A mothballed railway line along the spine of Anglesey has become a battleground between rival parties with conflicting interests. Both are ardent and motivated – and neither is willing to concede defeat.
Meetings arranged between the two have come to nothing. In a fight for hearts of minds, both hung banners at this year’s Anglesey Show proclaiming their opposing projects. It’s a jobs vs tourism tussle in which both parties believe they hold the upper hand.
The two groups have different ambitions for a disused 17.5-mile railway line between Gaerwen and Amlwch. The Anglesey Central Railway (ACR) closed to passengers in 1964, and to freight services in 1993, and ever since a debate has raged over its use. In the meantime the track has been slowly reclaimed by nature.
Almost everyone agrees the artery is one of Anglesey’s greatest unused assets. Leading the way is Lein Amlwch, a support group for ACR Ltd which for years has campaigned for the rights to clear the route, then host railway services on it. The first goal was achieved in 2012 but clearance work was restricted by the absence of hosting rights. Progress was slow.
Frustrated by the apparent lack of headway, a rival group was set up to campaign for a multi-user track on the same route. Lôn Las Môn, if it materialises, will be for walkers, runners, cyclists and horse riders.
Lein Amlwch is perplexed by the aspirations of the Friends of Lôn Las Môn (FoLLM). “There are hundreds of footpaths and cycle paths on Anglesey already,” said Dave Rogers. “But there is only one railway route potentially servicing the people of north Anglesey.”
In reality, we’ve been here before. A predecessor company, Isle of Anglesey Railways, came close to buying the track only to hit the buffers when British Rail was privatisatised in the mid-1990s. At one point, Anglesey Council was planning to acquire the line.
Lein Amlwch volunteers take a well-earned break from the arduous work of clearing the disused Anglesey Central Railway (Image: Lein Amlwch)
Shortly afterwards, cycling charity Sustrans proposed the railway should become a cycle route, similar to the Lôn Eifion cycle route along the former Carnarvonshire Railway. Anglesey Council vacillated, in turn backing each option, but when Lein Amlwch was given the green light to start clearing the track in 2012, the pendulum swung back in favour of rail services.
In April 2021, a tipping point was reached when Lein Amlwch secured a 99-year lease from owner Network Rail for the entire 17.5-mile stretch. It meant group members could start restoration work in earnest, secure in the knowledge the rug wouldn’t be pulled from under their feet. Probably.
This year has seen a surge in progress. Tracks are being cleared towards Llanerchymedd and Llangefni station has re-emerged from a tangle of vegetation. “It is a massive task,” admitted Dave Rogers. “But it’s not an impossible one.
“This is too valuable an asset for Anglesey to be ripped up. We understand that people were unhappy to see it lying dormant for so long. But now that we have the lease, we’re forging ahead and we’re getting more volunteers all the time.”
Map showing the route of the disused Anglesey Central Railway from Amlwch to Gaerwen (Image: Transport for Wales)
Still, no targets have been set, given the reliance on volunteers. As all heritage railways recognise, volunteers are crucial to keeping costs down. It’s for this reason that Lein Amlwch rolled its eyes at an October 2022 study by Transport for Wales (TfW) that estimated restoration costs for ACR at a prohibitive £144.3m for heavy rail, or £93m for light rail.
The £100,000 feasibility study was commissioned by the Welsh Government following a submission to Westminster’s Restoring Your Railways (RYR) scheme, part of Boris Johnston’s Levelling Up agenda. Nearly 200 railway projects were submitted from across the UK for a share of £500m funding. Most fell by the wayside but the bid on behalf of ACR battled through the early rounds.
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A next-stage decision from UK transport minister Huw Merriman was expected in spring 2023. Everyone’s still waiting for it. Dave Rogers is not holding his breath. “We didn’t submit the bid and we’re not pinning our hopes on it.
“If we are awarded funding, it will be received gratefully. But we are also seeking other sources of funding and we aren’t reliant on Restoring Your Railways money.”
