Brian Janes draws together the various plans in the 1920s to economise on working the new Welsh Highland and the struggling Festiniog Railway through the use of pioneering traction
In 1923 after decades of planning the Welsh Highland Railway was approaching completion under the direction of a newly combined management with the Festiniog Railway. Henry Joseph Jack, managing director of the Dolgarrog based Aluminium Corporation, had over the period since the end of the First World War, obtained control of these North Wales railways. As Chairman he was the moving force in achieving the opening of the Welsh Highland on 1 June 1923. But the new management was already having cold feet about the cost of running a year round passenger service. There was a realisation that the railways could be kept afloat by the slowly foundering slate industry and a limited summer tourist traffic but buses were already creaming off daily passenger traffic. The Festiniog was already in the financial mire and the Welsh Highland seemed likely to follow.
Although the new railway had been planned and built without benefit of his advice, Colonel Stephens was hovering in the wings and had been noted in North Wales as early as 1918. With the anticipated completion of Welsh Highland construction work by McAlpines on 31 March 1923, together with oversight by the railway engineers Douglas Fox & Co, a new engineer was needed. Jack turned to Stephens who was appointed on 1 April.
Earlier in 1923 Stephens had introduced the first set of Ford railmotors (adaptations of a Ford (model T) one ton truck chassis with a bus body) on the standard gauge Kent and East Sussex Railway. Despite teething troubles they had proved very promising. Jack was impressed and wrote to G E Tyrwhitt, the General Manager, on 27th April to study them for use on off peak trains. Tyrwitt acted quickly, entering into discussions with the local Ford Dealer, Charles Hughes and Sons and finding the proposal feasible for the 2ft gauge. Interestingly, the price for the chassis dropped from £170 list to £145 and then £115 (starter £15 extra) - a clear sign of Ford’s competitiveness at this time. Hughes were aware of the Kent experience and that the Lynton Wheel and Tyre Co, Longford Bridge, Warrington had supplied the necessary flanged wheels. A scheme, including an outline drawing, was prepared. With opening and summer services imminent however action lapsed, probably not helped by Tyrwitt’s retirement in August and his replacement by a Stephens appointment, the capable Captain May. The proposal was not however forgotten, as we shall see. There seems incidentally to be no evidence that there was any proposal to move goods by flange wheeled Ford trucks as suggested by Boyd in his standard history.
There are references in the correspondence to an earlier proposal to use Drewry railcars, after Tyrwitt's appointment in 1922 but before Stephens’s appointment. These long established light railcars were fully engineered for rail use and Stephens had bought one in 1921 for the Weston Clevedon and Portishead Railway were it was a considerable success. It is not certain what, if any, hand Stephens had in the original proposal but Drewry cars certainly continued to figure in planning discussions throughout 1923 /24. They were however considered rather expensive and were probably not adopted for financial reasons.
Meanwhile it was decided, in June 1923, to order a 40 hp Simplex Tractor from the Kent Construction & Engineering Company of Ashford, Kent who were, to use a modern term, re-engineering such engines for civilian use after return from the WW1 trench railways, for which hundreds had been built. This cost £350 (£110 more than the Baldwin Steam locomotive bought in the same month) and was for use in shunting Portmadoc and Minffordd yardsto where it was at first confined by Stephens .It left Ashford on 17th July and was expected to release a small Festiniog engine for use elsewhere. Extravagant in petrol consumption she was, on Stephens’ recommendation, converted to paraffin (TVO) operation. It is worth noting here at a year later a Simplex clone, built by Kent Construction, was delivered to Stephens’ Rye and Camber Tramway where it successfully took over virtually all services on that level line.
Ever on the lookout for cheaper traction, Jack’s attention was turned mid-November to Muir Hill Fordson locomotives. These were primitive adaptations (‘not pretty’ as Jack admitted) of the then modern Fordson agricultural tractor, a well-engineered vehicle, for rail use. For the narrow gauge the motor unit was mounted on a heavy cast 4-wheeled chassis with chain drive from the original drive sprocket. The great attraction as always was cost, as they were £100 cheaper than the Simplex. They could also burn paraffin. Jack proposed to buy four to take over the whole running of the Welsh Highland and four more to handle winter traffic on the Festiniog. May rapidly poured cold water on this somewhat naive proposal. They were without adequate reverse gears, continuous brakes, suitable couplings or cover from the elements. They were also slow. The Simplex had proved good for level work but, even at twice the power, could only cope with 2 coaches on a gradient. He counter-proposed that a little bit more money be spent to re-equip with 3 or 4 railmotors with trailers for winter traffic, with steam confined to summer and goods haulage. Although he referred to the success of the recently introduced Ford set on the Colonel’s Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway; there is still the hint that Drewry cars were still in the frame. This proposal was fully costed but the conclusion was that potential savings did not justify the expenditure.
Jack still wanted a Muir Hill, although May tried to steer him to a Simplex. However the next April Jack arranged for the Aluminium Corporation, who had presumably bought one in the interim, to loan it for trials and it arrived at Blaenau Festiniog on 9 April. Trails took place in early May . The tractor showed up the anticipated problems, being barely able to pull ‘an ordinary guards van‘ from Beddgelert to South Snowdon (Rhyd Ddu). Later in the month it was being tried to power the machinery at Boston Lodge. Now Stephens weighed in against it, advocating the use of the Simplex, especially as it might haul existing, rather than special light, coaches plus a Tangye oil engine (which was subsequently bought with his own private money) for the works. Jack would not let go, advocating short trains and lighter coaches. In a further trial the Muir Hill ran very well from Blaenau Ffestiniog to South Snowdon with a small van but could only return to Beddgelert at 2 ¼ mph because of its inadequate reverse.
