May 2021 Update

As everyone who knows the railway will agree, one of the delights of life at the BLR is sitting on the benches outside the station café at the end of a warm sunny day with a cup of well-earned tea, watching a puttering tractor in the field or the sheep on the hillside.

Consider now the beginning of the day a fortnight ago. The sun is out, there is tangible warmth in the air and a few clouds are ambling across the sky. The rake of beautifully refurbished and repainted coaches are already positioned in the platform, a volunteer is meticulously cleaning the interiors and while another carefully cleans the outsides. The General Manager’s office door is open (a good sign) as he checks the latest on-line bookings for another busy day.

Wisps of steam can be glanced from the direction of the loco shed as the locomotive of the day is being prepared. There are sounds of activity from the café, the dogs’ water bowls are being filled and the signalman from his lofty viewpoint is leaning nonchalantly out of his window and spots another volunteer who has started to mow the grass. As soon as he has crossed the tracks to get at the other lawn by the old ‘down’ platform, small birds by the dozen arise in sonorous protest from the hedgerows and feeders. Now the mower is thankfully silent and nature’s chorus takes the lead once more. One is left with this tranquil image of a quintessential summer’s morning, and savouring the moment seems to make the world, briefly, stand still.

But reality beckons and after months of zero passenger service because of the Covid pandemic, the month started with a bang on the 1st with two-train running on Sunday 2nd to handle the numbers allowed by restricted seating, and the Llangower passing loop was used to good effect. However, and this is still the case, social distancing restrictions mean that all trains pass through Llangower without stopping because of the narrowness of the platform. This was the case throughout the month to the 31st. Whilst the pandemic meant that no comparisons can be made, it is safe to say that, in the circumstances, passenger numbers have been very healthy indeed, in spite of the occasional deluge (aka excess of liquid sunshine) at the start of the month and particularly at the end with glorious weather and the half-term break around the Bank Holiday. Over that last weekend, every available coach was brought out to accommodate the bookings. The town of Bala itself was full, as were the beaches along the track and at the edge of town itself. People were just delighted to be able to get out and have some fun in beautiful surroundings.

In the meantime, the Engineering Department has been very busy with numerous tasks, one of which was to prepare Winifred for her annual steam test – which she passed with flying colours. But what should be mentioned is a piece of brilliant ingenuity to cure a possible problem. The surfaces on top of the firebox/turret where safety valves are located are normally flat but those of Winifred, unlike other locos, are curved. On the other locos, these fixings are normally held by studs on the top of the firebox, but the curvature on Winifred only allows the two at the very top to be fixed studs, the remaining positions using bolts into open threads in the firebox. The ends of these are exposed to steam in the boiler and, over time, the threads corrode allowing steam to leak through and trying to get them to seal properly is virtually impossible. Chief Engineer Rob Houghton came up with an ingenious solution, using a variation on the top hat ‘T-nut’ concept. First he drilled out the existing threads, and re-tapped the holes to a larger diameter. Then he fashioned a thicker bolt with a new thread, the centre of which was hollow and also tapped to accept a smaller bolt from the other end, so that the large side could be screwed in from the inside with a smaller normal bolt screwed into the centre tapped part from the outside of the firebox in the normal manner. The biggest advantage is that the head of the larger bolt held tight against the inside face of the firebox makes the arrangement steam tight which will stop further corrosion of the bolts and cure the steam leakage. Rob duly and deservedly stamped the head of the larger bolt with the year and his initials, which, as regular readers may recall, are identical to those of our steam inspector. No favouritism at all but the inspector was highly impressed and possibly flattered!

In a different field, Rob and Dan Laidlaw have been busy building new bogies for the carriage fleet, and during the month, the first two were completed, duly tested and are now in service on one of the wooden carriages where the improved ride quality has been noted. They are nigh on identical to the existing ones and are designed to accept new bought-in wheels which will now become standard across the BLR fleet. These new bogies also feature elaborate braking systems, one bogie having an air compressor pump plus hand operation in the guard’s van section. It is a fail-safe system in that if one brake method is off, the other has to be physically released as well. As the photos show, the detailing is a joy to behold with the hand-brake ‘square-nut’ mechanism being turned in our workshop, a beautiful job.

