Talyllyn: The World's First Preserved Railway

 

1. A Gray Day at Tywyn 5. Changing Ends
2. The Honorable Rituals 6. Conversation at Abergynolwyn
3. An Iron Horse Indeed 7. Down Train
4. Ascent to Nant Gwernol

 

Talyllyn Railway: A Brief History

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1847 John Pughe began quarrying slate for roofing tiles at a mountainside site called Bryn Eglwys ("The Church on the Hill") above the Nant Gwernol in the Merioneth mountains.  Initially, the trimmed slabs were loaded on pack horses for the six mile journey to the seacoast ports of Tywyn and Aberdyfi.  Yet with demand for slate burgeoning by the early 1860s, this animal portage grew less satisfactory.  In 1864 the quarry's new owners resolved to implement a better solution: they would emulate their competitors at Ffestiniog to the north, and build their own steam-powered railway to carry the heavy gray stones from quarry to coast.

Surveying and grading both went swiftly, and the tracklaying itself was nearly complete before the railway even received its Parliamentary charter.  In July 1865 the necessary legal charters were obtained, and the line opened for regular business in 1866.  On its opening day, the Talyllyn became the first narrow-gauge railway in the world engineered for steam working.

For 65 years the little line endured, carrying slate from the quarry to a transfer platform adjacent to the standard-gauge Cambrian Railways at Tywyn (or more specifically, at an outlying spot called "Wharf" in the Talyllyn's timetables).  During those years the railway also became an integral part of the lives of the valley and mountain people nearby, for its tiny but well-built passenger cars offered a regular service connecting the inland mining community of Abergynolwyn with the stores and emporia of Tywyn.

Decline in demand as synthetic materials replaced slate for British roofing shingles spelled the end for the quarry at Bryn Eglwys.  The last stones were removed in 1946, and the railroad ceased all freight operations later that same year.  Yet the line never quite closed.  Sir Henry Haydn Jones, the last owner of both the quarry and the railway, had developed an affection for the little trains, and he persisted in running a seasonal passenger service long after freight working had been abandoned.  

This happy situation came to an abrupt end with Sir Henry's death in 1950.  The executors had no intention of allowing an obsolescent railway to drain the estate's coffers: closure and a rapid liquidation seemed inevitable.  Yet in its latter years, the Talyllyn had won many friends.  Now, some of them now rallied to save it.  Under the energetic leadership of Mr. L.T.C. Rolt, a band of dedicated enthusiasts organized the Talyllyn Preservation Society, and set about convincing the executors that railway had a future as a tourist line operated by volunteers.

Theirs was a daunting task: there was at the time no precedent for a preserved railway, or a preserved industrial or transportation facility of any kind for that matter.  Yet with the encouragement of Sir Henry's widow, the estate consented to a one-year trial of the idea.  A successful 1951 season led to a continuation of the arrangement, and ultimately to a long-term partnership.  The Talyllyn thus became the world's first successful operating railway preservation scheme.

Today the Talyllyn Railway still runs under its original parliamentary charter, with the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society and the Jones estate sharing control of the operating corporation through a complicated but wholly amicable legal arrangement.  With the first train of 1998, the Railway will celebrate its 132nd year of continuous operation-- and its 47th as the world's oldest preserved railway.

 


 

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