The Elan Valley Railway – Part 1

The Elan Valley Railway was built to make the construction of the Birmingham Water Corporation Dams in the Elan Valley possible. It transported equipment, materials and men to the different dam sites. It was also used by visitors from Birmingham and it carried King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra for the official opening of the dams on 21st July 1904.

Work on the construction of the line began in 1893 and was completed in 1896. It was built to standard gauge in four separate stages.

The four separate sections of the railway were numbered 1 to 4.

Railway No. 1 extended from Elan Valley Junction, the junction with the Cambrian Railway Southwest of Rhayader, just beyond Rhayader Tunnel, to what is now the Elan Valley Visitor Centre. These buildings were then the location of workshops and sheds of the contractor and sat below the site of the proposed Caban-Coch Dam.

Railway No. 2 left Railway No. 1 close to the Baptist Church in Elan Village and followed a higher alignment on the North side of the Elan Valley. It passed above the site of the Caban Dam and on westward to the site of the Careg-Ddu Dam

Railway No. 3 ran from Careg-Ddu Northeast to Pen-y-Gareg Dam.

Railway No. 4 travel North from a junction to the Southeast of Pen-y- Gareg Dam to Craig-Goch Dam

This post provides an introduction to the railway and covers the route of Railway No. 1.

The sharp ruling radius of the tracks required short wheelbase locomotives. “The locomotives were all named after rivers and streams on the Estate. The first two were acquired in April 1894 and were named Elan and Claerwen. These were joined by Nant Gwyllt and Methan in October 1894 and Rhiwnant and Calettwr in 1895. … By 1898 the steep 1:33 gradients of some sections of the railway had taken their toll on the original locomotives, so Coel and Marchnant were bought.” [1]

The Elan Valley Railway Branch Line was inspected and passed by a Board of Trade Inspector in July 1894 and the Elan Valley Railway branch was available for use from that date. Railway No. 4 took the route to the furthest away Craig-Goch Dam. Blasting the cutting mid-way along this route held up the construction by 3 months. This resulted in the cutting being given the name, ‘The Devil’s Gulch’!

At its fullest extent, the railway had approximately 53 kilometres (33 miles) of track. In all, 17 coaches were used for transporting men to the work sites. In addition to the steam locomotives operating in the Elan Valley, steam-powered cranes, power drills and crushers were also in use. To facilitate the works arrangements had to be made to accommodate around 1000 tons of materials being moved every day!

The line was only provided for construction work and in 1906 the Birmingham Corporation Water Works locomotives were sold. In 1908, the junction with the Cambrian Railway was removed. However complete closure of the railway occurred as late as 1916. [1]

Before looking at the route of the railways in detail, it is interesting to note that In 2004, to mark the centenary of the opening of the dams, the only surviving locomotive (Rhiwnant) was brought back to the Elan Valley from a private owner in South East England. [1]

It is also worth noting that there is a detailed treatment of the railways in the Elan Valley in a book by C. W. Judge; ‘The Elan Valley Railway’, published by Oakwood Press. [2] The route is described in detail in the fourth chapter of Judge’s book. [2: p79-111]

Rhayader Railway Station

A panoramic colourised postcard view of Rhayader Railway Station in its prime. [36]

The Cambrian Railway through mid-Wales was a single-track line with passing loops. Rhayader Station sat between the stations of Moat Lane Junction and Brecon on the Cambrian mainline. Llanidloes was to the North of Rhayader and Builth Wells to the South.

Rhayader Railway Station was opened in 1864 in Cwmdauddwr, a village on the opposite bank of the River Wye. The line, which took over 5 years to build, was closed in 1962 and dismantled within months. [3]

Rhayader and Its Railway Station – The Railway Station was on the West side of the River Wye
with the town on the East side of the river. This extract comes from the 6″ OS Maps published just after the turn of the 20th century. [4]
This extract comes from the earlier 6″ OS Mapping released in 1888. [37]

The station site in the 21st Century is a Highways Depot for Powys Council. It is access along the station approach road which is in the same location in the 21st century as that shown above. The station building on the above map is fully shaded and sits close to the words ‘Corn Mill’, the goods shed which is on the West side of the mainline, is shown hatched.

