Alice the little Welsh engine

 Croeso, welcome to the award winning Bala Lake Railway 
"Home of Alice the Little Welsh Engine"   

Latest News from the Bala Lake Railway

July 2018 Update

 

We started July on a very sad note when we learned of the death of Wendy Levy who had been suffering the horrible effects of a brain tumour for over a year. Wendy and her husband, Martin, who is a director of the BLR, were, for years, frequent volunteers on the railway, always doing, amongst many other duties, both days of a working weekend in all weathers. Although naturally not keen on the heavy track-work, Wendy would resolutely spend all day cutting bushes and helping Martin with fencing, the most notable section being near the disused crossing at the bottom of Dolfawr Bank where a mass of blackthorn bushes proliferate. There was never (or rarely) a word of complaint and everyone involved can testify not only to her sterling efforts but also how cantankerous those blackthorn bushes can be.

Wendy was also an extremely hard working member of the café volunteer staff, as well as looking after the accommodation, always doing a first rate job, and without fail welcomed everyone with a lovely smile. Her help was invaluable during Galas, looking after stands on the platform, as well as decorating Llanuwchllyn and Flag Halt for the Santa Specials and Halloween events, where she would dress for the latter in an appropriate and most effective witch costume, albeit with the end result looking far too glamorous!

Everyone who knew her, whether well or just casually, spoke of their great sadness at the news. She engendered friendliness and goodwill everywhere and she will be greatly missed.


July was a good month, helped by the wonderful weather and renowned local scenery which encouraged visitors. David Jones, the BLR General Manager, summed up the passenger numbers in one sentence; “Following on from our best June on record, we have enjoyed the best July since 1992, with numbers for the month up by nearly 4% on last year”.

At the end of the month, the yearly ‘Alice’ Day took place, this being not only a celebration of our Hunslet of the same name but also of the wonderful books about that loco and her friends, written and illustrated by the famous author, Pauline Hazelwood. The day started slowly but soon became very busy, with lots of visitors joining Pauline on the platform where she read to children, did impromptu sketches, signed copies of her books and chatted to everyone, also showing quite a command of Spanish, French and Welsh, a language she is working hard on improving. Alice wore her usual ‘face’ for the occasion and even some children got in on the act!

Alice the Little Welsh Engine

Eagle-eyed visitors may have noticed that, on her return from the Hunslet 125 Gala at the Festiniog Railway, Alice was ‘turned’ and now faces east, whereas all our other locos face west.


On the Engineering front, a new permanent crossing was installed to the east of the new carriage extension which will provide access to a new hard area for the storage of heavy implements, plus extra parking for staff and volunteers during Galas. A certain well-known Bentley was the first vehicle to venture on to the crossing but the official name, to rule out any confusion, will be decided at a later date.

The hot weather did not only affect the national rail network. The BLR experienced marginal movement in the track in exposed areas but not to the extent of cancelling services. The engineering team anticipated the issue and was duly prepared, knowing exactly where a problem with heat-warped rails might occur, hence our photo of the ballast train checking for any trouble spots. Luckily there were few, and those not serious, but any slight deviation was eased or corrected straight away. Likewise, the dry weather could have caused local fire problems but the verdant nature of our countryside meant that nothing happened and, again, the train crews were prepared.

Ballast Train

We mentioned the arduous task of changing our couplings to one standard ‘chopper’ pattern and Rob Houghton, our Chief Engineer, has been beavering away at the lengthy and very time-consuming job. This is a very involved operation, combining as it does numerous bits to make just one coupling, as our photo shows, and this includes five rubber doughnuts for shock absorbing, plus all the washers and other small parts. This is an on-going process and so far, Alice and Maid Marian have been modified together with a couple of items of rolling stock, but the rest of the carriage fleet will be completed in due course.

Chopper coupling under construction   Chopper couplings in use

Regular observers of the railway will have spotted that Maid Marian is back in service sporting her restored full cab, exactly as we planned. Our photo shows her in idyllic surroundings.

Maid Marian with her cab

Progress on the Penrhyn Coach continues well, as described by David Hale. “Larry Piper has now completed the seat squabs. He brought over one to check the fit and then delivered the ones for the side benches. They do look good, definitely top quality workmanship! He is still waiting for the turned legs and arm rests for the side benches, but is now working on the backrests which should arrive soon. I have been working on the vents to be fitted in the sides which should be finished soon, weather permitting, but the workshop is akin to an oven and the carriage is even warmer since the windows were fitted!” Photos will follow in due course but for the time being, the seats are being left in their protective wrapping.

As our photos from Rod Fairley show, the Carriage & Wagon team has been continuing with the new Llangower signal frame hut. At least Llangower affords them some shade in which to work.

Llangower Signal Hut  Llangower Signal Hut


No sooner has one event passed than another three appear in the diary. On the 2nd, 9th and 16th August, we have Barbecue Trains departing at 18.15 after normal schedules have finished. These extra trains leave Llanuwchllyn and stop at Llangower on the way back where passengers can enjoy a barbecue on the beach and watch the sun go down across the lake. The location is a photographer’s paradise, with soft light and majestic scenery, and the barbecue is supplied by one of the local butchers in Bala, their reputation being exemplary. The first run on the 2nd was comfortably filled, and many positive comments were heard about the journey and the quality of the food. Seats are still available for the 9th and 16th but do not leave it too late to book! Please see our website for further details and latest availability.

