Trains began running on the 7.25 miles (11.67 k Talyllyn narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway (Welsh: Rheilffordd Talyllyn) in Wales for the first time since preservation on 14 May 1951, from Tywyn on the Mid-Wales coast to Nant Gwernol near the village of Abergonolwyn.
The line was originally opened in 1865 to carry slate from the quarries at Bryn Eglwys to Tywyn, and was the first narrow gauge railway in Britain authorised by Act of Parliament to carry passengers using steam haulage.Slate quarrying began in the hills above Tywyn in the 1830s, but although many small quarries and test levels were established, only one major quarry was developed in the region, at Bryn Eglwys, 7 miles (11 km) north east of the town. Underground working began in the early 1840s, and by 1847 the quarry was being worked by local landowner John Pughe. The finished slates were sent by packhorse to the wharf at Pennal, transferred to boats for a river trip to Aberdyfi (Aberdovey), and then finally loaded into seagoing vessels, a complex and expensive transportation arrangement which limited the quarry’s output. In 1861 the outbreak of the American Civil War cut off supplies of cotton to the mills of the north west of England and as a result a number of prosperous mill owners looked for new business opportunities to diversify their interests. One such owner was William McConnel of Lancashire who, in 1859, had purchased a house near Dolgellau, north of Tywyn. In January 1864, McConnel formed the Aberdovey Slate Company, which leased the land including Bryn Eglwys from the landowner, Lewis Morris of Machynlleth.
McConnel set about improving Bryn Eglwys to increase its output. He focused on providing rail transport for the isolated quarry, and in April 1864 he reached agreement with local landowners to purchase the land necessary to build a railway towards Tywyn and the port of Aberdyfi. Construction was well underway by July 1864. The standard gauge Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway was expanding rapidly from its base at Machynlleth, however, and in 1863 had reached Tywyn, so McConnel decided to build his line from the quarry to Tywyn, as the nearest point where slate could be transferred to the standard gauge railway. This was despite the line’s initial isolation from the rest of the system because of difficulties in bridging the estuary of the River Dover( Afon Dyfi) to the south. An Act of Parliament allowing the company to operate passenger trains as a public railway was given Royal Assent on 5 July 1865, and the company appointed James Swinton Spooner as engineer for the construction. By September 1866 construction of the line climbing steadily from Tywyn to the quarry was progressing nicely
However it was discovered that the loading gauge of the line was too small. The internal width of the overbridges was only 9 ft 1 in (277 cm), but the railway’s passenger carriages were 5 ft 3.5 in (161.3 cm) wide, leaving less than 2 ft (61 cm) clearance on either side, less than the minimum required clearance of 2 ft 6 in (76 cm). To alleviate this problem, McConnel made an unusual alteration, and proposed that the doors on one side of each carriage be permanently barred and the track slewed off-centre beneath the bridges to allow adequate clearance at least on the side with doors, which would allow passengers to get out of the carriages if the train stopped underneath a bridge. Consequently all carriages on the Talyllyn have doors on one side only.
Improvements were also made to the railway’s first two steam locomotives, as locomotive No. 1 suffered from excessive “vertical motion” and No. 2 was said to suffer from “horizontal oscillation”. No. 1 was returned to its manufacturer where a set of trailing wheels was added to reduce the rear overhang, and the springs on No. 2 were adjusted and crank pins shortened to reduce oscillation. The first public passenger timetable was issued in December 1866, and the first purpose-built, steam-worked, narrow gauge public railway in Britain opened for service with two locomotives, one carriage and several goods vehicles in use. It was operated under a “one engine in steam” policy to ensure that two trains could not collide Initially the working locomotive was housed in a wooden shed at Ty Dwr on the mineral line above Abergynolwyn station, while the main engineering works at Pendre were constructed. The Pendre works opened on 17 February 1867 and from then on trains began working from Pendre instead of Abergynolwyn. Stations were provided at Pendre and Abergynolwyn. In 1867, the halt at Rhydyronen opened, followed by Brynglas and Dolgoch in 1873. Some time shortly after the opening of the railway a branch to Abergynolwyn village was provided. A steep incline dropped from the mineral line east of Abergynolwyn station to the village below, where a series of tram lines radiated. Unlike the horse-drawn Corris Railway The Talyllyn Railway used steam locomotives from the start, . The original two locomotives, although of entirely different design, were both purchased from Fletcher, Jennings & Co. of Whitehaven in Cumbria and both are still in service, 150 years on.