These poor results were reported to the Board in June and the unit returned to Dalgarrog. Jack still persisted, finding variants on the Fordson tractor adaptation by the International Motor Company, the Edwards Motor Car Company, the North Western Motor Company and H E Taylor and Co.. These multiple suggestions only came to an end when, in the face of shareholder disappointment at financial results, Jack resigned in November 1924. In his advocacy of these light tractors, Jack had shown a lack of grasp of the practicalities of the railways’ operations but was driven by the desperate need to find affordable economies of working.
Colonel Stephens took over as Chairman and Managing Director from January 1925. Ever the practical railwayman and with limited resources he turned again to the Simplex design, and had in October advocated two for the Welsh Highland traffic. May was in favour reporting;
''…we have had the present one for about 12 months, and it has been used for shunting— nearly all the time at Minffordd. When we first had it, it did not entire satisfaction, but, as the men got to understand it better, it has proved rather useful. … the cost of working…is £6/10/- against £10/14/- for a steam locomotive''
Trials with two coaches between Portmadoc and Dinas were arranged and are thought to have been successful but a vacuum brake was needed. However finances were desperate and the winter Welsh Highland passenger service had been stopped in December.
Later, when the opportunity, arose Stephens, though Honeywell Brothers- the agents he had dealt with for the Simplex- bought a slightly larger ex French government 50hp American Baldwin tractor for the Festiniog at what seemed to be a bargain £248 13s 4d; a half share was taken by the WHR as they list a payment for £124 6s 8d for it in that year. Put to work shunting at Minffordd and, together with the Simplex, it was also used to replace horse traction on part of the Creosor Tramway. It proved too heavy for the light track there and was returned to shunting duties. The need for economical winter services remained, for limited services had been restored and run in the 1925 /26 and 1927/28. In 1928 the Baldwin was fitted, somewhat crudely, with a 'Reavel', agricultural style vacuum pump and piping to provide and continuous brake for service on the Welsh Highland. Although no records are known to survive as to its actual use it probably did so and it was certainly used as a rescue engine for passenger trains on occasion.
However the Baldwin had feet of clay. Probably unbeknown to Stephens the American Society of Civil Engineers had in 1920 severely criticised the design. The actual petrol motors, mostly built by the Pittsburgh Model Engine Co, needed frequent repairs to the point where the Army engineering regiments asked for new motors. There were also problems with clutch and gear cases. The poor spring design was also criticised as were the long overhangs which made its riding lively at service speeds .The Baldwin had became much worn and broke an axle in April 1929. It was criticised for heavy fuel consumption in the autumn and had a heavy motor overhaul that winter. Not as popular as the Simplex it seems to have been increasingly confined to the shed after Stephens’ death.
The Baldwin was replaced on Creosor duties by another lighter tractor, a 20hp Austro-Daimler. Stephens had this transferred to the Welsh Highland at nil cost in July 1925, after it had finished construction work on the recently completed North Devon and Cornwall Junction Railway. It probably worked regularly for a time and spares were delivered in August 1926.It was even tried out with a single passenger coach on 25th January 1928, possibly for use as a standby engine, but it was a failure. With Creosor traffic declining she was then used on shunting, but although she was transferred to the Festiniog in December 1928 she was out of use by 1929. Forgotten by management till an offer to purchase at £10 was made in May 1933, she was scrapped soon after.
In the summer of 1928 the Colonel received a bonus. Kerr Stuart was pioneering diesel engines, and the prototype tractor 60hp No 4415/1928 was lent for extended trials. Put to work on the Bryngwyn branch she was very successful and shown to the press. Fitted with a vacuum brake by Kerr Stuart she was, later in the year, put on the Welsh Highland winter passenger service. She worked this with some distinction and was indeed inspected by an LNER representative. The railways finally had a unit to do the work envisaged 5 years earlier, but it was only on loan! Transferred again in March 1929 to the more profitable work of moving slate at the bottom end of the Festiniog, she finally returned to Stoke in August. Stephens could not afford to buy her but was clearly impressed and was reported to have said on being asked for it back; ‘‘I thought you had given her to us’’
Financial problems had by now finally put an end to all these pioneering efforts as far as passenger services were concerned. The steam engines had been in disrepair since the War, and with excellent bus services from about 1920 onwards, passengers left in droves. There was now insufficient winter traffic to justify any service at all. Stephens had probably realised this at an early date, as he never revisited the railmotor proposals, even though these units were holding back the inevitable on three of his other railways. All winter services except the morning and evening quarrymen’s services on the Festiniog ceased on the 24th March 1930. Internal combustion could not, at that time, cope with the remaining summer passenger and mineral services and reverted to important but fringe activities like shunting. Thus employed the Simplex and Baldwin survived into preservation when, fitted with diesel engines, they proved invaluable on works trains and even occasional light passenger services. After years on sugar cane work in Mauritius the Kerr Stuart survived into preservation and is now back on the Festiniog / Welsh Highland. All are truly worthy survivors of notable pioneering efforts to economise on working and provide a service to the community.