Sunset at Llangower on a BBQ train 

The other major event in August is the Mini Steam Gala over the Bank Holiday weekend 25th - 27th. The traditional title of ‘Mini’ is perhaps a trifle misleading as there will be all the usual attractions of a BLR Gala, including photo-freights and at least double-heading with the whole locomotive fleet being in operation. Add into that will be our ever-popular ‘Driver for a Fiver’ along the station loop, where anyone can take the controls of one of our Hunslet locos, complete with all the sensations of steam, smells and atmosphere, an experience not to be missed. For those more interested in watching from a distance, the BLR is unique in that there are so many wonderful vantage points along the entire length of the line for photography, which is why we enjoy the well-earned sobriquet of ‘The Lineside Line’.


And finally….. the human touch is what makes so many things tick, particularly at the BLR, and we show a delightful photo of BLR Director Judge Peter Heywood (on the right), a regular volunteer on the railway, when he shared the footplate with Dave Fildes, the first time they had been together since they were in the same class at school (Ysgol John Bright) in Llandudno. Sometimes, the world can be providentially small!

Peter Heywood and Dave Fildes


June 2018 Update

It started with an innocuous dinner in a delightful restaurant in Bala High Street called Y Cyfnod, named after the newspaper which was published at that address. Being the sort of town where a lot of people are known socially because of their achievements and occupations, this dinner was deliciously interrupted by several other diners, known and unknown, who came over to say hello and discuss the extension into Bala Town which is progressing apace. All without exception agreed that the new facilities will be an enormous boon to the town, and the upshot of these impromptu chats is what you see below, in Welsh and English, on the fence surrounding the cleared site of the proposed station.

New signs at Bala station site

With the whole site cleared and nicely levelled, plus an early delivery of track-work neatly stacked in the corner, this was the most demonstrable exhibition of intent that the railway will arrive in town. There is much to be done in the meantime, but if the cleared site says anything at all, it is that we are not talking about a proposal but deadly serious intent, and the impromptu arrivals at the dinner table were delighted. The Bala Lake Railway means business.


Volunteering is the one aspect of railway life that needs no introduction, as all heritage railways need volunteers to carry out all manner of tasks. At the beginning of the month, we were delighted to welcome Ailith Rutt to the hallowed ranks of fully qualified guards, Ailith being one of the number who joined the BLR, together with her husband David, after the last Volunteer Day, run by Russell Prince and his team.

Ailith's first train

Ailith expressed an interest in becoming a guard, always a position keenly encouraged by the railway, and we were delighted that she rapidly qualified and took control of her first train with great success.

Volunteers cover all manner of tasks and the woes of our R&H diesel Chilmark have been keeping volunteer Mike Roberts busy for quite a while. As previously reported, the erratic running of the big diesel motor has been causing concern and it was eventually found that the bevel gear drive to the injection pump had become severely worn, thus upsetting the fine timing. Mike has been using all his diesel knowledge on this tedious problem, experience built up over many years while running his own transport company, thus he is perfectly placed to deal with the elusive problems that this venerable loco is producing. If anyone can sort it out, he can, and we are grateful for his tenacity. We will report next month on this and other engineering tasks in hand.


We have not mentioned the Penrhyn Coach recently but David Hale has sent his latest update, with the emphasis being on the hand-brake wheel and mounting for the interior of the coach. David takes up the story; “As mentioned previously, making the pedestal and the cap for the brake wheel has taken longer than anticipated, a case of think of a number and double it! As you see from the photos, the assembly is now complete although there are still some metal fittings needed. The original unit in the carriage in the Penrhyn Museum was covered in a black Rexine material which looks untidy, hence I have applied a finish of clear varnish which brings out the grain of the wood”.

Penrhyn coach brake stand  Penrhyn coach brake stand

Again, we cannot state too strongly that this is all done by David alone and virtually everything is made by hand. At least this time, we will be able to see and savour his expertise which will not be hidden, unlike so many other facets of this incredible project where nothing is compromised and short-cuts never enter the vocabulary. It is very hard indeed to describe adequately the skill and dedication that is going into making this one-off coach such a unique and spectacular addition to heritage narrow-gauge rolling stock.


June of course was a rather special month for the BLR in that, after the success of the double Model Railway Show and Festival of Transport at the end of May, our Steam Gala on the 16th – 18th was followed immediately by five days of activity with visiting locomotives while our Hunslet fleet departed to enjoy itself on the Festiniog Railway during its Hunslet 125 Festival, this being a perfect example of the perennial good-will and co-operation between Welsh and other railways, particularly those with two feet between the rails.

Gwynedd

For our own Steam Gala, we were delighted to welcome Gwynedd, normally based at Bressingham, a sister Penrhyn Quarry loco of the same class as our own Winifred, (their first meeting for 70 years) as well as Marchlyn, now part of the Statfold Barn Trust collection, and a return visit by the National Trust’s Hugh Napier, which regular readers might recall was hurriedly organised to deputise for George B during our gala last August. Needless to say, the traditional BLR practice of ‘multi-heading’ was not omitted from the proceedings, and as we show in the selection of photos from the event, it is difficult to capture the real atmosphere in photos alone. Let the imagination loose.

