The first three miles of WHR (Caernarfon)'s route are not part of the original Welsh Highland. Its northern terminus was at Dinas Junction, three miles from Caernarfon on the standard gauge line from Bangor to Afonwen, which used to link the North Wales Coast Line with the Cambrian Coast, until the closure of the Caernarfon-Afonwen section in 1964. The Bangor-Caernarfon link remained until 1971, latterly for freight traffic that could not be shipped through Holyhead following the 1970 Britannia Bridge fire. The site of the town's station, on the northern side of town, was redeveloped as a supermarket in 1994, and more recently the railway route through the middle of the town and under Y Maes (Castle Square) was converted into a link road. The trackbed from Caernarfon to Dinas and beyond, owned by the County Council, was opened as a foot- and cyclepath, Lôn Eifion, in the 1980s.
The old WHR had ambitions to extend into Caernarfon, but never had the funds to do so. The route would, in parts, have followed the 1828-1867 route of the horse-worked 3'6" gauge Nantlle Railway, most of which was superceded by the standard gauge, apart from its furthest section from Talysarn to Pen yr Orsedd Quarry, which remained until 1963. The Nantlle route from Dinas to Caernarfon largely followed that taken by the standard gauge, but in far less of a direct line, and with a different approach to the town.
For the new WHR, a terminus in Caernarfon was regarded as a key element, not only because a terminus out at Dinas (no longer served by the national network) could have been even more of an Achilles' Heel than it had been for the old railway, but also because it would tie the WHR Project to the regeneration and development of the town as a tourist centre. The building of Phase 1 also demonstrated the Ffestiniog Railway's commitment to rebuilding onwards to Porthmadog, before the official approval to do so had been obtained.
In April 1995 the Welsh Highland Railway Society exhibited Garratt K1 in Caernarfon, as a first physical manifestation of the plans for the railway. The loco spent the Friday immediately after its removal from the National Railway Museum on display on the site of the old station, and was then moved to Y Maes on Saturday.
In June 1995 a planning application was made for building the line from Caernarfon to Dinas; the permission was granted in December. The previous month, the Millennium Commission had announced its major grant towards rebuilding from Caernafon to Rhyd Ddu. Planning permission opened the way for negotiations to lease the Caernarfon-Dinas trackbed from Cyngor Gwynedd Council (the unitary authority which had replaced Gwynedd County Council and Arfon Borough Council), and a 999-year lease at a cost of £999 was agreed in mid-1996, and finally signed in early 1997. Earlier in 1996, a new company called Welsh Highland Light Railway Ltd was formed within the FR group, to lead construction of the railway.
Having held a series of public consultation meetings in Caernarfon and other communities along the route in November and December 1995, for which a glossy bilingual consultation brochure was published, the WHR Project once again raised its profile during the annual Gwyl Caernarfon Festival in July 1996. A shop was rented as an information centre, a few yards from where the overhauled Funkey diesel locomotive was displayed on Y Maes. During the Festival week, the loco was named Castell Caernarfon by the then MP for Caernarfon Dafydd Wigley, a vocal and valued supporter of the project.
The station site at Dinas was at this time occupied by the local authority's civil engineering department, which moved out gradually during 1996, removing the temporary office buildings which had been a prominent feature. Purchase of this site for the railway was completed in December, but before this point the site had already received two major shipments of track and track components from the lifted Umzinto-Donnybrook line in South Africa, with 700 tons delivered in September and another 500 tons in November. The first rolling stock arrived at this time - in the form of high-sided bogie wagons which had been used as convenient containers for track fittings during demolition of the Donnybrook line. Another shipment of 300 tons reached Dinas in March 1997.
Clive Briscoe's pictures below show material for Phase 1 on the quayside at Immingham Docks, after unloading from the Silver Spray, which had brought the shipment from Durban. Those in the first row show stacks of track panels, and the second show "B" wagons loaded with point components.
In October 1996 the European Regional Development Fund announced a grant of £735,600, matching the portion of the Millennium Commission grant intended for building the railway from Caernarfon to Dinas. The railway thus found itself in the unusual position for a Heritage railway of starting this first part of the rebuilding with almost all funding in place, in addition to having secured the trackbed, station sites, and track.
