Ffestiniog General Manager Paul Lewin with the Talking Train. © Ffestiniog Railway
The world's first talking train service was launched by the Festiniog Railway on May 29 at Railfest in York. This innovative new service is pulled by the oldest working steam engine in the world, Prince, built for the Ffestiniog in 1863.
The talking train combines a fine vintage train with an audio tour. Passengers check in before train time and are equipped the latest in audio guide technology.
Around the narrow gauge railway line blue signs with numbers indicate locations where an audio track is available. On the train, passengers follow a map and the train gives a special toot at certain locations to remind them that an audio track is available.
Using simple audio guide technology the scheme brings the history of the line alive. © Ffestiniog Railway
The train runs gently up the line lingering at picturesque stations along the way and slowing at points where grand vistas are revealed. The destination is the half way 'Station in the Forest' at Tan-y-Bwlch where a leisurely lunch is served.
"You are issued with a handset, like a big mobile phone," explained Paul Lewin, General Manager of the line, to the 24 Hour Museum. "You can listen, as you choose, about the loco, the stations, the fauna and flora all around. It's not intrusive."
Listeners can hear as much or as little as they would like, and translations are planned into other languages. © Ffestiniog Railway
After 50 years of running trains since the line was saved from dereliction in 1954, the Ffestiniog is now entering it's third age, explained Mr Lewin. The years after the reopening were a period of consolidation - now it's time for interpretation of the historical and museological side of the railway.
"It's now so important for preserved railways - we now can help people to understand the importance of our transport heritage."
For the technically minded, the guide plays .mp3 files which are indexed as tracks on the audio guide with numbers that correspond with locations along the line. It's a simple low technology solution to the problem of adding commentary to a heritage experience. It also gives Ffestiniog staff a chance to develop foreign language tours and guides.
Prince, pulling a demonstration talking train at Railfest, is the oldest working steam locomotive in the world and still runs on the line he was originally designed for. He was built by George England and Co at the Atcham ironworks in London and, somewhat amazingly, delivered the last twenty miles via horse and cart to his new home in Porthmadog.
The Ffestiniog Railway Company board includes Ffestiniog President and founding father Alan Pegler - also famous for saving the Flying Scotsman from the scrapman's torch.
Alan Pegler, seen here at Railfest this week, didn't just save the Flying Scotsman from the scrapman - he helped save the Ffestiniog too. He's now President of the railway company board. © 24 Hour Museum
"We have two sets of carriages available for Talking Train service," explained Paul Lewin, General Manager of the Ffestiniog, talking to the 24 Hour Museum. "One set are vintage carriages from the 1870's, complete with gold leaf decoration, really splendid coaches. The others are from the 1930's."
Carriage No15, part of the talking train, is the first iron framed bogie carriage. This makes it the forefather of pratically every modern carriage in use on Britain's railways today.
It was built for the Ffestiniog Railway in 1872 and has survived in service in original form. It was withdrawn in 2000 for a complete refurbishment and restoration to as new condition.
This £100k overhaul was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The carriage is presented at York in pristine condition and is available for visitors to ride in behind Prince. Carriage 15 is used in regular traffic on the Ffestiniog Railway as part of the Talking Train service.
2004 marks the beginning of 15 months of celebrations for the Ffestiniog Railway which was rescued from dereliction 50 years ago in 1954.