The same location is shown immediately below on Google Earth’s satellite imagery in the 21st century. The station approach is also shown below in an image from Google Streetview…

The site of Rhayader Railway Station.
The approximate alignment of the Mid-Wales Line of the Cambrian is shown in red [Google Maps].
Rhayader Railway Station Building as it appears in 2022. [My photograph]
Rhayader station building, platform side.
This shows the platform side of the ex Mid Wales Railway station building, as modified for use as a council maintenance depot office. The new walling (with windows) would be to enclose what used to be a minimal outdoor sheltered waiting area.
© Copyright Nigel Brown and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0). [22]
Rhayader old railway goods shed, north end:
this shows the north end of the ex Mid-Wales Railway goods shed, now part of a council maintenance depot. Note the simple but massive design. The track went in through the double end doors; goods were moved to and from road vehicles in a bay accessed through the double side doors (one of which is missing).
© Copyright Nigel Brown and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0). [23]
Rhayader old railway goods shed, south end:
this shows one end of the old Mid-Wales Railway goods shed at Rhayader, now used as part of a council maintenance depot.
© Copyright Nigel Brown and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)[24]
Rhayader railway station: the Brecon to Moat Lane Junction afternoon train pauses briefly, shortly before closure of the line
© Copyright Flying Stag and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0) [25]
Local Mid-Wales line train at Rhayader station,
View SW, towards Builth and Brecon: the Builth Road (Low Level) – Moat Lane train is headed by one of the few remaining ex-Cambrian Class 15 0-6-0s, No. 893 (built 3/1908, withdrawn 2/1953).
© Copyright Ben Brooksbank and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0). [26]

The Route up the Elan Valley

Immediately to the South of the station, the Mid-Wales line crossed the road which led up the Elan Valley. Google Streetview shows the embankment beyond the bridge location to the South. Pivoting round through 180 degrees to look towards the Railway Station, does not provide a productive image. ….

Looking South from the Elan Valley Road (B4518). The over-bridge and its abutments are long gone, the railway embankment is still visible. Alongside it, to the left of this image is the start of the Elan Valley Trail, which for a couple of hundred yards runs parallel to the old railway, climbing gradually to a summit above the Rhayader Tunnel further to the South. [Google Streetview]

My wife and I walked the Elan Valley Trail in August 2021. Some of the photos which follow were taken on that walk. The first photograph below shows the start of the Trail. …. From that point the footpath climbs slowly alongside the old railway embankment before rising above the old line which was in cutting as it approached the northern portal of Rhayader Tunnel. The second picture below shows the Northern Portal.

The entrance to the Elam Valley Trail [My Photograph – 9th August 2021]
Rhayader Tunnel: North Portal (c) Chris Parker. [5]

A small nature reserve sits on the land immediately above Rhayader Tunnel which the footpath crosses and the South Portal of the tunnel can be glimpsed to the right of the path through the undergrowth. (The nature reserve is intended to protect the different species of bats which have made the tunnel their home.)

The bricked up South Portal of Rhayader Tunnel see from the Elan Valley Trail which runs along the top of the railway cutting’s Eastern batter. [My photograph – 9th August 2021]
The South Portal of Rhayader Tunnel: The picture is taken from the spot of the Elan Valley Junction, the beginning of the Elan Valley branch. There is no public access to the tunnel, which is now part of a small Nature Reserve of the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust. The Reserve was created to protect the bats which use the tunnel to hibernate. The Elan Valley Trail is to the right at the top of the cutting, © Copyright Wim Kegel and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0). [6]

A better view of the closed South Portal can be seen at track level. The picture below is taken from the track-bed approximately at the location of the first point of the Elan Valley Junction.