Gwynedd and Winifred double head a train  Marchlyn

To have one visiting loco is fun, but a famous trio is very special indeed and here we must pay tribute to an aspect of these events that is rarely discussed, that of transporting these wonderful machines from place to place. Our locos went to the FR and others came to Llanuwchllyn with the absolute minimum of fuss, care of James Milner who has rather cornered the market in transporting narrow gauge locos all over the country. His father, Duncan, set up the specialist haulage company and James, together with his brother, Thomas, are continuing the tradition. Bearing in mind that these little delights are no light-weights (six plus tons apiece), the equipment has to be special and the expertise of the highest order.

Milner transportation in action

The articulated low-loader in James’ instance is already fitted with 2 ft. gauge rails, meaning that there is no time wasted in getting suitable track set up on the truck, and it is of the common type of low-loader that splits at the ‘neck’ next to the rear axle of the prime mover, thus only a few inches above ground level. So many movements take place that getting the trailer in the correct position is done with hardly a thought, and let us not forget that most small gauge railways are in decidedly inaccessible locations, but James has yet to be defeated in getting his ‘rig’ through the tiniest of gaps. All fans of heritage railways should spare a thought for the expertise of these unsung heroes of the ‘movement’, and every member of staff, volunteers and anyone involved with heritage railways are most grateful to these vital and unheralded members of the jigsaw.


Whilst James was busy spiriting our engines away, Gwynedd and Marchlyn stayed on a few days to run our regular services, before Gwynedd also joined the increasing gathering at Hunslet 125. Our fleet was extensively used on the FR and our drivers had a great time using locos on rails that climbed a bit more severely than on the languid terrain on the BLR.

Palmerston at Pentrepiod

Possibly the biggest attraction at Bala was the arrival of Palmerston, one of the FR’s oldest locos as well as arguably the first tender loco to run alongside Bala Lake since BR days in the 1960s.

Palmerston dealt with the schedule at the end of the week and was hugely admired by crews and visitors alike.


And finally….. we unashamedly include this delightful photo of the BLR pump-trolley, constructed by Dan Laidlaw a while back, which has now ventured far along the line with spectacular views on a perfect summer evening.

The pump trolley made it to Llangower

With an untainted, soot-free breeze in one’s face, a gentle action doing wonders for fitness and a different type of rhythmical rattle to accompany progress, what could be better?


May 2018 Update

May was a good month for the railway, a very good month. Our numbers were up by 20% over May last year, and we are now virtually level-pegging for the year with our best ever in 2017. This has been helped by two busy Bank Holidays in the month as well as a very large dose of genuine Welsh sunshine, (not the liquid variety), plus we had the strange situation where winter changed straight into summer without bothering with spring. Perhaps we were busy on the phone when the seasons changed.


The major event of the month was the big Bank Holiday weekend where we were not only running double train scheduling alongside the yearly Festival of Transport, but it all tied in with the annual Model Railway Show held in Bala School.

Two trains passing over the Bank Holiday weekend

The Festival of Transport saw the usual wide variety of machinery and crafts on display and demonstration, with the usual accompanying subtle aromas. This was well attended as usual, and even a huge downpour on the Sunday afternoon did little to dampen the atmosphere. Our stalwart loco crews on their open cab locos carried on as if nothing had happened, exactly as the quarry drivers would have done in Dinorwic and elsewhere more than half a century ago.

The Model Railway Show was a resounding success, with the number of visitors being two and a half times that of 2017, albeit with the show spread over three days this year. There were over 30 layouts on display, and the sheer variety and diversity of layouts in varied scales was enough to tempt anyone to get into this pastime, all prompting much favourable comment about the different themes and, in particular, the quality of the layouts which had been brought from far and wide.

 

Tony Hill had come up from Folkestone with his 16mm scale slate diorama, and others had comes from as far afield as Chester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Scotland. One couple, Gerry and Jenna Byrne, had journeyed from Ireland (again) with a beautifully detailed layout of what Llanuwchllyn looked like in GWR days, and our photo below shows them with our own John Roberts who worked for many years at Llanuwchllyn and other stations in the area in the standard gauge era.

Gerry and Jenna Byrne

Also to be seen in increasing numbers were what are termed ‘boxfile’ layouts, two being shown by the BLR engineer, Dan Laidlaw, where a tiny layout is built into the parameters of an ordinary boxfile, but with no loss of detail. Julian Birley showed his latest split-level slate quarry display which ran automatically and to perfection, and which, for transport, divides into two, the two halves then clipping together on pegs and dowels to form of a convenient box for ease of transport.

   

It was without doubt the best model show yet and we express sincere thanks to not only all the exhibitors but also, in particular, to Richard and Judy Wallace for all their efforts in bringing together a fantastic range of layouts, and to Barbara Cooper and her team of helpers for running it so efficiently over the weekend.


The news on Locomotives this month revolves around, firstly, Maid Marian which now has been united with her new water tank. Our engineering team mentioned laconically that it needed a bit of shoving and persuasion to get it into position but it eventually seated properly.

