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All hands on deck

Work to re-commission a charming 19th century Welsh railway is nearing completion.

This week, Network Rail announced a £30bn package rail upgrade.

But this does not cover all the UK's railways.

Abandoned 70 years ago, the Welsh Highland Railway (WHR) is being revived for a cost of £25M, around £1M per mile for the 600mm gauge route running from Caernarfon to Porthmadog.

The 19th century line ceased running in 1937 and was scrapped in 1942 for the war effort. The track bed was held in receivership until 1990, when the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways took over. Work to reinstate the line began in 1997, with funding from private donations and awards from the Welsh Assembly and the European Union.

What the project lacks in money it makes up for in enthusiasm, with a small army of volunteers working to make the project happen.

The line begins in Caernarfon, the first 5km fell out of use only in 1971 and is in good condition. Thereafter, things deteriorate – local people made their own use of the space over two generations. Compulsory Purchase Orders give the railway the right to regain its land back, but it did create a complex route through the land of a large number of farmers. But, the line has been making progress, and is now fully open to Rhyd Ddu – halfway and the highest point of the route.

"Engineering problems were primarily the deterioration of the land, which has gone fallow, flooded or collapsed," explains chief engineering manager Alasdair Stewart.

"There have also been problems with a large number of underbridges, most unused for decades," says Stewart. "The trains are taller than the original ones and there is not enough headroom. We had to go down and underpin the foundations and lower the track into the solid rock and anchor abutments," he says.

This presented difficulties where the route had to be kept to a maximum gradient of 1 in 40. A cutting near the village of Beddgelert was particularly tricky. "The cutting cost £100,000, with scaling and rock bolts. We needed to shore-off to preserve the gradient on the line."

John Sreeves, principal bridge engineer at Halcrow, has given his time since 1974. He helps with the bridges, and found a welcome donor in Network Rail. "We needed a new bridge at Betws Garmon but had no more money. We found old bridge beams in Sheffield. I measured them – they were 1m too short, but we selected the best ones and welded the remaining length."

Further down the line he has worked on the distinctive truss bridges which had to be replaced.

A contract signed in 1934 has proved extremely beneficial for the project. "In 1934, the local council leased much of the line, but agreed to maintain the bridges over the railways in return. This represents close to a £500,000 saving for us today," says Stewart.

The terminus in Portmadoc creates the most problems, and eats 10% of the total budget.

"It is an urban area, with urban issues. There is a crossing of a trunk road, problems with listed buildings, and reclamation of contaminated land. The Britannia Bridge is the most difficult, where we have a 50m-diameter turn – the tightest turn possible at this gauge – onto a trunk road," says Dave High, managing the cross-town route.

The signalling is, he says, "distinctly low-tech, but very reliable".

To volunteer, go to or to become a friend of the railway, visit


When complete, the Caernarfon to Porthmadog journey will take a leisurely 90 minutes and should alleviate congestion in the national park.

- Level crossings on average every 400m.

- The highest point is 196m

- Five full-time staff and one full-time volunteer

- So far, Arup, Symonds, NRG Engineering Services, and the in-house WHR team have completed design work, with contractors Carillion, Mowlem, Achnashean Contractors, Mulcair, Jones Bros and WHR.


Rail sourced from Poland, 19km of steel sleepers from India
Some wooden sleepers came from South African
Engines from South Africa
New carriages from Romania
Upgrade: The Welsh Highland Railway has been given a Ł25M boost to revive it, after being abandoned for 70 years

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