The preparation of the trackbed and stations, and realignment of Lôn Eifion alongside, was contracted out. The £750,000 contract was awarded to John Mowlem plc of Cardiff in December 1996.
Clearance and Preparation
WHLR Ltd staff and WHRS volunteers were first on site at Dinas on the weekend of December 28-9th 1996, and made a start on recovering materials from buildings due for demolition, and laying two lengths of track into the old standard gauge entrance of the Goods Shed (which, apart from the station building, was the only remaining original building). Dinas was to be the construction base for Phase 1, with rebuilding proceeding from there down towards Caernarfon.
Mowlem staff moved into the Dinas site on January 6th 1997, and quickly demolished the buildings left by the previous occupiers which would be in the way of railway development; however some useful sheds were retained.
The Funkey diesel was delivered from the FR on January 14th. It featured in the press launch on the 15th, "racing" with a JCB to break a "Rheilffordd Eryri - Welsh Highland Railway - Rhyd Ddu 2000" banner - though circumstances would later mean that the aim of reaching Rhyd Ddu by 2000 would be over-optimistic. As Eddie Bellass' picture shows, the JCB won - just.
Owing to reasons to do with insurance liability, WHLR Ltd and WHRS volunteers did not have access to work at Dinas for much of the period of the Mowlem contract; during this time work proceeded at the FR, on items such as training, pointwork, and the two Beyer-Garratts which had arrived in January.
One of the contractor's first tasks was mechanical clearance of excess vegetation alongside the trackbed; the results are seen below on the approach to Caernarfon.
During preparation of the trackbed, a substantial amount of material was put in place to build up the embankment at the Caernarfon end of Bontnewydd Viaduct, and considerable work was also done on an unstable section past the Caernarfon end of where Bontnewydd Halt would later be built. A significant amount of spoil was removed from the trackbed, much of it the residue of ballast cleaning in British Rail days.
At Dinas, work was started on the platforms, which are on the site of the original standard gauge station; the narrow gauge station was originally between the station building and Goods Shed.
Preparation of the trackbed included strengthening and waterproofing of the two river bridges, at Pont Seiont on the outskirts of Caernarfon, and Bontnewydd Viaduct, which crosses the Afon Gwyrfai. In both cases the formation was stripped away down to the brick arches, which were found to be in good condition 130 years after their construction. The tops of the arches were backfilled with concrete, and a waterproof membrane was added.
Having been built for standard gauge, the original overbridges between Caernarfon and Dinas presented none of the clearance problems that would have to be dealt with from Phase 2 onwards. Responsibility for them lies with the local authority rather than the railway. Work on most of them was confined to fitting smoke deflector plates. However the bridge carrying the road to Coed Helen over the line immediately on the Dinas side of Pont Seiont had a weak deck, which had been propped for some years with a steel prop - which stood immediately in the way of the railway. The solution was its replacement by a much more substantial portal prop, through which the track was laid.
The bridge which carries St Helen's Road over the railway is very obviously not an original feature. In the mid-1990s a major programme of roadworks was carried out at the A487's southern exit from Caernarfon at Pont Seiont. The existing low-level bridge carrying the main road over the river was on an S-bend, and was a notorious bottleneck and accident blackspot. Its replacement (though the old bridge still stands) is at a much higher level, and the top end of St Helen's Road required complete realignment to suit. To give an idea of how much realignment, the road previously passed under the trackbed rather than over it. Although this work predated the start of the railway work, it included a completely new overbridge, with adequate height and width for the yet-to-be-built railway as well as Lôn Eifion. The inclusion of this feature was the result of lobbying by members of the WHR Ltd Company (owners and operators of WHR [Porthmadog]); without it, the railway would either have been put to major additional expense, or would not have been able to reach Caernarfon at all.
However, the work around Pont Seiont also buried part of the trackbed of the old standard gauge Llanberis branch line, which diverged to the left (if travelling from Caernarfon) at this point.
