Ffestiniog Railway: Queen of the Narrow Gauge


1. Porthmadog Quay 6. Blaenau
2. Quarry Engine 7. Fairlie's Patent
3. The Longest Grade 8. Downhill Run
4. On Dwyryd's Flank 9. Evening Chores
5. Deviation


Three: The Longest Grade


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Moments before
departure, Linda
surveys the Cob
and the Welsh hills
rising beyond.

Ticket in hand I strode back out to the platform.  Recalling John Gwynne's advice that one must always ride the very first carriage "so you can really hear that little engine working as you climb the hills," I staked out a spot at the head of the train.  Luck was with me.   Right behind the Linda was coupled a fine old wooden compartment carriage, #26 on the FR roster.  The doors were all locked, and the guards were all down at the far end of the train seating patrons in the modern steel corridor carriages which made up the bulk of the consist.  FR has invested in a large fleet of these cars, and wisely so.  Climate control, plush seats, a buffet, and a public address system mean daytrippers can travel the line in the "motor coach" style to which they have become accustomed.  Heritage purists may sneer, but it makes for happy patrons and a healthy operating margin for the railway.  The railway has not forgotten its roots, however: each train in the warmer months still includes several compartment coaches from FR's historic fleet.  A quick word to a guard about preferring a compartment bench, an open window and the smell of steam and smoke to the corridor carriages' undoubted comforts produced a knowing smile; she hastened to unlock for me the compartment of my choice in the old wooden car.


An old hand by now at Welsh narrow-gauge travel, I spread out my things along the compartment bench and unlatched the leather straps and lowered the side windows into their doorsill pockets.  Outside our driver, Paul Davis, had a final word with the guard, and then mounted Linda's footplate and put hand to throttle.   With a great whoosh of steam from the cylinder cocks, we lurched into motion and headed out across the Cob.  The last houses of Porthmadog Quay flashed past the window, then suddenly the view opened up to a vast panorama of greens, blues and grays-- the whole expanse of the Glaslyn marshes, glistening under the hazy morning sun.   For a seemingly endless time we rattled past the marsh-grasses, the carriage rocking gently on the high, narrow rails.  Then with a sharp protest of flanges Linda led the way off the high dam and on through a sweeping leftward curve.


Beyond the Cob the tracks rose into an easy upward slope, climbing into the foothills above the river plain.  The gentle rise was deceptive, for it marked the beginning of a relentless 1% grade which would continue for the next 12 miles, until our little train had climbed a full 710' above sea level.   Unvarying and almost unbroken, this longest grade offers eloquent testimony to the skills of James Spooner, the FR's pioneering engineer.  In the distant pre-locomotive age in which the FR was conceived and brought to completion, it was intended that loaded cars of slate should be propelled from Blaenau to Pothmadog by gravity alone.  The empty wagons would then be hauled back up the line by horses working in relays.   This proposed system imposed the most demanding requirements on Spooner's surveys.   To run the wagons downhill without stalling required a near-continuous grade, with no reverse inclines or excessive level spots. To keep the loaded cars under control going downhill and to ease the work of the horses pulling uphill required a moderate grade, of perhaps a little over 1% at most.  Somehow, Spooner found just such a route, running 13 miles across some of the toughest terrain in coastal Britain.  It was a bravura feat of civil engineering-- one which to this day allows the Ffestiniog to run longer and heavier trains than any comparable narrow-gauge railway in the British Isles.


As we passed the shop buildings and engine houses of Boston Lodge and entered the grade proper, Linda set to proving the point yet again.   In moments the entire consist had passed onto the grade, and the full weight of the heavily-laden cars was tugging back at the engine's drawbar.  Yet the trim Hunslet faltered not even a moment.  Her stack talk changed to a deeper, more insistent note; exhaust steam shot higher and with greater velocity from her tall stack; but the engine herself simply dug in a bit, settled herself, and commenced hauling the entire consist up and on towards Blaenau at a brisk, invigorating 25 miles an hour.  Spooner would have been proud.



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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1998 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.