By David Mees

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

The Machine

During the Great War (1914-1918) military authorities on both sides of the conflict in Europe had established that systems of light narrow gauge railways mostly of 60cm gauge were ideal for serving the front lines which largely consisted of entrenched opposing armies. The need  for supplying them with munitions, food for both men and horses and moving the troops in large numbers fell upon the railway operating companies due to the state of the roads in the front line areas of the conflict and the primitive state of road vehicles at that time. At the outbreak of hostilities enquiries were placed with locomotive manufacturers  for various types of locos which could be used in the war theatre and orders were placed.

The American Loco Company of Cooke Works, New Jersey, USA were to produce a 2-6-2 pannier tank ideally suited for the task and our subject, works number 57156 was built to this design as part of an order for 100 locos and shipped across the Atlantic to begin its career on the frontline tramway systems on the allied side where it was given the number 1265 by the WDLR (War Department Light Railways).

One of Mountaineer’s sisters in close to original condition

When the war finished 1265 began a new life in civilian service at various locations on repair work and in industrial service and then ran as No 3-23 on the Tramway de Pithiviers à Toury until closure rendered it surplus to requirements in 1964. Luckily for the loco and those who are enamoured by its chunky good looks No 3-23 was bought by John Ransom, a Director of the Festiniog Railway in North Wales and it was brought to the UK.

It was donated to the FR in 1967 and eventually modified to the somewhat restricted loading gauge of that railway, modification consisting of a re-profiled cab with sloping sides above waist height to allow passage through Garnedd Tunnel. After conversion to left hand drive and trials with a temporary cab it ran as a coal burner where it was found to have a prodigious appetite for fuel and had somewhat of a reputation for being a fire thrower a variety of spark arresting measures were taken including one device which looked like a chip pan on top of its chimney.

Mountaineer with Spark Arrestor

The smokebox was painted in silver heat resistant paint for a time until a suitable black paint could be manufactured. The chimney from “Linda” was also fitted at one point in 1968 whilst that loco was undergoing a rebuild. New steam pipes were fitted in 1969 and the cavities between smokebox and steam chests were filled with concrete. The smokebox was extended beyond the tanks in 1970. It wore the name “Mountaineer” on small carved silver painted wooden nameplates on the tanks from 1969, named after one of the original England locos which was withdrawn in 1879, and a brass bell which was a copy of the one from the original England loco of this name was affixed to the top of the smokebox forward of the chimney. It was the only loco in the fleet to not have a thin red line to separate the green and black FR livery of this time. At one point the old Giesel Ejector from the Talyllyn Railway ex Corris No 4 was tried  to see if steaming would be improved even if its looks were not!!!

Mountainer with a Giesel Ejector!!!

In 1982 the Alco, as it had been  unofficially called, was fitted with a  newly designed boiler by Boston Lodge and Simplex Piston Valves were fitted to the cylinders. Due to concerns over safety of the crew the cab was re-profiled in the Fairlie pattern was fitted in 1983 (the writer can vouch for the sloping sided cab being a little awkward for crew due to the amount of times his greasetop was knocked off by the slightest contact with telegraph poles, brambles and suchlike). At the same time the large ejector and turbo-generator (which powered  a new headlamp) exhausts were routed up the rear of the chimney. New nameplates to match the England loco of the same name were fitted cast from brass and the repaint included the standard red line between black and green.

Later it was repainted in all over grey and regained its WDLR number for a short while, eventually being repainted in all over black with a half inch red line in the same place as previously. A shroud was fitted to the rear of the chimney to hide the ejector pipes in 1992/3.

Mountaineer in Black

A useful loco, it was sent to Dinas at the commencement of Welsh Highland Railway services and did good work but returned to the FR where it carried on the task of hauling medium sized trains on that line until expiry of its boiler certificate in 2006. Except for a short period at the ‘Back to Blaenau’ 30th anniversary celebrations in 2012 it has been stored in Glan y Pwll Carriage Shed at Blaenau Ffestiniog ever since whilst debate rages about whether to rebuild it or use it as a museum piece  as officially it is worn out and requires rebuilding ‘from the rails up’.

