The Welsh Highland Railway was formed in 1922 from the merger of two companies - the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (NWNGR) and the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway (PBSSR) (successor to the Portmadoc, Croesor and Beddgelert Tram Railway).
The Croesor tramway had run from Portmadoc since 1863 up into the CroesorValley and the slate quarries in this area. This was a horse worked line laid to a nominal 2 foot gauge.
The NWNGR had originally built a 1 ft 11½ in (597 mm) gauge line from a junction with the standard gauge London and North Western Railway line at Dinas to Bryngwyn with a branch from Tryfan Junction via Waunfawr to Llyn Cwellyn (Snowdon Ranger). The line was opened in 1877 and was extended to South Snowdon (Rhyd Ddu) in 1881, a total of 9 miles. This closed to passengers in 1916, but goods traffic continued up to its absorption by the WHR in 1922.
In 1902, the newly-formed PBSSR took over the failed Portmadoc, Croesor and Beddgelert Tram Railway with the aim of extending it to South Snowdon slate quarry in the Nant Gwynant Pass. Work was abandoned by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, although the tunnels through the Aberglaslyn Pass were mostly complete. By 1921, the NWNGR, the PBSSR, the Snowdon Mountain Railway and the Festiniog Railway were in common ownership and controlled by the owners of the Aluminium Corporation and the North Wales Power and Traction Company with headquarters at Dolgarrog.
In 1922 the order was made to create the Welsh Highland Railway (WHR), mainly funded by loans from the Ministry of Transport and Carnarvonshire County Council in the hope that it would help regenerate the area's economy and keep struggling quarries open. McAlpine & Sons were contracted to refurbish the existing lines and complete the link between Rhyd Ddu and Croesor Junction, thus creating a railway that ran from Dinas to join the Festiniog Railway at Porthmadog and which was opened in 1923.
As the modern WHR includes an extension north to Caernarfon, it is worth mentioning that the section of line between Dinas and Caernarfon was constructed as standard gauge in the 1860s by the Caernarvonshire Railway (later the LNWR) on parts of the Nantlle tramway (a 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge horse drawn tramway, that survived, albeit truncated at Talysarn until the 1960s).
The WHR venture was not a success and the hoped-for revenue from quarry traffic never materialised. When these hopes were dashed, the railway turned to another market; tourism. The owners tried to attract visitors by opening the first narrow gauge buffet car and by painting their carriages bright colours, including yellow and blue. However, these ideas did not work because the early tourist industry did not provide sufficient visitors to make the railway pay, especially during the Depression. The last passenger train ran on 5 September 1936 and the Welsh Highland Railway was formally closed on 1 June 1937. The majority of the track was removed for scrap during the Second World War.
Various legal manoeuvres followed this, including a serious application to turn the route into a long-distance footpath. Although these plans were ultimately unfruitful, they ensured that the trackbed was kept mainly intact, rather than sold off bit by bit, which would have made restoration much more difficult and potentially expensive. However, some parts such as the sites of Rhyd Ddu and Dinas stations were sold off.
Two locomotives were inherited from the predecessor companies: Moel Tryfan and Russell. When these proved insufficient, Baldwin 590 was acquired by H.F. Stephens and several Festiniog Railway locomotives saw regular use on the Welsh Highland Railway throughout its entire pre-closure existence from 1923 to 1937. 590 was planned to be part of a larger fleet to replace Moel Tryfan and Russell but it gained so little popularity that Stephens never bought another. By 1936 Moel Tryfan was out of use at Boston Lodge. When Russell and 590 were withdrawn the following year, they were placed in Dinas shed, but when the Second World War broke out, the Ministry of War came to see about appropriating them for the war effort. After some examination of the engines and questionning of those who had worked them, Russell (regarded as a good engine) was removed for further use, and 590 (seen as an unreliable, rough rider with difficult controls and inadequate adhesion) was broken up at Dinas. Despite the unpopularity of 590, the WHR (Porthmadoc) is currently refurbishing a similar Baldwin to act as a replica.
