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The Last Outpost of British Railways Steam Operation
The 11¾ mile narrow gauge (1’ 11¾”/603mm) Vale of Rheidol Railway (Rheilffordd Cwm
Rheidol) climbs at gradients steeper than 1 in 50 as it winds its way eastwards from
the Welsh coastal town of Aberystwyth along the Afon (River) Rheidol valley to Devil’s
Bridge, 680 feet (207.3m) above sea level.
Although The Vale of Rheidol Railway was envisaged from the outset to be a passenger
carrying railway, lead ore and timber were considered equally important to the economic
success of the line.
The line was built to a gauge of 1' 11½” (597mm), the tight curves and steep gradients
on the route would make a standard gauge line impossible. Starting at 14 ft (4.3m)
above sea level at Aberystwyth, the line climbs 666 ft (203m) to the Summit at Devil’s
Bridge 680 ft (207.3m) above sea level.
1897 - An Act of Parliament was passed ‘For making a Light Railway between Aberystwyth
and Devil’s Bridge in the County of Cardigan and for other purposes’.
1902 - The Vale of Rheidol Railway opened first to goods traffic and five months
later, to passenger trains. In Aberystwyth, a branch served the harbour and sidings
were provided for transhipment of goods to the standard gauge main line railways. An
aerial ropeway was built by the Rheidol lead mine on the north side of the valley
to transport minerals to the railway near Rhiwfron on the south side.
Motive power was provided by two 2-6-2T tank locomotives built by Davies & Metcalfe
of Romney near Stockport (numbered 1 & 2) together with a Bagnall 2-4-0T built in
1896. The latter was pre-owned when purchased for use in the construction of the
VoR and named Rheidol. After completion, the little engine was retained for hauling
lighter trains on the line.
1910 - Despite the railway proving successful, the principal shareholders sold their
shares to the Cambrian Railways which had previously acquired the adjacent Aberystwyth
and Welsh Coast Railway.
1913 - The Cambrian Railways completed the takeover of the VoR by an Act of Parliament.
1923 - Under the Railways Act 1921, the Cambrian Railways were absorbed into the
Great Western Railway. The GWR recognised the tourist potential of the line and invested
in track renewal, station refurbishment, a new station at Aberystwyth alongside the
main line station and replacement of locomotives and stock.
1927 - Goods services ceased due to competition from road transport.
1931 - Winter passenger services ceased, the line now became dependant on tourist
1938 - Tourist traffic had exceeded expectations so the GWR invested in twelve new
1939 - Line closed for duration of the Second World War.
1945 - Line re-opened for late summer and early autumn season.
1948 - Under the Transport Act 1947, the GWR became part of the Western Region of
1963 - As a result of Dr. Beeching’s ‘Reshaping of British Railways’ report, the
VoR lost it’s passing loops, thereafter, only one train could operate on the line
at any one time. Later the same year the former Cambrian Railways lines including
the VoR were transferred to the London Midland Region of British Railways.
1966 - Following the closure of the former Manchester & Milford line, the VoR was
diverted into the redundant bay platform at Aberystwyth, thus shortening the route,
making a troublesome level crossing redundant and improving passenger interchange
even easier. The redundant steam locomotive shed was converted for narrow gauge use
providing an engine shed and workshop together with covered storage for passenger
1968 - With the withdrawal of steam traction from all standard gauge lines, the VoR
became the last outpost of steam operation on British Railways.
1988 - The Vale of Rheidol Railway was offered for sale as a going concern.
1989 - The Vale of Rheidol Railway was purchased by the Brecon Mountain Railway.
The Brecon Mountain Railway was owned by Tony Hills and Peter Rampton, subsequently,
Peter Rampton exchanged his interest in the BMR for Tony Hills interest in the VoR.
The Vale of Rheidol Railway Ltd is now a registered charity supported by the Phyllis
Rampton Narrow Gauge Railway Trust, also a registered charity. Unlike most other
preserved railways, the VoR is manned entirely by paid staff with no volunteers.
Since privatisation, the track has been completely relaid, the passing loops have
been reinstated and the timber viaduct over the Afon Rheidol has been renewed. The
locomotives* and stock have been extensively overhauled and fitted with air brakes.
[* Nos. 8 & 9 have been rebuilt and no. 7 has been dismantled ready for rebuilding]
Attractions and Facilities
Any of the stations and halts beyond Glanyrafon are suitable starting points for
country walks along hillside lanes and paths.
Aberystwyth - Free car park, toilets and café on main line station. The town is the
principal holiday resort and administrative centre of the west coast of Wales and
has two beaches, castle ruins, a pier and a harbour. The surrounding hills hold the
visible remains of an iron age fort, a monument to Wellington and offer stunning
views of Cardigan Bay. The Electric Cliff Railway is the longest of it’s type in
Llanbadarn (halt) - Close to seven arch timber viaduct over the Afon Rheidol (the
largest structure on the line), no facilities,
Glanyrafon (halt) - Adjacent to industrial estate, no facilities.
Capel Bangor - Passing loop, carriage shed, village nearby, no facilities.
