Jim White on Friday: All stoked up on purest love: The folks in mountainous north Wales really know how to run a railway. Now they have designs on a British Rail line

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'HERE, cop a whiff of that,' said Gordon Rushton, opening the doors of a railway carriage and, in the excited manner of a schoolboy handing round a bag of glue, inviting his guests to test its aroma. As he opened the doors, the smell of leather leapt out like a passenger without a ticket.

'The seats of the carriage have been recovered in spanking new Connolly hide - 900 quid's worth,' said Mr Rushton. 'Didn't cost us a penny. Donated by someone out of love. What you are witnessing here is the operation of love. Pure, undiluted, unadulterated love.'

You have to go a long way in Britain to find anyone who knows how to run a railway. There is no point looking in British Rail headquarters and even less at the Department of Transport. Instead you have to go to north Wales, across Snowdonia to Porthmadog, a tiny harbour apparently at the end of nowhere, where Gordon Rushton is the jovial, fat controller of the Festiniog, which may well be the country's most successful railway.

'Now let me show you something rather fun on my computer,' he said, tearing into his office in the station buildings and tapping away at a keyboard. A list of figures headed 'Porthmadog loadings and revenue' came up on his computer screen. 'As at 15.38 today we had taken 1,298 bookings. Not a bad day at all. We're up 10 per cent on last year; we like to think that's a good performance in the present climate.'

The Festiniog has been around since 1832, when it was built to transport slate from the mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port. It owns a buff's dream of railway records: the oldest this, the first that and the longest-

running other. Since the Fifties it has been operated, mainly by railway-infatuated volunteers, as a tourist attraction, carrying millions through scenery so extravagant that only those brought up under the Matterhorn could fail to gawp. Snowdon, topped with clouds, brooding to the left, the sea brewing up yet another storm on the right, in the middle the little engines, not much bigger than toys against the hills, puffing their way up 20 miles of impossible inclines.

Gordon Rushton arrived at the Festiniog's general manager's office in 1991 from Sealink ferries, where he had been marketing director. He found an organisation which, although by no means unsuccessful, was suspicious of promoting itself.

'They were railway fans,' he said. 'They thought there was something predatory about selling themselves. They were shy about it.'

Mr Rushton is not shy about selling himself. He immediately introduced thrusting marketing techniques and computer technology, promoted the railway shamelessly, brought in gin and tonics and comfy leather seats and pushed up the prices. Now a round-trip costs a neat pounds 11.50.

'Some say we're expensive. But what's the price of keeping the kids quiet for the afternoon? One of the first things I did was to make sure there's always a train steaming up in the station every minute of the day. It draws the kids in,' he said, miming a fisherman casting out his rod and line. 'The kids are the key here. We're not interested in rail buffs. They bring their own sandwiches, don't buy film, try not to pay for tickets, walk round like they own the place. We want kids, they exert power over the purse.'

Led by their children, passengers have poured in under Gordon's regime. While other steam-preservation railways have suffered from the recession, numbers have been climbing steadily on his computer. But despite increased profits, no one is getting rich at the Festiniog.

'Our existence here is about nothing more than giving pleasure to the people who travel on the railway and giving pleasure to the people who work on the railway,' said Gordon, who has spent his profits on building new engines, restoring old ones and sprucing up the stations. 'Things have to be operated on a sound financial footing only to ensure that we can continue in that role. We are not looking to make a fat perk for directors or dividends for investors.'

There are thousands of people who work on the Festiniog. Sixty of them in full-time employment and the rest as volunteers, giving of their time, skills and cast-off leather trimmings from a love of the place.

'For instance, we have a dozen university students, working their vacations for us at pounds 10 a day,' said Gordon. 'We call it subsidised volunteering. Nice concept, eh?'

To prove his point he marched over to the train standing at platform one, where the locomotive's crew were readying things for the 15.50 to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

'This is Jenny, a medical student,' he said, pointing out the fireperson. 'This is Peter, a lecturer in music at Huddersfield Poly. And this is Glynn, he's a BR safety officer in York. He spends all his leave with us: busman's holiday, or what?'

And it is not just the volunteers who are engaged in an affair with the Festiniog.

'It's a vocation,' said one full-timer, sitting in the works canteen, where instead of pin-ups, gorgeous steaming 4-6-4 locos decorate the walls. 'Because you're so committed, you tend to take things rather seriously. Like a love affair, things can go spectacularly wrong. If management make a decision you don't like, you can take it very personally, and some people have got depressed under Gordon. He can be a rough ride. He pours out thousands of ideas, and it's hard sometimes to keep up. But there's no doubt he's been a success.'

Indeed, so successful has he been in running a little railway, now Gordon Rushton wants to run the big railway - or at least that bit of it which runs from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog. This line, one of the most picturesque in British Rail's portfolio, traditionally brought large numbers of passengers on to the Festiniog. In the mid-Eighties BR reduced services enormously. This year Gordon volunteered to do some marketing for the line, in exchange for restored services. His glossy leaflet and some better timetabling have increased numbers on the BR route by 65 per cent this summer. Ample reason, you might have thought, to increase services yet further. But no, from October, BR is to cut the services once more.

So exasperated was Gordon, he began to explore taking over the line himself, post-privatisation. He has had discussions with the Department of Transport and the beginnings of a business plan are on his computer.

'Plucky little Festiniog? Well why not?' he said. 'The Government says the community should run the railway, why not get local folk with expert knowledge to run their local line to the benefit of the community. How would the Festiniog manage to maintain it? With difficulty. We'd need a public-service subsidy. There'd be problems to face, but it would be a challenge to face them. The objective is not to run the BR line for the sake of it. We've already got our own railway. We want to ensure the steady flow of lucrative traffic from the north Wales coast on to our line. If BR can't do that, then we'll bloody well have a stab at doing it ourselves.'

This may well be the only railway man in the country enthusiastic about privatisation. If Gordon Rushton fails and comes a cropper in the main line, however, it won't be through lack of love for railways. On Tuesday evening, when the last timetabled train had returned to its stable, Gordon clambered on to the footplate of Sgt Murphy, the locomotive he owns and restored lovingly from scrap, drove it out of the works and attached it to a small train of trucks. All day five 16-year-old volunteers had been crawling over the Sgt with bottles of Brasso.

'My slaves,' Gordon grinned, indicating the quintet of blackened adolescent faces.

He chuffed his engine out of the yard, on to the line. At the first station, he stopped to allow hordes of children and their parents to climb aboard for an evening's work clearing the track of rhododendrons. The families had signed up for a week's holiday working gratis on Gordon's railway. It was another of his innovations, to catch the next generation of volunteers young.

This is how he spends most of his evenings, driving his train, fiddling with valves, shovelling coal, spitting steam, oozing grease, stopping occasionally to pick up or deposit more people prepared to do his dirty work for nothing. At 11pm, in the pitch black, at the typical end to a hard day at the train set, he was still at it, shunting Sgt Murphy around the yard, jovially shouting instructions to his slaves. And this was the man who claimed Festiniog directors didn't benefit from its success: as a perk it certainly beat taking a spin in the company Jag.

(Photographs omitted)