Friday 26 August 2011, 08:22
This is the summer that I unintentionally became a bit of a steam train enthusiast. I've been on three narrow gauge railways in as many months and even though I'm nowhere near being an expert, I can definitely claim to be a convert.
The first trip was back in May on the Welsh Highland Railway, on one of the first journeys to travel the entire length of the newly-revealed track running from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. At 40 miles long, this is now officially the longest heritage railway in the UK. And what a journey! (The Sunday Times has claimed it's the 'sexiest ride in Britain' - I couldn't possibly comment!)
On the day of travel, there were hoards of steam fans on the platform at Porthmadog, waiting to board the train and eventually, after much anticipation, the final whistle blew and with a huge hiss and billowing clouds of steam, we were off!
The first part of this historic journey has been the most controversial - the train tracks cross the main road through Porthmadog town, meaning that the traffic has to stop to allow the carriages to pass. Initial concerns from locals have been 'ironed out' according to the railway's bosses, who point out that the whole enterprise is worth around £15million a year to the North Wales economy - bringing tourists and a small army of volunteers into the area.
The railway was originally intended to carry slate from various North Wales quarries to Caernarfon, but its timing wasn't great and by the time the tracks were built, the slate industry was already in decline and it went into receivership in 1927 after only a few years of operation.
It's taken hard work, perseverance and several large grants - from the lottery, from Europe and from the Welsh Government - to restore the railway to its full former glory. Today, there are an incredible 1000 volunteers helping to run the trains - literally - and to punch tickets and serve refreshments.
On our train, the guard spent his weekdays working in an office in Birmingham and every weekend volunteering on the trains - he was a true fanatic - and the girl who served drinks from the buffet cart told me she dreamt of being an engine driver and despite a lot of teasing from her school friends in Manchester, she was determined to train hard to achieve her goal.
Apparently, you can even find love on the tracks: according to the railway's website - many 'railway romances have led to marriage'!
We travelled through the Aberglaslyn Pass to Beddgelert and on to Rhyd Ddu, taking in a stunning view of Snowdon, wearing its practically permanent 'hat' of white cloud. There are a lot of facts and figures to quote when it comes to steam trains, like the fact that the trains on the Welsh Highland Railway can claim to be hauled by the world's most powerful narrow gauge steam locomotives and that the trains climb an impressive 700 feet on their journey from sea level to the foothills of Snowdon.
Then last month I travelled on the Rheidol Valley Railway - a shorter but no less impressive 12-mile journey from Devil's Bridge to Aberystwyth, on a line which was originally intended to transport lead and timber to the Cambrian coast. And finally, the Teifi Valley Railway, a journey of just a couple of miles from Henllan near Llandysul through the intriguingly-named Pontprenshitw station to Llandyfriog and the river Teifi.
There's something about steam trains that brings out the train-spotter in most people. I think it's that overwhelming sense of nostalgia and a rare chance to revisit the past when the pace of life was that bit slower (and you didn't get people shouting into their mobile phones 'I'll be home in 20 minutes!' or listening to their music with the headphone volume on full). No, today's public transport has never quite lived up to the age of steam...
There's another chance to join me on my steam train journey through Snowdonia on the Welsh Highland Railway on Country Focus this Sunday on BBC Radio Wales at 7am.