In April 2011 Wales's most ambitious new railway, the Welsh Highland Railway in Snowdonia, was completed by hundreds of volunteers who worked tirelessly for the love of steam.
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# It's a wonderful day for a ride on the train. #
April 2011, and Wales' latest railway is almost complete.
25 miles of a narrow gauge track
running through the stunning scenery of Snowdonia.
It's got to be one of the great mountain railways of the world.
It certainly will be when it's finished.
I like building railways, full stop.
I'm looking forward very much to it.
It'll be one of the nicest runs in Europe, I'm sure.
Supported by royalty and donations from around the world,
the Welsh Highland Railway has taken 15 years to build
and cost almost £30 million.
But it hasn't been an easy ride.
Many have objected to what they see as the defiling of a quiet valley
in the National Park.
The railway's here and we can't do anything about it.
We've got to work around the railway.
It won't succeed. The one before it didn't.
It's just toys for rich men.
But for the volunteers who do it for the love of steam,
it's a dream come true.
This is not an enthusiasts' railway.
This is a railway.
Built to carry slates from the mountainous quarries of Snowdonia to the port of Porthmadog,
the trains running on the original Welsh Highland were too small
to operate successfully on the steep gradients between Dinas, Waunfawr,
Rhyd Ddu, Beddgelert, Nantmor, Pont Coroesor and Porthmadog.
The railway went into receivership in 1927 and closed in 1937.
Some, though, like retired local farmer John Pritchard,
still remember it in its heyday.
I remember it being built when I was very, very young in the first place,
from Rhyd Ddu right through to Porthmadog.
They used to come up from the school at Beddgelert
for a weekend with my granny up the road there on...
I think it was the 3:00pm train.
Dropped at the little station and walked down to the farm.
I remember very well Miriam Roberts, she was about my age,
and she'd dress up in a Welsh costume
and she sold little souvenirs in the station in Beddgelert.
During the Second World War,
the railway was stripped of sleepers and tracks
as metal of any kind was a valuable commodity in the war effort.
The track bed was never sold off, but remained an entity,
incorporated into fields, farms and footpaths.
But the dream of resurrecting the railway held fast
and in 1996, after years of local controversy
and thanks to the personal intervention of Transport Minister John Prescott,
work finally began in Caernarfon.
Welcome to the launch of the Welsh Highland Railway project.
We're delighted to see you all.
Launching the construction of the railway
is something we've planned for for many years.
The two men closely associated with the planning
and execution of the project have become known as the two Mikes.
Mike Hart runs a manufacturing business in Yorkshire.
Mike Schumann is a successful businessman from Norfolk.
I like building railways, full stop.
This is a railway, which has been crying out to be rebuilt for years.
But the Welsh Highland Railway could never have been rebuilt
without its thousands of supporters and hundreds of volunteers.
People like Tony Murphy from Caernarfon.
It's just the enjoyment of coming out. The fresh air.
It's totally different from work.
We've got a mixture of people here.
The computer men, ex bank managers.
A good gang of lads.
What more do you want?
I'm a gas engineer with British Gas.
I haven't done any other job. That's where I've been all my working life.
So to get out and do something different is fantastic.
It was Thomas the Tank weekend and we'd gone with the boys.
There was a Welsh Highland caravan with a big banner, WHRS.
So he went and joined up.
He said he was going on a weekend, so I said,
"You're going with your WHRS?" And it stuck!
They go on trips and that, which he loves.
-It's nice and quiet...
-Get rid of me, yeah?.
Other volunteers have spent years working here in Boston Lodge Works.
This is the engineering heart of Ffestiniog Railway
where steam engines and railway carriages are built and maintained
under the beady eye of former speed cop, Tony Williams.
I had a lot of interest in the proposal to open the railway
from Porthmadog to Caernarfon or Caernarfon to Porthmadog.
and the fact they were looking to purchase steam locomotives
in South Africa to operate on the railway.
When the opportunity came, I and a few others went out to see
what we had agreed to buy and had been renovated in South Africa.
It was a very interesting experience!
The new steam railway needed steam engines and these were found
in Port Shepstone on South Africa's east coast.
The Beyer-Garratt locomotives that worked the Banana Express line
were probably the only ones in the world still capable of working
the steep and difficult terrain of North Wales.
We had a person who worked here, Evan Davies,
who was due to take charge of the locomotives when they arrived,
he was out there gaining experience.
We're greasing up. We've got to grease every day.
These parts, they move so much,
that they'll wear if you don't grease them.
For the Welsh enthusiasts who made the trip to South Africa,
seeing steam locomotives on a working railway was a boy's own dream.
