All’s well that ends well for rail society

Reporter:

Rob Bellis

It had been seven years since a train left Llangollen station.

Rubble had been piled as high as the platforms themselves and a variety of flora had taken hold around the station buildings.

Yet a group of enthusiasts saw potential in the defunct line and, 35 years ago next month, the volunteers set about restoring it to its former glory.

Today Llangollen Railway is one of Britain’s most successful heritage lines.

Among those on site when work began in 1975 was Llangollen Railway Trust vice-president Bill Shakespeare.

“It was amazing. Nothing had been done with the land in those seven years,” he said, “but there was a proposal that had been put to the council by a hotel developer who wanted to build on the site.

“We came in with our proposal and it was put to a vote – rumour has it that we won by one.”

The fact that the Llangollen branch was chosen by the group – then known as the Flint and Deeside Railway Preservation Society – had come about quite by chance after one of its members visited the town in 1972.

The initial intention had been to take over the Prestatyn to Dyserth branch but this had been unavailable.

The county council agreed to lease the line on the condition the group laid a mile of track within the first five years before they were granted an extension.

“Most of the original track came from the Shell oil refinery in Ellesmere Port which agreed to let us have it for nothing as long as we were able to move it ourselves,”

Bill recalled. “The volunteers were mainly people from the Wirral and Deeside area but one or two people from the Llangollen area joined soon after we started.

“The condition was that we laid a mile of track in five years to passenger carrying standards.

“We laid half a mile of track as far as the goods yard and half a mile back. Luckily nobody at the council really knew what passenger carrying standards were so we were granted the lease extension.”

When it first started the Llangollen Railway Society, as it was called from 1977 until 1992, had about £500 in its coffers.

Today the railway attracts some 120,000 visitors a year and has an annual turnover of about £1.5 million.

The train and platform staff are volunteers but workers in the tea-rooms, shop and busy engineering workshop – which is booked up until the end of 2011 – are paid making the railway Llangollen’s second largest employer.

A transport and works order has just been granted by the Welsh Assembly Government which will allow the extension of the line as far as Corwen, something Bill and his colleagues have been hoping for for 35 years.

“The original intention was to build the railway from Llangollen to Corwen,” explained Bill. “We applied to be able to do that many years ago but, because there was a plan to build a bypass, the Welsh Office objected.

“Nothing ever came of the Corwen bypass.”

It is by no means the largest undertaking the enthusiasts at Llangollen have tackled but there have been issues with red tape and funding.

“The track is already laid as far as Carrog and the extension to Corwen is a further two and a quarter miles,” said Bill. “The last extension we did was Glyndwfrdwy to Carrog which was two and a half miles.

“We’re very pleased that the order has come through. It’s taken a long time, there’s been a long trail of bureaucracy but we’ve got it now.

“The original application was based on us getting £1.2 million in funding from WAG and other funding from the Welsh European Funding Organisation.

“I suppose because of the economic situation there is only £500,000 available which has to be match funded by ourselves.

“We’re hoping that the money we have already spent on legal and consultancy fees can be taken into account but we’re waiting to find out about that.”

Despite these issues, work is poised to begin.

“We do have a little bit of track and we’ve costed the rest of the track to get to Corwen which, if we lay it ourselves, we reckon will be about £400,000. So if we have access to this funding we can at least start laying the track.

“At a rough guess we could certainly lay the track in about 18 months to two years.”

On top of this will be the construction of a station and a platform to accommodate up to eight coaches for which, Bill says, the Trust will have to bring in outside contractors.

But however the project develops the granting of the order this week is a major step towards the fulfilment of a dream that began 35 years ago.

- Llangollen Railway celebrates its 35th anniversary, as well as the 175th anniversary of the Great Western Railway, with an Autumn Steam Gala from September 10 to 12.

See full story in the Leader

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