Bala Lake Railway Experience

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in railways and on Sunday, August 7th I achieved an ambition by qualifying as a railway guard!

Ever since 1962 I have been an active heritage railway volunteer on the Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales but I finally made it to my green flag and whistle on neighbouring the four-and-half mile Bala Lake Railway.
My opportunity came in 2015 when I visited the railway’s headquarters at Llanuwchllyn at the western end of Bala Lake, the largest natural lake in Wales, to take photographs of ‘Winifred’ a small Hunslet manufactured locomotive that had spent all its life working in Penrhyn slate quarry near Bangor before being exported to the United States in 1965.

In 2015 it had been re-patriated to Wales by a benefactor called Julian Birley, who is one of the driving forces on the two-foot (60 centimetre) gauge Bala Lake Railway which provides a home for several other 0-4-0 locomotives who started life working in slate quarries but now strut their stuff on a little railway that attracts thousands of tourists each year.

The Bala Lake Railway was built as a narrow gauge line in 1972 on the track-bed of the standard gauge Great Western Railway’s former Ruabon to Barmouth Junction line that had been closed as part of Dr. Beeching’s rationalisation of the British railway system.

‘Winifred’ had been displayed for photographers several days before my visit in May 2015. I had been unable to make the date and the line’s manager, David Jones, was quite amenable to my request to be allowed to visit a few days later. I was particular keen to catch ‘Winifred’ in her post US state as she was still sporting her original Quarry company livery.

I know it’s sad but that paintwork made a difference to me as the last time I’d seen her was in Penrhyn Quarry in August 1961 and I couldn’t believe that she’d been left in her last working clothes for half a century.
On my arrival at Llanuwchllyn I was greeted by David Jones who told me: “Just go to the shed and help yourself. Just take notice of all the safety rules.”

In photographic terms I filled my boots with pictures of the seven-ton, Leeds-made ‘Winifred’ who was undergoing some minor repairs.

I also got chance to speak with the locomotive crew who were preparing another of the line’s locomotives ‘Maid Marian’ for a day’s work. That too struck a chord for me because as very young man I’d contributed to the fund that had purchased her from Dinorwic slate quarry near Llanberis.

Well, I had to ride the train didn’t I? Of course I did and I enjoyed every second of it too.
On my way out of the station I bumped into David Jones once more and we chatted about the railway and our shared interest in the Ffestiniog Railway.

“Why don’t you come and volunteer here?” he asked. “We’re always short of guards.”
It was an offer I was never going to refuse. I’d always wanted to do that kind of job on a railway.
And you’d never guess how many jobs a guard has to undertake. From watching along the length of the train at stations to make sure nobody tries to change carriages; that all the doors are closed and that the air-braking system is working. Plus keeping an eye out for intending passengers at stations and that the train is properly coupled to the engine. Oh, and loads more.

And, so this year I did two week-long stints as a trainee guard working alongside a qualified guard. Then I was given a copy of the staff rule book and entered for a written examination. The guard is in charge of the safety of the train and the passengers so it’s vital that every person who takes the job on should know what duties they are expected to perform and that they fully understand their responsibilities and operating rules.
After a tense wait – it took me back to my time at school waiting for my GCE-results – I was informed I had passed and could I make myself available for an assessment!

Being ‘assessed’ meant being allowed to perform the duties as a guard on a service train but being constantly overseen by one of the railway’s senior management who would then decide whether you were competent enough to be allowed to work their trains on your own.

My assessment came on the third of four service trains that day on Sunday, August 7th and my every move was scrutinised by the line’s deputy manager Dan Laidlaw.
Dan broke the news that he was ‘passing’ me out as a qualified guard just before we returned to the Llanuwchllyn terminus and that I was to be in charge of the last train of the day – without supervision! An amazing moment – just like passing your driving test and taking your Dad’s car out on your own for the first time. Scary but thrilling at the same time.

So now I’m qualified to clean the carriages; work the signal box at Llanuwchllyn; sell tickets: answer queries and ensure the passengers’ safety on the train as a guard out on the line.
My elation at qualifying was total but celebrations were rather mooted that evening as the breathalyser limit for railway workers is even more stringent than those for car drivers! You must be under nine millilitres of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood to sign on for duty – so a couple of early pints with after work friends had to suffice!

Still, I made it and, like achieving your third degree in Masonry, I’ll never forget the moment I qualified as a railway guard.

Now where’s me whistle and green flag…

WB John Huxley
Lodge of the Three Graces 408

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Posted in Uncategorized on August 19th, 2016 by David Clough

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