The Talyllyn Railway’s engine shed at Pendre is the oldest engine shed in the world still used for its original function. (Other older engine sheds still exist but are no longer used for storing railway locomotives – for example, Chalk Farm Roundhouse in North London is now a concert venue.) This handsome, if a trifle basic, building is located at the east end of the town of Tywyn, on the Welsh coast in the county of Gwynedd.
It is home to six steam locomotives:
- No.1 Talyllyn, delivered new to the railway in 1864 and housed at Ty Dwr shed near the eastern end of the line. Moved to Pendre when facilities permitted. Powerful creature, with a round friendly appearance.
- No.2 Dolgoch, delivered new to the railway in 1866 and probably housed briefly at Ty Dwr before moving to Pendre the following year- where she and Talyllyn have remained, with occasional trips away for overhauls and major events. Occasionally known as the Old Lady. On Whit Sunday 1951 became the first locomotive to haul a train on a preserved railway anywhere in the world.
- No.3 Sir Haydn, delivered to the Corris Railway as two locomotives in 1878 which were housed with a classmate at Maespoeth shed near the top of the Corris Railway (which ran up a valley from the market town of Machynlleth, a few miles from Tywyn). Corris locomotives 1 and 3 were amalgamated in the 1920s to create the locomotive which then ran as Corris and later Talyllyn No.3; the spare components of both (generally identified as Corris No.1) plus Corris No.2 were broken up in 1930.
- No.4 Edward Thomas, delivered to the Corris Railway in 1921 as a replacement for its original locomotive stud. She and No.3 were sold with the Corris to the Great Western in 1930 and then nationalised in 1948 at a cost to the taxpayer of £1,920 each. Withdrawn in 1948 with the closure of the Corris, they were written off British Railways’s books and sold to the Talyllyn for £25 each in March 1951. No.4 was subsequently overhauled at a cost of £650 by the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds, for which the Talyllyn was not billed.
- No.6 Douglas, built for the Air Ministry Works and Buildings Department in 1918. Moved to Calshot, on the Solent, in 1921. Remained there until the Calshot line closed in 1945. Subsequently sold to a company run by a Mr Douglas Abelson, who then sold the recently-overhauled locomotive and a classmate to India. India took the paperwork, examined it, rejected the locomotives and disposed of their right to work papers. Abelson heard of the Talyllyn and kindly used it as an opportunity to provide a good home to a useless locomotive with no paperwork that was cluttering up his yard. No.6 was named after him as a tribute.
- No.7 Tom Rolt, built at Pendre over a period of some years using parts obtained from an Irish turf-burning locomotive that was originally to a similar design to No.6. Emerged in 1991 as a large and chunky locomotive capable of shifting more or less anything.
There are also five diesel locomotives which are discouraged from coming indoors (with the exception of No.5, Midlander, which is treated as something of a pet and allowed to live in the original carriage shed.)
The Talyllyn Railway was built to carry slate from a quarry seven miles inland. When production became unprofitable it was bought by the newly-elected local Liberal Member for Parliament, Sir Henry Haydn Jones, who used the railway as a personal tax dodge and kept the quarry open. The underground quarry (perhaps more a mine) fell in one night in 1946 and afterwards the railway relied on tourist traffic, its original and largely unmodified fleet of four coaches and a brake van, one of the two original locomotives and Sir Haydn’s promise that it would outlive him. The Government campaign of nationalisation in 1948 passed the Talyllyn by; it was written off as being of limited money-making potential with obsolete equipment. (It is tempting to enquire how the rest of the network failed to escape nationalisation on the same basis.)
In the summer of 1950, Sir Haydn died. The tourist season ended quietly that October; in November a special was run for a bunch of eccentrics led by the late Tom Rolt, recently evicted from the Inland Waterways Association, to show them what sort of railway they were considering buying to preserve for its own sake. The special train derailed en route; fortunately this didn’t prove too much of a discouragement and the line was donated by Sir Haydn’s widow in exchange for being allowed to maintain some degree of control and retaining a right of reversion should the scheme fail.
Some helpful advertising was provided by an early volunteer, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who wrote the railway into his “Railway Series” as the Skarloey Railway. Talyllyn became Skarloey; Dolgoch became Rheneas; Sir Haydn became Sir Handel; Edward Thomas became Peter Sam; Midlander became Rusty; Douglas became Duncan and in much later years Wilbert Awdry’s son Christopher made Tom Rolt into Ivo Hugh. The Talyllyn’s standard green became Skarloey corporate scarlet – possibly not too dissimilar to a livery worn by Talyllyn in the early years of the 20th century.
The line retains both its original locomotives and all the original coaching stock in regular use. (Arguably the coaching stock is more interesting. The locomotives are both eccentric creatures. The coaching stock is a rake of scaled down 1860s 4-wheeled suburban vehicles fairly representative of the thousands of lost standard gauge coaches of the same vintage.) Other locomotives and coaches have been built or acquired. Staff is mostly obtained by means of unpaid volunteer labour, although there is a paid core team. Running costs are covered through fares and membership fees from the Preservation Society.