The Rhayader Tunnel and the Elan Valley Junction as shown on the OS 6″ series of maps dated 1905. On this map, the junction is shown as a single junction. The map is dated after the completion of the main work on the dams. During the period of construction traffic was such that a double junction was provided at this location. [7][8]

C. W. Judge provides a copy of Birmingham Corporation Waterworks’ drawing of the double junction with a note indication that the double junction was provided at the insistence of the Board of Trade. [2: p81] He also provides an extract from c. 1900 Ordnance Survey which shows the double junction in place. [2: p84]

The signal box at the Elan Valley Railway junction in around 1900. The private Elan Valley Railway, can just be made out behind the signal box steps on the righthand side of the image. The railwayman on the right is holding the token for entering the single line track system. This image is a copy of the image held by the People’s Collection, Wales and is reproduced here under their Creative Archive Licence (see Reference 11, below) which permits its use on a Non-Commercial basis. [12] Judge also provides a copy of this image which has a slightly better contrast which means that the Elan Valley line can also be made out much more clearly heading away from the mainline behind and to the left of the signal box. [2: p85] Judge has another, much better, view of the junction and signal box [2: p83] but I have not been able to find that image available to share on the internet.

Within a very short distance from the Elan Valley Junction the branch line was provided with storage/exchange sidings. Some of these sidings are clearly shown on the map extract below. Judge refers to these sidings as the Down Noyadd Sidings. the Up Sidings which are evident on the OS Map c. 1900 [2: p84] are no longer shown on the 1905 extract.

The Elan Valley Railway exchange/storage sidings to the West of Elan Valley Junction as shown on the OS 6″ series of maps dated 1905. The location plan showing these sidings provided by Coflein (below) appears to place the Down Sidings to the West of the under-bridge visible on this extract. The Up sidings are not shown on the 1905 OS map and so must have been lifted soon after the completion of the main works. Incidentally, the straight dotted line which crosses this map extract is the line of the aqueduct running from the Elan Valley to Birmingham carrying the water supply. The road under-bridge is now a farm access track. [9]
This length of the old railway has been paved as a footpath. This image is typical of the scenery here. [My photograph – 9th August 2021]
Coflein identifies the location of the sidings with the blue flag on this plan,© Crown Copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey 100020548 . [10]
Along this length of the line trees now crowd the bituminous path. [My photograph – 9th August 2021]

Travelling on along the line, the next point of interest is that shown on the map extract below. At the turn of the century the line passed over a narrow lane leading to a ford in the Afon Elan at Rhyd Wen.

The first of these two images is an extract from the 6″ OS Maps from the turn of the 20th century. [13] The second is a satellite image of the same location in the 21st century. The most obvious significant difference is that a bridge has been constructed over the river. However, when the railway was active the road down to the ford was spanned by a masonry arch bridge. [2: p85-86, Plates No. 32 & 33] As the view below shows that bridge is long-gone. [Google Maps]
The view across the river from the Southeast showing the modern Bailey Bridge which has replaced the ford across the River Elan. As can be seen here, there is no longer a railway bridge spanning the road. [Google Streetview]
The view from the Northwest shows that one of the bridge abutments remains in position. [Google Streetview]

Continuing in a Southwest direction the railway and the road ran immediately next to each other with the Afan Elan slightly to the South. There is little of note on the next few extracts from the 6″ OS Map.

The old railway and the adjacent road ran passed Coed-y-mynach, Ty’n-y-coed, Llanfadog Lower and the Elan Valley Hotel. [14][15][16]
The only point worth noting is that there has been significant development at the site of the Elan Valley Hotel. [16]
The route of the old line continues beyond the Elan Valley Hotel with little worth noting until it approaches Elan Village. [17]
The police station and the Bethany Chapel suggest that we are now very close to Elan Village. [18]
The satellite images show significant developments from the time of the 6″ OS Map above. The first significant building which appears relatively close to the top right of this image is the Baptist Chapel. Once there was only one road here which led to a suspension bridge over the river. That road has been widened to provide access to the Elan Valley Visitor Centre another road follows the formation of the higher branch of the railway – the two roads while running parallel to each other diverge significantly in height. [18]
The Baptist Chapel (Bethania Baptist Chapel), viewed from the access road looking across the embankment which carried the railway. The red line clarifies its route. [Google Streetview] This length of the old railway is shown in Plate 35 of Judge’s book about the line. [2: p87
Looking Southwest toward Caban Coch Dam. The line of the railway is marked by the red line. The properties in this picture were built after the railway had been dismantled and their gardens extend across the line of the old railway to the highway boundary. [Google Streetview]
This photograph was taken from a point a little further to the Southwest. On the extreme left of the image, the boundary fence or the properties visible in the last picture can be seen. The old railway alignment is marked, once again, by the red line. The wall at the top of the embankment to the left supports a series of rectangular pools, some of which were visible on the 6″ OS Map. These are on the line of the aqueduct which supplies Eden Valley water to the Birmingham conurbation. They are part of the Water Treatment Works which ensure the quality of the water passing through the Aqueduct. [Google Streetview]
View from the footpath on the line of the old railway. The structures associated with the Water Works can be seen more easily. [My photograph – 9th August 2021]