Before I forget, they're all wearing there...
Evan Davies' tutor on the Alfred County Railway
was Afrikaans train driver, George Van Niekerk.
That you can do with grease.
It's a great sense of achievement that we planned so long ago
to bring these engines back for the Welsh Highland Railway.
It's exciting. We're about to set off with these machines
up a railway, which has not had a passenger train for quite a number of years.
You know... It's great.
It's in my heart and it's a big day for us today.
By the time they've finished sorting the engines out
and the tank of water, because they don't carry enough water,
get all that sorted out and the train sorted out.
I'm not sure how many but there's a lot of empty wagons going up and the carriages behind,
but once we get all that on we'll be going up to the Banana Express Station
to pick up all the travel from the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway.
I remember Evan in the cab of the locomotive enjoying himself with a big smile on his face.
That's never disappeared.
Unfortunately, he always had a cigarette that went with his smile.
The thing in Africa was they'd been provided with a little swing-out seat
so the driver was quite comfortable sitting out,
feet dangling over the scrub.
We were just able to reach the break with one hand
and the regulator with the other. It was the cool breeze.
It's a huge undertaking to track down and transport two locomotives
from the South African veldt to the mountains of Wales
at a cost of well over £200,000.
And to everyone involved it's an amazing moment and a rebirth of their dream.
Welcome to Alfred County Railway.
Our own staff, John and Evan, have been here and have mucked in
and were working late yesterday to make sure that our engine could go on your train.
Huw and Mike have provided the money to pay for the locomotives to be rebuilt.
Mike, perhaps you would like to receive a small memento.
Loco number 143.
And, Huw, locomotive number 138.
Here's a small token of my appreciation to my tutor
for putting up with me.
It's that. That's my engine in Ffestiniog Railway.
David Lloyd George.
The special charter in South Africa was a huge success
but, sadly, for Evan Davies, it was to be his last involvement with the railway.
Within months of returning home, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Evan is missed, very much so.
When he passed away, the train passed the cemetery
and the train slowed and made a salute with the whistle.
A very moving experience.
I never thought I'd be sitting here today
with responsibility for the maintenance of the rolling stock
on both the Welsh Highland and the Ffestiniog Railway.
Perhaps it's just as well we don't know what's going to happen.
After nine months at sea, the South African Beyer-Garratts
finally arrived in the UK, ready for restoration work to begin.
It would be several more months before they reached the Welsh Highland Railway depot.
It's the gala weekend of the Ffestiniog Railway.
It's an event we hold every two years or so.
It gives people a chance to see aspects of the railway they wouldn't normally see.
This year, the main attraction are the scarlet locomotives from South Africa.
We've got the red one, which is in the condition it was in in Africa
and the green one has been refurbished.
With each step in the renovation dependant on securing new funds,
the track began to take shape, winding down from Caernarfon, through Dinas,
to the foot of Snowdon at Rhyd Ddu, the highest point of the track at 650ft above sea level.
I'd been coming up here from Llanelli, 129 miles,
and I don't get anything from them.
It's such a thrill, I've been waiting for this to happen for about three years.
It's nice to see it getting there.
I live in Oregon. I've worked there for the last 20 years
building the light rail system there.
Now I've retired I have time to come back and work on this.
The more volunteers we have, it's another way of finding match-funding
because every hour of volunteer work has a value placed on it
and that enables the Millennium Commission to release cash to us.
The volunteers are necessary and, hopefully, we can attract them
as we do on Ffestiniog
by giving them self-fulfilment in the jobs they do.
My name's Helen Streeves and I've come up with my husband,
who is a regular supporter of the railway.
We come up every... whenever we can, really.
It's very male orientated. We have good fun though.
Persuading her to come more often is the problem.
It's nice to get away from Swindon, really.
One, two, three.. come on!
The Black Hand Gang came about when everybody was getting black finger marks everywhere.
Of course, "This Black Hand Gang have been here again, like."
There were finger marks everywhere on the walls.
It's something that's stuck - it's the North Wales gang.
The other gang is the rest of the world gang - a miserable lot.
Our gang has to re-do what the rest of the world gang has done because they rush the job.
They don't even stop for a "panned"!
By 2003, the railway had reached the halfway mark.
But with work at a crucial stage, the Railway Inspectorate have not yet given permission
for Ffestiniog to run passenger services to Rhyd Ddu. But they made one exception.
It's a very special day today.
We have the Prince of Wales arriving in an hour's time.
He's going to ride on the section between Waunfawr and Rhyd Ddu.
This train we've got today is a 1920s train, really.
It's quite appropriate because it would have been typical
of the trains that started running in 1922-1923
when the Welsh Highland was first opened right through.