The contractor's tasks included provision of a ballast bed for tracklaying, a tasks which was completed down to Caernarfon in June. However work at the Dinas end was advanced enough for tracklaying to start from there in mid-May. Preparation of pointwork had started at Minffordd Yard on the FR early in the year; the South African points required considerable adjustment to match precise FR/WHR gauge and wheel profiles.
The plain track acquired from South Africa for Phase 1 came as a mixture of components (rails, sleepers, clips and fishplates) and 80 complete track panels. With the steel sleepers common to both types, the panels gave a certain impression of a giant Hornby '0' gauge train set, waiting to be assembled. Panels were used mainly on straight track, including the first track laid at Dinas. Assembly of track from components was speeded up by the use of specially built rail grab trolleys known as RRMs - "Roland's Rail Movers", named after WHLR Ltd construction manager Roland Doyle. Adjustments to rail clips were needed to match the precise gauge needed; this had already been done on the track delivered as panels..
By the time the next picture was taken at the end of June, the Council's toilet block had been removed (on the 27th) from the platform side of the station building.
Panels are seen here stacked on flat wagons, waiting to be put in place by the tracklayer (see below).
The pattern of work on Phase 1 saw track laid end-on in one direction only, from Dinas down towards Caernarfon. This would not be repeated in later phases, where work on intervening features would see isolated sections laid and later joined up.
In addition to WHLR Ltd staff and the Welsh Highland Railway Society's volunteer "Black Hand Gang", teams from other railways came to lend a hand. Working visits were made by volunteers from the Llangollen Railway, the Mid-Hants Railway, and the WHR Ltd gang came up from Porthmadog as part of their Civil's Week programme - and set a record for the most track laid in a day.
As the Head of Steel advanced away from Dinas, the need for a diesel loco to move materials became increasingly pressing. Although the Funkey was at Dinas Goods Shed and saw some use for larger jobs, it would have been a "sledgehammer to crack a nut" for tracklaying work. The FR's Planet diesel Upnor Castle had been acquired by WHLR Ltd for works use, but the engine fitted to it while being refurbished for WHLR use failed, and required replacement, delaying its arrival at Dinas until August. Thus the little Hunslet Harold was moved to Dinas in July, returning to Boston Lodge on Upnor's arrival, and is seen below on tracklaying duties north of Bontnewydd in August. The realigned Lôn Eifion had been reopened in July, and watching track being laid turned into a quite popular local spectator sport.
Later, the FR's Simplex The Colonel spent some time based at Dinas, and is seen below in September with two FR ballast hoppers; the large South African ballast hoppers used from Phase 2 onwards had not yet been acquired.
Upnor Castle is seen below at Bontnewydd propelling a works train back to Dinas in September. The summer had seen vegetation take a quick hold on previously "raw" sites; this was where the embankment had been built up earlier in the year.
The "Forth Bridge"
Considerable thought had been devoted to mechanical aids to speed up tracklaying, not just on Phase 1, but also for later phases of rebuilding towards Porthmadog. The most striking outcome of this was the tracklaying gantry built by Winson Engineering for assembly on to a South African flat wagon. This extraordinary vehicle, the only one of its kind on the narrow gauge in the UK, arrived in two main sections at the start of July.
As it is classified as a crane, it was painted yellow after assembly. Its total length is 27 metres, and it is fitted with an air-powered travelling winch which enables it to pick up a panel, or rails, from a wagon at one end and deposit them at its far end.
It came into use during August, and saw most use on the section past the Fron Goch garden centre, through the level crossing at Hendy, and down Bryn Seiont bank approaching the outskirts of Caernarfon.
While the tracklayer proved useful for tracklaying with panels on straight track, it offered no real advantages over the RRMs once the panels had been used up, and it proved awkward to use on curves. It has not been used since Phase 1 (in assembled form, it would not be able to pass through most of the bridges beyond Dinas), though future design alterations may be considered.
Track reaches Caernarfon
The pictures below, taken from the station footbridge, shows tracklaying at the Dinas end of the station in September. The point for the water tower siding was laid at the same time as the loop, although the tower itself would not be in place until 1998.
