Monday, 4 August 2014

The Welsh Tour Part III: The Welsh Highland Railway...

Hi there everyone. And so, we had made it: the final connection. The FR had brought us to Blaenau, the main line to Bangor, the bus to Caernarfon and now we were making the final trip back to Porthmadog via the Welsh Highland Railway. Like the FR, I had never had the chance to visit the WHR before so was very pleased that we could manage both in a day. Having spent some time in Caernarfon (where the WHR begins), we made our way over to the station before purchasing our single journey tickets. The train was due in around 3:30pm ready for a 4:05pm departure. The 25-mile journey would take just over 2 hours to complete: what an achievement. The rather basic station at Caernarfon stood quiet in the warm afternoon sun when we arrived...
Right on time, an echoing African-style chime whistle, commonly referred to as 'The Elephant Blaster', was heard in the distance. Just then, the peace was shattered by the arrival of one of the huge Garrett locomotives. This example is No87, built in 1937 by Cockerill's of Belgium. She is an NGG16, employing two power bogies which give her a wheel arrangement of 2-6-2+2-6-2. The NGG16 class consisted of a run of 34 engines of 2ft gauge, weighing in at around 60 tons. Despite their huge weight for a narrow gauge engine, due to their amount of wheels they could manage a very low axle-load, giving them a large route availability for such a large locomotive. Furthermore, their huge boilers spanning the two bogies gave them great steaming abilities whilst the articulated nature of the engine allowed them to round tight curves where rigid-framed engines of their size would not be able to work. With a boiler pressure of 180psi, the class made for a very powerful 4-cylinder locomotive which was very popular. No87 herself spent her working life, like her sisters, in Africa and was restored at the FR's Boston Lodge Works. She returned to steam in 2009. The WHR has five NGG16's of which three are operational. One has been used for spares whilst the other is in store...
A close up of the large boiler on NGG16 No87...
Having uncoupled from the well-loaded train, No87 ran into the loop at Caernarfon to take water and for the fireman to remake up the fire. The driver oiled the Garrett round heavily during this break...
"The Garrett Takes A Drink"
Eddie was very pleased that his trip had been a success, so far. He had initially feared ridicule if one of our connections had failed and we had missed the Garrett departure. Luckily for him, we made it...
The WHR as it is today was completed in 2011. It is owned and operated by the Ffestiniog Railway, hence sharing the terminus station of Porthmadog with them. During its 25-mile journey the WHR takes in 13 stations of varying sizes. Our train today departed on time at 16:05 behind No87. The train was very well loaded but mostly towards the rear of the train, meaning that Eddie & I had a coach to ourselves almost directly behind the Garrett. The engine got the lengthy train underway easily (not surprising really) and we were soon tearing along the scenic 2ft gauge track. Having passed through Dinas (the engineering base of the line and around 2.7 miles from Caernarfon), the engine began to accelerate across the flat plains before beginning the gradual but nevertheless steep ascent towards Rhyd Dhu, the summit of the line. The on-train buffet service was again in operation and we enjoyed a cuppa' whilst surveying the wonderful scenery...
"The Route of the WHR"
I am very much an engineman. What I mean by that is I am much happier driving or firing the locomotive rather than sitting back and enjoying the scenery. However, no matter what your preference, you cannot help but be in awe of what has been achieved here. The train takes you through completely unspoilt scenery which is ever changing. You speed across flat green fields before climbing through wooded cuttings and then steaming through valley's and along hillsides at the foot of Snowdon. The train is ever climbing towards Rhyd Dhu, but the Garrett takes it all in her stride. The engine did give us a few well meaning chuffs but really, she has a lot more to give. The scenery from the train window was just fantastic...
Around every corner there were spectacular views. On a clear day like this we even spotted a little steam engine descending from the summit station of the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Without doubt, if we could see them, then they could probably see the snaking train of the Garrett. On the tight bends where the Garrett's come into their own, 87 popped into sight...
Meanwhile the train snaked along behind her...
Just one of the many spectacular views taken from the WHR train...
After an almost breath taking journey up to Rhyd Dhu, the Garrett paused for water. Sister NGG16 No143 also passed us here with the final returning Caernarfon bound train of the day. Here is a view of the large footplate of the Garrett, where a Bala engine is made to look like a toy...
Here, the Garrett stands under the blue skies whilst the driver fills the water tank, carried over the front bogie for adhesion purposes as well as practicality, for the rest of the trip ahead...
From Rhyd Dhu it is pretty much downhill all the way. No87 barely murmured once the train was underway. The WHR trip is probably unbelievably impressive the other way, but the FR is downhill the other way and so our version of the round-trip seemed the best. The amount of height lost by the WHR over just a few miles is tremendous. The train snakes down through cuttings and wooded glades and you can sometimes see the tail of your train above you as you've taken such a sharp, downgrade curve that it is still up there! Its just amazing. The Garrett's must work damn hard going back up that's for sure! Having descended for a good while the train began once again tearing across the flat plains, bound for Porthmadog. Having passed the small Welsh Highland Heritage Railway on the right-hand side, the train slowed to pass-over Britannia Bridge. This is the road bridge in the centre of Porthmadog and is the only WHR access to the FR station. The train snakes over onto the centre of the road bridge and the trains take up the place of the traffic as they wind their way over into the station: its quite an experience... 
"Across The Road We Go"
Having held up the traffic for a short while, No87 and her lengthy train came to rest in the station at Porthmadog after a beautiful journey. We couldn't have picked better weather...
The friendly crew aboard No87 invited us up onto the Garrett for a look around the cab. The driver commented that the Garrett's are the only locomotives that can handle peak summer services on the WHR, due to their size and power. If a Garrett isn't available, then the FR engines have to be double-headed in their place. The FR is the same though, they rely on the Double Fairlie's being available for the heavy summer work...
The view ahead aboard No87. Note the water tank which looks to be another engine sat in front...
"Wouldn't Mind Driving This!"
The Garrett's are just huge. Its amazing to think that No87 weighs much more than "Sir Gomer"! It had been an amazing experience on the WHR and I am so pleased that I have now 'done it'. The line is just brilliant and the scenery, arguably, is second to none. Its just fantastic and words and pictures cannot really describe it on a day like today. Just go and have a ride! Cheers guys, Sam...

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