It's named after the then Prince of Wales
He was later King Edward VII.
It's a great honour that the Prince of Wales
has asked to visit the railway and see what we've been doing for so many years.
It's doubly so that he's requested to ride in the train part of the journey
and then join us on the engine from Snowdon Ranger to Rhyd Ddu.
Hopefully, he'll want to drive the engine himself and I look forward to it.
They're not difficult to drive. Perhaps a little bit of hype regarding it.
It's just an experience. I'm sure he's more than capable of driving the engine.
One or two of us were selected to stand at the front.
He shook hands with me personally and other prominent members of the track gang as well.
We had these badges made up especially.
We're called the Black Hand Gang because we get a lot of grease
on our fingers when we're assembling the track panels.
Not today. I cleaned my fingernails so it's all nice and clean now.
The privileges of being the Prince of Wales.
Prince Charles had let it be known that he would like to drive the loco on this historic day.
At Snowdon Ranger halt, Mike Hart was on hand with a clean overall.
It was very enjoyable for me. He was an excellent driver.
I was very impressed with the skills he has.
In fact, it might be worthwhile writing to St James' Palace and ask if he'd like to volunteer.
Since 1990, when the project kicked off,
this is the day when we achieve the halfway point in the reconstruction.
We can say, we've done that, we've built 20km of railway,
only another 20km to go.
# It's a wonderful day
# It's a wonderful day for a ride on the train. #
Within a few days, and with the Railway Inspectorate now on side,
passenger trains were allowed to run as far as Rhyd Ddu, generating much-needed cash.
Today has been an excellent day so far, and we're only halfway through.
I think we're going to make piles and piles of money. I hope we are anyway.
But not everyone was happy to see the railway reinstated.
Many locals still oppose the railway on environmental grounds.
The most important thing
is that it's taken a really quiet, secluded valley in Snowdonia
in a National Park where we're supposed to have quiet enjoyment of the countryside
and it's intruded with noise and bustle and things.
It's really been very difficult for us as a farm here.
It's divided our farm into two and made it very difficult
to gather sheep and to deal with the sheep.
How many people were tourists on there?
It was all railway people again, wasn't it?
They owe them a fortune in free tickets.
We've lost, because of this, good walking routes,
it's damaged wildlife, it's lost amenities.
This is going to be the seventh...
..tourist railway in the National Park.
It won't succeed. The one before it went bankrupt.
This money from the Lottery, the Millennium Fund,
has been given to something, which is just toys for rich men.
Despite all the opposition and legal wrangling, work continued,
thanks, in part, to Welsh and European grants,
gifts from supporters and the effort of volunteers.
By 2005, track laying had progressed beyond Rhyd Ddu
and special excursions were organised to keep the work in the public eye.
It was an opportunity for Paul Lewin,
Ffestiniog Railway's newly-appointed general manager, to show off his driving skills.
On my days off, I can put my overalls on and drive this lovely steam engine.
That is just great. It's the bonus.
But what driving means is you get to meet people.
Up here, this tells you that the breaks are off.
I'm very proud of this railway and what those volunteers have achieved
in building the railway.
It's great to have an opportunity to show it to people.
For important passengers like John Pritchard,
the Black Hand Gang's unofficial mascot,
it's a chance to ride the line again.
I'm 90 years of age so I'm still looking forward.
I've even drove it a little bit, under instruction, of course, from the experts.
I'm looking forward very much to it.
It'll be one of the nicest runs in Europe, I'm sure.
John Pritchard's neighbours are not so enthusiastic about the project.
Hill farmers John and Gareth Owen are facing the biggest upheaval of their lives.
The bottom land will be divided into at least seven different
parcels of land which will create a lot of problems for us.
Negotiations have proved, up to now, difficult...
..as regards to various aspects of ownership
and rights of way and one thing and another.
I hope that at the end of the day
we come to a satisfactory conclusion.
The close-knit gang of volunteers, under the leadership of Dafydd Thomas,
are embarking on another weekend of laying track.
The camaraderie has grown because the gang have been together for the last 15 years.
People have come and gone, but that core of people has been there
and we've made friends for life.
It's a form of relaxation.
People sometimes say, why do you work for nothing for the railway?
I say to them, why do you organise a football team? This is what we do.
On Cwm Cloch Farm on the outskirts of Beddgelert
lies one of the most challenging sections of track.
John Owen and his wife, Sian, were opposed to reinstating the railway,
fearing the disruption it would bring.
That's the problem we get.
See that sheep? There could be eight or ten of them.
Dafydd Thomas attempts to build bridges with Sian Owen and her family.
