BOOK REVIEW: ‘Rebuilding the Welsh Highland Railway: Britain’s Longest Heritage Line’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Rebuilding the Welsh Highland Railway: Britain’s Longest Heritage Line

Author: Peter Johnson

Total Number of Pages: 288

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


On this volume’s dustjacket it is opined that ‘The revival and restoration of the Welsh Highland railway is one of the greatest heritage railway achievements, yet its success followed more than one hundred years of failure’. It is an accurate precis of the content of a well-written and very readable book.

A Sources section placed immediately behind the Contents page lists the many and varied resources used during the volume’s creation., providing, where necessary, additional information concerning both their condition and the reasons for their inclusion.  This is in turn followed by an Acknowledgements section. In it the author details the individuals, publications and organisations which contributed to the creation of the volume. A short section titled Welsh Place Names follows. This clarifies the use of that language within the book. An Introduction follows. This summarises the information contained within the two Parts and nine Chapters which form the main part of this work. The parts titles (Setting the Scene and Rebuilding the Welsh Highland Railway are self-explanatory and cover the history of the line until 2012. The narrative is then updated by a Postscript placed as a subsection of Chapter Nine (The final push), which relates events which occurred in the 2012-2017 period. Eight Appendices follow the Postscript. These are in Table format and present, in visual form, a variety of subjects important to the larger narrative. A single-page Bibliography follows, with a two-page Index completing the volume. The book contains numerous monochrome and colour images. In addition to photographs, these include plans, posters, diagrams and ephemera relative to the narrative. These are informatively captioned and,  where necessary, their sources are noted. There is not mention of the existence of these items on either the Contents page or within the Index. A Map of the railway in its entity appears inside the covers at each end of the volume. Where relevant to the narrative, other maps are  placed within the relevant chapters. Curiously, there is no General Outline Map of Great Britain to place the railway in context. This could prove problematical for potential visitors (especially if they live outside Wales or off shore) as if they don’t know where the railway is, how can it be visited? As with the images etc., the Maps are given no mention in either the Contents page or within the Index. Where quotes appear within the volume, their sources are not given.

For this reviewer this volume is badly let down by its Index. Although in the course of random searching he found many examples where items appearing within the volume did not appear in the Index, one example will suffice; that of Dinas. The Index lists six entries for that location, these being on pages 9,10,21,26, 27, 38.  It contains no entries for pages 113, 114, 116, 118, or 120 where Dinas is also mentioned.  As noted, these latter being found during random searching, there is no way to know what other references to Dinas are also unrecorded. There were numerous similar examples, with the omission of references to both Beyer-Garratts and South Africa (Page 108) being especially noticeable; this on a railway which is unique in Great Britain for its operation of such locomotives. As it cannot be known what else may be missing from the Index, the authority and veracity of that section is inevitably compromised. The lack of an outline Map has already been noted. The volume contains no plans or diagrams of locomotives, rolling stock or infrastructure,

In precis this volume is of the ‘Company history’ genre. This reviewer found it to be well-researched, well-written, eminently readable and interesting. While not ‘perfect’ it is an excellent introduction to the Welsh Highland. When combined with Pen and Sword’s recently-published works on the Festiniog Railway (the Welsh Highland Railway’s parent / owner) it forms a valuable resource on a unique narrow gauge railway system.

Unsurprisingly, this volume will inevitably appeal to the ‘Welsh Highland enthusiast’ members of the railway fraternity. Readers with a specific interest in Welsh narrow Gauge Railways are also likely to find it worthy of their attention. However, it is also likely to have a wider appeal, especially amongst holiday-makers seeking a souvenir of their visit to the railway. Railway historians and railway enthusiasts of a more ‘generalist’ nature may also find it of interest. The volume’s photographs could also be useful to railway modellers interested in the Welsh Highland specifically, and Welsh narrow gauge railways in general.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.




BOOK REVIEW: ‘Rebuilding the Welsh Highland Railway: Britain’s Longest Heritage Line’