Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 10:31 UK

On track to opening railway line

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In six months time work will begin to link two stretches of heritage railway in Snowdonia

By Wena Alun Owen
BBC News

If modern day Snowdonia has a dragon, then surely it is big and yellow and works on the railway line being built between Caernarfon and Porthmadog.

The "dragon", or tamper, is responsible for lining up the tracks on the extension to the Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon), which is due to open at Easter 2009.

The 'dragon' lines up the tracks at Rhyd-ddu

It drops metal teeth into the granite ballast either side of the track like a hot knife through butter.

Then it wiggles the stone to pack it at the correct level under the track to keep everything in place.

General manager Paul Lewin explained that there was only half an inch (1.2cm) of margin, on each 60ft (18.3m) length of track, to make sure the train does not come off.

Loved passionately by some and loathed - or at least ignored - by others, the aim of the current work is to extend the narrow gauge track the 25 miles (40km) from Caernarfon to Porthmadog.

Those who love it like the romance of travelling on immaculately refurbished rail carriages through breathtaking scenery, which still retains a mythical feel at the foot of Snowdon
Those less enamoured of the track see it as cutting through unspoilt countryside, and encouraging people to take their cars into the heart of Snowdonia.

The line already runs 12 miles from Caernarfon to Rhyd Ddu.

Paul Lewin
In Europe it is common to see trams, trains and cars share the same roads quite happily
Paul Lewin, general manager

The extension travels through the village of Beddgelert, which has its own mythology. Legend has it that the village was named after a faithful hound which was killed by his master in the 13th Century.

Welsh Prince Llewelyn the Great had mistakenly thought the dog had killed his son, only to discover that in fact his hound had slain a wolf to protect the child.

If Llewelyn was around today, and happened to be travelling by rail, he would surely recognise large areas of his former hunting ground.

It passes through farmland with wild boar grazing in the fields (well, actually they are pigs with a bit of wild boar bred in, apparently for the meat).

But it does have the majestic ospreys visiting from Africa each summer.

crossing at Porthmadog
The train will cross the main road at Porthmadog
As for the train passengers, they are as varied as the Snowdonia weather.

Jan Jones used the train to Rhyd-Ddu for a reunion with two friends. Originally from Beddgelert, she said her father, John Pritchard, remembered the original train running.

'Absolutely wonderful'

"His treat was to leave school early, if he'd been well behaved, so he could ride on the train. He's loved it ever since and he's 93 years old today," she said.

Her two friends, Rosemary Smolenska, living in Dublin, and her sister Elizabeth, of Lincoln, thought the idea of extending the line was "absolutely wonderful".

The train company takes about 3m income annually, which is estimated to be multiplied by five in the wider economy, with visitors paying for places to stay, eating out and so on.

There are 7,000 members of the Ffestiniog Railway, of which 1,000 volunteer.

Mr Lewin said he did not wake up worrying about opening the new line, but he did fret sometimes about "keeping all the plates in the air".

"Although not any more than any company manager which employs 60 people full time," he added.

In Porthmadog the new line may perhaps make the biggest difference of all.

Location map
It crosses the main street, something which is deeply worrying to some townspeople who dread the summer traffic jams.

But Mr Lewin said: "In summertime traffic is already stationary, and you can't stop it again.

"There will be six trains a day, which will take two minutes to pass and then traffic can rejoin the tail of the jam," he said.

"In Europe it is common to see trams, trains and cars share the same roads quite happily," he added.

Only time will tell if the concerns of those against the railway will be proved correct, or whether the train will take the strain, and bring badly needed visitors to spend money in a Snowdonia struggling in the credit crunch.


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