It’s full steam ahead for staff and volunteers at the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway (W&LLR) as they get to work on one of the biggest projects the line has ever seen.
With plans for a new workshop, cafe, shop and education facilities, the £1.5 million development aims to open up the line to more visitors while retaining its original features.
The first step towards the 2020 Vision for the W&LLR came by chance last year, when an opportunity came up to purchase the Colinette industrial units just beyond Keyse Cottage at the Llanfair Caereinion Station. The units are now being transformed into a much-needed new, modern workshop, freeing up space at the station for a new visitor centre.
“We are making the railway a very attractive day out for people who come and visit,” says Charles Spencer, W&LLR general manager.
“The 2020 project is to say we need to make quite a major capital investment. The first step is the new workshop, and we closed the deal to buy the buildings at the end of June.
“It doesn’t look like there has been much progress, but there has been a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make sure the plans are right. And while all this is going on, we still have a railway to run as well!”
That in itself is no small task, with more than 24,000 passengers travelling on the line last year alone. It has come a long way since opening in 1903 as an agricultural railway, transporting livestock and supplies between Welshpool and Llanfair.
After closing in 1956, a preservation company was formed in 1960 and the line was re-built. The workshop was added in the 1960s and Keyse Cottage volunteer accommodation many years later, complementing the existing Edwardian buildings that now house the cafe and offices.
The railway became one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions, and has now far outgrown its facilities. But the importance of retaining the original buildings is always at the heart of any future plans.
“When the line closed, Welshpool was the operating end of the railway,” says Charles. “Everything we have added since at Llanfair is because this has become the headquarters of the line.
“The workshop is now over 50 years old, its life expectancy has long passed. The cafe has room for about 36 people, but we have trains coming in with up to 150 people on.
“It’s all about growing business and generating tourism. The key line is big plans to move the railway forward.”
His ambitions are echoed by Andrew Charman, one of around 250 volunteers at the railway, as he gives a tour of the current facilities at the Llanfair Caereinion Station.
“The only things that were here were that long building,” he gestures to the cafe, “the office and the iron store. They are all still in their original positions and we are going to preserve that.”
Andrew also stresses why a new workshop is so desperately needed. With the current building “well past its sell-by date,” the new units will provide double the space and a much warmer environment for the volunteers.
“It is the biggest project for some time, and it’s making the best out of what is here already,” adds Andrew.
“It will become a much more visitor-friendly environment, and the more people who come and visit, the more revenue that goes into the local economy.”
Out of Llanfair, there will also be upgrades along the line and at the Welshpool end.
The W&LLR team hopes to secure much of the money needed for the development through legacies and grants, but they are appealing for donations to help meet the estimated £600,000 shortfall.
Charles adds: “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it was achievable. There will be new buildings but we are anxious to preserve this environment and this atmosphere as it was in 1903. But with toilets – we draw the line at that!”