The Talyllyn’s unusual gauge is thought to have been adopted to match that of the Corris Railway, and the line’s two original steam locomotives were among the earliest locomotives built for such a narrow gauge. No. 1 Talyllyn is an 0-4-2ST (saddle tank) and No. 2 Dolgoch is an 0-4-0WT (well tank). The line carried slate from the quarry to the wharf at Tywyn and general goods along its length. Public passenger trains initially ran between Abergynolwyn, Dolgoch and Pendre stations only; quarrymen were carried from Abergynolwyn to the foot of the Alltwyllt incline in Nant Gwernol gorge. The line served the quarry industry and the local district. By 1880, Bryn Eglwys employed 300 workers and was producing 8,000 long tons (8,100 t) of finished slate per year, all shipped via the railway. Passenger traffic rose from 11,500 passengers carried in 1867 to over 23,000 (roughly equivalent to 40,000 passenger journeys) in 1877. From the 1880s onwards the “Grand Tour” was a popular option with tourists. This used charabancs to link the Talyllyn and Corris railways via Tal-y-llyn Lake and Cadair Idris, returning on Cambrian Railways trains.
The last two decades of the 19th century saw a decline in the demand for slate and many smaller quarries fell on hard times, including Bryn Eglwys, where by 1890 production had halved to 4,000 long tons (4,100 t) a year. In 1896, production at the Penrhyn Quarry in north Wales, one of the largest producers of slate, was stopped due to labour disputes, resulting in a temporary increase in demand at other quarries. However In 1910 McConnell’s lease expired and work began on dismantling Bryn Eglwys quarry’s equipment. The Bryn Eglwys quarry had been the primary employer in the Abergynolwyn district, so its closure caused significant distress. In 1910, local landowner Henry Haydn Jones was elected the Liberal MP for Merioneth. He understood the importance of Bryn Eglwys, and purchased the quarry company for just over £5000. The quarry re-opened in January 1911. The first workings reopened were on the “Broad Vein”, which yielded relatively hard slate that was less popular and therefore difficult to sell. The lack of an available market for this output forced the quarry to switch to extracting softer slate from the “Narrow Vein.
Following the First World War A brief construction boom saw production return to around 4,000 long tons (4,100 t) per year and The 1920s also saw an upsurge in holiday traffic, as Britain recovered from the war and tourism gained in popularity. The Talyllyn saw summer passenger numbers grow significantly and regularly had to supplement its formal passenger stock with slate wagons fitted with planks as seats. An unusual tourist service offered by the railway was to hire a slate wagon, which would be left at Abergynolwyn. At the end of the day the tourists would return to Tywyn in the wagon, powered by gravity. However This service was discontinued in the early 1930s. The lease on Bryn Eglwys expired in 1942, but was extended on an annual basis. Sadly on 26 December 1946, several weakened support columns in the quarry gave way, resulting in a significant collapse; the quarry was deemed unsafe and closed immediately. Haydn Jones had promised to continue operating the railway as long as he was alive and so, despite the closure of the quarry, the railway continued to run trains on a shoestring budget. In 1948 the British railway system was nationalized however the Talyllyn was one of the few operating railways not included. Between 1947 and 1949 the railway ran a passenger service two days a week. In 1949 Haydn Jones, who owned the Aberllefenni Slate Quarry purchased 10 tons of rail from the recently lifted Corris Railway.
Sadly Haydn Jones died on 2 July 1950 and closure of the railway seemed inevitable, but the line continued to operate until October and in 1951 it became the first railway in the world to be preserved as a heritage railway by volunteers after the author and biographer Tom Rolt, visited the line in 1949, along with the locomotive engineer David Curwen and wrote a letter to the Birmingham Post newspaper suggesting that a rescue of the Talyllyn be undertaken. He received sufficient positive response for a meeting of interested enthusiasts to be held on 11 October 1950 at the Imperial Hotel in Birmingham. Around 70 people, including Patrick Whitehouse, attended the meeting. The committee – with Rolt as chairman and Whitehouse as Secretary – met for the first time on 23 October and entered into negotiation with Haydn Jones’ executor concerning the legally complex transfer of ownership from Haydn Jones’ estate to a new company called Talyllyn Holdings Ltd which took place on 8 February 1951, henceforth the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society effectively took control of the Railway and immediately began to publicise its efforts, hoping to raise funds and find further volunteers to help reopen the railway, and by May nearly 650 members had joined the society. The railway re-opened under the control of the Society for the first time on the Whit Monday bank holiday, 14 May 1951, with trains running between Wharf and Rhydyronen stations. Regular trains began to run on 4 June throughout the summer, with David Curwen acting as the first Chief Mechanical Engineer.