Which is probably just as well, given the headline £144.3m price tag cited by TfW. Already eight rail projects are progressing towards RYR funding, likely leaving little in the £500m coffer. Mr Merriman, who visited Anglesey earlier this year, hinted as much when he said he wants to “manage expectations” for those bidding for cash.
Map showing how the the disused Anglesey Central Railway could be re-routed to run along the island's north east coast from Gaerwen to Amlwch. This was one of the shortlisted options put forward by a Transport of Wales feasibility study (Image: Transport for Wales)
The TfW study raised the prospect of an even more ambitious idea: an entirely new route between Llangefni and Amlwch running up along the north east coast via Benllech and Moelfre. This shortlisted option caused a sharp intake of breath amongst all involved.
Dave Rogers can see the sense it it - a coastal route would serve a more heavily populated corner of the island. But like most, he recognises it will probably never happen: TfW estimates the cost of a heavy rail coastal route at £531.6m. Even a slower, light rail route would come in at £202.9m.
“You’d need to buy a lot of land for the coastal route,” he said. “With our route, we already have the land. In these times, I can’t see the funding being made available.”
TfW’s analysis of potential rail passenger numbers, for both the inland and coastal routes, suggested a surge in usage if either were funded. Some 125%-135% more people would be able to reach Llangefni within 60 minutes of their homes.
Lein Amwlch sees wider benefits: across North Wales, Anglesey has the region's highest daily outwards movement of people to a neighbouring county (6,616 trips to Gwynedd). With a third Menai crossing now off the agenda, a restored Gaerwen-Amlwch railway, connecting to the North Wales mainline, would ease a lot of commuting headaches.
Alternative sources of funding are being sought and Lein Amlwch remains optimistic. Already there’s talk of hydrogen trains and renewable energy, with facilities powered by trackside solar and wind projects.
An LNWR 2-4-0 'Chopper' at Red Wharf Bay and Benllech station, Anglesey, in 1909. A spur on the Anglesey Central Railway ran to the station from Pentre Berw. It was closed in 1950
Yet TfW’s conclusions made disappointing reading. “In most cases the revenue forecasts are not sufficient to cover the operational expenditure, and therefore would require an ongoing subsidy to cover the deficit,” it said. Only if ACR Ltd ran “infrequent” services could it hope not to make losses, said TfW.
More bad news came with this month’s publication of the North Wales Transport Commission’s final report. On the subject of public finding for the restoration of railways – and ACR specifically – it was a categoric “no”. The same applied to the old Bangor to Porthmadog rail corridor.
Yet the Commission suggested it would be “prudent” to safeguard disused rail routes against future development. This, it said, could be achieved by introducing cheaper long-distance active travel routes, supported by bus services.
“On that basis, we support the creation of an active travel link between Amlwch and Llangefni in line with low carbon modal shift, travel to work and leisure,” said the Commission. Its conclusion was music to the ears of the Friends of Lôn Las Môn (FLLM).
A multi-user path for walkers, cyclists and disabled users. Supporters say such facilities offer myriad benefits
The rival concept
Anglesey Central Railway has long been viewed as an ideal candidate for active travel, initially as a cycle route, more recently as a multi-user trail. Lôn Las Môn, a proposed trail, along ACR, was conceived in 2019 and it is now backed by a formidable Friends group with support from around 50 groups and organisations.
Among them is Olympic cyclist and TV presenter Chris Boardman. He wrote in support: “Having visited the island many times, both on a bicycle and as a diver, it is clear that such a facility would be of great benefit to Anglesey residents in terms of active travel, fitness, health, wellbeing and green tourism.”
In a show of force, more than 750 people joined rallies in Llangefni and Amlwch this summer to demonstrate support for the venture. As well as keen walkers, the turn-out included 30 riders on horseback and almost twice as many cyclists. Another rally is planned in Llangefni on April 13, 2024.