Maid Marian 4th June 2018  Maid Marian 4th June 2018

She is currently being repainted, ready for service again, and such is the demand for her return that completing her lining may have to wait, but she will be welcomed back in her ‘cabbed’ form again.

Our number 2 diesel, Chilmark, is still suffering from her injector pump timing-gear problems. The top pair of bevel gears were removed easily and found, with the locating ‘keys’, to be badly worn. But getting at the lower pair, which takes their drive from the back of the camshaft, necessitated removal of her (very heavy) engine, and the wear was found to be considerable, which means new gears will have to be manufactured specially. As soon as the replacement items arrive, our team of Rob and Dan will attack the issue, and they are not the only ones who will welcome her back into service.


The Carriage & Wagon team have been making steady progress on the new signal cabin at Llangower, which is nearing completion. The roof has been constructed with ply wood, on to which will be fixed proper Welsh slates. Originality is the key.


And finally….. it will be Gala time again in June. From the 16th to 18th, we will have a Penrhyn Quarry theme with our own Winifred joining forces for the first time since leaving the quarry with her Penrhyn ‘twin’, Gwynedd, as well two other ex Penrhyn locomotives, Hugh Napier and Marchllyn.

From the 19th to 21st and then 23rd and 24th June (but not 22nd), the BLR will be operated by visiting guest engines as we are lending all our Hunslet locos to the Ffestiniog Railway for their Hunslet Gala. The ‘guest’ locos will include Palmerston visiting us from the Ffestiniog Railway which, incidentally, will be the first tender loco to haul a passenger train on this stretch of line since mainline days. Full details are available on our 'Special Events' page. Likewise, it is possible to combine the best of both worlds and call in to see our visiting locomotives en route to the Hunslet 125 event in Porthmadog on the 21st or on the way home on the 24th. This is going to be a week to remember. 


April 2018 Update

As we mentioned last month, the Easter break, being a moving feast from one year to the next, has a big impact on travelling numbers at the start of the season and makes planning even more difficult. An early Easter straddling the end of March and early April is never good news as it creates a perception that it is still winter and far too cold to go on holiday, although many hardy visitors were rewarded for their endeavours by travelling on the line in crisp snow, a magical rarity. This year perception bore a huge similarity to reality, but even so the railway enjoyed a reasonably busy Easter period, and whilst numbers for April were lower than last year, (when the railway enjoyed a bumper late warm Easter) the figures for the year to date are still better than expected.


Saturday 7th April saw a race with a difference on the railway, possibly unique in the world of railway heritage. Having a lake on the doorstep, so to speak, inspired the ‘Beat the Train – Paddle-Board Race’.

The train started at Llanuwchllyn and met the paddle-boarders at the delightfully minimalist halt at Pentrepiod (it vies for the title of the shortest platform in the UK) which is situated at the western end of the lake. With the paddle-boarders at the ready and supporters aboard the train, the locomotive’s whistle was the starting signal and the two modes of transport set off. In the interests of sporting chivalry, the train made its way slowly to Llangower Halt, all the while with the accompanying vocal encouragement from supporters on the train, and then halted, not only for signals but also for the paddle-boarders to catch up.

Race the Train

There was another halt at what is known as the ‘sea wall’, the wonderful stretch of line that runs along the edge of the lake, after which it became a serious race to the finish at the sailing club at the eastern end of the lake, with the train becoming a moving (and noisier) spectator platform. Once the train arrived at Bala, it was a sprint for one of the train crew from the station to the sailing club, the two locations not exactly being close to each other, and it turned out to be a very close finish, the train having to keep within speed and safety restrictions. The first paddle-boarder arrived just as the railway’s representative put a toe in the water, and in the interests of competitive sportsmanship, the race was declared a dead-heat, the main prize being that everyone had enjoyed themselves enormously, the paddle-boarders probably increased their fitness and several supporters on the train became hoarse. We look forward to the next race.


At the end of April, the BLR hosted the third Volunteer Recruitment Day, organised by Russell Prince and his team. He reports;

Participants had already registered their interest in advance and the day finally arrived for them to try out anything and everything that appealed to them.

With an atmosphere of eager anticipation, the day started at 9am with a ‘meet and greet’, plus the necessary safety briefing and medical form. Participants were then allocated into teams along with an itinerary of what the day held in store. The main aim of the day was to allow everyone to get a real feel for most aspects of what can be done as part of the operation and maintenance of the railway.

During the day, participants went out on the footplate of a service train and also travelled with the guard to see how the ‘other end’ works. They also rode on the footplate of the other loco in steam around the station limits of Llanuwchllyn as well as operating signals in the station box which gave them the chance to understand what each signal does. There was also the opportunity to get their hands dirty by helping to replace a few old sleepers along the coal siding.

For the last train of the day, the service was ‘top ‘n tailed’, hence more footplate rides and experience, after which there was a feedback and debrief session. Feedback was good, with all saying that the day had worked very well and had allowed them to get the most out of what was on offer, with a good appreciation of the varied duties and tasks involved. Hopefully, all will return as volunteers soon.

Volunteer Recruitment Day

As a final comment, two of the group have already signed as serious volunteers and have booked their first group of working dates.


Our locomotives continue to provide serious service, and the news this month is the progress on the new water tank and cab back panel for Maid Marian. The photographs show what the engineering team has been up to, and we look forward to seeing Maid Marian back on duty soon. If nothing else, her reinstated full cab with be popular with crews during the occasional unfortunate conditions sometimes experienced.

