Disaster on the Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wednesday 6 April 2011, 11:47

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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A trip up Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales and England, is an experience not to be missed. For those who are fit enough, and have the energy, there are several possible routes and the sense of achievement when the summit is finally reached should never be underestimated.

Snowdonia by Marian Jones

Snowdonia by Marian Jones

However, for those who would prefer it, there is another way - a trip on the Snowdon Mountain Railway.

Snowdon Railway

Snowdon Mountain Railway

The highest railway in Britain, this rack and pinion narrow gauge line stretches 4.7 miles from the terminus in Llanberis to the summit of the mountain, 3,560 feet above sea level. It has always been, and remains, an engineering masterpiece but the running of the railway has not always been without incident.

The idea of constructing a railway up the mountain was first proposed back in 1869 but there were objections from people living in the area as many believed such a railway would only serve to spoil the scenery of Snowdon and the surrounding countryside. The plan was therefore dropped for several years.

Only when a rival proposal to build a line from Rhyd Ddu to the summit was put forward did the original idea resurface. The Snowdon Mountain Railway and Hotel Company was quickly formed and the possibility of a summit railway now became a genuine option.

Once the plan was hatched and the company formed, building began. It was a quick project, the line being constructed between December 1894 and February 1896, a period of just over 12 months. This meant working through two winters when conditions on Snowdon were nothing less than horrific. Nevertheless progress was excellent, the first locomotives being delivered in the summer of 1895 which, with the lines being laid from Llanberis upwards, were used to transport raw materials up the mountain.

As the railway was planned or designed, there were a number of stations on the route where passengers could join or leave the train but, inevitably, most people were aiming for the summit.

The work did not come cheaply. The final cost of the project was in the region of £63,000. These days that figure would translate to somewhere in the region of £8 million.

A few days before the official opening of the line, contractors ran a locomotive up to the summit. A boulder that had fallen from the rock face actually derailed several of the engine's wheels but workmen quickly manoeuvred these back onto the track and everything was put in place for opening day.

This occurred on 6 April 1896 and two trains were duly dispatched for the summit. The ascent was fine but on the way down disaster struck.

The first engine, "LADAS," driven by William Pickles from Yorkshire, ran into difficulties a few hundred yards above Clogwyn Station. The load was simply too great and Pickles had great difficulty keeping the engine under control. The wheels jumped the rail, the train thereby losing its ability to brake, and it simply ran away.

Pickles applied the handbrake but it did not work. With the train now gathering speed downhill Pickles and the fireman decided that discretion was the better part of valour and leapt off the footplate. The engine continued its descent, going faster every second until, failing to negotiate a left-hand curve, it toppled and fell gracefully over the side of the mountain.

Climbers coming up the mountain towards Clogwyn later commented that they thought they saw a huge boulder falling towards them. In fact it was the runaway engine that was now tumbling down the mountainside.

Back on the track things did not get any easier. The two carriages, now minus their engine, also gathered speed until, at last, the automatic brakes slammed on and they came to a graceful halt.

Unfortunately, one passenger, a Mr Ellis Roberts of Llanberis, had witnessed the driver and fireman leap off the engine and, with the carriages in which he sat also out of control, he thought he would do the same. Unfortunately, he was not so lucky as William Pickles. He smashed his head on the rocks and debris alongside the line, being so badly injured that he died a few days later.

As if all that was not enough, the second train now appeared on the scene. Weather conditions were poor with mist over the top half of the mountain and there was no way news of the disaster could be sent to the second train. It ploughed into the rear of the carriages at Clogwyn, de-railing the engine and passenger accommodation. Luckily, there were no serious injuries.

At the subsequent Inquiry the cause of the disaster was stated to be settlement of the track and excess speed due to the weight of the engine and its carriages. Weight for all future trains would have to be reduced. It meant ordering lighter carriages and the introduction of a 'gripper' rail system to improve safety. The line up Snowdon was closed for just over 12 months, no more trains running until 9 April 1897.

Since then the Snowdon Mountain Railway has run continuously, even though passengers were not allowed to travel to the summit during World War Two. Full service was reintroduced in 1946 when, interestingly, due to fuel shortages old army boots were burned in the boilers of the engines. Ex-servicemen on the trains would probably have thought it an appropriate end to those hated pieces of footwear.

The famous Summit Café - for some a boon, for others an eyesore - was demolished in 2006 and a new building, called Hafod Eryri (roughly translated as The High House of Snowdon) opened in the summer of 2009.

Snowdon Monika Buczma

Snowdon by Monika Buczma

Passengers still regularly travel up the line, enjoying the engine and the trip as much as the scenery. It remains one of the great Welsh experiences for any visitor but most of them will never have heard about the disaster that befell the line on opening day.

BBC Wales Nature has a gallery with fantastic images of Snowdonia for you to explore.

Phil Carradice will be on The Roy Noble Show on Radio Wales, today, Wednesday 6 April just after 2.30pm. Phil will be chatting with Roy about the Mountain Railway Disaster. You can listen live to Radio Wales on the BBC Radio Wales player.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    It's funny to think residents were once apprehensive about it altering the picturesque landscape because I think it's become quite iconic! I had a fantastic time in the ascent and a great walk down, I recommend it to everyone who goes up north.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    I think that's a great way to experience the mountain, train up and walk back down - with a cup of tea at the top! As long as the weather stays clear - no mist or rain - you should have a great time.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    I love Phil's essays on Welsh history.

    However, I have one little suggestion to make - since this is a BBC Cymru Wales website, why not rewrite that first sentence to read:

    "A trip up Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales and England,...'

    After all, if we can't put our own country first, who will?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    Hi CA Jones,

    The first sentence has now been changed. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Glad you enjoy Phil's blogs.

    Wales History

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    @CA Jones (and indeed Wales History)

    I think you're misunderstanding the terminology. "England and Wales" doesn't just name two countries, like saying "Pakistan and India", it's a set phrase, rather like "Hereford and Worcester". To change that to "Wales and England" makes nonsense of the claim. The Snowdon Mountain Railway is not the highest railway in England, because it's not in England. It's also not the highest railway in Belgium and Luxembourg, for the same reason. It's higher than any railway in Scotland, but we wouldn't say call it the highest railway in "Scotland and Wales" because, well, it's not in Scotland. It is, however, the highest railway in "England and Wales".

    That phrase was presumably chosen in a kind of knee-jerk way because Snowdon is the highest mountain in England and Wales, though there are higher ones in Scotland. But there aren't higher railways in Scotland. Why not just call it the highest railway in Britain?

 

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