The Friends of Lôn Las Môn (FoLLM) believe they have the public on their side: so does Lein Amlwch, and both groups have polling data backing their causes. As things stand, it’s largely academic. Anglesey Central Railway Ltd has a 99-year lease on the line and progress is entirely in its hands.
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Should momentum be lost, however, FoLLM wants Network Rail to invoke “break” clauses in the lease in favour of developing a multi-use path. FoLLM Charity trustee Malcolm Rogers fears funding will always be the railway’s Achilles heel.
“They haven’t got a cat in hell's chance of getting £144.3m,” he said. “That’s a third of the entire Restoring Your Railways fund. They say that, with more volunteers, restoration costs will be much lower, but running railways is expensive too: volunteers on heritage railways typically save only 2% of operating costs.
“We admire their commitment but we worry that in 99 years' time, the line will still be derelict – and that the volunteers will still be chipping away at it.”
The railway line crosses Pont Llyn Cefni Bridge (Image: Friends of Lôn Las Môn)
If the route is instead adopted as a 17.5-mile multi-user path, it will be one of the longest and “most beautiful” in North Wales, says FoLLM. As well as offering a traffic-free route for walkers and cyclists, it will provide a new bridlepath: over the years, horse riders have long been promised new routes but all have fallen at the first hurdle.
While there are 1,069 km of footpaths on the island, only 12km of bridleways exist. Small wonder that Anglesey’s equine community is firmly behind Lôn Las Môn.
As it offers active travel, the proposal also has the advantage of topping the Welsh Government’s transport planning hierarchy. Supporters believe Lôn Las Môn offers myriad other benefits, not just for health, fitness and wildlife, but also for tourism.
Believing it will generate “millions” for the communities it passes through, they cite the Camel Trail in Cornwall, another disused railway of almost identical length. In 2015 it attracted 425,000 visitors, who spent £6.7m and generated around £13m of business turnover.
Based on other UK multi-user trails, FoLLM estimates a conversion cost of £10m. It’s proposing a two-metre-wide Tarmac path for walkers, runners and cyclists, plus a hardened earth path for horse riders. The route may incorporate public art with old railway sleepers repurposed, for example as picnic benches.
It’s envisaged the works will start in Amlwch and progress southwards. FoLLM wanted a “ceremonial start” at the 2025 Island Games on Anglesey but the games have since been cancelled.
Malcolm Rogers said: “We don’t want it to be just a multi-user path. The railway has an important place in the island’s history – it sent people from north Anglesey off to war, many never to be seen again.
“We want to see the railway interpreted and remembered, perhaps with mile marker posts and bits of the track preserved. We’re certainly not against railways – without this track, there will never be a path.”
Before and after pictures showing clearance work undertaken by Lein Amlwch volunteers at Llangefni Station this autumn (Image: Lein Amlwch)
Through the sterling efforts of railway volunteers, sections of the line have been cleared already. However long stretches remain overgrown. Infrastructure – sleepers, ballast, drainage and fencing – is in poor repair. Some sections are flooded and, in October 2018, Llangefni’s A5114 railway bridge was demolished following a lorry strike. It’s never been replaced.
Yet FoLLM also faces stiff challenges. Besides clearance work, collapsed cow passes need replacing and river crossings need repairing. Then there’s car parking, regarded as a priority issue.
It’s hoped car parks will be created along the route, perhaps pay-and-display, but this will require permission from landowners, along with rights for bridge on-and-off ramps. It’s a big task that will take an estimated five years to complete.
ACR Ltd has proposed an adjoining multi-user path but FoLLM insists this will never work – it says there simply isn’t enough room. This summer the two parties met to discuss common ground and possible cooperation. It wasn’t a huge success.
One proposal put forward by FoLLM was to split the route: for the section north of Llanerchymedd to be a multi-user path, and for the southern section to be run as a railway. ACR didn’t bite: as the leaseholder, it’s in the driving seat.