Maid Marian's new tank  Maid Marian's new cab


Major events are coming up thick and fast. At the end of May, the 26th to 28th will feature not only increased running on the line but it will be the annual BLR Great Little Trains Model Railway Exhibition held at Bala School. In years past, the variety of narrow gauge layouts on display has been a huge draw for visitors of all ages, and this year promises to be even better with at least 30 layouts, 20 of which will feature narrow-gauge. There will be, as always, a free heritage bus transfer from the school to Bala Station, particularly as parking at Llanuwchllyn may be the preferred option, thereby giving visitors the best of all worlds. A two train timetable will mean that waiting time will be minimal, and Llanuwchllyn station is such a great environment in which to relax.

At the same time, the 27th and 28th will feature the annual Bala Lake Festival of Transport in the large field next to Llanuwchllyn Station, this show being organised entirely by the Meirionnydd NVTEC Tractor Club, and any enquiries about entries or whatever should be addressed to Allen Main on 01678-530408. As in years gone by, this promises to be a wonderful gathering of varied machinery, trucks, tractors, cars, country crafts and everything in between, with the added bonus of loads of nostalgia and interesting aromas.

As always with these events, we greatly appreciate any assistance from volunteers, thus if you would like to help with the Model Railway Show, please get in contact with David Jones at the BLR on 01678-540666. The enthusiasm always flows and even helping in the canteen, as this writer has done, is enormous fun as you are dealing with like-minded people.


Dates for next month are, firstly, 16th to 18th June where the dates of our annual Steam Gala have actually moved to tie in with the Ffestiniog Railway. Our theme this year will be the Penrhyn Quarry and will feature our own Winifred, as well as visiting ex-Penrhyn engines Hugh Napier and Gwynedd, the latter being a twin to Winifred, as well as the pair being two of the three Port Class engines from the Penrhyn Quarry, to be re-united here for the first time since they left the quarry in the 1960s. There will be a busy timetable of passenger and demonstration freight trains, plus other attractions to be planned in the meantime, as well as, we hope, another loco with Penrhyn connections. Watch this space.

Following straight on from the Penrhyn Gala will be two more periods of furious activity on the 19th to 21st June and the 23rd/24th June where visiting engines will be taking over on the regular services while all our resident locos are ‘going on holiday’ to the Ffestiniog to take part in their Hunslet 125 Gala. Gwynedd is the scheduled motive power for the first couple of days, before we welcome the Ffestiniog’s famous Palmerston, a George England built 0-4-0ST and tender. We stand to be corrected but believe this will be the first time that a tender engine has operated services on the BLR (Tender engines were of course a common sight on the route in its previous existence). Please make a note of these important dates as these events again demonstrate the co-operation between other railways in the area. Just think of the variety that will be seen over that period.


The Carriage & Wagon team have been concentrating on the new Llangower signal cabin this month in their efforts to make the new structure water-tight. The window apertures are being glazed and the new cabin should be finished in the coming weeks.

Llangower new signalbox


We include a photograph of the completed HLF sponsored Carriage Shed Extension/Interpretation Centre, this time filled with our collection of heritage stock. The shed is now being used for loco storage as well, thus freeing up vital space in the main loco shed/workshop.

New interpretation centre/carriage shed  New interpretation centre/carriage shed

Heritage Lottery Fund


And finally…….. it is delightful to note further comment after last month’s station webcam discovery of innocuous tea-drinking. The unfortunate recipient of such scrutiny made a couple of off-the-cuff quotes which we print here, the first being apposite in view of recent events in a different world; “That webcam brings out the voyeur in us all”.

His second summed up what we all at the BLR strive to achieve; “The growth of the railway raises one’s enjoyment of being part of it”.


March 2018 Update

Donations of railwayana to the Bala Lake Railway are always appreciated but, very occasionally, something of great relevance suddenly appears, the kindness of which takes us by surprise. In this instance, we received a call out of the proverbial blue from a renowned collector of railwayana in Bristol, Keith Skilleter. He had been following our activities and asked if the railway would like a Hunslet loco builder’s plate for our trusty loco, Holy War, an offer we rapidly and gratefully accepted. The call arrived on a Sunday and, as luck would have it, a volunteer was due to drive up to Llanuwchllyn the following day, so contact was made and the plate was duly collected after a small deviation.

Heritage railways thrive on the kindness and generosity of not only volunteers but also that of collectors who feel that, as custodians of something truly historic, the time has come to ‘pass the baton’, so to speak. The BLR is therefore greatly indebted to Keith Skilleter for his wonderful kindness, and he has the satisfaction of knowing that his bequest has gone to the perfect home.


The month of March has been busy but activities and attendance have been tempered by the weather, in particular the St David’s Day services on which free travel is offered to local residents, dependent on suitable paperwork. Unfortunately, it snowed – hard.

Snow on our St. Davids Day services

Nevertheless, a number of hardy souls arrived to enjoy what one visitor described as ‘a magical trip in a winter wonderland’. It was much appreciated that Gwynedd Council had done a sterling job of keeping the main roads clear, all necessary staff arrived on time and intrepid travellers actually had little if any trouble getting to the railway. Needless to say, the line may have been covered with snow but had been carefully checked before the first train started. While passenger numbers were not quite what we would have hoped for, those who managed to arrive enjoyed a memorable day.