Today I've taken Mrs Owen Cwm Cloch and her grandchildren on the train for a short trip up the line
and I think it pays dividends ten-folds afterwards.
We've lived here 36 years and only last summer we walked through it for the first time.
It's no good barging in and saying, we're going to build this railway.
We've got to work with them. That's the best way to do it.
Tell them what we're going to do.
Gobeithio 'welwn ni chi eto cyn bo hir!
This area, Cwm Cloch, is a very unusual bit of railway
with a complete spiral.
I'm not sure what the drop is in terms of metres
but it's steep all the way down.
This is one bit in particular I've been looking forward to working on.
One, two, three.
That's all right. It's still creeping back a little bit.
Caernarfon gas fitter Tony Murphy is also here.
Each length of track is 18 metres or 60 foot.
There's 24 sleepers per length.
On a good day we'd get six lengths down.
So, 360 foot of track down on a good day, you know?
It is hard work but it's only as hard as you want it to be.
If you don't want to do hard work, you don't have to.
That's the beauty of being a volunteer.
I came across this railway when I moved to the area
in the early 1970s.
Like many of the other people,
it seemed too good a dream to pass up on,
the thought of putting it back,
especially when other railways are being closed left, right and centre.
As long as the railway don't charge me,
I'll be one of the first to go on it.
For many enthusiasts, seeing the Beyer-Garratts working the S-bends
and the steep gradients through Cwm Cloch Farm
was always going to be special.
But, for many, the real excitement would be the completion of the track
through Beddgelert and the restored Aberglaslyn Pass.
This is a historic day in the story of the Welsh Highland Railway.
For the first time in over 70 years, trains are running again
through the world famous Aberglaslyn Pass.
On board, some very generous supporters.
Something like £10,000 is what I've put in to this railway.
I think it's been well worth the money both for my own personal point of view,
but also I think for the value it'll bring to the area.
I remember many years ago when I was a student here in Bangor,
walking along through the tunnels in the Aberglaslyn Pass,
and I just said to myself, wouldn't it be wonderful if one day we have a train through here.
For the first time, it's an experience.
The noise, because the engine is working quite hard climbing the hill,
is quite deafening.
You just burst out of this dark hole into this beautiful bright sunlight
and it's one of the best views in the world.
It's just stunning. It really is stunning.
It's a great thrill for me.
I love seeing steam locomotives in operation, I have to admit.
In that respect, perhaps I've never grown up.
But it's also a great thrill to see this wonderful new resource
for Snowdonia coming into operation.
We'll be able to take people in a green,
environmentally sustainable way
through one of the most stunning landscapes in the world.
I couldn't tell you when I started being interested in steam locomotives
but I can claim to be a trainspotter while still at infants school.
Steam railway is Wales' gift to the world.
Railways such as this were devised in Gwynedd in the 1860s
and they became a model that was followed all over the world.
They were a cut-price way of opening up parts of the world
that couldn't afford a mainline railway but needed the means
to export their goods or move their people around.
So you find railways based on this one in India, China, Mexico,
all over the place.
It's made me think of my school days when I used to go on the train
from Beddgelert to the farm to see my granny.
I enjoyed it. I had some very good photos of the river.
With the railway nearing completion, and with only four miles to go,
93-year-old John Pritchard had set his heart
on seeing the project through to the end.
But it was not to be.
For the Black Hand Gang, the death of their unofficial mascot
remains hard to take.
John Pritchard was quite a guy really.
He lived and died on a small farm just outside Beddgelert.
It was an inspiration to some of the gang, I suppose,
that this man in his 90s was taking an interest
in the railway and our achievements.
It was great talking to somebody actually,
who had been on this railway originally.
It can only be described as a tragedy
that God didn't give him enough time to see the thing through.
But he's watching from up there. I'm sure he is.
Next time in Full Steam Ahead, the work continues in all weathers
when the railway's very own steam Santa has to cool things down among his little helpers.
Come and get me if you think you can!
And things like this happen as well!
Completion draws nearer as a national celebrity is invited
to declare the railway open.
But there's sadness too for members of the Black Hand Gang
as they contemplate what lies ahead.
It's going to be strange.
I'm a little bit tearful now.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In April 2011 Wales's newest and most ambitious railway - the Welsh Highland Railway in Snowdonia - was completed. For the many hundreds of volunteers who worked tirelessly for little more than the love of steam, it was a dream come true.
Full Steam Ahead tells the story of this challenging and, at times, controversial project. Volunteers, benefactors and a vast collection of friends and supporters completed the remarkable feat of turning a run-down old industrial railway into one of the modern wonders of Wales.