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Favourite loco to return at double diamond celebration weekend

The return to service of ‘Sir Drefaldwyn’ will be the major highlight of the gala. The loco is seen here in 2014 with correct Austrian carriage stock before the latest overhaul started. Photo: Kevin Heywood/W&LLR

Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway (W&LLR) will stage an Anniversary Gala weekend on June 17 and 18 to celebrate two significant events, one exactly twice as old as the other.

On April 6, 1963, 60 years ago, the W&LLR reopened as a heritage railway run by volunteers. Another 60 years and two days earlier, on April 4, 1903 the line had opened for the first time with much pomp and ceremony in both Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinion.

When the preservation company began operations in April 1963, it was in a very uncertain environment. At the time there were just two preserved railways operating in Wales – Talyllyn Railway had been a volunteer operation since 1951 and the Ffestiniog Railway had reopened its first short section in 1955.

The reopening day special pauses at Castle Caereinion in April 1963. A since-modified example of the basic toastrack carriage seen directly behind the loco will return for the gala event.
Photo: W&LLR Archive

But the Welshpool & Llanfair volunteers faced a new challenge as they were leasing the line from British Railways, with all the bureaucracy that entailed. Not until 1973 was the line purchased from BR.

The early years were marked by severe cash shortages and the project was almost doomed when the bridge over the River Banwy partially collapsed in 1964. But the volunteers overcame these challenges and the line has steadily grown in prominence to become the major tourist attraction it is today.

The gala event will celebrate the line’s history and future. Without doubt, the highlight is set to be the return to service of 0-8-0T steam locomotive 699.01 ‘Sir Drefaldwyn’, following a long overhaul delayed by such issues as the Covid pandemic.

Sir D has its own prominent place in the line’s preservation history. Built in 1944 in France by Société Franco-Belge for the then occupying German military, it never saw service before the supply depot it was stored in was captured by Allied forces.

The loco was then sent to work in Austria and it was discovered redundant on a siding by W&L members in 1968, following the gift to the railway of four open-balconied carriages by the Austrian Zillertalbahn line.

Sir D was not the first steam locomotive to arrive at the W&L after preservation, but it was the first to be regularly rostered on the line’s passenger trains, entering service in spring 1970 and proving a most powerful engine able to pull the heaviest loads.

The loco worked until 2000 when its boiler ticket expired and, with other heavy-haulage locos then available, it was placed in store, restoration not beginning until 2014.

The Anniversary Gala will also recall important parts of the W&LLR’s history and will include a return to the line for one of the first carriages secured by the preservationists.

With the W&LLR’s own carriages having been scrapped in the 1930s, following the withdrawal of the passenger service, the new company had to look for stock and, in 1961, secured a set of very basic ‘toastrack’ carriages from the Upnor & Lodge Hill Railway, a naval line in Kent.

These were modified in service with the W&LLR and served the line well until better vehicles became available and they were sold to the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway, back in Kent. Thanks to the S&KLR, one carriage will return to Wales to recreate the look of trains in the line’s earliest preservation years.

Other highlights of the weekend will include re-enactments of important events in the railway’s history. Among these are the cutting of the first sod ceremony and the chairman’s speech on re-opening to a recreation of the jazz trains run in the 1980s and an evening dining train. It is also hoped to have other visiting vehicles on static display.

Trains will run between Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinon throughout the weekend.