Nantyronen (halt) - Locomotive watering point, no public facilities.
Aberffrwd - Passing loop, no facilities.
Rheidol Falls (halt) - Terrific views of the Cwm Rheidol Reservoir and Rheidol Falls,
Rhiwfron (halt) - Site of former aerial lead ore ropeway across the valley, no facilities.
Devil’s Bridge - Free car park, toilets, café and souvenir shop, waiting room, Devil’s
Bridge Falls, village with post office and hotel.
Trains run from the beginning of April to the end of October, a daily service is
provided throughout June July and August. On most operating days, there are two trains
in each direction and at peak times four trains in each direction.
The journey from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge takes about an hour each way and the
train waits at Devil’s Bridge for an hour before returning, so the round trip takes
about three hours. Refer to the Vale of Rheidol Railway website for timetable (see
The current 2-6-2T steam locomotives were built by the Great Western Railway at Swindon
Works in 1923, they were given the names which they carry today in 1956.
No. 7 Owain Glyndwr
No. 8 Llywelyn (currently in GWR livery with no name plate)
No. 9 Prince of Wales (claimed to be a rebuild of the original no.2 (GWR no. 1213)
for accounting purposes but, in reality, a new locomotive in 1923. She was numbered
1213 until Renumbered as no.9 in 1946.
No 10, a Baguley-Drewry 0-6-0 used for shunting duties, works trains, and light passenger
Permaquip track maintenance vehicle which was introduced by BR in 1985 to replace
the line’s aging Wickham Trolley.
Passenger trains consist of closed and semi open sided bogie carriages built for
the line by the Great Western Railway at Swindon Works in 1923 and 1938.
The VoR also has a four-wheel brake van which is one of three built in 1938, it is
used when three trains are running simultaneously as there are only two bogie brake
14 four-wheel and bogie non-passenger vehicles are used for maintenance purposes.
Locomotives and rolling stock are maintained in immaculate condition.
The map below shows the location of all the stations and halts on the Vale of Rhedol
Railway, click on any of the markers to see the station name and postcode (where
known). Use the zoom and pan tools to explore the map.
By train - It couldn’t be easier, The Vale of Rhedol railway operates from the ex
Manchester and Milford Railway bay platform at Aberystwyth main line station, the
terminus of the Cambrian Coast line. Arriva Wales Trains serving Machynlleth and
Birmingham operate from the adjacent platforms.
By car - Aberystwyth can be accessed by the A487 from the north and south and the
A44 from the east. To find the Vale of Rheidol Railway, follow the signs to the railway
station and then follow the brown tourist signs for the railway’s free car park which
is in Park Avenue. A surfaced footpath provides access to the station from the car
I first visited the Vale of Rheidol Railway in the late 1980s, around the time of
privatisation after years of minimal maintenance. Unfortunately there were no trains
running that day but I did get to see the run down state of the track.
It was twenty years later that I returned and I was very pleasantly surprised by
what I saw. After parking in the VoR’s surfaced car park in Park Avenue, Aberystwyth,
we walked along the footpath to the ticket office.
With tickets in hand we traipsed along the platform where an immaculate train was
waiting for us. The locomotive, no. 9 Prince of Wales and the coaches looked as good
as the day they first left Swindon Works. From the ground level platform the perfectly
painted underframes are particularly noticeable, only the letters ‘GWR’ on the axle
box castings giving away their age.
Once on board, it is apparent that the British Rail heritage has been maintained
in the form of the No smoking, Do not lean out of the window and Emergency chain
notices. The weather was a tad chilly, nevertheless, the semi open coach at the front
of the train was well populated. We went for the sensible less draughty enclosed
Leaving Aberystwyth, the train passes Llanbadarn Halt and a level crossing on the
A4120 before crossing the Afon Rheidol on a seven arch timber viaduct, the largest
structure on the line.
After what seems like quite a speedy ride for a narrow gauge train along the first
4½ miles or so of mild gradients climbing only 61ft to Capel Bangor, the locomotive
has to start working harder as gradients of 1 in 50 or steeper are encountered. From
here the terrain becomes more rugged and the track is laid on a shelf cut into the
Although Nantyronen is a halt, all trains stop there on the way up to take on water.
Increasingly marvellous views of the valley are seen as the line rises to the principle
passing loop at Aberffrwd, 280 ft above sea level, where trains pass on days when
there are two in operation.
From Aberffrwd, after a short stretch of level track, the line climbs continuously
for four miles at 1 in 50 to Devil’s Bridge. The most spectacular views of the Cwm
Rheidol Reservoir and Rheidol Falls are seen along this final stretch to the upper
terminus 680 ft above sea level.
When the train arrives at Devil’s Bridge, there’s time to relax with a whole hour
to take a walk or have a snack in the café before the return trip and another look
at those magnificent views.
The immaculately maintained historic locomotives and rolling stock combined with
the unexpectedly stunning views make a trip on the Vale of Rheidol Railway an unforgettable
day out. Without doubt this is among the best of the Welsh narrow gauge lines.