One delight of working on the Talyllyn – being largely dependent on a volunteer workforce in order to get anything done – is the ability to turn up at a steam locomotive shed in the early hours of the morning and find it occupied by four largely operational steam locomotives. Currently each is likely to be in a different colour (only 4 and 7 still carry standard Talyllyn green) and during the running season there will almost certainly be at least one of the shed’s original engines (possibly both) resting quietly under the smoke hoods with their big round timber buffers and friendly smokeboxes. Those who hang around too long, however, may get given a rag and directions towards the oil- and mud-soaked motion of whichever locos will be out that day.
The Talyllyn Railway is built to the unusual track gauge of 2 foot 3 inches (nowadays only shared with the Corris, hence the presence of their engines). The result is locomotives which, when seen in pictures, can appear to be rather small. Upon meeting them in the flesh, particularly sitting in a small engine shed, one may realise that they are in fact quite big.
The remainder of this post will be taken up with pictures:
Outside, in the early hours of dawn. The shed is alongside Pendre station platform. Originally the nearer end (closest three windows) was a cottage. Beyond the shed is a water tower, with Pendre blockpost in white in the far distance. The North Carriage Shed, in its corrugated cladding, is to the right at the end of the platform.
Inside. Nearest to the camera is No. 6 Douglas in her current Skarloey Railway corporate scarlet, with her nameplate at bottom, the plate commemorating her donation by Abelson above that and another plate thanking the West Midlands workshops that rebuilt and regauged her (from 2ft) at the top of the stack. Her smokebox door is open for ash to be raked out. Beyond her is No. 2 Dolgoch in Indian red.
Dolgoch from the front. The name translates as “red meadow” and is shared with the line’s principal intermediate station. The plate on her front carries the railway’s coat of arms (No.4 has a matching one). The two brass twirly things on the front of her running board are lubricators, long since removed from use. The buffers were fitted to both the original locomotives by their builders, who were presumably uncertain whether narrow gauge locomotives should be fitted with such equipment and decided to err on the side of caution. Standard couplings were fitted to match (Dolgoch‘s chain is resting on her running board in the centre of the picture). Subsequent arrivals have been modified to the standard Talyllyn coupling equipment, although with lighter and more conventional buffers. Also attached to the bufferbeam is a basic driver/guard communication system (on Dolgoch‘s right, looping under the buffer) and the modern air brake hose (left draped over the left-hand buffer, where it doesn’t get in the way of uncoupling). Air brakes were fitted in the early 1990s to the passenger stock and most of the locomotives (No. 5 being the exception), with the pumps hidden on the right-hand side of the engines (all the platforms being on the left). The large spacious cab structure is a later addition; Talyllyn and Dolgoch originally had open footplates with basic weatherboards, half-height backplates and hand bars.
The nameplate of No.1 Talyllyn, affixed above her maker’s plate on her side bunker. How much of the original locomotive remains is uncertain; with boiler, saddletank, chimney, cylinders, motion and frames having all been replaced at various times in her 150-year career likely original remnants amount to the wheels, odd parts of the cab panelling and her basic soul. Talyllyn has always had a certain sense of humour and an uncertain temper. Originally names were painted onto the locomotives – in the case of this one photos actually usually show Tal-y-Llyn – but the preservation society had nameplates cast. The Talyllyn pair were something of an extravagance as at the time the locomotive was in very poor shape and not expected to wear them in service. Her last run at the time – some five years previously – had been made with the boiler filled with oatmeal to seal up the cracks. Ever frugal, the line’s engineer-cum-driver then flattened the empty oat tin and used it to cover a particularly bad hole in her smokebox.
The owner of the nameplate above, parked up against No.7 Tom Rolt at the east end of the shed. Talyllyn and Tom Rolt are both particularly large engines. While the other locomotives fit neatly in the spaces allotted to them under the smoke hoods (which draw the smoke and steam from the engines’ chimneys rather than leaving it to waft around the shed roof space) these two take up a few inches more than really available. With both in the same half of the shed, Tom Rolt was parked a little beyond the centre of her smoke hood and overhanging the end of the shed road. There was no space left between them. Talyllyn currently wears a version of London & North Western Railway black. Early in 2014 an April Fool was published on the railway’s website announcing plans for her scrapping and replacement with a newer machine. Talyllyn didn’t see the funny side and failed a few days later by smashing her motion (possibly original) and depositing it on the track. She is now having to be run in again between bouts of preparing her for a visit to the National Exhibition Centre during the Warley Model Railway Exhibition (22nd to 23rd November 2014) to celebrate her 150th birthday (which was on the 24th of September 2014 and for which the railway managed to get her back into traffic).