Sadly, the 6″ OS Maps from the turn of the 20th century that we have been using do not give us a good impression of the railway network in the Elan Valley during the construction of the dams. They do show the main line of the railway as it was in around 1902 when the survey for the maps published in 1905 took place.

The next length of the line shows little of great interest. The lower line giving access to the base of the Caban-Coch Dam which was to be part of ‘Railway 1’ is not shown, as it was constructed after the Survey was undertaken. There is a level area on the North side of the line at the 800ft contour which would accommodate the buildings of the new Water Works. [19]
The equivalent satellite image shows the Water Works buildings. The formation of the contractor’s main-line can be seen to the Southeast of the Water Works, paved and in use by modern vehicles. [19]
This short section of the journey on the 6″ OS Maps shows a road/track down to the river and a suspension bridge. The line continues high on the valley side. [33]
The modern satellite image shows the route of what became ‘Railway 2’ high on the valley side. The route lay under the footpath which can be seen on the South side of the access road. In the valley floor, the road to the Visitor Centre runs from the top right to the bottom left of the image. Two bridges immediately adjacent to each other span the Afon Elan. The more northerly of the two is a modern Bailey Bridge. The other is an old suspension bridge which is in the same location as that shown on the OS Map immediately above. There were three different suspension bridges at this location over the years. [33]
This photograph shows the earliest bridge across the Afon Elan © Radnorshire Museum,
Llandrindod Wells. [34]

During the construction period, access to the construction village was over the suspension bridge shown above. “The navvies village can be seen on the far side of the river to the left, and the accident hospital is to the right of the bridge. The road on this side of the river leads to Rhayader to the left” and further up the Elan Valley to the right. [34]

The current suspension bridge (the third on the site) “is no longer safe, and modern traffic entering Elan Village now crosses the river by a rather more functional bridge alongside.” [34]

The now unsafe suspension bridge which provided access to Elan Village before the adjacent Baily Bridge was built. [My photograph – 9th August 2021]
The modern Bailey Bridge which sits just downstream of the suspension bridge. [My photograph – 9th August 2021]
The contractor’s main-line (which was to be designated ‘Railway 2’) continued at a high level. The lower level line is not in evidence. [20]
The modern satellite imagery shows the visitor centre on the right of this image and the dam and river protection and training works in the bottom left. The road at high level continues to mark the line of the old railway. [20]

Caban-Coch Dam, the first dam encountered in a journey up the Elan Valley, was the first at which construction work commenced. The digging and blasting of the foundations for the dam started in August 1894, and work on the masonry structure of the dam itself began in 1896. [29]

The 6″ OS Map from the turn of the 20th century shows the construction of the masonry structure well underway.

