Welsh Railway Millennium project

PUBLISHED: 15:07 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013

Heritage WHR Train climbing through the hills above Beddgelert by Roger Dimmick

Heritage WHR Train climbing through the hills above Beddgelert by Roger Dimmick

The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway will be fully opened this summer - completing one of the principality's key Millennium Projects and realising the 50-year dream of a group of enthusiasts who never lost faith

They call them the Great Little Trains of Wales...and Wales is just about to get another one.

The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, running 25 miles between Caernarfon and Porthmadog through some of the most stunning scenery in Britain, will be fully opened in summer this year - completing one of the principality's key Millennium Projects and realising the 50-year dream of a group of enthusiasts who never lost faith.

The longest narrow gauge railway in Wales will reach Beddgelert at Easter and the last few miles of track through the Aberglaslyn valley to Porthmadog, providing a rail link between the Menai Straits and Cardigan Bay for the first time in almost half a century, is expected to open for services in July.

The final phases of the project will have cost more than 10 million - of which 4,266,690 came from a Lottery-funded grant from the Millennium Commission.

Though the WHHR will be unveiled as North Wales' newest tourist attraction, the railway comes with considerable history, not to say baggage. The original 1'11" gauge Welsh Highland Railway was created in 1923 out of two cash-strapped Victorian ventures serving local quarries and lasted precisely four years before going into receivership.

Operated by the Ffestinog Railway, it managed to limp along for another nine years before the last train ran in September 1936 and the line was effectively closed in 1937. Much of the track and equipment was lifted for scrap to help the war effort.

It was hardly an auspicious record. But in 1961 the first determined efforts to revive the line saw a group of enthusiasts form a nascent preservation society. A base was eventually secured in old sidings in Porthmadog and a short length of track was laid - more in hope than expectation that it would ever reach the shadow of Caernarfon Castle - to run trains in 1980.

It wasn't all plain steaming by any means. The story of the last 20 years has been a story of labyrinthine complexity with variously named and remained societies, companies and subsidiaries forming and reforming to carry the project forward. Key has been the re-involvement of the successfully re-opened and flourishing Ffestiniog Railway.

General manager Paul Lewin said: 'It's been a very long haul and a complicated one, but it's been a fantastic achievement and everyone involved is thrilled at the stage we've reached. There's really nothing else to compare with it.

'The last phase has involved reconstruction of almost 12 miles of track - and that's longer than many heritage railways can boast in their entirety.'

He added: 'Last year members of the National Trust were polled on what they considered the most beautiful scenery in Britain and they voted for the Aberglaslyn pass. They even showed a video of it in London's Euston station - and our railway goes right through the heart of it.'

The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway

Ironically, the first three miles of the reborn Welsh Highland were not part of the original route at all, for the old company could never afford to realise its ambition to reach Caernarfon. The new line runs from beneath the mighty mediaeval castle walls to the original terminus at Dinas using the tracked of British Rail's former standard gauge route to Afonwen in the Llyn.

With Phase I of the project completed in 1997, the engineers struck east towards the mountains, reinstating the old North Wales narrow Gauge Railway line to Waunfawr at a cost of 2 million.

Phase 3, the six-mile route to Rhyd Ddu station - once known as South Snowdon and one of the gateways to 'carrying 100 guests traversed the re-laid tracks.

And so to Phase 4, launched in August 2005 by Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, through the Aberglaslyn Pass to the picturesque village of Beddgelert and south following the widening River Glaslyn to the harbour town of Porthmadog.

By the end of 2008 track laying was virtually completed before the rigorous programme of testing and inspection began.

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