During the ownership of the WHR by the FR, Moel Tryfan and Russell were cut down to allow them to traverse the FR to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Moel Tryfan proved suitable, but Russell, even in cut down form, was not low or narrow enough to fit the Ffestiniog's the loading gauge. It has now been restored to its original form. Notably, 590 retained its original form until its demise.
Welsh Highland Railway Time Line by Peter Johnson
Nantlle Railway Act of Parliament, authorised tramway from Nantlle valley to Caernarfon built 3ft 6in gauge, horse worked
Opened for goods
Opened for passengers
Croesor Tramway (4½ miles) built from Croesor quarries to terminus by BritanniaBridge, Portmadoc; horse tramway
Croesor & Portmadoc Railway Act of Parliament incorporated Croesor Tramway and authorised extension to Portmadoc harbour
Nantlle Railway vested in Carnarvonshire Railway
Carnarvon – Pen y Groes section converted to standard gauge
North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways Act of Parliament, authorised Moel Tryfan Undertaking (Dinas – Bryngwyn and Rhyd Ddu) and General Undertaking (Portmadoc – Betws y Coed); latter not built, abandoned 1876
Dinas – Quellyn (temporary station, 6½ miles), Tryfan Junction – Bryngwyn (2½ miles) opened
James Cholmondley Russell appointed receiver
Services extended to Snowdon Ranger (7½ miles)
Services extended to Rhyd Ddu (9½ miles)
Rhyd Ddu renamed Snowdon, attracting tourists who had previous gone to Llanberis
Snowdon Mountain Railway opened and the tourists returned to Llanberis; 1893-96 were the NWNGR’s best years for passengers
NWNGR (Beddgelert Light Railway Extension) Order made
Portmadoc, Beddgelert & South Snowdon Railway Act of Parliament, authorised 2ft gauge electric railway from Borth y Gest to Nant Gwynant to serve South Snowdon slate quarry and hydro-electric power station also authorised, incorporated Croesor & Portmadoc Railway
PBSSR Act of Parliament, agreements with NWNGR and extensions, electricity generated powers divested to North Wales Power Company
NWNGR Light Railway Order, power to be worked as a light railway and by electricity
PBSSR construction started in the AberglaslynPass and around Beddgelert and abandoned, incomplete, but Nant Gwynant hydro-electric power station completed; still generating.
PBSSR orders 2-6-2T locomotive for use by NWNGR; delivered in June, the locomotive was named Russell
PBSSR (Beddgelert Light Railway Extension) Order
PBSSR (Light Railway Extension at Carnarvon) Order
PBSSR (Light Railway) Order, electrification, extension to Betws y Coed
Local authorities make light railway order application for powers to take over PBSSR and NWNGR and complete the railway between Portmadoc and Carnarvon; application put into limbo by the war
NWNGR to Rhyd Ddu became moribund, Bryngwyn branch operated as required
LRO application reactivated with the intention of obtaining government grants to fund it
Welsh Highland Light Railway Order made, including powers for extending the line from Dinas to Carnarvon
Contract awarded to the McAlpine construction family, to refurbish the NWNGR, to make the Croesor Tramway suitable for locomotives and to complete the railway between Croesor Junction and Rhyd Ddu. £75,000 capital was loaned by the Ministry of Transport (half) and the local authorities
NWNGR section re-opened
WHR (Amendment) Order made to cover diversions in Beddgelert forest, where the original gradients had been designed for electric traction, at Bryn y Felin, to avoid building an embankment across a meadow, and at Nantmor, to eliminate a level crossing with a bridge
WHR opened from Portmadoc to Dinas. The first train from Portmadoc was hauled by the FR’s 0-4-0STT Princess; the first train from Dinas was hauled by the FR’s 0-4-0STT Prince.
