railway remains a successful and popular tourist attraction. The original 1860s locomotives and passenger stock still run regularly alongside the roster of more modern rolling stock. The railway is promoted as one of The Great Little Trains of Wales, a joint marketing scheme launched in 1970 that encompasses ten narrow gauge railways in the country, mostly found in north and mid Wales. In 2006, nearly 51,000 passengers were carried.
In 2003 the railway employed 13 full-time staff, plus the equivalent of an extra six part-time staff in the summer and some 350 volunteers.
The railway operates a programme of special events throughout the year. These include the Tom Rolt Steam and Vintage Rally, children's Duncan Days and Tywyn Victorian week. Since 1984 there has been an annual running event called Race the Train, which follows the railway track 7¼ miles (11.8km) from Tywyn to Abergynolwyn and back again. The challenge is for runners to complete the 14½-mile (23.3km) cross country route faster than the train, which takes around 1 hour 45 minutes.
Young Members Group
The Young Members Group (YMG) are the members of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society between the ages of 14 and 25. On occasions during the peak season, the Talyllyn Railway has held a Young Members Day in which the youngest qualified people available that day run the railway.