A new rail connection for Blaenau Ffestiniog?

In a 2019 issue of the Ffestiniog Railway Society magazine, a brief article described the early days of a project to restore the Dinas branch at the Blaenau Ffestiniog end of the line, thus reconnecting the town centre with the area in the midst of the slate heaps to the south of the Conwy Valley line tunnel (see the above map from Wikipedia which shows the complex FR layout around Blaenau). A useful history of the branch is give here.  It was lifted in the 1950s but the trackbed remains visible and accessible to the west of the Conwy Valley line south of the Ffestiniog tunnel. The main driver for the project would have been to provide a connection between the town centre station and the Llechwedd quarry, to the east of the Conwy Valley line near the tunnel portal, which has become a major tourist attraction, both in terms of its mining heritage but also as a mountain cycling and zip line venue. Unfortunately, with the advent of the pandemic, this project seems to have dropped from view, which is hardly surprising. The idea was raised recently once again on the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways Insider Facebook page, and the large potential costs of re-opening the branch against the potential income was again emphasized as the main barrier to taking this idea further.

Whilst I quite understand why the project has not progressed, it still seems to me that the initial reason for the proposed re-opening still remains. The centre of Blaenau has been transformed in recent years, but it is still an area that requires much investment in its future. To have its major tourist attraction an inconvenient mile and a half out of town with no public transport links, does little to help with the development of the town itself – indeed visitors to Llechwedd have no real need to stop off in the town centre at all. And of course the lack of any public transport connection simply encourages what is being increasingly appreciated as the unsustainable use of the private car. Thus in this brief post I suggest a way in which this project could be taken forward in what might be an affordable fashion (although I present no sort of cost benefit analysis at all).

The basic idea is simple – instead of relaying the former Dinas branch, the existing track formation of the Conwy Valley line should be used instead. With the current level of service provision on the line, in normal times the section from Roman Bridge just north of the  tunnel is occupied for only 45 minutes every 3 hour period. With a little imagination in the development of a signaling system to ensure safety, I would suggest that the line between the town centre and Dinas could be used for a shuttle service to take visitors between the town centre and the quarry complex when that section of track is not occupied. This could be done in two, relatively cheap, ways – either through the use of (lung destroying) standard gauge heritage DMUs, between the Conwy Valley line platform and a new platform at Dinas (which could be positioned on the eastern, Llechwedd side of the track and would avoid the need for a foot crossing that would be inherent in the relaying of the FR Dinas branch) and an access road to the quarry. More interestingly, a narrow-gauge track could be laid within the standard gauge track, with switches to allow narrow gauge trains to access these rails from the FT station, and a short station branch at Dinas. This would of course allow existing FR stock to be used.

Both these alternatives should be much cheaper than the relaying of the branch and could provide an attractive link between town and quarry. Realistically however they are likely to meet with strong opposition from the very conservative Network Rail culture, with its massively inflated approvals procedure, and great determination would be required to take forward these or other similar ideas.

At some stage in the future, I will write another blog post on the development of public transport links within the World Heritage Slate Landscape region – there is much to be said about transforming the current private vehicle dominated system into something that could be accessed by public transport. But that is for another day / week / month / year.

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