CC readers will know that the modern railway originated in the north east of England, evolving by 1825 from horse drawn trucks on wooden rails to steam power and iron rails on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which, as well as hauling coal, also transported passengers in the first purpose built railway carriages. It was from these simple beginnings that the mainline railway system across the world mushroomed from the mid nineteenth century onwards.
But 250 miles away in north Wales, nature didn’t make it that easy. Here, the cargo wasn’t coal, but slate, which had been commercially quarried since the mid-eighteenth century high in the mountains of Snowdonia, around the remote industrial town of Blaneau Ffestiniog. The route to the coast was along unmade tracks through a narrow, steep valley, fit only for packhorses. By 1832, the business needed more, and the quarry owners sought Parliamentary approval for a 13 mile long railway, still horse worked, to link Blaneau with the coast at the new port of Portmadog (then spelt as the English Portmadoc) and stimulate further the slate industry. So the Ffestiniog Railway was born – the world’s first narrow gauge railway, with the rails just 1ft 11½in apart.
By exploiting the geography of the valley, engineer James Spooner was able to keep the line at a steady downwards gradient from Blaenau to Portmadog of 4%, which meant that loaded trains needed no propulsion, just skilfully controlled handbrakes and a cart for the horse to ride on, before the horse hauled the empties back up to Blaenau. A timetable from 1856 shows capacity for 70,000 tons per year of slate.
But by the 1850s, traffic had exceeded the capacity of the horse drawn trams, and a steam powered solution was sought. In 1863, 4 steam locomotives were purchased from George England and Co, of Hatcham, south London – among the very first narrow gauge engines in the world. Two, Prince and Palmerston, are still in service today. These were 0-4-0TT engines – that is, four driven wheels but no leading or trailing axles, and with both a water tank over the boiler and a small tender. But these engines were not the long term solution. Traffic continued to grow, and soon exceeded the capacity of Prince and his sisters.
Doubling the line or widening the gauge was not practical, so a more powerful locomotive was required. But how can you build a powerful locomotive that can run on a line designed for horse carts with a gauge of less than 2 feet and numerous tight curves and clearances?
The answer came from a Scottish engineer, Robert Fairlie. In 1864 Fairlie patented a steam locomotive design that placed a double ended boiler with twin central fireboxs over a frame that rested on two powered four wheel bogies (trucks) – so power and flexibility.
This was truly revolutionary for 1860s Britain – most of the main line express trains were still hauled by engines with just one pair of leading wheels, not a twin axle bogie, and carriages were still built on four or six fixed wheels chassis. Compared to that, twin two axle bogies, with a wheelbase of just 4ft 6 in, incorporating the cylinders and connected to the large and wide boiler by flexible steampipes was cutting edge. As well as allowing a large boiler capable of producing the steam to power, effectively, two engines, having the fireboxes centrally located between the bogies allowed the ashpan beneath to be the full width of the engine, and not constrained by the being squeezed between the wheels, which allowed for a larger firebox than previous narrow gauge engines, to ensure the large boiler could produce the steam required.
The Ffestiniog’s first Fairlie was Little Wonder, also built by George England and Co; she arrived on the Ffestiniog in 1869. George England had set up an engine building business in the 1840s, and by 1869 had passed the business to Robert Fairlie, even though Fairlie had eloped with his daughter several years before! Little Wonder was not the first Fairlie – that was Pioneer, built for the Neath and Brecon Railway in south Wales, but it was the Ffestiniog that made the concept famous and successful.
Little Wonder was an improvement over these earlier Fairlies, with two fireboxes rather than one, meaning each boiler and thus pair of cylinders did its fair share of the work. On the Neath and Brecon engines, there was tendency for the draft of the fire to flow predominantly to the rear boiler.
Little Wonder was a success for the Ffestiniog – she more than doubled the power of earlier Ffestiniog engines, and Fairlie granted the railway a licence to use his patent in perpetuity, in return for publicity. This included high profile trials in 1870, with guests invited from as far away as the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which subsequently trialled a Fairlie and Imperial Russia. Other examples were built for use in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Russia. The footplate of a Fairlie is inevitably cramped, to say the least. The driver works on one side, the fireman on the other. Coal is carried in bunkers on the firebox side, water in tanks on the driver’s.
These are the power bogies of Iarll Merionnydd / Earl of Merioneth
The largest fleet of Fairlies was supplied to the Ferrocarril Mexicano, who took 49 standard gauge Farilies with six wheel bogies, weighing 125 tons each, between 1871 and 1911. They were used on the line between Mexico City and Veracruz, hauling 300 ton trains up 4% inclines and round tight curves.
After Little Wonder, the Ffestiniog Fairlie fleet expanded, with James Spooner in 1872, Merddin Emrys (1879, named after a 6th century Welsh poet, and still in service) and Livingston Thompson (1886, named after the line’s owner, and now in the National Railway Museum).