No.7 Tom Rolt, parked solidly at the end of the shed road. The boiler is that of Bord na Mona No.1, built to burn peat on the peat fields of the Republic of Ireland while transporting cut peat to a nearby power station. Those who have tried to burn peat at home may have occasionally found it troublesome. The Bord na Mona found it burned too enthusiastically and created a draft which was inclined to lift the fire out of the firebox and hurl it out of the chimney. This tendency to set fire to neighbouring cottages did for the idea and the three locomotives to this design were withdrawn at a young age. Nos.2 and 3 have been preserved in a condition closer to that in which they operated and remain in the Republic. Note the air brake pump on the side of the smokebox. The lighter buffers of this more recent arrival on the line are visible. Douglas‘s red cabside can be seen at the back of the picture.
The other side of Talyllyn. Her smokebox has longer hinge bars than Dolgoch‘s and the lubricators are replaced by (decorative) sandboxes, which are easier to clean. The brass bar over her smokebox door is for holding on to while laying sand on the rails. While less manual sanding equipment is now fitted, the bar remains. One of Talyllyn‘s tricks is to cover it in wet soot while coming off shed in the morning. Her frames are narrower than her tank (being hardly necessary, as the design uses the boiler for rigidity rather than the main frame); the large tank also necessitates the placing of the air pump in a prominent location alongside the smokebox.
Tom Rolt‘s cab. The firebox is centre, with its doors burned by the heat and the long handle for opening it rising up to a convenient height. Talyllyn engines are conveniently divided into the three 19th-century and three 20th-century examples. The 19th-century ones have oval firebox doors and valve gear mounted between the frames. The 20th-century ones have these rectangular firebox doors and Walschaerts valve gear, which is incorporated into the main motion array outside the frames. The motion distinction makes the 19th-century trio look neater and simpler and the 20th-century trio easier to clean and maintain. Below Tom Rolt’s firebox door is a box containing the control for the damper, which lets additional air in at the bottom of the fire as required. Above the firebox are the two gauge glasses in their perspex and brass cases, which provide a visual indication as to water levels in the boiler. Too high and when the water eventually boils (which will take a while) the steam pressure will go over the boiler’s limit and most of the locomotive’s potential energy will be dispersed through the safety valves. Too low and the boiler will overheat, causing various interesting results ranging between substantial distortion and a large explosion. The frame for the reversing lever squats by the cab doorway. The fireman’s shovel – rarely used at Pendre for cooking breakfast – is hung up on the other side of the cab (Talyllyn engines all follow Great Western practice and are right-hand drive) beneath the control handle for the steam injector. Injectors are rather nifty devices for persuading water to move from the water tanks up into the boiler and come in two parts; the tap that lets the water out of the tank and the control to release the steam that brings the water into the boiler. If the tap is not sufficiently on when the steam is released, it also makes a handy way of dropping steam pressure in the boiler. Inadvertently leaving the tap on is also a good way of emptying the water tank. The whole system is based on the key assumption that the water is cold. Next to the steam injector is the circular handle of the rake for breaking up the fire at convenient moments; the hatch for the coal bunker is also hidden in that area. On the upper part of the cab panelling a rack carries the cab brush and provides room for tokens when the loco is up the line. Talyllyn signalling is based on the electronic token block principle, where each section of track has a machine at each end and each pair of machines is wired together. Between them they will only release one token at a time; so long as everyone agrees not to enter a section unless they have the right token, only one train can be in each section at a given time. Above the rack is one of the cab spectacle plates, left hanging open after Tom Rolt‘s last trip up the line.
At the time of this visit, Edward Thomas was parked up with Midlander in the original carriage shed and Sir Haydn was away being exhibited in the Engine House at Highley, on the Severn Valley Railway, pending an overhaul. Sir Haydn currently wears a coat of paint hoping to be her Corris Railway colours for variety; with a preservation group now up and running at Maespoeth, she and Edward Thomas are occasionally invited back. As the Talyllyn shows no intention of selling either, a new locomotive based on No.4 has been built for the new Corris and a further locomotive based on No.3 is due to follow – presumably without the various little glitches that Sir Haydn possesses caused by having two locomotives’ frames.
Bonus picture – No. 2 Dolgoch is seen a couple of days later off-shed and heading up the line at Fach Goch Halt. In tow behind are saloon carriage No.7 (based on the underframe of a Penrhyn Quarries workmans’ carriage), Talyllyn carriage No.4 (built for the line by the Lancaster Carriage & Wagon Company and named “Limping Lulu” by the preservationists due to her movements caused by a life-expired axle box), Talyllyn carriage No.1 (built by Brown Marshalls in 1866 – not actually the first to arrive, an honour which is reckoned to go to carriage No.3, but the former first-class coach and almost entirely original) and a Glyn Valley Tramroad vehicle acquired from a farm some years after the Glyn Valley closed and used by the Talyllyn as a first-class coach. Beyond that, hidden by the hedge, are a couple of standard Talyllyn coaches built by the preservationists in a boxy style. Dolgoch‘s tall chimney, wide running board and large buffers (which were occasionally inclined to droop when not looked after and two of which appear to be original) were inspirations for the Punch cartoonist Roland Emett.