Rescuing The World’s First Preserved Railway


Preserved railways are now an established part of the tourist itinerary. It doesn’t matter if you call it a railroad, railway, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn or whatever, the chances are that somewhere near you there will be a line rescued from dereliction on which you can spend a Saturday afternoon in vintage rolling stock being hauled by a locomotive long ago withdrawn from regular service. They are established enough to have become an industry in their own right, with the full range of support services to maintain hundred-year-old machinery and even build entire new locomotives.

So we’ve become used to seeing preserved railways in a state of polished perfection. Sometimes a little too perfect, there was a wry observation in a recent BBC documentary on the subject that a typical British preserved railway represents an average day in the 1950s when the Queen was about to visit. Anyone who lived through that era will tell you the reality was a little different, how run down the system was after World War II and just how dirty everything became when exposed to decades of continuous coal smoke.

A particularly worn-out section of railway in those days could be found at Tywyn, on the Welsh coast. A 2’3″ narrow-gauge line built in the 1860s to serve a slate quarry and provide a passenger service to local communities, the Tal-y-Llyn Railway (Welsh pronunciation help) had been in continuous decline for decades and on the death of its owner in 1950 faced closure. With only one of its two locomotives operational and its track in a parlous state it attracted the attention of the author Tom Rolt, already famous for kick-starting the preservation of Britain’s inland waterway system. A preservation society was formed, and in a joint enterprise with the former owner’s estate the line was saved. The world’s first preserved railway had commenced operations.

"Lawnmower" Locomotive in 1952 [Source: talyllyn.co.uk]
“Lawnmower” Locomotive in 1952 [Source: talyllyn.co.uk]

In a country reeling from the economic effects of fighting a world war there was no infrastructure for a group of enthusiasts rescuing a near-derelict railway. Nobody had ever done this before, there was no body of expertise and certainly no handy suppliers to call when parts were required. To rebuild their line the Tal-y-Llyn volunteers had to reach into their own well of initiative gained over the “Make do and Mend” war years and build their own way out of any challenges they encountered. In case you were wondering what the relevance to Hackaday readers has been in the last few paragraphs there’s your answer: what would you do if you were handed seven and a quarter miles of run-down track and a single barely serviceable locomotive that is one of the oldest in the world still running?

We are fortunate that in 1953 an American film maker, Carson “Kit” Davidson, visited the line, and through his affectionate short film we have a portrayal of the railway’s state in the early stages of preservation. When the footage was shot they had secured a second serviceable locomotive courtesy of the nearby and recently closed Corris Railway, but had yet to replace the majority of the worn-out and overgrown track. It’s a treat to watch, and sets the stage very well for the home-made machinery that is to follow.

Having an entire railway to maintain with only one aged locomotive, during the Tal-y-Llyn’s earliest days in preservation the volunteers had to resort to some creative ideas for their motive power. If you don’t have a locomotive, you make one. So taking the former Ford Model T engine and transmission from Tom Rolt’s boat and mating it to the wheels of a Tal-y-Llyn slate wagon, they created locomotive number 5, “The Lawnmower which is shown above. Winter passenger trains hauled by a home-made locomotive? Yes please! Or how about locomotive number 7, “Charley’s Ant“, a tractor converted for railway use and modified for the Tal-y-Llyn’s 2’3″ gauge track. This locomotive had a very slow reverse gear and the Tal-y-Llyn does not possess a turntable, so at the end of each journey it had to be jacked up and physically turned round. Not a job for the faint-hearted.

Flail Mover by Zabdiel CC BY-SA 3.0
Flail Mower by Zabdiel CC BY-SA 3.0

Their ingenuity didn’t stop at locomotives, any railway needs a selection of maintenance machinery and when you are the only railway of its kind in the world there is not a huge choice on the market. “Toby“, for example is a self-propelled engineering works trolley constructed by the railway and powered by a second-hand engine and transmission from an Austin Seven car. And as the verdant Welsh vegetation would choke the line if left unchecked the society built themselves a rail mounted flail mower through a marriage of the type of flail mower you’d normally see as a tractor implement, a 360 degree excavator, and parts of two industrial locomotives.

Over the decades since the preservation society was formed, they have succeeded in rebuilding their railway from end to end, and even in extending it to a new station on the site of their former slate sidings. Along the way they have never lost their ability to solve themselves the problems that a railway from the 1860s can present. Today, for example, the locomotives sport a steam-powered compressor next to the front of their smokeboxes that powers the train’s air brakes, a design refined by the society and sold on to other railways.

No. 7 in 2006 [Source: talyllyn.co.uk]
No. 7  with a steam-powered compressor in 2006
[Source: talyllyn.co.uk]

It is sometimes tempting to believe that our maker culture is a recent innovation, but the truth is that as long as there have been people interested in the way things work, we have found a place somewhere. Today’s Tal-y-Llyn Railway is a successful enterprise and just one of many similar lines in preservation, but that does not mean the work of the railway hacker on a line that is now 150 years old is done. You can still join the preservation society yourself, and take a holiday in Wales as a volunteer helping to take the railway towards its third century.

Thanks to our friends who spend some of their time working on the Tal-y-Llyn for helping with some of the information in this piece, you know who you are. And thanks also to our friends at Say Something In Welsh for supplying a correct pronunciation of the Welsh double-L. Diolch yn fawr iawn!



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