The month also included a working weekend and mid-week sessions where more mundane tasks were dealt with, these including the inevitable tree pruning and replacing the timbers in crossing locations, almost all of which have now been renewed along the line.

On the 28th, the Bala Lake Railway Trust issued a momentous statement and announced that planning permission has been granted for the new flood defences along the town end of the lake, on top of which part of the railway’s extension is due to be built.

“The 19th May was another major step forward for the extension of the Bala Lake Railway when Natural Resources Wales (NRW) was granted planning permission by Snowdonia National Park Authority to upgrade the flood defences around the town of Bala.

NRW has been a great support to the railway, agreeing to design and incorporate the additional civil engineering required for the railway to be laid on top of the defences along the north shore of the lake.

As a result of a successful fund-raising campaign in February, the Trust is now able to enter into an agreement with NRW to pay for the additional engineering work and we can look forward to the turning of the first sod towards the end of the year.

This work will cover nearly a third of the whole route and the Trust wishes to express its deep gratitude to NRW. With planning permission now granted for NRW, the Trust will imminently be submitting the application for planning permission for the full 1200m length of the extension”.

The Bala Re-Railed event is almost upon us and this event will be quite an occasion for the railway and the town of Bala. Fifty or so yards of two foot track, kindly loaned by our friends at the Festiniog Railway, has been laid across the new town station site. Prior to the event, Winifred will be transported from Llanuwchllyn and during the weekend of the 12th/13th June, will provide rides for visitors with one of the Penrhyn quarrymen’s coaches across the site, not a huge distance but an extremely significant one as this will be the first time since the 1960s that a steam engine has operated in Bala.

During the event, the design of the proposed new station at Bala will be revealed to the public for the very first time. This is another testimony that the BLR Trust is well on its way to achieving its aim to get the line back into Bala and during both days, Trust Chairman Julian Birley will be taking parties on walking trips along the path of the new trackbed and explaining not only the intricacies of the huge amounts of paperwork involved but also highlighting the incredible co-operation received from all associated bodies, political and otherwise. To compliment Winifred, a miniature railway of 7 ¼ inch gauge has been laid around the station site and will provide rides for the brave and hearty! Classic vehicles of all shapes, sizes and genres will be on display and it never ceases to amaze where all these beauties appear from. Entry to the site is free on both days although contributions, however large or small, will be most welcomed. An intensive train service will operate between Llanuwchllyn and the present Bala station between 10:10am and 4:00pm, with a free vintage bus connection into town. The two days will be memorable – and very significant.

BLRS 2022 Calendar

We have mentioned the Bala Lake Railway Society in these pages before but it is worth a reminder that this group of like-minded people are going from strength to strength, as witnessed by the latest edition of its periodical, Llanuwchllyn Express. The magazine looks at railway life from a different aspect and reading it will afford a rounded view of what happens and who makes it happen. Recent editions have included a new ‘Around the Railway’ section where what seems like a random selection of photographs actually gives the reader a really human insight into the working of the line as well as the volunteers and supporters who make it all happen. On top of producing a really interesting journal, they produce special compilation editions and hot off the press are calendars for 2022 which are selling fast. If not already a member, please look at the website as the membership fee is modest whereas the benefits are enormous.

The Bala Lake Railway Society 2022 calendar is fresh off the printing press and available for purchase. It might barely be summer – but these things tend to fly off the shelf so best secure your copy now by clicking here

You can find out more about the Bala Lake Railway Society by clicking here

And finally…… we frequently feature the railway’s four-legged pair but for something completely different this time, history is to the fore and we mention the BLR Archive which is being prepared and will be launched later in the year.

Over the years, an immense number of photographs and pieces of information from way back have appeared, either by acquisition or donation, these showing not only what Llanuwchllyn was like in GWR days (before that personification of political duplicity Ernest Marples and his henchman Dr Beeching got busy) but also the historical side of the famous slate quarries where some of our locos spent their working lives. As well as containing material already held by the railway, members of the public will be encouraged to add their own historic material to help complete the record. This archive, when completed, will perfectly complement our award-winning Heritage Centre and considerably add to the history of the slate industry and this region of North Wales which we try so hard to preserve and enhance. There is history everywhere and with the archive, we will be able to make a really worthwhile further contribution. Watch this space.