As for the whole month, passenger numbers were actually up on March last year by 45% and while this sounds spectacular, one should remember that the ‘season’ started earlier this year, allied to the fact that Easter was earlier too. With such variables entering the equation, we await the beginning of May to make a more accurate assessment of the year-to-date performance.


The BLR is always delighted to accommodate ‘specials’, and in this context, Monday 26th was definitely one to remember. Winifred was steamed to haul the three Penrhyn open passenger wagons, and the whole operation was for Mr. David Jones, (not our General Manager), who is the grandson of Winifred’s last driver at the Penrhyn Quarry. Together with family and friends, all who were there enjoyed a very special and poignant day.

Winifred on her Special Train  Winifred on her Special Train

Winifred on her Special Train  Winifred on her Special Train


As the operational season really gets going, the Wednesday Gang and Working Weekends come to a close, and those in March achieved a great deal and on schedule.

Wednesday Gang ready to go down the line

Those attending the working weekend were split into three gangs for varied tasks, and it is of great note that amidst the assembled were three father-and-son combinations, which bodes well for the future. Among the myriad jobs finished, the Bala Station sign was rehung (not as easy as it might sound), 87 sleepers were replaced between Llangower and the overbridge and, after digging deep foundations for the new signal lever hut at Llangower, concrete was poured. The erection of the new signal hut commenced at Llangower a few days later.

Llangower signal hut under construction

Nothing is done by halves. The third gang got seriously busy with tree pruning along the stretch of line that passes the sailing club at the Bala end of the line.

Gang 3 at the Working Weekend

On top of all this frenetic activity, new doors have been fitted to the station end of the carriage shed, thus complimenting those at the end of the new shed extension. It goes to show just how much can be achieved with enough volunteers, all of whom shared the same positive mind-set. Traditional BLR tea and flapjacks helped, of course.


Visitors to the railway and the website may have spotted four new sets of wheels outside the loco shed, a routine occurrence, it might be argued, but there is more to this than meets the eye.

While all the operational locos, including the diesels, have to have yearly inspections, all the passenger rolling stock, together with some of the more important industrial heritage stock, is also checked carefully. Every coach is lifted off its bogies for a thorough examination, the couplings are checked as well and brake lines are subjected to close scrutiny. Add into this equation, each wheel-set may need reprofiling back to the original shape every two years or so.

New carriage wheels

As a metal ‘tyre’ wears, albeit by a scarcely visible amount, the flanges gradually find themselves more prominent, the consequence being that if not regularly checked, their increased profile could, in extremis, touch point-work and sleepers, with possibly interesting consequences. On one coach, it was found that the wear of the ‘tyres’ (the running surface and flange of the wheel), was beyond practical amendment, hence a new set of wheels and axles was ordered from a Wakefield company called Ian Howitt Engineering.


Our locomotives are performing as per usual standard, and the only excitement is that Maid Marian is to receive shortly a new welded water tank as the old one has been found to be, to use the delightful euphemism, ‘a bit thin in places’.

Maid Marian's new tank under construction

The new tank is due to be fitted during April, and Maid Marian will then be refitted again with her full cab. You may recall that, for last year, she ran in open cab form, exactly as she did when operating at the Dinorwic Quarry a century ago. The engineering team is also constructing a new back plate for the cab as the old one had suffered the effects of years of ‘liquid sunshine’.

On the diesel front, Chilmark is thought to be near the end of her enforced lay-off after the source of an elusive knock from the engine may have been found. A lot of items were checked, including the three individual cylinder heads, and then attention turned to the injector pump, a refurbished item fitted when she received her ‘new’ engine a few years ago. The pump was stripped but nothing untoward was found. Rob Houghton’s attention then turned to the pump drive from the camshaft, a delicious group of skew and bevel gears, amongst which an amount of play was discovered, not only in the gear teeth but also the ‘keys’ on to which the gears are placed. For a 1939 machine, it is surprising that some parts are still easily available, from suppliers whose positive attitudes are a lesson for some car dealers. It is hoped that April will see Chilmark returned to health and service.


And finally……. it seems that nobody is immune from unwanted scrutiny these days. The BLR live webcam (accessible from the website) provides a great deal of enjoyment to those who just want to see what is happening. Unfortunately, the C&W team were taking a well-earned (brief) rest with tea on one of the seats outside the station when they were spotted ‘live’ by one of our stalwart volunteers who was relaxing at home. The consequent, innocent comment on Facebook prompted a degree of ribaldry and humour which, if nothing else, shows that many follow the BLR in its daily progress. However, it seems now that even a quiet cup of tea is not without an audience.


February 2018 Update

February was a month of relative contradictions, with conditions ranging from spring-like and damp to decidedly wintry. Needless to say, during the half-term services, snow fell and the loco rostered for these duties was Maid Marian which is open to the elements. However, that did nothing to temper the crews’ enthusiasm and comments were heard to the effect that being in the open along the lake was ‘bracing’! The passenger numbers over the extended period were 18% up on 2017, a healthy improvement but also bearing in mind that the services ran for over two weeks. Even so, nobody was disappointed.

