It is 75 years since fare-paying passengers last rode the old steam train from Porthmadog to Caernarfon through what is now the Snowdonia National Park. In those days those on board would have numbered a few early tourists and the occasional slate miner on a day off from the quarry.
At 10.45am tomorrow, however, after decades of waiting and one of the biggest volunteer efforts Britain has seen, 600 enthusiasts paying up to £100 a head will board two trains at either end of the 25-mile line for the privilege of being among the first to ride the fully restored Welsh Highland Railway.
At 25mph it be will be a stately inaugural journey for the self-confessed "puffer-nutters" on the trip but a remarkable one none the less. Shut in 1936 with the collapse of the market for Welsh slate after only 13 years of woefully unprofitable operation, it was only through dint of fate and legislative quirk that the remnants of the line were not ripped up and turned into a footpath. In 1995, after it had been acquired by the adjoining Ffestiniog Railway, enthusiasts set about restoring the line in phases, the last of which between Porthmadog and Pont Croesor will be opened to the public from this weekend. It took more than 1,000 volunteers and £28.5m to return the line to its former glory, with many devotees giving up weeks at a time away from their families to toil in the horizontal rain in this fabled rail heaven known to generations of Ivor the Engine fans as the top left hand corner of Wales. In that time 30 bridges, 127 level crossings and 13 stations were rebuilt – a task which required 52,933 sleepers and more than 70,000 nuts and bolts.
Climbing aboard the painstakingly recreated carriages yesterday and slipping into one of the wingback armchairs for a test drive on the new stretch of track, it was easy to see the allure. With snow-capped Snowdon sparkling in the distance, buzzards hovering over fields, the hypnotic puff-puff of the engine and that unmistakable smell of steam, it is a journey that offers a unique treat for the senses.
Andrew Thomas, 59, who spent four years commuting from his home in the Cotswolds every other weekend as a volunteer before joining the railway full time, has watched the transformative powers of narrow-gauge travel. "You get all these people who come here who are not impressed by anything and when they get off they are smiling like 10-year-olds," he said.
In the real world Martin Page, 47, is an advertising executive from Wendover, Buckinghamshire. But for a few weeks each year he gets to ride the footplate as a volunteer fireman, setting off from the world's oldest passenger station and shovelling up to a tonne and a half of coal to haul the train up and down the line's 1,300ft gradient. "It is something completely different from the day job," he said. "But working with this wonderful Victorian and Edwardian engineering can be a hard physical day."
From next month the Welsh Highland will join with the Ffestiniog, offering an 80-mile round trip affording the hardcore puffer-nutter seven hours of non-stop scenery and steam. In the meantime the railway company hopes to continue the heritage-led renaissance in tourism which makes it the town's second-biggest employer after Tesco and brings £15m a year in visitor spending to the area.
Richard Axe, 55, another volunteer fireman and a specialist nurse in a Manchester burns unit, has been coming to help out here since he was 12. "I used to walk it before there was a track down and in my imagination I could see the engines running around but I never believed it would actually happen," he said. "I have to pinch myself every now and again to be sure it's real."