During the early years of preservation, the line struggled to operate using the original rolling stock. When the line was taken over in 1950 Dolgoch was the only operating locomotive and it was apparent that it was in need of a major overhaul. To enable operations to continue two further steam locomotives, Nos. 3 and 4, were purchased from the recently closed Corris Railway in 1951 and named Sir Haydn and Edward Thomas respectively. Because both railways were built to the unusual gauge of 2 ft 3 in (686 mm) it was relatively easy to adapt the Corris locomotives to work on the Talyllyn. No. 3 became the first new locomotive to travel on the railway for over 80 years in 1951, but it frequently derailed, and on inspection it turned out that the Talyllyn track was laid approximately half an inch (13 mm) wider than the official gauge, a deliberate policy by the old company to accommodate the long wheelbase of Talyllyn.
Both Talyllyn and Dolgoch had unusually wide wheel treads that allowed them to stay on the wide-of-gauge track however This problem was eventually cured. No. 4 was unserviceable when it arrived, but John Alcock, the chairman of the Hunslet Engine Company, was a member of the Preservation Society and had No. 4 overhauled free of charge at his works. No. 4 then began service on the railway in 1952 and worked the majority of the trains that season. On 22 May 1957 the BBC produced a live outside broadcast from the railway, during which Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Huw Weldon undertook a trip from Dolgoch to Abergynolwyn. The publicity from this broadcast drew substantial numbers of visitors to the railway that summer, with more than 57,500 passengers carried, and this increase in revenue in turn enabled the railway to continue to improve its infrastructure and provide tourists with a better experience. In 1958 No. 1 Talyllyn also returned to steam after an extensive overhaul.
The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn Wharf station was also built. The first exhibit for what was to become the museum was a locomotive donated in 1952 by Guinness from their recently closed St. James’s Gate Brewery railway. In 1954 the Preservation Society agreed to start work on a formal museum and exhibits from around the United Kingdom were acquired to form the nucleus of the collection. In 1955 work started on converting the old gunpowder store at Wharf station into a temporary museum building, and in 1956 the first exhibit arrived at Tywyn. The preservation society had long held ambitions to extend the railway along the former mineral extension from Abergynolwyn to the foot of the Alltwyllt incline but construction did not start until 1968 when the winding house for the Abergynolwyn village incline was demolished. In 1976, an extension was opened along the former mineral line from Abergynolwyn to the new station at Nant Gwernol by Wynford Vaughan Thomas who drove in the ceremonial “golden spike” to complete the extension. creation of footpaths also began connecting to the new station and A new footbridge was built crossing the Nant Gwernol gorge and connecting the station with the existing path on the east side of the river. The bridge and paths were opened on 3 May 1980 by Lord Parry, the chairman of the Wales Tourist Board
The Preservation Society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001, and as part of the year of celebrations a major new project was launched to once more extend and improve facilities at Tywyn Wharf station. semi-permanent buildings existed housing the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, but the new plans for the station included the construction of a new two-storey building to house the museum and the extension of the existing station building to house a new cafe and booking office these were officially opened by Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall on 13 July 2005. In 2008 a large amount of equipment was purchased from the 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge military railway at RNAD Trecwn, including a large quantity of track components and three diesel locomotives. In 2011, the railway celebrated the 60th anniversary as a heritage line and In April 2012, locomotive No.2 Dolgoch appeared at the Steel Steam and Stars Gala at the Llangollen Railway, running on a temporary section of narrow gauge track. In June 2013 the railway was awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the official opening of the railway. The Talyllyn has also inspired many other people; The fictional Skarloey Railway, which featured in Thomas the Tank Engine by The Rev. W. Awdry, was based on the Talyllyn Railway and preservation of the line inspired the Ealing Comedy film The Titfield Thunderbolt.