Stephens appointed receiver (He had the same responsibility for the WHR that he had for the FR)
The FR takes a lease on the WHR after the local authorities had threatened to close it. Passenger services operated for tourists on a seasonal basis
FR suspended all traffic from 1 June
Track and other assets requisitioned for the war effort
Winding-up summons issued
Welsh Highland Railway Society formed
Welsh Highland Light Railway (1964) Ltd registered to acquire and restore the WHR, opened negotiations with the liquidator and agreed £750 price for assets
Liquidator died, assets transferred to the official receiver
Former Carnarvonshire Railway closed, trackbed subsequently converted to be a cycle track
Site of standard gauge Beddgelert siding, formerly interchange with Croesor Tramway and WHR, acquired as base for reconstruction
Beddgelert Siding Light Railway Order made
First trains operated on Beddgelert siding
FR discovered to have made secret bid for WHR trackbed and offered to transfer it to Gwynedd County Council in exchange for an undertaking that it would not be used for railway purposes
FR undertakes to restore WHR in its entirety, including the link to the FR at Porthmadog and the extension to Caernarfon from Dinas
Gwynedd County Council applies for court order to purchase trackbed for £1. FR counterclaims to have transfers of WHR shares and debentures validated, prevent sale to the county council and to obtain approval to purchase the assests. Judge stays the council application to give the FR, or anyone else, chance to acquire assets by means of a Light Railway Transfer Order.
Public inquiry into competing transfer order applications made by FR and Gwynedd County Council (Includes applications for LRO for Caernarfon-Dinas section.) Recommendation in favour of county council/Welsh Highland Light Railway (1964) Company proposal overturned by minister in favour of FR.
Welsh Highland Railway (Transfer) Order made, enabling the FR to make an agreement with the official receiver to acquire the WHR assets
Caernarfon Railway Light Railway Order made, the last LRO made in England and Wales
Construction started at Dinas
Dinas-Caernarfon services commenced (3 miles)
Public inquiry into Transport & Works Order application. Recommendation in favour of refusal overturned by minister in favour of FR.
WHR assets transferred to the FR for £1
WHR Transport & Work Order made
Dinas-Waunfawr services commenced (7 miles)
Visit by HRH Prince Charles, Waunfawr – Rhyd Ddu
Waunfawr-Rhyd Ddu services commenced (12 miles)
Welsh Assembly Government announces £5 million contribution to £10.75 million project to complete WHR. Appeal launched in Steam Railway - £1.8 million raised by 2008.
Track materials delivered from Poland and India
Track laying commenced at Rhyd Ddu
The first of three steel truss bridges installed at Bryn y Felin
Nantmor road bridge installed
Network Rail flat crossing installed in Porthmadog
WHLR opened Traeth Mawr extension (600m)
Sponsors’ train to Cwm Cloch, near Beddgelert (16 miles)
Hunslet 0-4-0ST Velinheli first steam locomotive to reach Beddgelert since 1937
Beyer, Peacock 0-4-4-0T K1 first Garratt to steam to Beddgelert
FR Trustees’ train to AberglaslynPass (18 miles)
Deck of Pont Croesor installed
First tram rails laid in Porthmadog
Sponsors’ train to Hafod y Llyn (19 miles)
FR Trustees train to Pont Croesor (21 miles)
Track laying completed and WHR connected to FR – ‘golden bolt’ ceremony in Porthmadog
First Porthmadog-Dinas empty-stock working, using the Britannia bridge, Snowdon Street and Network Rail crossings for the first time
NGG16 Garratt No 87, the first WHR steam locomotive to be transferred from the FR to the WHR by rail
Official opening to Beddgelert
Sponsors’ trains to Network Rail crossing
Official opening to Hafod y Llyn
Visit by HM the Queen, Caernarfon – Dinas
Official opening to Pont Croesor
Sponsors’ trains, first Caernarfon-Porthmadog-Caernarfon workings
First trains to Hafod y Llyn from Porthmadog
First Caernarfon – Porthmadog (and vv) public trains
Completion of Rhyd Ddu – Porthmadog section commemorated