The Birmingham Post was instrumental in setting up the first ever preserved railway – and sparking a global heritage movement. On the 60th anniversary of the launch of a battling campaign group, Matt Lloyd visits the Talyllyn Railway.
It seemed more like a ghost train than a passenger service on a once thriving line.
Broken down and crumbling, there seemed little hope for the Talyllyn Railway, which snaked seven miles from Tywyn, in Cardigan Bay, to the slate quarries of Abergynolwyn.
As the slate traffic fell off, so did the passenger numbers. The “mouldering track” was held together by clumps of grass and the last working engine, called Dolgoch, was destined for the industrial knackers’ yard.
One of the world’s first narrow gauge lines for steam haulage, the Talyllyn Railway, which had been operational since 1865, was about to hit the buffers.
The pitiful sight was witnessed by a correspondent for the Birmingham Post and his funereal report was published on September 5, 1949.
He wrote: “One has felt the air of a ghost train about it. It passes crumbling waiting rooms and stations and pathetic heaps of stone which were once flourishing hill farms, and the silent deserted slate quarries come into view at the end of the journey.”
Of the damaged engine, the correspondent remarked: “The manager assured me the damage was being repaired and that the train would soon be running again. We both wondered for how long, however. The locomotives and carriages have long ago earned honourable retirement in some railway museum, but who will provide the thousands of pounds to replace them?
“Who, also, will provide the large sum of money needed to relay the mouldering track?
“If no one can answer these questions, the time will come when the line will close for ever. Will not the Government or British Railways do something?
“Surely these last remaining lines offer some attraction, especially the magnificent mountain scenery provided by the Talyllyn Railway?”
The unnamed writer cannot have foreseen the impact of his account, which prompted nothing less than the foundation of the worldwide railway preservation movement. In the shorter term, his report saved the Talyllyn Railway and ensured its survival to this day.
Following the article, engineer and writer Tom Rolt contacted the offices of the Post, describing the plight of Talyllyn as a “sorry symptom of the decline of individual initiative”.
Pre-dating David Cameron’s rallying call for a Big Society by more than half a century, Rolt revealed he already planned to save the railway and appealed for other volunteers to contact him.
He had visited the railway during the winter of 1943 when trains were out of service until spring. Undeterred, he walked the seven-mile route taking in the breathtaking scenery of the north Wales countryside.
Rolt wrote: “It would be a great loss, not only to railway enthusiasts but to all lovers of north Wales if the career of this beautiful and historic little railway were to come to an untimely end.”
After the death of the line’s owner, MP Sir Henry Haydn Jones, in July 1950, Rolt called a meeting at Birmingham’s Imperial Hotel at which the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society was born on October 11.
The historic Temple Street meeting marked the birth of railway preservation worldwide. Talyllyn was the first railway run by volunteers and was followed by similar movements across the world, the next being the Puffin Billy Railway in Melbourne, Australia, in 1955.
Working with volunteers, the tracks of the Talyllyn were replaced and its historic engines and carriages repaired during winter 1950.
The first train under the preservation society ran on May 14, 1951 ensuring trains had run on the railway every year since the line opened in 1865, a record that remains.
The railway went from strength to strength and at its peak in the 1970s saw as many as 100,000 passengers a year riding in the original 1865 carriages.
Stations have been upgraded and Wharf Station, in Tywyn, has seen the addition of a gift shop and the building of the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum.
Society president Richard Hope, aged 76, joined the movement in the 1950s and still helps to maintain the railway.
Marking the 60th anniversary of the formation of the volunteer group with an exhibition celebrating the early days of the society, Mr Hope said: “It really is a very important occasion for us. It was considered so outlandish for amateurs to run a public railway. This was the first time it had happened. This was the original and it inspired others to do it.
“It was not just the launch of the preservation society but the whole concept of amateurs being able to come in and run railways for the benefit of tourists and those who like riding on them.
“Against all the odds it turned out to be successful.”
Audrey Hope, a life member of the preservation society, said the first article in the Birmingham Post had sparked the movement.
She said: “Without a doubt, the Birmingham Post was involved in the launch of the heritage railway. Tom Rolt circulated a letter to railway clubs calling a meeting to discuss the future of Talyllyn. This meeting was held in the Imperial Hotel in Birmingham where the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society was formed. This triggered the worldwide heritage railway movement as we know it today.”
Other members attending the anniversary included John Snell, the first engineer on the first train to run under the auspices of the preservation society in May 1951.
He recalled the project, saying: “It was touch and go for a while because the whole thing was in a state of total collapse. We were just about able to keep running.
“We really hoped it would last and so it proved.
“It wasn’t down to government. It was down to Sir Henry who wanted to keep the railway going.”
Now into its 60th year, the preservation society boasts a membership of hundreds from all over the UK, some providing financial assistance, others their time and skill as engineers, accountants or platform guards.
It is thanks to the volunteers that the trains continue and those visiting can share the experience of a Birmingham Post correspondent 61 years ago, when he wrote: “The feeling of travelling back into the past persists. The train is limited to eight or nine mph throughout the journey. This gives the traveller ample time to see the magnificent scenery which unfolds itself.
“Flies, bees, butterflies and other insects wander in and out of the open windows, a bunch of bullocks or a horse scampers away in mock terror with heels flying.”
Sixty years on, the Talyllyn Railway still provides a window on the past.
Trains on the Talyllyn Railway will continue to run a daily service until the end of the October half-term holidays. Santa and Christmas specials are then planned for December.
* For more information, or to book tickets, call 01654 710 472 or visit www.talyllyn.co.uk
How Talyllyn inspired the children's classic Thomas the Tank Engine
One of the earliest members of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society was Thomas the Tank Engine author and Birmingham clergyman, the Rev Wilbert Awdry.
Rev Awdry had a passion for trains from a young age and began the Thomas the Tank Engine series in Birmingham in 1942.
It was thanks to an article in the Post’s sister paper, the Birmingham Mail, he joined the preservation society after a friend sent him the story headlined “Eight miles of railway to play with – and real trains – for £1 a year”.
The following year, during a family holiday, he volunteered to be a guard for the week. It was during that first week he left a refreshment lady behind at Abergynolywyn, an incident he would later use in one of his stories.
Awdry continued to visit the railway until the last years of his life and following his death, his family donated some of the contents of his study to the railway’s museum.
Today guests can see a recreation of the study including his books, glasses, and the typewriter on which Awdry penned his world famous books.
Volunteer Sue Whitehouse, aged 55, knew Awdry well and said he used incidents from the Talyllyn Railway as inspiration for some of his stories.
“He was a wonderful man. He liked the quirky little railway and he wrote stories based on aspects of all this.
“We are proud of the link but most of the stories in the Thomas series were written before the era of preservation and written about main line engines,” Mrs Whitehouse said.
After becoming a member and volunteering to be a station guard during a family holiday, Awdry wrote Four Little Engines featuring a narrow gauge railway called Skarloey on the Island of Sodor. Four books were to follow with stories based on real events at Talyllyn.
“I believe it was Tom Rolt who encouraged Rev Awdry to write stories about the Talyllyn so he invented Skarloey,” said Mrs Whitehouse.