A Brief History - The Early Years
Building Brynelin Viaduct, near Cyfronydd station. Photo: W&L Archives
It is really difficult now to imagine what a problem rural transport was in the late 19th century. The coming of the railways changed life in the country, transforming industry and farming. Those who had no railway longed for one and the Banwy Valley farming communities had a real problem developing their businesses because of the time and cost of getting supplies in and agricultural produce out. Everything for transport to the outside world had to be carried to Welshpool by horse and cart for shipment on the Cambrian Railways. In 1901 work started on a narrow gauge railway (the unusual gauge of 2ft 6ins was chosen to reduce costs) from Welshpool main line station to Llanfair Caereinion. Supported by the Earl of Powis the line was funded by borrowings, by public funds and subscriptions and by gifts of land from local landowners - but it was woefully short of capital, despite its light construction. The Cambrian Railways worked the line and on 4th April 1903 the first passenger train ran, in pouring rain - an ill omen.
The railway staff pose with a mixed train at Llanfair Caereinion, circa 1903 Photo: W&L Archives
An unusual feature of the line was the Welshpool Town section where the line crossed the town to connect with the standard gauge railway at Welshpool Station. This involved the narrow gauge rails weaving along the roadside and between buildings which made for a fascinating sight.
The little railway didn't carry heavy traffic. By 1908 the Company was approaching the local authorities asking for loan repayments to be deferred, as it hadn't the money to pay them. Although the 1914 - 18 War brought a surge of business, it fell away again in the 1920s. In 1922 the Cambrian Railways was merged into the Great Western Railway and they absorbed the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway Company in 1923. It made little difference to traffic; indeed a competing bus service (owned by the GWR) reduced passengers to a mere trickle. The passenger service was discontinued in 1931. Goods traffic enjoyed a revival during World War 2 and the railway was still operating at nationalisation in 1948. All the goods traffic on the narrow gauge railway had to be transhipped at Welshpool and the whole operation was becoming slow and uneconomic in the face of mounting competition on improving roads from larger and faster lorries.
So it was that the last train under British Railways' auspices ran on the 3rd November 1956, but moves were already afoot to preserve this unique rural railway.
The Preservation Era
Modern day equivalent of the early photograph reproduced above. Photo: David Marsh
Preserving the Welshpool and Llanfair, or the W&L as it is colloquially known, appears to day to have been an obvious idea, yet at the time such proposals were thought to be eccentric. In 1956 most of the railways were steam and people were keen to modernise after years of austerity. There wasn't the nostalgia for things past. Consequently there were no grants and no public money for preservation, as there had been for construction - although this time the railway was to be a financial success!
Everything had to be done by meagre funds but the people who drew together to save the railway learned fast. By 1959 negotiations with British Railways were at a stage where volunteers were able to begin clearing overgrowth. They formed the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway Preservation Company Limited in 1960 and leased the line from BR at the end of 1962.
With limited resources the volunteers battled to clear a section of line and to restore some form of service. A major step forward was taken on 18th July 1961 when locomotive No.1 The Earl returned to the line after storage and overhaul at Oswestry works. Unfortunately the original passenger carriages had been disposed of after the withdrawal of passenger service by the GWR. The Admiralty operated a 2ft 6in line in Kent and in 1961 the W&L was able to acquire a number of surplus carriages and wagons. These were much needed in order to re-establish the passenger service that commenced on 6th April 1963 between Llanfair Caereinion and Castle Caereinion. Thus the W&L was only the second stretch of railway previously owned by British Railways to be taken over and operated by a preservation company. At last some money was now coming in to help fund expenses of restoration.
One of the few Preservation Era trains to work through the town before it was closed. The railway now terminates at Raven Square at the west end of town. 'The Earl' is seen here crossing Church Street before the line was re-opened to the public. The site is still recognisable today, the Tourist Information Centre being just to the right of the picture. Photo W&L Archives
What seemed like a body blow occurred when Welshpool Borough Council decided that the new company would not be able to work trains over the town section, preferring instead to extend a car park and prepare for a "bypass" along Brook Street. Consequently the railway was cut back to the present terminus at Raven Square. Fortunately the remainder of the rails and civil engineering structures were all in place. Everything moveable was transferred to Llanfair, which by now included the second original locomotive, No.2 "The Countess". The railway was dealt a second blow in December 1964 when serious floods damaged the bridge over the River Banwy, but services were restored the following year following generous donations and help from The Royal Engineers.
The railway needed new coaches for its expansion and it managed to obtain what it needed from abroad. Four attractive balcony ended coaches were donated by the Zillertalbahn, in the Austrian Tirol, in 1968. In 1969 a large steam engine was bought from Austria to expand the fleet and in 1972 the track was re-opened as far as Sylfaen, which gave a run of just over five miles from Llanfair Caereinion. A very significant event occurred in March 1974 when the railway was purchased outright from British Railways for £8,000 - a princely sum for the Company at that time.
Traffic continued to increase even in the face of competition from other rapidly opening tourist attractions. The need for more coaches and locomotives was becoming pressing, especially if reopening the full length of line to Welshpool Raven Square was to become a serious prospect. The locomotive Joan arrived on the railway from Antigua in 1971 and No.14 (SLR No.85) from Sierra Leone in 1975. At the same time carriages were also obtained from the Sierra Leone to supplement the Austrian fleet and replace the former Admiralty stock not suited to the 1 in 29 Golfa Bank gradient on the yet un-opened section of line.
W&L No.14, formerly used in the Sierra Leone, crossing Brynelin viaduct.
Compare with photo above of bridge under construction. Photo: David Marsh
More work had to be done to push back the ravages of time; collapsed culverts had to be repaired, 6500 new sleepers had to be laid and tonnes and tonnes of ballast were needed to bed them in, with the rails then laid back in place. At the same time the section already open needed consolidation and this took much time and expense. On 18th July 1981 the first service trains ran back again to Welshpool.
Since then improvements have continued to be made. The former station building from Eardisley, Herefordshire was obtained and erected at Welshpool to provide very attractive facilities for the public and improvements have continued to be made at Llanfair Caereinion, including a new toilet block, a volunteers hostel and running shed. It is now possible to re-create an authentic GWR mixed train using No.2 / GWR No. 823 "The Countess" (No.1 carries the former BR Black livery at present), a replica Pickering carriage and rebuilt original wagons. This would not have been possible without the generous nature of our members and the public.
During the last fifteen years our tradition of turning to other parts of the world have continued with the acquisition of a tamping machine from South Africa to aid our track renewals work, a diesel locomotive from Taiwan for engineering trains, two passenger carriages from Hungary, another carriage from Austria, a steam locomotive from Romania and an Austrian 'Rollwagen' for use with our flail train.
The Railway Today - Both of the original locomotives pass at Cyfronydd station with a mixture of balcony ended Austrian and Hungarian carriages. Photo: David Marsh
More detailed information about the railway is available in several publications available from our bookshop.
Telephone 01938 810441 or email info [at] wllr.org.uk