Building up a head of steam

Published date: 02 February 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller
Read more articles by Rhian Waller


The station is being swept and the packing cases are already waiting for the first passengers – and furious preparations for the new season are going on behind the station front as well.
Writer Rhian Waller visits Llangollen Railway Station.
IN THE summer, you can see plumes of steam and hear the whistle and the clack of wheels on the track.
Right now, the train is stationary, the locomotives are silent and there is no sign of the station master.
But although it’s still the off-season at Llangollen Railway, there is plenty going on behind the scenes.
I was invited to see the inner workings of the station by George Jones, who led me around a stack of vintage travelling trunks and past the cafe.
“There’s a great deal to do,” he said, as I peered through the doors of the cafe, which is mid-refurbishment.
“The work here is in its last stages and I’m putting together the material for the museum wagon, which will sit in a siding. The display changes every year.
“It’s a good thing to have because you get people coming by who don’t really know what to expect – so it gives them a sense of history.
“Do you know, with private transport being what it is today, there are some people whose first experience of the railway will be here – little ones and older people too.”
Having said that, there are plenty of people who know exactly why they are coming to Llangollen Railway Station.
I was introduced to Nicky Jenkinson of Coedpoeth, who has been working in the station office for three years.
She said: “We’ve had calls from Germany, from Spain, from America. In the last week I've had four emails from people in Australia who want to come over.
“We’re sorting the tour coaches and the cruises as well. People from Japan come over to have a taste of North East Wales and this is one of their stops along the way.”
Nicky’s office is sandwiched between the track and a weir on the fast-flowing River Dee.
“It’s a bit difficult to field calls in the summer,” she admitted, “What with the engines and the water. But it’s a good place to work apart from that. It's great fun.”
Alongside the typical trips in an old-fashioned carriage, the line also caters for fans of diesel locos, driver experiences for the real enthusiasts and, for fans of Thomas the Tank Engine, the famous loco also makes regular appearances at the station.
“We’re sorting out our Thomas days now,” said Nicky. “He’s very popular.
“What’s wonderful is meeting all these people. There are so many visitors who have their own stories. Their father will have been a train driver or their grandfather was a signal man or a fireman (stoker).”
Kevin Gooding, office manager, said he was looking forward to the opening on Sunday .
He said: “It’s a lean time at the moment. This is when we do a lot of our track engineering and maintenance – in many ways we’re no different to Network Rail. We still have miles of track to maintain.”
It soon became clear just how big a job looking after the locomotives and carriages on the line actually is.
Volunteers and engineers are working to extend the existing track – which runs to Carrog – a further two and a half miles to Corwen. They have completed two miles already but it’s a mammoth undertaking.
Meanwhile, Berwyn, Glyndyfrdwy and Carrog stations are also getting ready to welcome the first carriage load of visitors.
George Jones, press officer for Llangollen Railway, took me to a section of the station that the public rarely, if ever, get to see.
A shed lies set a little way from the track, containing beefy metalworking equipment – including drill bits with a bigger diameter than my thumb, lathes and other assorted machines.
This is the workshop where the locomotives are maintained and even brought back to life. The carriages are serviced by skilled joiners in another location.
George ushered me through to where the locomotives lay at rest.
The place smells of dust, oil and hard work. The railway employs about 42 people, including six apprentices who sometimes travel from as far as Spain for the privilige of working with the locomotives.
One of the most distinctive of the steam engines was Thomas, whose blue livery gleamed.
George said: “He hasn't got his face on at the moment but we’re getting him ready for his days out. He’s pretty well travelled. Last year he went to Denmark, Holland and Belgium. He lives here though.”
Next to Thomas was a black and red monolith, the 5199, which is having a final once-over before it is brought back into service, hauling tourists and train enthusiasts up and down the line.
“We hope to have it back on track by February,” said George.
Most readers will be more than familiar with the dimensions of a modern train.     Old commercial steam trains are similar in terms of width and height because they have to  traverse narrow tunnels and conform to the standard British gauge.
Even so, station layouts mean that we don’t often see trains from the ground up, as the platform elevation already means we have an advantage of a few feet.
At ground level, even the smaller steam engines seemed like sleeping giants.
Some of them were in better repair than others.
“We take on refurbishment commissions here,” said George. “We can do most things – although not everything."
He pointed to a dismantled shell. “The boiler for this has been used for more than 10 years. That means it’s ticket is up and it needs to be checked – so the lads are seeing to it.
“You have red hot coals and water held within metal, which obviously isn’t good for it and, over the years, it will warp.”
The boiler and firebox alone was bigger than a transit van.
Some of the engines were recovered from scrapyards and restored.
George describes the process as “bringing the trains back to life”.
In contrast, a major project, the community funded 6880 Betton Grange steam locomotive, is an entirely new build.
Apart from the wheels, the entire machine is being built from scratch.
“Some of these are owned by groups of people,” said George.
“And some of them by individual enthusiasts. Our workshop chief used to own a locomotive. I can tell you that they aren’t rich people. These are a labour of love.”
The various apprentices and engineers, with their hands as smut-covered and calloused as any Victorian worker, returned from their tea break and we had to exit the workshop before it became too noisy for me to take notes. It’s hard, back-breaking work but it will be worth it when the sleeping giants wake.
l Find out more about Llangollen Railway by visiting or calling 01978 860979.
The station reopens this weekend, with the first steam-hauled journey on Sunday.

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