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March 1st Meeting

Posted 3/3/2017

The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway.

The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway

Where we have come from

& where we are going

    I haven’t had the opportunity to visit the W&LLR for a few years now so had been looking forward to the this talk by Charles Spencer, the General Manager, and I wasn’t disappointed.

    Charles began his talk by explaining how he, a Canadian, had been a firm railway modeller in both 45mm live steam and OO while progressing in his career in the Canadian banking sector. Then in 2007, during a 10 day holiday exploring Welsh narrow gauge lines, he travelled on the W&LLR and was so smitten he enrolled as a  volunteer which eventually led to him applying for, being offered and accepting the job as the railway’s General Manager in 2015. Naturally he has moved a little closer than Ottowa.

    There was then a brief history of the railway from its opening in 1903 to its closure in 1956. Surprisingly for such a cash strapped line existing primarily for goods and livestock traffic, the company had equipped itself with three ornate Pickering passenger coaches, as well as an assortment of over 100 wagons of various types. The passenger service never generated sufficient revenue, so was discontinued in 1931, and the Pickering coaches scrapped.

    After the line closed in 1956 the two original steam locos were moved to the BR depot at Oswestry, where they remained until the fledgling preservation society found its feet and began to restore the line to working order.

    Charles then summarised the current steam locomotive stock of seven (although not all are fully restored)  before going on the talk about the various carriages which have been sourced from both central Europe and Sierra Leone. This section of his talk was completed by detailing the work to the permanent way, assisted by a diesel permanent way vehicle (ex MOD) and a tamper wagon (ex South African goldmine).

    Many features of the preserved railway have had to be created from scratch because they never existed when the line was built, and yet visitors, together with the sheer number of trains currently being run, demand them. These vary from the fully functioning signal box at Llanfair through to soon-to-be-purchased hoists to get wheel chairs and their users into the carriages.

    After a short break for refreshments, Charles resumed by outlining the present operation of the railway, and in particular how much it relies on its 200+ volunteers, having only 4 paid members of staff.

    Narrow gauge lines represent such a large proportion (32%) of the 553 miles of preserved railways in the UK, but with tourism accounting for 9% of the countries’ GDP, it was vital for their continued existence that they attracted repeat visitors to the line. This was particularly important to the W&LLR so the railway was being actively sold by staging special events and novelties. Examples were given as Fish-and-Chip trains and Diesel Days, all of which had been extremely popular.

    Charles concluded by outlining his plans for the future as the line had to increase revenue as it was currently too reliant on gifts and donations to break even. Unfortunately, although 80% of the W&LLR visitors come via Welshpool, the railway doesn’t own, only leases, the land at the  terminus there. This has necessitated, at least initially, new developments having to take place at the Llanfair end of the line. New workshop and visitor facilities, including a museum, have been planned and the first stage has been initiated by the purchase of three factory buildings adjacent to the line.

    A very informative evening all round and encouraging that Charles could end on such a positive note.

Mike Wakefield