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The earliest railways in Wales were horse drawn tramways serving the iron works. The first major development of steam railways came with the development of the South Wales coalfield in Victorian times. Railways were essential to transport huge quantities of coal down the valleys to the ports where the coal was exported by ship.
Docks at Cardiff, Swansea and other ports along the Severn estuary developed rapidly to handle coal exports, first by sailing ship and later by steam ship. Coal was unloaded by machines which tipped the coal trucks to release the coal into the ship`s hold. Each colliery had its own railway trucks, with the colliery name painted on the truck sides.
The Severn Estuary presented a major obstacle to developing railways to connect Wales to the south of England. A first solution was to construct a long viaduct across the estuary. This remained in use for many years, carrying coal trains from the mines of the Forest of Dean. A disaster occurred when two ships collided and hit the bridge, causing a fire and explosion. The damage was too expensive to repair, so the bridge was demolished.
Not long after construction of the Severn railway bridge, the Severn tunnel was built. This provided a connection for the railway main line between south Wales and Bristol, then on to London. The tunnel engineers faced a serious problem when they reached a fracture in the rock where large quantities of water entered the tunnel. Powerful pumps were needed to keep the tunnel dry, and pumps are still in use at the present day.
A main railway was planned along the north coast of Wales and then to Anglesey, to provide a fast connection between London and the port of Holyhead, for ferries to Ireland. A bridge across the Menai Strait was designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson, using rectangular metal tubes to carry the railway lines. The design allowed sailing ships to pass under the bridge. The bridge has since been rebuilt after a serious fire, and now carries both the railway and a main road.
Railway lines were extended across the central area of Wales. The hills and deep valleys presented challenges to the engineers. On the line between Aberystwyth and Newtown, an enormously deep cutting had to be built at Talerddig. This reduced the gradient for trains climbing from the coast to the high central area of Wales.
Another railway line was constructed from Swansea, across central Wales, to Craven Arms on the English border. This route crosses a number of deep and wide valleys. The engineering solution was to construct viaducts. The largest of these is near the village of Cynghordy.
Victorian railway engineers also took on the challenge of building a line along the west coast from Aberystwyth to Pwllheli. In places there are steep cliffs of hard rock. It was necessary to cut a shelf along the cliff to carry the railway. In places, tunnels had to be cut through headlands.
The railway along the west coast had to cross several large estuaries. The widest of these was the Mawddach, where a long viaduct was constructed. Most of the viaduact is made of timber, but high metal spans were included. One of the spans could be opened to allow large sailing ships to pass through. The viaduct is the largest timber bridge still in use on the railway network in Britain.
The arrival of the railways had an enormous effect both economically and socially. Railways were important in carrying families to the coast for holidays at a time when few people owned cars. The railway was essential to the development and growth of holiday resorts such as Llandudno.
As well as carrying coal from the south Wales valleys, railways were used to transport slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog. A particularly important period for this trade was after the second World War, when many buildings needed to be repaired due to bomb damage. The railway through Blaenau Ffestiniog more recently carried nuclear fuel to Trawsfynydd power station, and returned spent fuel to Sellafield for reprocessing.
Railways were essential to rural communities, for whom they were often the main means of transport. Trains carried animals to market, and carried fresh milk quickly to the main towns and cities. The Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway was closed by Dr Beeching, but a section of the line has reopened as a heritage railway.