But after the First World War, the Ffestiniog declined as the slate industry slowly succumbed to cheaper foreign competition. Although tourist traffic existed, it was minuscule and in 1946, the line eventually gave up when the quarry at Blaneau finally closed.
By 1951, the railway came into the ownership of the Ffestiniog Railway Trust (now the Ffestiniog Railway Society), a volunteer led group seeking to restore the railway as a tourist attraction – one of the first of its kind in the world. In 1955, the first trains since 1939 ran, and by 1982, after building a new 4 mile deviation to replace a section flooded in the 1950s for a new reservoir to support a hydro-electric power station, services reached Blaenau again – 150 years to the day after the Festiniog Railway Act passed the UK Parliament!
The Ffestiniog was not the first railway rescued by volunteer preservationists – that honour belongs to the similar but smaller Talyllyn Railway, running inland from Tywyn on the coast 30 miles from Portmadog, which was rescued in 1951, with some intriguing little engines of its own, notably Dolgoch, dating from 1865. Its story is told in one of my most read books – Railway Adventure, by LTC Rolt.
Obviously, the best way to experience the Double Fairlies is to take the train from Portmadog up the valley to Blaenau – it may not be fast, but it’s quite a ride. Treat yourself to first class, and get the rear seats in the observation car at the end of the train, to really appreciate the steady incline and the tight curves.
And, after your engine has run round at Blaenau, you get this added bonus view on the way back.
The most recent Fairlie dates from just 1992, was built by the Ffestiniog at its Boston Lodge works in Portmadog with government grant support, and is the most powerful one ever built; she is named Dafydd Lloyd George on one side and David Lloyd George on the other, with traditional ornate brass nameplates on the side tanks, and matching plates identifying the use of Fairlie’s Patents.
She is 31ft long, and weighs over 30 tons; her wheels are 2ft 8in in diameter, with cylinders 9in by 14in. Nominal tractive effort is an impressive 12,000lb, which is more than enough for any normal train on the Ffestiniog. Behind the traditional exterior, there are modern features that set her apart from the older engines – notably a tapered high pressure boiler and effective superheating. Originally built to be oil fired, she was converted to coal in 2013.
Of course, it isn’t really that simple! Boilers, bogies and even names have routinely been swapped between the Fairlies over the years.
The Ffestiniog also boasts the only operational Single Fairlies locomotive in the world – Taliesin, named after another 6th century poet and built in 1999 incorporating parts from an engine of the same name that opearted from 1976 until a collision in 1935. She looks like a conventional tank engine, but the four driving wheels below the boiler are on a pivoting bogie rather than fixed, to give it the same flexibility around the tight curves as the larger ‘Doubles’.
And now the Ffestiniog has expanded, and also operates the Welsh Highland Railway, a much later narrow gauge link between Portmadog and Caernarfon. It doesn’t use Double Fairlies however – it uses Beyer-Garratts, built in Manchester and originally supplied to South Africa – a story for another day.
The Fairlies are not perfect, by any means. Coal and water capacity is limited, the footplate is cramped and the driver is on the left in one direction, the right in the other. Maintenance of the bogies and steampipes is difficult, and their robustness is obviously critical to the engine’s reliability. So was Fairlie going down an engineering cul-de-sac? Perhaps. Or perhaps he was just ahead of his time – after all, locomotives with twin powered bogies are now the norm.
And the ‘Welsh Wizard’? David Lloyd George (1963-1945) was the first British Prime Minister to come from truly humble stock – he was brought up by his widowed mother and his uncle, a shoemaker, in a strict non-conformist Welsh speaking home in Criccieth, 20 miles from Portmadog. He became a lawyer and then a Liberal politician and MP, and by 1910, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British equivalent of Finance Minister) and scourge of the Conservatives. His ‘People’s Budget’ of 1910 introduced unemployment insurance and old age pensions, funded by land and death duties and other taxes on the wealthy. In 1915, he became Minister of Munitions and was credited with unblocking bottlenecks that were endangering Britain’s ability to fight in France, and from 1916-22 he was Prime Minister in the coalition government that led Britain and her allies to victory over Imperial Germany – achievements which earned him the nickname the ‘Welsh Wizard’. He was the first Welsh Prime Minister and the last from the Liberal Party, and remains one of the most significant British Prime Ministers to this day (and one of my personal heroes). Read more here.
And Festiniog or Ffestiniog? North Wales is where the Welsh language is strongest – but until the mid-twentieth century it was viewed with disapproval by the authorities, and was actively discouraged and even suppressed. So the Railway was incorporated, by Act of Parliament, with the English spelling, as the Festiniog Railway, but now uses the bilingual Rheilffordd Ffestiniog Railway in all its branding. The complexities of changing the name – another Act of Parliament would be needed – means that the formal name is still Festiniog, however.