A New Railway
by Stephen Jupp, Fireman
It’s September 2008, and I’ve just responded to an email from the Ffestiniog Railway (FR) confirming that I will attend the last of four crew training weekends at the end of March. I am a (volunteer) Fireman on the first 12 miles of the Rheilffordd Eryri (RhE), and crew training is required for the second 12 miles before the phased opening.
Rheilffordd Eryri (the Welsh Highland Railway) runs 40 Km from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, of which the first 20 Km from Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu have been open for some years. Over the last five years, the FR has rebuilt the second 20 Km, again almost entirely on the old trackbed, from Rhyd Ddu to Porthmadog.
There’s been lots of speculation about the new section of railway, as it contains several interesting operational features. There’s the five miles of continuous 1 in 40 gradient, four tunnels, three S-bends, and Beddgelert station itself on the 1 in 40 (the station on the steepest gradient in the UK). It’s interesting that many people have talked about the difficulty of going up the 1 in 40, but slipping to a stand is not actually worrying, as you can’t have a bad accident at 0 mph!
I suppose our biggest fear has been stopping on the 1 in 40 in adverse weather conditions, closely followed by concerns about a clutch of busy crossings, the difficulties of working a station on 1 in 40 and the challenge of the long tunnel (known descriptively as T4 and also on the 1 in 40). Working ten car trains is challenging!
Over the months between signing up for the training weekend in September and setting off at the end of March, a deluge of paperwork descends: new sections in the rule book, a new authorised route and speed limits, route maps, timing and train reporting changes, operating route descriptions, test train running manual, endless discussion papers on this and that, and a record of experience and qualification for the new sections. It’s a serious business and I’m quite nervous about it.
Of course on the existing section there are significant segments of 1 in 40. But it’s tempered by lesser gradients in between. Will I be able to build on my experience with oil and coal to make the loco steam safely for the driver on that continuous 1 in 40?
So I learn as much of the route as I can on paper. I study the new train reporting and learn the phonetic alphabet. I absorb the rule changes. I look at the route photos and descriptions. And worry quietly.
Start of Training
The first day of the training arrives. Thirty of us start with a site induction at Boston Lodge, where we will prepare our loco for trains on the RhE which originate in Porthmadog. We look at the ground frame at Pen Cob where our loco is let out onto the main line to go to Porthmadog to collect its train. Then lectures on the rules, route and loco operation follow. We look at the ground frame at Harbour station, where trains originate and terminate with an interesting shunt – until the widening is done. Finally a walk through the Cross Town Rail Link (CTRL) with discussions of the tramway at Britannia Bridge and the other crossings, including Cae Pawb, the flat crossing of Network Rail.
I’m beginning to feel more comfortable. Firstly my pre-study has paid off, so there are no big surprises. Secondly the discussions are thoughtful and helpful, with all of us contributing in the way of the old Mutual Improvement Classes (MIC) that enginemen held.
An Unexpected Challenge
That evening I get a call from the loco superintendent. Due to some operating issues with the service train for the next day’s training , we have to take a coal fired steam loco instead of the diesel. Please would I fire. Gulp. Actually it’s a great compliment. I’m qualified on coal and oil, but I haven’t fired this particular loco before – it’s the newly restored (from “Barry Wreck” condition) No. 87. So it’s an early start at 0630 the next morning.
When I arrive for the second training day, 87 is cold, as it was not expected out. So usual checks: regulator closed, mid gear, cocks open, handbrake on, water levels in the glasses. The boiler is full, so knowing I have many other locomen arriving to help, I leave the rest for them to do, and get on with cleaning and coaling the grate, finding and putting in the wood, and getting my paraffin rags ready.
The others start to arrive and the loco gets pulled out of the shed by the yard shunter, Conway Castle. I delegate filling the water tank, checking the sanders and sand boxes, cleaning the paint and brass, and get on with lighting up.
As 87 is cold, she won’t come up in time for departure, so we use the diesel Vale of Ffestiniog to take us up to Waunfawr. There we take water and send the diesel back to Dinas for its standby duties for the service train. Firing up to Rhyd Ddu on the familiar route gives me a thrill and restores my confidence even more.
Details of the New Route
At Rhyd Ddu I am replaced by a fireman who knows the new route and I retire to the open car with my pasty (heated on the gauge frame) and thermos to learn the route myself. Each car contains a senior driver or controller who already knows the route and points out salient features. At the more important crossings we stop to explore, look at the sight lines for crossing users, and be reminded of the likely hazards and train handling expected.
For example there are two crossings at Mellionen Forest Campsite with Permanent Speed Restrictions (PSRs) where the back of the train has to be out of the speed limit before you can accelerate, not the more usual crossing speed restrictions where you can accelerate once the loco is on the crossing. And at Beddgelert, the loco must remain on the train until the guard gives permission, to ensure the handbrake is applied before the loco leaves the train.