What loco was rostered for the half-term services depended on what locomotives were available during this annual period of boiler inspections. Holy War, currently our only covered loco, hence popular with the crews, had passed her boiler inspections and was in use for the second phase of services. But protection from the elements is not total, thus the crews were grateful for the warm stove in the signal box between trips. Winifred and George B are due inspections very soon, prepared, as always, by the engineering team headed by BLR Chief Engineer, Rob Houghton, and it is a delicious quirk of circumstance that the name of our boiler inspector is also one Rob Houghton (no relation)! The inspections of Alice and Maid Marian will be completed before Easter, and Maid Marian is to be refitted with her cab again after a year of topless travel. The back-plate to the cab will also be replaced as the original is showing signs of age. Likewise, her water tank is to be replaced as well, and the materials for these amendments/improvements are being funded by the Maid Marian Locomotive Fund.


As ever, there is progress with The Red Dragon Project and the building that was on what will be the new station site in Bala itself has been demolished. Please click on this link to get the full story and photos of this major development, the very first piece of physical activity on our extension into Bala.

With regard to political matters regarding the project, one week in February saw meetings take place with the Welsh Government in Cardiff, followed almost immediately by further consultations at the opposite end of Wales with the Snowdonia National Park Authorities in Llandudno. These are parts of the ‘jigsaw’, and needless to say, it is all ongoing. But when the project is completed, it will make our railway, and the town of Bala, complete.


The new Carriage Shed Extension is in use already and, as our photo shows, our heritage rolling stock is being moved to better positions. The floor of the new shed has been painted in special sealing floor paint.

At the same time, a set of loco oil bottles has been beautifully refurbished, and all painted for their individual locos, typical of the engineering team’ attention to detail.

Carriage Shed Extension  Repainted loco oil cans


New chopper coupling under constructionThe engineering team has also started the daunting task of making new couplings for all the locomotive stock, thus standardising coupling up. With some locos having buffers and others not, the new arrangement will make life considerably easier and faster for the loco crews, plus it will bring the BLR into line with other 2 ft. gauge railways, thus visiting locos from other lines, or ours making visits elsewhere, will experience no problems at all. The other bonus is that as the BLR often features double-heading (and sometimes more), the new coupling arrangement will mean that every loco is compatible and coupling up can be done very quickly.


The Carriage & Wagon Department are drawing up a detailed plan for the year ahead, but in the first instance, their skills are aimed squarely at the woodwork around the station. Apart from finishing off the inspection plates on the second large bogie wagon, (remember those sleepers?), new signs are being made in traditional railway style, to indicate where the toilets are located, even down to beautifully carved ‘pointy fingers’. The back boards for the long main station name-board have had a good dose of preservative applied in readiness for re-erection on the platform. March is a relatively quiet month with little running, apart from activity at the beginning and the last week, (see later), so the team are getting the essentials out of the way before the season starts in earnest.

And finally……. the Wednesday Gang have been working hard in all weathers on a multitude of tasks, and as well as their weekly appearances, the next working weekend is scheduled for the 10th and 11th March. As always, it matters not a bit what you may be good at, we would appreciate any and every bit of help. In spite of the hard work to be carried out, there is always the BLR atmosphere plus copious amounts of tea and flapjacks, definitely a BLR tradition now, in the works wagon for breaks. Please make a note of the dates if you can help. It will be a weekend, firstly memorable, and secondly, very rewarding. We may be a small railway, but we are getting a reputation for great things and achievements.

The ‘season’ starts off in earnest on Sunday, 25th March with hardly a break until October. Please check this website for further details, schedules and special events, such as the Bala Lake Festival of Transport at the end of May, and this includes, on the 31st May, our unique ‘Jackets, No Ties’ event where we cook potatoes in our own special manner, foil-wrapped and in a loco smokebox. They are like no other!


January 2018 Update

As anyone involved with railways will know only too well, the winter season is one of great and varied activity behind the scenes, as well as preparations for the start of passenger services, this year coinciding with half term in mid-February. What follows will give a flavour of the huge amount of work already done, and to be carried out, by an intrepid band which never fails to tackle jobs with enthusiasm and humour (plus tea and flapjacks).


The building of the Carriage Shed Extension, kindly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is now complete, and regular readers will note the progress from previous photos to the present. Having our rolling stock under cover and protected at both ends by sturdy doors will be a boon, not only to existing items but also to those to arrive in the future, including the Penrhyn Coach, progress on which we frequently comment.

New Carriage Shed  New Carriage Shed

Heritage Lottery Fund


Progress on the Penrhyn Coach continues well, in spite of the cramped conditions and winter weather. David Hale reports that the two part-made doors, each featuring 29 individual parts, are being varnished before final assembly. Comment should be made that each door weighs 38kg, hence movement requires extreme care and patience. David can just manage a door on his own! The latest news is that one door is now mounted and the outside still needs a coat of primer. The windows are to be fitted but the liners need to be cut and secured. The situation was not helped by the electricity supplier which needed to do maintenance at exactly the wrong moment. David’s second photo shows the door fitted with the strap and droplight which works exactly as planned (no surprise to us). The panel below the window will be sent to the local upholsterers, Pipers, for the leather panel under the window to be fitted, exactly as per the coach in the Penrhyn Museum on which this recreation is modelled.

