Labour of Love; Forced Labour Was Used to Build Railway Lines in the Last Two Centuries, but in 21st Century Wales a Railway Is Being Created by an Army of Volunteers - Including Bank Managers, a Theatre Director, a Gas Fitter and a Retired Anaesthetist - in Their Spare Time. Rhodri Clarkmet Some of Them as Their 25-Mile Track-Laying Marathon Neared Its End at Porthmadog
History tells us that constructing railways is an unpleasant and dangerous job, usually carried out by people desperate for work or in slavery. The explosion of British railways in the early Victorian era was aided by poverty and starvation in Ireland, which brought large numbers of hard-living Irish "navvies" to Great Britain.
In North America, Chinese and African labourers, some in conditions amounting to slavery, constructed the "railroads" that opened up the Wild West. In the late 19th Century and into the 20th, convicts were deployed on railway construction in Siberia, one of the harshest climates on Earth.
During World War II the Nazis forced Jews and other camp inmates to build railways, while the Japanese used prisoners of war to construct the notorious Burma railway. That project was nicknamed the "Death Railway", with good reason, and the same tag could apply to many other railways.
Nobody involved in those ventures could possibly have imagined that toiling in all weather to construct railways would one day become a hobby. Like so many of their predecessors, the people laying the track of the Welsh Highland Railway aren't being paid for their hard work - but they're doing it through choice.
One of the most enthusiastic is David Kent. He moved from England to Rhyd-Ddu, near Caernarfon, to be close to the railway. "I used to work for an American bank, as marketing manager.
I worked all over the country. I drove 50,000 miles a year - ridiculous," he says.
Dafydd Thomas, another volunteer track worker, didn't need to move house. He is director of Theatr Gwynedd, Bangor, but has spent most of his spare time for the last 12 years lugging rails and sleepers into position.
"I've been interested in railways since childhood but I'd never done anything like this," he says.
Many of the volunteers are in that stage of life when they're free of previous work or family commitments but still fit enough to do a day's labour on the railway.
While many volunteers come from office-based or medical backgrounds, some retired engineers have joined the railway to give it the benefit of their expertise.
"On a weekend, we can have a track gang who are 90% Welsh-speakers," says Mr Thomas. "Locally it's been extraordinarily successful."
My visit to the "head of steel" - jargon for the end of the connected track - coincides with a momentous day for the volunteers. A steam train with 10 coaches is running from the current terminus at Rhyd-Ddu right down to Hafod y Llyn, between Beddgelert and Porthmadog. It's the first steam train south of Beddgelert for 70 years.
The railway was built in the 1920s to open up the area west of Snowdon, but closed in the economic depression of the 1930s. The railway company remained in the receivers' hands until the mid-1990s - the longest receivership in UK history - when John Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister, controversially overturned the finding of a public inquiry and gave the Ffestiniog Railway the go-ahead to rebuild the WHR.
Both railways share the same narrow gauge - just two feet between the rails - and from Easter 2009 WHR trains will run from Caernarfon into the Ffestiniog Railway station in Porthmadog. Some coaches may continue to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The end-to-end run of 40 miles will be the longest on any steam railway in Britain.
When today's test train reaches the end of its run, a group of us transfer to a works train for the last couple of miles to the head of steel. The five-mile descent from Rhyd-Ddu to the Aberglaslyn Pass was difficult for the track gangs because of the falling gradient and the almost continuous curves. The last stretch to Porthmadog brings them welcome relief, crossing what was the Glaslyn estuary.
Our works train rolls along straight and level track, between fields where wary lambs rush to their mothers. At Beddgelert station a sheep had walked up to the train and bleated, as if demanding to board. …