The dotted lines just visible in the top left of the map extract mark the line of the aqueduct which, once the reservoirs were filled, would supply water to the Birmingham conurbation. [21]
The completed dam and associated works are evident on the satellite image. The modern road continues to follow the approximate line of the old railway. [21]
Caban Coch Dam: an early stage in the construction of the first of the dams to be built in the Elan Valley, Caban Coch. A view looking upstream on the River Elan probably photographed around 1895, with a huge steam-powered crane at work on the site. Many of the massive stones used for this dam were quarried nearby. The track on the right of the image is the prepared formation of the soon to be completed main line of the Elan Valley Railway. A branch line followed the valley floor to provide access to the contractor’s compound and the foot of the new dam, © The People’s Collection Wales, used under their Creative Archive Licence [27]. [28]
Black and white photograph of Caban Coch dam, taken early during its construction © The Edward Hubbard Collection at Coflein. [31]
Progress continues at Caban Coch. [35]

The Elan Valley website tells us that building work began in 1893. “100 occupants of the Elan Valley had to move, only landowners received compensation payments. Many buildings were demolished, 3 manor houses, 18 farms, a school and a church (which was replaced by the corporation as the Nantgwyllt Church). … A village of wooden huts was purpose-built to house most of the workers on the site of the present Elan Village.” [30]

“New workers spent a night in the dosshouse to be deloused and examined for infectious diseases, only then were they allowed across the river to the village. Single men lived in groups of eight in a terrace house shared with a man and his wife. A school was provided for those under 11, after this they were expected to work. The village employed a guard to look out for illegal importation of liquor and unauthorised visitors. There was a hospital for injuries and an isolation hospital. A bath house which the men could use up to 3 times a week but the women only once! The pub was for men only. Other facilities included a library, public hall, shop and canteen. There was even street lighting (powered by hydroelectric generators).” [30]

The dams were built in two phases, firstly construction in the Elan Valley and later the Claerwen. The foundations of Dol y Mynach Dam were laid in phase one as the site would have flooded once Caban-Coch had filled up.” [30]

It is clear that local rock was not of a suitable quality for dressing the external faces of the dams. It was used as structural fill inside of the dams. The hand-chiselled facing stones were transported from Glamorgan. [30]

Caban Coch dam construction from an early
glass slide of 1901. Note the broad-gauge tracks provided for the steam crane(s). The trestles supporting the tracks can be seen under the rails at the right of the picture © Powys County Archives. [29]
This superb picture shows a train steaming towards the wall of Caban-coch dam much later during its construction. The contractor used trackways like this fixed to all the dams, supported by a wooden framework high above the bottom of the valley. Access to the higher levels of the Caban-Coch Dam would have come from ‘Railway 2’ which can be seen running across the bottom right corner of this image adjacent to the access road. [32]

“The Caban Coch dam contributes to the supply of water to Birmingham when water levels are normal, but it also provides compensation water to ensure that adequate flow is maintained in the Elan and the Wye downstream from the dams.” [29]

I have asked for permission from the Oakwood Press to reproduce sections of the fold out map at the rear of Colin Judge-s book (see below) as these illustrate the density of the rail facilities at the construction site of the Caban Coch Dam. I await their response with interest.

We have cover Railway No. 1. The next article in this series will begin at the junction between Railway No. 1 and Railway No. 2 a little to the East of Caban Coch Dam.

Further Reading

As we noted much earlier in this post, the accepted authority on all things associated with the Elan Valley Railway is Colin Judge. Anyone with any interest in this railway should regard the purchase of Judge’s book as a good investment. Second-hand copies are relatively easy to come by. It is important, when buying a copy, to check whether the fold-out map (referred to above) which was attached to the back cover of the book is still present. My copy is the latest reprint of the book, as shown below, which was published in 2001 and has a sticker on the front marking the centenary of the formal opening of the reservoirs which was celebrated in 2004. [2]


  1., accessed on 20th March 2022.
  2. C. W. Judge; The Elan Valley Railway; Oakwood Press No. 71; Usk, Monmouthshire, 1987, latest edition, 2004.
  3., accessed on 23rd March 2022
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  5., accessed on 6th April 2022
  6., accessed on 26th March 2022.
  7., accessed on 26th March 2022.
  8. “A double junction was built to join it to the Cambrian Railway near Rhayader;” quoted from, accessed on 20th March 2022.
  9., accessed on 6th April 2022.
  10., accessed on 6th April 2022.
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  12., accessed on 6th April 2022.
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  27., accessed on 15th March 2022.
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