Mid Wales

Vale of Rheidol's wheels for Aberystwyth Cliff Railway

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Media captionThe older workers at the Vale of Rheidol railway pass traditional skills to their young apprentices

"When I tell people I'm a fireman, they think I put out fires and I've got to tell them I make them instead!"

Aged 19, Jack Evans is working in one of the country's oldest and most nostalgic industries - the steam railway.

"It's always different, the weather's always different, you're always on with different people," he said.

"I'm interested in engineering, I'm studying engineering at university at the moment and being here, it just ticks all the boxes for what I want to do later on."

He works alongside Jac Smith, who recently passed his steam engine driving test on his 21st birthday - making him one of the youngest in the job in the UK.

Although the Vale of Rheidol line no longer carries lead ore from the mines, as it did between 1902 and the 1930s, it does carry tourists from the seaside town of Aberystwyth to nearby Devil's Bridge.

Image copyright Gwyn Jones
Image caption Fireman Gwyn Jones rides on the front of a train between Aberystwyth and Devil's Bridge 50-60 years ago

Its workshop, near Aberystwyth railway station, restores locomotives for museums and railways across the UK - and has recently been commissioned to create new wheels for the town's cliff railway which takes visitors up Constitution Hill.

"These are the sort of things you can't learn in college, you have to learn on the job," Will Smith, operations and safety officer, said.

"So you'll find the railway itself is operated by quite a young staff, so it bucks the trend for the tourist railways and safeguards it for the next generation.

"It's an interesting place to work, no two days are the same. You get to meet thousands of interesting visitors and everybody's here to have a good day out."

Image caption The drivers and crew at the Vale of Rheidol railway, including Jack Evans (centre), are mostly in their teens and early 20s
Image caption Will Smith says the workshop keeps skills in the area

Mr Smith said since 1902 the railway, which has always included a passenger service, had only stopped operating once - during World War Two.

"Pretty much everything in the country shut down," he said.

"As part of the war effort it stopped operation, but I'm told the day the war ended they steamed the engine up and blew the whistle all the way down the line.

"Someone said that was their first memory of the railway."

Simon Cowan, carriage and locomotive painter, is trained as a fireman and a driver.

"The main thing is to make things from scratch, to replace items which are no longer made," he said.

"So we copy them faithfully and make them all in the old fashioned way and then I pass these skills on to other people, it's a bit like a big museum.

"It's the older people, I'm one of them, who have grown up in that specialist knowledge, that area, passing those skills on - because I will get to the point where I can't do this any more.

Image caption The carriages date back to the 1930s

"I show people how to paint, it's a lovely way of seeing people develop, so when I go on holiday I'm not thinking 'gosh what are they doing to my paint shop'.

"We also put them out on the trains as firemen and guards, and we teach them as much as we can.

"Carriages are painted with 24 carat gold leaf and they go 'wow that must be so expensive', well no it's so wafer thin.

"We show them how to make a tracing of a word and get the typeface correct and show them how to apply the lettering on to a piece of wood, and then we'll use this varnish and paint that on to there, and when the varnish is sticky put the gold leaf on and peel it off and 'wow, that's great'.

"Then I'll say 'give us your thumb' and put a bit of varnish on, just let that dry, and gold leaf their thumb and they think it's hilarious - but then they've learnt how to do it. It's really fun."

Mr Cowan added because the carriages dated back to the 1920s and 30s, work had been going into improving disability access - with a new platform planned.

And a great deal of work has to go into maintaining the locomotives and the 12 miles of track.

Image copyright Geograph / Ian Capper and BBC
Image caption The workshop is making new wheels (right) for the Cliff Railway which takes visitors up Constitution Hill

Mr Smith said: "With steam railways, the equipment we use is very bespoke.

"You can't get the parts off the shelf, so you make them yourself... it's very specialist and it's good to keep the skills in the local area.

"The last few years we've built a really renowned workshop and that allows us not only to do our own work but also take on work for other businesses, other railways."

Image caption The workshop takes on work for other railways including the Talyllyn Railway and the Highland Railway in Porthmadog

He added: "In the far end of the workshop there's a cattle van which is coming together which was supplied new to us in the 1920s.

"There were stories of livestock going up to Devil's Bridge in wagons, so they decided to build two cattle vans but unfortunately it was a bit too late for the demand - most livestock was going by road by then.

"So they became redundant and the vehicle went to another railway and more recently it's come back to us and our job is to restore it back to how it would have been."

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