Railways of Wales in the 1960s by John Evans
A gap of just over sixty years separates my two visits to the delightful little Welshpool and Llanfair Railway. Today it is an important and successful tourist attraction; back in the 1960s it was a fledgling heritage railway short on money and equipment, but long on enthusiasm and ambition. Like many old lines, British Railways finally gave it the axe in the mid-1950s, mothballing the two little engines and allowing the route to succumb to nature.
But as with so many old railways, especially narrow gauge lines in Wales, there always seems to be someone out there with a Grand Plan. In this case a group of volunteers gamely revived about half the line and it was in this pioneering state when I went for a ride. Compare that with today’s prosperous situation. There is a generous sized booking hall and bookshop (lots of Amberley books – ‘Would you sign some for us please?’). I duly obliged. The engines and coaches are immaculate. At the end of the line I chatted with the driver and showed him some pictures on my phone from my forthcoming book The Railways on Wales in the 1960s. He gazed at them, identifying some of the early personalities who had been at the forefront of getting things going again in the 1960s. When the book appeared a short while ago I was delighted to send him a copy – and the bookshop manager assured me it would be a regular stock item for the railway.
Going back to somewhere special after many years can be a mistake. It’s all too easy to rewind the clock with dewy eyes and overlook the negatives. In the case of the railways in Wales, they are different today, but just as good. Better actually, as they are mature and vibrant parts of the Welsh tourist industry. When I visited the Vale of Rheidol Railway in 1966 it was still run by British Railways. We drove there in my little cream Fiat 600. The crews did their best, but a clean engine was interpreted very differently on the Vale of Rheidol from enthusiast-operated lines like the Ffestiniog and Talyllyn. Today the Rheidol railway is also run by enthusiasts, and if a spot of oil appears somewhere on the engine, it is immediately wiped away to keep everything pristine. All this is wonderful for the average visitor, but dare I say I quite liked the old British Railways line with its driver in grubby overalls getting paid for doing an honest day’s endeavor.
One of the pleasures of writing what I call ‘living history’ – putting a personal touch on events from years ago – is the letters and comments received about subjects being recalled. Of course it would be nice to have had some of these before the book was written! But you meet some wonderful people when researching your narrative. A young volunteer at the Ffestiniog Railway was peering at some pictures in my book and could hardly believe how ‘small and amateurish’ everything looked. Today the Ffestiniog is a big business, but – like other Welsh railways – it retains the intrinsic charm of the old days. In 1966, you could wander around workshops and possibly get a ride on the footplate if you asked nicely. These days, health and safety has reared its head and no doubt you would need a hard hat, training course and hi-vis jacket to do anything remotely like the escapades we got up to. But flicking through the pages of my book with an old friend who accompanied me on my railway adventures back in the 1960s was enough to prompt us into action. We’ve booked a cottage in Wales next summer and – now as a foursome – will relive our youth. Anyone know where I can rent a little Fiat?
John Evans' new book Railways of Wales in the 1960s is available for purchase now.