The meeting was facilitated by Ynys Môn MP Virginia Crosbie. She’s taking a pragmatic approach, backing both projects. Earlier this year she told the Commons: “Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on the line. I believe the line is a huge community asset that is currently untapped, and it should be put to a use that the community supports, be it rail or an active travel path.”
Anglesey councillor Dafydd Rhys Thomas with Menter Môn chair Dr Wyn Morgan on the 15km Lon Las Môn multi-user trail across Malltraeth Marsh (Image: Menter Môn)
The third proposal
Muddying the waters was the formal launch in August 2022 of another plan for a multi-user trail on the island. The result of years of planning, the Glasffordd Môn (Anglesey Greenway) scheme was put forward by development body Menter Môn with the ultimate ambition of creating a cross-island route, from Newborough in the south to Amlwch in the north.
As well as utilising the ACR, this will connect up with the existing 15km Lon Las Cefni trail. This walking and cycling path runs from Newborough in south west Anglesey to Llangwyllog, north of Llyn Cefni. Its northern end runs roughly parallel with ACR’s southern section.
Much of the current focus is on Lon Las Cefni, which needs an upgrade: priorities include a new underpass bridge at Llangefni, improvements to an A55 underpass and addressing the path’s “missing link” in Llangefni town centre. Costs for these are estimated at £3.5m.
In contrast to Lon Las Môn, Glasffordd Môn replaces equine usage with a focus on biodiversity. Hence its nickname, the “Anglesey Green Spine” project. Although much of Lein Amlwch is rewilded already, Menter Môn cautions that longer-term plans to incorporate this section will be much more expensive.
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Backing the scheme’s long-term goals is Anglesey councillor Dafydd Rhys Thomas, portfolio holder for highways, waste and property. He said: “It would certainly have the potential to bring much-needed economic benefits to communities in central and north of the island, such as Llannerch-y-medd and Amlwch.
“The economic, health and environmental benefits of these types of projects are well documented. Studies show that for every £1m spent on walking and cycling projects, £13m of benefits are returned to the economy.”
In polling, creating a cross-island path was the most popular idea for future green corridor improvements on Anglesey. However public feedback also suggested disapproval at Glasffordd Môn lack of provision for horse riders.
At this stage, the lack of a bridleway element in initial proposals is not seen as irreconcilable by FoLLM. Indeed, it’s joined Glasffordd Môn’s steering group in the hope of effecting change while benefitting from Menter Môn’s not-inconsiderable muscle power.
“Our ultimate ambition is for a multi-user trail from coast to coast,” said Malcolm Rogers. For this, FoLLM or Glasffordd Môn would also need to develop the “last mile” across the privately-owned former Octel bromine site in Amlwch, which the railway formerly served.
Alternatively, he suggested, ACR could itself develop this short section to provide a standalone ride for walkers and tourists. “It would still cost £10m but we could work with them on this final leg,” he said.
Trackside clearance has revealed sleepers in poor condition and ballast in need of repair (Image: Friends of Lôn Las Môn)
Economy vs 'playground'
The great tragedy is that both concepts for the old ACR track are equally attractive. Both have their merits, and both have supporters and detractors, roughly deployed on jobs-versus-tourism lines.
On social media, an adjoining landowner was firmly in the multi-user-path camp. “To turn this back into a safe and usable railway – including replacing the missing bridges – will run into millions,” she said.
“It is about time the Welsh Government woke up to the fact that the cost of a usable railway is prohibitive compared to the cost of turning it into a multi-user track that will serve the local people of Anglesey all year as well as the tourists during the season.”
Yet memories of the railway are embedded deep in the psyche of north Anglesey. Amlwch was once the second biggest town in Wales and one former local recalled how ACR connected the area to “the rest of Wales and the world”.
He said: “What the island needs is decent, well-paid jobs, and that comes with good communications - road and rail - that no cycle track would bring. Ynys Môn will have to decide what its priorities are - a playground or a vibrant working community with excellent transport.”
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