The site made available for Caernarfon Station is in St Helen's Road, beyond the Afonwen end of the tunnel under Y Maes. It had originally been the site of two parallel standard gauge lines, one being the Afonwen line, and the other the branch to Llanberis, which diverged to the left just before Pont Seiont. The junction with the siding leading to the Slate Quay (worked by horses, and later a road tractor) was at the Dinas end of the station site, which had been in use as a car park. Originally, Lôn Eifion started at the end of the car park; its realigned version acquired a new entrance from the road at the site of the junction with the Slate Quay siding. As part of the development of the station site, parts of the wall separating it from the road were removed, at the end closer to the tunnel which became the station car park, part of which was swallowed up by a new roundabout at the tunnel mouth.
Bontnewydd Halt is a later addition, built in response to requests from villagers, and opened in May 1999.
As mentioned above, Dinas Station (no longer a junction) uses the more spacious site of the standard gauge platforms, and unlike Caernarfon has platforms on both sides of the loop, as it would later become a passing place. This arrangement also allows the use of the taller standard gauge overbridge for access to the South Yard and the line onwards to Waunfawr; the narrow gauge bridge into the yard remains untouched, serving as road access. Also, the new alignment keeps the railway further away from neighbouring houses. The South Yard was the site of the original loco and carriage sheds, and was in use by Welsh Water. Vacant possession of this part of the site was achieved on August 11th, although the water company retains part of the long building which now also houses the loco shed, as an annex to its large depot adjoining Dinas Station.
Testing, Approval and Opening
The five new carriages and the steam locos for the initial service (Beyer-Garratt no. 138 and Alco Mountaineer) were delivered to Dinas on September 23rd. The line and its rolling stock received a very thorough visitation from Her Majesty's Railways Inspectorate (HMRI) on October 2nd and 3rd. This left a "snagging list" of items to be attended to before the line could open to the public. The initial HMRI approval was for a trial period until November 30th.
Saturday October 4th saw the WHRS Annual General Meeting, held in the pub at Dinas. During the meeting test runs to Caernarfon were carried out (Mountaineer ran the first steam working with coaches, and 138 ran light), but the opening announcement that "The Garratt will be leaving for Caernarfon at four o'clock" galvanised the meeting to conduct its business briskly! The end of the AGM saw a brisk mass movement to the yard to witness the first departure of a "trademark" WHR(C) train (Garratt and new coaches), and then to various vantage points along the line. The train of course ran empty, as permission to carry passengers had yet to be granted. Hopefully the reader will make allowances for a little camera shake in these pictures...!
On Thursday October 9th the Caernarfon-Dinas Light Railway Order came into force. The published intention was to open the railway after the official opening on Monday 13th. In the event, it was decided to run an unadvertised trial service over the weekend of the 11th and 12th. Despite the lack of publicity beyond word of mouth (and email), members of the local communities turned out, and by Sunday afternoon trains were running about three-quarters full; many people came as curious onlookers but stayed to ride, perhaps encouraged by discounted fares. The cattle in the fields, who some objectors had claimed would panic at the passage of trains, were completely unfazed by the whole thing. Your webmaster's most abiding memory of the first day is of standing by the lineside at Pont Seiont, watching the last train of the day heading back to Dinas - with loud cheering coming from the footplate!
The line was officially opened on the 13th by the Lady Mayor of Caernarfon, Mrs Mair Williams, with additional speeches from the Chairmen of the WHRS and the FR group, Dafydd Wigley MP, and a representative of the Millennium Commission. The regular public service started the following day, and ran daily until the planned winter closure on November 2nd.
The line opened in a basic form, with much work still to do, over the winter and subsequently. Platforms had not been surfaced along their full length; with no water tower yet erected at Caernarfon, the locos took water via a pump and temporary tank at Dinas; the loco shed in the South Yard was not ready, so the Goods Shed stood in; the Carriage Shed was yet to be built; and most of the track had not yet been tamped. However there could no longer be any doubt that the WHR Project was here, and here to stay.