Snowdon Mountain Railway

by Keith Kellett on September 27, 2009 · 2 comments

Snowdon Mountain Railway
Snowdon Mountain Railway (1978)
Snowdon Mountain Railway (1978)

‘This is a land of fairies and giants’ says the commentary on the Snowdon Mountain Railway, and, as the little train clatters up into the mountain mists, you can well believe it. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up a vision of either a good witch or a malevolent troll hiding in the murk beyond the tumbling crags.

The carriages on the train are a good age; the diesel locomotives which push them up the mountain are about 25 years old, and most of the steam locomotives, which are still running, and share the duty, are over 100 years old. So, the whole thing looks old-fashioned, quaint and … I won’t say ramshackle … Tolkien-ish! There’s no exact English word for it, but the Germans have an excellent one … Tinkelbahn !!

The slopes to be negotiated are too steep for a conventional railway. This is a rack-and-pinion railway, on which toothed cog-wheels on the engine engage on the ‘rack’, between the lines. It works on almost exactly the same principle as a roller-coaster, except the cog wheels remain engaged on the rack to act as a brake on the way down, as well.

The system used at Snowdon is the Abt Rack, designed by Dr. Roman Abt, in which horizontal cog wheels are used; the other system most used on rack railways is the Riggenbach rack, in which vertical cog wheels engage in a so-called ‘ladder rack’.

The railway was the brain-child of the grandly-named George William Duff-Assheton-Smith who, in the late 19th Century, owned most of the valley and most of the northern slope of Snowdon, at 3,500 feet, the highest mountain in Wales. Although the main business of Llanberis, where the railway starts, was slate quarrying, ‘trippers’ were arriving as well. Many of these visitors wanted to climb to the summit of Snowdon, and many of them did, either on foot or on the back of a mule or a donkey.

The train changed all that. The railway, and the locomotives and carriages were commissioned from the Swiss Locomotive & Manufacturing Co. of Winterhur, Switzerland … the Swiss, having many similar railways, are rather good at this.

Now, anyone, regardless of fitness, could take the train to within 60 feet of the summit, and see for themselves if it was possible, on a clear day, to see all the countries of the United Kingdom.

I can tell you, from previous experience, it is possible. But, not today … the low cloud and rain saw to that. But, shortly after we set off, a spectacular waterfall came fleetingly into view. ‘If you look to the left,’ said the mechanical voice, ‘you can see …’ … a rain-lashed window, swirling mist and craggy rocks, which hid … what, or who? Fairies and giants, maybe?

There’s another mountain, not far from here, where it’s said if you spend the night alone on the summit, you will be either mad or a great poet in the morning. And, in this mist, it’s not hard to believe. At an intermediate station, a shadowy figure emerged from a shed; he could be anything you imagined, if it wasn’t for the reflective jacket he was wearing.

I wasn’t here to admire the view, anyway. I was going to inspect the new Hafod Eryri restaurant, station and Visitor Centre on the summit, which replaced the ugly eyesore which preceded it. Surprising, because the building was originally designed by the noted architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. But. His original design didn’t survive the first winter up there, and it had to be modified to something more functional, rather than decorative.

But, with modern technology, the new centre is both aesthetically pleasing and practical, and offers a very easy way up to it … if you book in advance at busy periods.

Find out much more about the Snowdon Mountain Railway and the new Visitor Centre at



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