It is exciting to travel on the new route as far as Pont Croesor where there are crowds of people at the RSPB reserve looking at the Ospreys, commemorated in beautiful marquetry in the newly built observation car. There are stunning views on the Traeth looking towards the mountains, the views in the Aberglaslyn pass, the village of Beddgelert, the “another railway going the other way” views as we sweep up the S-bends, the awe-inspiring music as the loco pounds up the unrelenting gradient towards the summit. And all that before you get to the equally stunning mountain, quarry, lake, river, farmland, seaside and castle views on the existing section!
I take over from my relief again at Rhyd Ddu and fire down to disposal at Dinas. It’s interesting to see the remains of what was used on that fierce climb. The fire was banked up to the door at the back, and sloped away to the front of the firebox. A big fire. But then it’s a big climb from 0 – 650 feet.
The remainder of the week is test trains (required by HMRI before passenger running is sanctioned). The test trains also start at Dinas, run up to Rhyd Ddu before the service train, then run four return trips Rhyd Ddu to Beddgelert. That’s just under four miles of the 1 in 40 each way. Three days it was diesel, and Monday and Friday steam. Most of this is spent in the carriages learning the route.
Towards the end of the week, other (non-operating) staff, like buffet crew, café, shop, booking office, carriage works, PW, loco works, buildings, and office come on the train so that they know what they are working with. I am interested to find myself in the role of trainer, and by the second day can do it all from memory. With some relief I realise that I actually know the route really well.
For my own learning I also get to work the diesel and fire one trip on a coal loco and two on an oil loco. The coal is challenging, as the turn round times on the test trains are very tight. You don’t get long to prepare the fire for the hill.
On the Monday train with K1 (coal) we had a bit of a nasty trip, as the rails were greasy with mist leading to lots of slipping. The driver commented that his left arm felt longer from all the regulator adjustments to control the slips. I had my head down shovelling almost continuously. The summit level feels like paradise when you get there.
We arrived at the top with an inch of water and without a stop for a blow up. Having seen my far more experienced colleague on another trip struggling just as I did, meant I was proud of that. It was very comforting to succeed in adverse conditions. I look forward to improving on that performance as we get used to the route.
On the Friday train with 143 (oil) we had two good trips. Watching the road backwards and the chimney (an essential with oil firing) forwards was a challenge. Being a test and training run, I had a third man to look out for me, so no danger. On the second trip I discovered that having the oil latch fully open and controlling the fire with just the atomiser worked brilliantly. The atomiser settings varied from 140 psi to 80 psi depending upon how hard the loco was working. Of course I used the blower to clear the smoke for short interruptions, such as slips or crossing slacks.
I also worked out that leaving Rhyd Ddu with three quarters of a glass of water and maintaining that to the bottom of the 1 in 40 climb to the summit at Pitts Head avoided priming there. Pop the injector on as we top the rise for the short flat section before what feels like falling off a mountain on the 1 in 40, and there is sufficient water for there to be over half a glass after we go over.
On the way back, it’s comfortable to have about two inches of water at the summit, so that you don’t prime on the 1 in 40 down on the other side, and it gives you room to cool the boiler.
My conclusions? It was a frightening prospect before the training. After the training, i’s just another bit of route with its own challenges and rewards. The line and speed limits are so well laid out and considered that it really isn’t an issue. Just like the existing route, it will take time to be so familiar with it that your head comes up and you disengage from firing automatically when there are points in the route where the driver needs your eyes. I’m nearly there already, but good teamwork will ensure that it happens. I asked my driver to call if I was about to miss a lookout point.
What about the rest of the route from Beddgelert to Porthmadog? We’ll still need training, but it is not nearly as difficult as the Rhyd Ddu to Beddgelert section. Actually it will be easier working a train onto the 1 in 40 rather than starting on it, as we have to do when terminating at Beddgelert.
I take my metaphorical hat off to the civil engineers and track layers. It’s a superb railway built in the most challenging conditions. But then that’s why it is such a joy to ride.
Stunning scenery, At seat buffet service, Pullman car
The Rhyd Ddu to Beddgelert section opened on 7th April 2009
The Beddgelert to Hafod y Llyn section opened on 21st May 2009
The Hafod y Llyn to Pont Croesor section opened on My 2010
The Pont Croesor to Porthmadog section opened on 30th October 2010
20 km extension
12 new steel bridges
87 other bridges and culverts
55 level crossings
1 new station
2 station extensions
1 crossing of Network Rail on the level
Newly restored loco (2-6-2 + 2-6-2 Garratt – same power as a Standard 3)
New service car (guard, loo, buffet)
New Pullman observation car