Rail travel… it’s romantic, isn’t it? Slowly chugging through glorious scenery, in no rush to get to your destination, meeting new people, seeng new things. But, in North Wales, trains served a higher purpose, helping shape our nation during the Industrial Revolution.
And these are no ordinary trains. Built to serve like faithful packhorses, smaller than mainline engines, these trains are a living reminder of times-gone-by, a time when engineering was in its youth and the world as we knew it was still bounded by imagination, not Wifi speed.
These trains, so-called narrow-gauge locomotives, moved along unique tracks for a unique purpose. Luckily for us, they have survived and now give pleasure to thousands of tourists and enthusiasts every year. Even if you’re not a ‘train person’, you can’t help but fall for the charms of these colourful, cheeky engines.
During the Industrial Revolution, narrow-gauge railways (a railway that runs on track smaller than standard size; most narrow-gauge railways are between 600mm and 1087mm wide) played an important part in the mining, logging, construction, tunnelling, quarrying, and agricultural industries of Wales.
In the days before road travel, railways were the lifeblood of industry: transporting raw materials, ferrying workers from their homes to work, carrying the boss and his associates to the office (in their own carriage, of course), supplying the site with food and essential items.
What makes narrow-gauge railways so special is their individuality. Every railway was built for a specific purpose and carried out a multitude of jobs but they were also unique in the way they were constructed sympathetically with the land around them.
As heavy industry in North Wales fell into decline, so too did the engines. But thanks to enthusiasts and passionate community groups, such as the Great Little Trains of Wales, the heritage of the narrow-gauge in North Wales has been preserved for posterity.
Today, visitors can experience the glory days of the narrow-gauge railways for themselves – from passenger rides to theme days, and engine driving tuition to volunteering – the little trains are enjoying a new, very different working life.
If you’re visiting North Wales, why not plan a trip on one of our narrow-gauge railways? Hailing from an era when there was more time to contemplate and take in the splendid scenery of Wales, these trains are a great way of sightseeing at a leisurely pace.
Llanberis Lake Railway
The Llanberis Lake Railway way is located just a stone’s throw from the Royal Victoria Hotel and runs along part of the narrow-gauge railway that served the Dinorwig Quarry – now the site of the National Slate Museum of Wales.
In its heyday the Padarn Railway travelled from the quarry to the Menai Strait to unload its cargo of slate onto waiting ships. Today, the train makes a pleasant 5 mile journey along the lake, taking in some of the principal sites of the Dinorwig Quarry, not to mention some of the most unspoilt scenery in the world.
The return journey takes approximately 60 minutes but there are several stops along the way if you’re keen to explore. For example, hop off at Gilfach Ddu station to visit the Slate Museum and Dolbadarn Castle, or at picturesque Cei Llydan for a picnic beside the lake.
Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways
Caring for not one but two of North Wales’ narrow-gauge railways, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways offer the ultimate Welsh rail experience.
The Welsh Highland follows a 25 mile route from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, making it the longest heritage railway in the UK, whilst the 200-year-old Ffestiniog Railway, the oldest operational narrow-gauge railway, winds its way up into the mountains to the slate capital of the world, Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Both railways, unsurprisingly have their origins in the slate industry.
The Welsh Highland travels through spectacular scenery and follows a route that takes in coast, mountains, wood and moorland along the way. It’s a memorable experience, especially from the comfort of the trains’ beautifully restored carriages. This is travel in style!
The Ffestiniog Railway started life as a gravity train, in the days before steam power. Wagons loaded with slate made the 14 mile journey from Blaenau along a slightly sloping track with nothing but the pull of gravity to move them. For the return journey, the wagons were pulled by horses; they accompanied the train in their own specially-designed carriages, called dandy wagons!
Steam power came at the pinnacle of Ffestiniog’s career as a mining town, with up to eighty wagons of slate at a time travelling several times a day between the quarries and the coast.
Welsh Highland Heritage Railway
Not to be confused with the Welsh Highland Railway, this diminutive little railway also resides in Porthmadog but makes a substantially shorter journey than its big brother.
At just 0.75 of a mile long the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, is a great experience for train enthusiasts young and old. Hop off at the engine sheds and explore the locomotives before learning all about narrow-gauge railways in North Wales. Kids will love the hands-on approach and, better still, the whole family can ride all-day for less than the cost of a meal out!
Bala Lake Railway
A bit further afield, the Bala Lake Railway is something of a rail phoenix. It rose from the ashes of the infamous Beeching Report of th 1960s – a government initiative that saw many small community lines closed to make way for mainline express services.
Making its 9 mile journey along an old stretch of the Barmouth to Ruabon GWR standard gauge line, this narrow-gauge railway was constructed in the 1970s to attract tourists to the area.
Taking in the spectacular Llyn Tegid (home to our very own lake monster called, rather unimaginatively, Teggie!) and the craggy peaks of the Aran Mountains. It’s a pleasant, picture-postcard trip with more than its fair share of historic high points too – including the site of a Roman fort (reputed to be the seat of Sir Kay, King Arthur’s foster brother) and the ruins of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, Tomen y Bala.
This year marks the Year of Legends for Wales – it’s a time to celebrate everything that makes our country great in the past and in the present. We think nothing does this better than those legendary little trains of Wales, our narrow-gauge railways.