The Conwy valley line - Lein Dyffryn Conwy

Slate waste traffic

The Conwy Valley line has seen no regular freight traffic since the closure of Trawsfynydd power station.  The last nuclear flask train ran in 1997 and apart from a rare engineers train and occasional excursion, the sparse passenger service has been the only traffic.  There is a chance this could change in the future however.

In April 2002 a new tax was introduced on Primary Aggregates (this is rock which is newly quarried), the tax does not apply to Secondary Aggregates (rock which has already been quarried and then rejected as waste).  The process of slate quarrying generates vast amounts of waste rock - often less than 10% is useful and the rest is dumped.  The vast heaps of waste rock are what characterise the Slate Quarrying areas of North Wales, none more so than in the area around Blaenau Ffestiniog.   There are estimated to be 730 million tonnes of slate waste in North Wales of which 370 million tonnes are in the Bethesda and Blaenau Ffestiniog districts.  Current extraction is increasing this amount by 6 million tonnes a year.  Slate waste could, theoretically, supply some 50% of UK crushed rock sales. This amounts to a market size of some 59 million tonnes/annum. It is widely used in North Wales for general fill and road building and these applications represent the major future use of slate waste as a secondary aggregate.  To read more about the Welsh Slate industry please visit my website:

The Slate Industry of North & Mid Wales

Welsh Slate, owners of the Oakeley Quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog, would like to enter the Secondary Aggregates market in a big way.

Update February 2011:  Oakeley slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog closed in April 2010, it is currently mothballed but could be reopened to extract slate waste.  With the current recession and the ending of rail freight grants, any plans for slate waste trains must be regarded as long term.  

Oakeley Quarry forms the background to this photo of the disused North station in Blaenau, a conveyor belt would be built down the incline in the background.

A new terminal, for which planning permission has been granted, would be built at Rhiwbryfdir.  The terminal would be served by a conveyor belt from Oakley Quarry on the West side of the railway.  The conveyor would cross over the former Ffestiniog Railway Dinas Branch and the Conwy Valley line to the new terminal.  The rock would come from the inner part of the quarry and not be taken from the waste heap visible.  This is Y Domen Fawr and is a listed structure.

Estimates some years ago put the cost of the terminal at £28 million and 100 jobs, in an area of high unemployment, would be created.   Rail transport is the only practical way to transport the volumes envisaged and connection would be made to the Conwy Valley line near the entrance to Blaenau Tunnel.  Ironically this stretch of line - at 1 in 43 - is the steepest on the entire line.  Once in the tunnel, the gradient is downhill all the way to Llandudno Junction.  It is likely that track and possibly signalling improvements will be made to the line, but the extent of these is not known at present.  Neither are the likely tonnages or destinations of the traffic.  In 2005 Atkins Rail were commissioned, by the Welsh Assembly, to produce a report on the viability of the project.

To establish the practicality of rail transport, a series of tests were carried out on November 17th 2002.  It was hoped that Blaenau would live up to its reputation as one of the wettest places in Britain but in the event conditions were dry and sunny.

The 6Z24 08.30 Crewe-Blaenau Ffestiniog Freightliner Heavy Haul test train, headed by immaculate 66 606 with 10 JNA 'Gondola' wagons, first worked down the Coast . It was followed by 6Z25 09.30 Crewe-Blaenau hauled by 66 514 and a further 8 JNA's.

The two trains were coupled together with 66 606 leading and 66514 on the rear idling, but able to assist should it prove neccessary.  The 66/6 class have a lower gearing than the standard Freightliner 66 making them more suitable for this type of haulage.  The combined train weight would be not far short of 2000 tonnes.  A series of four tests were then carried out on the steeply inclined approach to Ffestiniog Tunnel. The first involved 66 606 hauling the train to the tunnel.  The second test was carried out from the bottom of the incline to the tunnel. The third involved 66 606 starting the train outside the tunnel, which it failed to do. The train backed down onto the straight section and this time 66 606 managed to get the train moving and hauled it to the tunnel entrance. From here the train set off back to Crewe.

66514 emerging from the tunnel with the second train from Crewe.

The combined train headed by 66606, with 66514 idling on the rear

66606 on one of the tests at the tunnel entrance

Tests completed, the train departs for Crewe - mission accomplished

All the above photos are by courtesy of Eryl Crump.

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