The Model – Building the ‘Barge’

This writer has always had a healthy respect and a great deal of admiration for this loco as it was the first FR loco he fired back in 1976 during volunteering days on the FR and was also the first loco driven by him when the then Works Manager asked him to ‘put it to bed’ one Sunday evening in the Erecting Shop.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

The Alco was also the writer’s wife’s favourite after a ride across the Cob from Boston Lodge to Harbour Station on it when she did a spell of volunteering also in 1976 and it followed that my first 009 loco when I modelled in this scale was “Mountaineer” – the GEM kit which she bought me. She asked me back in 2009 if anyone made a 16mm scale model of it in the style it was back in those halcyon days of our youth, to which  the reply was ‘I believe Peter Angus has made one but in WDLR guise’. The response was interesting in as much as she asked if enquiries could be made as to availability, price and timescale if we were to commission one from Peter. Without further ado emails and phone calls were exchanged between North Wales and North East England just before the 2009 AGM, a price was quoted, a build/delivery time of 3 years was discussed.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

The maker decided to use a Roundhouse Engineering Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes #24 chassis as on the WDLR model mentioned previously, albeit not correct in frame shape, type of cranks and pony truck details but at the time it saved building a bespoke chassis, which we agreed to. A staged payment was agreed to and called for to pay for the chassis which was tested  before it left its manufacturers. It was also agreed that space would be left in the cab in the event that radio control might be installed by myself at a future date.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

Much correspondence followed with photographs being sent to Peter and his partner Mike Lax which show most of the elevations of the loco, with requests for information made to Paul Lewin, General Manager of the FR and various other people  who knew the loco from the 1970’s and it is due to the aforementioned people  that a complete package was assembled to allow the builder to get it as correct as possible, with thanks due to Will High for steering me in the right direction when I was trying to get the worksplate detail to enable the nameplates and worksplates to be etched by the builders.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

In September 2011 we were advised by Mike Lax that the loco was built, ‘in the brass’ and photos were sent by email for our perusal to see if the product was what we hoped for, followed by photos of it in its green and black livery running in on Geoff Lumsdens line. All we could say was it exceeded our expectations. True, there were a few things which were incorrect, such as the chassis but we would have to live with the inaccuracy of this. The cranks were standard Roundhouse counterweighted items whilst the real Alco had plain pear shaped cranks. It was delivered in early October and was well received by both myself and my wife who had all along said it was hers! Another “Mountaineer” was built by Mike Lax at the same time which he has kept, this one having the red line separating black and green.

Living with an Alco

Mike and Peter had captured the essence of the loco as it was back in the 70’s with its extended smokebox, sloping sided cab, bell, plumbing on the tanktops and its paint scheme and we were quick in congratulating them. The nameplate supplier had sent the wrong nameplates which were the large ones used after its rebuild in 1983. Mike Lax was quick to point out that the correct smaller ones were on order and these arrived a couple of weeks after the loco was delivered, with it initially running for photographic purposes with a pair of spare Roundhouse Engineering DHR “Mountaineer” nameplates which were almost correct but still about 4mm too long.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

It was set to work after a few days due to inclement weather and it seemed stiff as one would expect from a new loco. As we ran it, it became looser and was a little too free running especially in view of some of the gradients on our line at that time, since reduced, but had an inability to self start if it stalled. One thing that really grated with me was the counterweighted cranks which I should really have asked Mike and Peter to change when they were building it, so I knuckled down to it and exchanged these for some suitable correct shape ones I had in stock which meant removing the roll pins which locked the return cranks. After resetting the valve timing it was still running away and refusing to self start so as I suspected the valve settings were out I resorted to checking these and found they were slightly out – not much, but enough to hold it back from self starting. These were adjusted and a different machine was in charge of our tracks when it was put into steam again. It was still a runaway at times on our gradients but when it was ran at Llechfan Garden Railway, Tywyn and again at Keith & Christine Skillicorns wonderful railway in Lancashire it settled into a pattern of behaving itself and was an absolute joy.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

The idea of radio control has been on the back burner since we got it but as I am in favour of having an easy life of watching it doing what it does best from afar and being able to drive it from this distance the intention is to install radio at the earliest  opportunity with the components already in stock for this, using a 2.4Ghz R/c set due to various steel gates and safety handrails near the home railway which can play havoc with the older systems.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

All I have to do now is teach its real owner (my wife Chris) how to drive it but this will be after the radio fitment.

Festiniog Railway Alco 2-6-2 Mountaineer

In summary, “Mountaineer” is a good representation of a loco which we both knew and had a high regard for in our past, and its quality is a testament to Peter Angus and Mike Lax’s skills as builders of fine locomotives. I would recommend them to anyone for their efforts. All we need now is for some enterprising lottery winner to gift the money to the FR to enable its 12”/ft scale prototype to have a full rebuild so it can resume operations on the line it has lived on these last 45 years.

David Mees