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Out-n-About - The Snowdon Mountain Railway, Wales, United Kingdom
Author: John Oxlade, Salfords, Surrey, United Kingdom (email: )
Mount Snowdon is located in the extreme north-west corner of Wales close to the island of Anglesey. It runs for 4 miles and 50 chains from the base station at Llanberis to the station at "Summit" (3493 feet high, approx. 1065m). Although Snowdon is only 3561 feet high (approx. 1085m), it is almost right on the coast, so unlike many hilly areas, the ground rises from sea-level to the summit in only quite a short distance, making Snowdon appear higher than it actually is. (Those who prefer metric measures will probably not know that there are 80 chains in a mile.)
Much of North Wales has been popular with tourists for many years, and the mountain is now in a national park which takes it's name from the mountain - The Snowdonia National Park.
The Snowdon Mountain Railway (SMR) is unusual on several counts as far as railways in Great Britain are concerned:
It is 800mm gauge - not exactly a "good Imperial" measurement like 2 foot gauge would have been. It is the only rack railway in Great Britain. All of the steam locos were built in Switzerland by SLM. It was only ever intended to be used by tourists from the beginning. Wales in general; and North Wales in particular, has a formidable collection of preserved narrow-gauge railways, causing it to be the centre of attraction for many rail enthusiasts over the years.
Recent years have seen the addition of diesel traction to the SMR, but even so, the majority of services are still operated by the original steam locos built by Schweizerische Lokomotiv und Maschinenfabrik (SLM) in Winterthur, Switzerland between 1895-1923. This incidentally accounts for the gauge, 800mm being quite common on rack railways on mainland Europe.
Opened on 6th April 1896, the SMR was built using the Abt rack system. This consists of two parallel bars of steel between the running rails with the teeth in each bar staggered so that a gap in one bar corresponds to a tooth in the other. Locomotives have driven rack pinions and push the single passenger carriage up the mountain. On the downward trip, the locomotive is simply used to brake the train, and there is no true coupling between locomotive and carriage, just a central buffer. If the locomotive should try to descend too fast, a speed-governing brake on the carriage is automatically applied.
On the first day of opening, a train descending the steepest part of the line a Clogwyn (1 in 5.5 or 18%) lost contact with the rack rail and the locomotive ran away. Unfortunately, one of the passengers panicked and in jumping out of the carriage fell, and received fatal injuries. (The carriage incidentally was stopped by the automatic brake). The locomotive carried on down the track, but without contact with the rack rails could not be stopped. The driver and fireman jumped to safety, but the locomotive was lost. It is rather unfortunate that at the bottom of the steep gradient at Clogwyn there is a sharp corner and a very steep drop of several hundred feet. Needless to say, there wasn't much left by the time the locomotive got to the bottom of the valley.
It was later decided that poor track laying was responsible, but the inspection decided that an additional safety measure should be taken to prevent the rack pinions coming off of the rail. To this end, two additional bars were fitted to the outside in a pattern looking somewhat like ]u[ (if the "u" in the middle represents the two rack rails). Grippers fitted beneath the locomotives and carriages grab the tops of these bars and stop the vehicle lifting off the rack rails. At the hearing, the consulting engineers stated that it had never been necessary before and the Abt system had a proven safety record. This is the only known implementation of this additional safety feature on any line using the Abt rack system in the World.
"Railfanning" the SMR is very easy. There is easy road access at Llanberis (the base station), and a footpath runs close to the line all the way to the summit. This "Llanberis Path" is the easiest of several established routes up Snowdon, and apart from the last section from Clogwyn to the summit is why you might call "afternoon stroll" walking as it is very easy-going.
The easiest plan is probably to firstly take a return trip on the train up and down the mountain, then afterwards take the train up and then walk back down. It is said that you can comfortably walk down in under two hours, but if you are going to "spot trains", then this doesn't really matter, and if you pack lunch and have something to drink, it can make a pleasant day out.
One word of warning... Weather. The weather can change very rapidly on Snowdon and it is a good idea to take a good waterproof coat and a map. If the weather closes in, avoid walking off of the footpath. It's not for fun that there is a mountain rescue centre in Llanberis, but provided you don't wander off in bad weather, it's safe enough.
Additionally, North Wales is not known for it's glorious climate, so be prepared for some days when the weather could be better. I spent 5 days there a few years ago and had one glorious sunny day, two that started out bad but got better, and a couple where it was overcast most of the day. And this was during the summer.
So, if you're not completely put off by the weather, go for it. The countryside in Snowdonia is beautiful, the people are friendly, and food and accommodation is reasonably priced. On top of that, you get steam trains going up a mountain. What more could you ask for?
[ last updated 31st Dec 2003 ]