Penrhyn coach under construction  Penrhyn coach under construction


The Carriage & Wagon Department has done nothing on rolling stock since their refurbishment of the two heavy duty bogie wagons just before Christmas. BUT their talents have been put to great use elsewhere and the station café dining area has been completely refurbished under the leadership of Dan Laidlaw, with new panelling, furniture, paintwork and is now looking very smart indeed. On top of this major effort, improvements in the accommodation upstairs in the station have been done too, including new heaters and clothes hooks, little items but essential, and they have to be done. The team has also reinforced some of the beds, to counteract the effects of gravity on tired volunteers who sit down too hard! On the agenda for later will be a new station name board and hanging platform signs, plus fitting out our new ‘Interpretation Centre’, the new part of the carriage shed where visitors can inspect in safety (and dryness) our heritage rolling stock and inspect progress in other areas.


More major news this month features, firstly, more track relaying, this time continuing from where the team left off last year, and the section at the far end of the line over the cattle creep known as ‘Durrant’s Drop’, so named delightfully after a keen volunteer’s inadvertent tumble years ago down a bank.

The majority of the work took place over the first working weekend of the year in mid-January, when a large party gathered, keen no doubt to rectify post Xmas expansion. A quarter of a mile of track was carefully dismantled, rails moved aside for later re-fitting, plus all the sleepers lifted clear and stacked to one side, all on the first day! The next day, one group armed themselves with saws and attacked the growth of foliage along the track, while Dan and Rob started ploughing the ballast with their ingenious home-made implements attached to one of the vintage tractors that are always present at the railway.

 Ploughing the ballast  Durrant's Drop Bridge  Durrant's Drop Bridge

Durrant’s Drop bridge, an iron structure, was cleaned and prepared for painting, and it was noted that one of the stone abutments bore the numbers ‘3-60’, possibly indicating the last time the bridge was inspected under BR ownership. When the ballast ploughing has been done, James Milner made a couple of passes with the roller to ensure a perfectly smooth surface, and after the traditional tea and flapjacks, our large team then set about carefully laying new sleepers, from the batch we featured in last month’s news, after which the rails were positioned.

2018 track relay  2018 track relay  2018 track relay

After more careful inspection, the laborious task of lubricating and bolting the fishplates in place was carried out. At the end of the day, eight lengths of track had been completely replaced, and much foliage had been removed which is always a great improvement benefiting passengers and loco crews alike, if not the varied wildlife which precedes and follows each train. Whilst the size of the gang diminished during the week, progress was nevertheless swift, and all 45 lengths were re-laid by Thursday afternoon, a great achievement.


Two Big News items concern the Red Dragon Project this month. Firstly, a new appeal was launched in December, and the response has been excellent, with the £10,000 figure being already passed. This appeal is to fund the construction of the extension track into Bala, and the appeal operates on a ‘donations and benefits-accrued’ basis, with Bronze, Silver and Gold categories, the goodies for which are really outstanding. Please check the website for further details. In addition, 4,000 leaflets have been printed and left in strategic locations such as the BLR station in Llanuwchllyn, and they were also handed out on the BLR stand at the Stafford Model Railway Exhibition at the beginning of February. For further Extension news updates, please go to the official website. http://www.balalakerailwaytrust.org.uk/

The second Extension news item involves the Bala station site and the vexed question of removing asbestos from the existing derelict building. Several rather excessive quotes had been obtained, but a local builder and a specialist asbestos contractor, both recommended by a new volunteer, between them came in with quotes that were significantly cheaper and far more realistic! The saving alone means that nearly enough has been saved so that the strip of land alongside the Bala Rugby Club can be purchased.

These two success stories illustrate exactly the atmosphere of enthusiasm and co-operation that we are finding in the whole area for our extension project. It was never ‘if’, but now it is definitely ‘when’.


Volunteers, that vital ingredient in all heritage railways, need not be just for the heavy and oily stuff. We need volunteers for every aspect of our operation and, indeed, we have just found a new volunteer to help with admin and paperwork, so there is enormous scope for talents to be shown. On that topic, please make a note of the 29th April, when we will be having another of our successful Volunteer Recruitment Days. These events show to all who are interested the huge variety of jobs that need doing, from locomotive cleaning to track maintenance to helping at Galas to – well the list is endless. However hard the task may be, you are among like-minded who want to achieve the same end and, apart from anything else, it is without fail enormous fun, however onerous the job or fickle the climate. Incidentally, we dismiss the latter under the heading of ‘liquid sunshine’.


And finally………. many may have picked up Rob Houghton’s post on Facebook about his intended serious ‘clean-up’ session, for which he needs help. This will cover giving the locomotive fleet a thorough polish, and the coaching stock is to be included if enough people can be found. Again, it will be fun and very productive. For further details, please liaise with Rob through his ‘page’, or contact the railway. All assistance will be gratefully received.

In conclusion, we feature a beautiful photo, taken by Dan Laidlaw, of the recent snow at Llanuwchllyn. For the railway, and Dan’s camera, this was definitely not ‘the wrong type of snow’.

Snow on the line


View our news from previous years by clicking on the following links - 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013