“I hope your group won’t be disappointed…..we haven’t got much!”
Nikki is sitting at her laptop in the railway café, enjoying a little banter with the couple from northeastern England, who are tucking into a sandwich and a cuppa prepared by Margaret. They are waiting for the railway’s General Manager, Mac, to return from his latest maintenance task to take them on the railway’s miniature ‘Pixie Line’.
Nikki knows her stuff. She hadn’t been interested in railways, but in 2014 the Teifi Valley was on the brink and needed help. An accountant, she was brought in by Mac, who himself had been newly installed as General Manager, to help navigate the railway’s dire financial situation.
Situated in a yard called Henllan Station in Newcastle Emlyn in west Wales, the Teifi Valley Railway has access to enough land to make an interesting preserved heritage line and visitor attraction, which is exactly what it once was. A narrow-gauge railway running along a former standard gauge Great Western trackbed, the Teifi Valley Railway first carried passengers in 1985 as a heritage railway. With extensions to the line, in its 2 mile long heyday it carried close to 30,000 tourists a year, although there exists 6 miles of potential trackbed within the land owned by the society.
Feeling the effects of the recession, the beginning of this decade brought financial problems and upheaval. To cut a long story short, which Nikki did, the local businessman who took over the struggling café eventually took over the running of the railway too. What followed was a stripping of the railway’s assets, as track was torn up, sleepers too, the locomotives eventually being replaced by a “landtrain”, a tractor pulling trailers. The real reason for the change was to exploit the woodland, felling trees from the Teifi Valley Railway’s land and selling the timber, work which also put damaging strain on the remaining tracks that hadn’t been ripped up.
In 2014 Mac stepped in, brought in helpers like Nikki, and the Teifi Valley Railway was reborn with next to nothing. As the track was unusable the miniature ‘Pixie Line’ saved the railway by entertaining children whilst the big railway started to rebuild after its years of destruction.
The Teifi Valley Railway, Nikki told me, is quite unique; it’s a heritage railway aiming to recreate and regenerate not a working passenger railway for tourist purposes, more a railway aiming to recreate and regenerate a heritage railway. In short, they are starting from scratch with few assets and just a hardy, determined gang of volunteers trying to keep the line alive for the next generation.
I joined the two elderly people from the northeast straddling the carriage on the little train, driven by Mac himself, of course. Mac then showed me around his sheds, where the railway’s two steam locomotives sit enjoying a painfully slow restoration. There had been a further tragedy, you see. The society’s Chief Engineer had slipped onto his father’s stairlift, breaking vertebrae in his back and, now wheelchair-bound, was unable to physically do the work required to bring the railway’s pride and joy, Sergeant Murphy, back into action this year (2019). Many offers for Sergeant Murphy had been received from other railways, arguing that the locomotive could be better used elsewhere, but the Teifi Valley had stuck to their guns, holding onto their final big asset, determined that one day the line would be restored to its former glory, with a steam train of some infamy puffing through the woods.
Sergeant Murphy was built in 1918 and is famed as the locomotive that killed its driver when it overturned in a quarry in 1932. Whilst we’ll have to wait a little while longer for Murphy to reappear from its shed, a trip on the big railway, again driven by Mac and with Margaret now having discarded her pinny for her conductor’s cap, was like a journey back to the beginning of railway preservation. Reaching the end of the useable track, Mac and I walked along the overgrown trackbed where the tracks had been lifted. He showed me the tantalising hundred or so yards requiring sleepers and track that would allow him to rebuild his railway across the worst part to Pontprenshitw. The line beyond is in decent nick. If they can bridge the small gap they and get their steam locos working again, the Teifi Valley is back in business.
At the Teifi Valley Railway they haven’t got much. Apart from love and hope and belief.