With the publication of four new additions in the Lost Lines of Wales series earlier this month, we caught up with author Tom Ferris to ask a little about the origins of the books and the continued value of Wales’s railways heritage today.

Firstly, Tom, how did the series come about? Has transport history always been a keen interest?

TF: These books came about through a chance conversation with a former colleague, Matthew Howard, who is now Publishing Director of Graffeg and who had previously been part of my team when I was Head of Sales & Marketing at the Welsh Books Council. Knowing of my interest in railways and transport and thinking of possibly doing some publishing in this area, that conversation eventually led to the Lost Lines of Wales series.

I have been interested in railways and transport history for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories involve trains, stations and steam locomotives. The appeal of railways for me is both visceral and, without hopefully sounding too pompous, intellectual. The steam locomotive is surely up there as one of the most romantic and visually impressive of humankind’s creations. Even today’s fast diesel and electric trains are incredibly impressive. On a different level, the coming of the railways in the nineteenth century altered the landscape of Britain in a way not seen since the time of the Romans, and brought enormous economic and social changes in its wake. A vast amount of money and effort was expended to build that huge national network  and how this came about is, I think, one of the most interesting and absorbing areas of our recent history.

How did you go about researching for the series?

TF: I had long been interested in the railway history of Wales and was reasonably well versed on the subject before I started, having been involved in a professional capacity in this area of publishing for many years. This interest was reinforced when I discovered that the former line from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen had passed through the garden of my house in Aber!

Each book is testament to just how important and transformative these lines were for communities and commerce. Was there a risk of their role in Welsh history being lost also?

TF: Some lines in the series are not ‘lost’ in the sense that they are closed and abandoned; the line along the north coast to Holyhead and that from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury are as busy or busier than ever in terms of passenger traffic. However, they have lost most of the traditional railway infrastructure they had in their heydays, and many stations, junctions and branch lines which fed traffic onto these main have closed, so those books recall a lost era rather than a lost line. Others, such as the Mid Wales and the Vale of Neath, are long closed, and the impact they made on the landscape is being diminished as nature encroaches on once pristine track beds and railway structures are demolished, the magnificent Crumlin viaduct over the Ebbw Valley being a prime example of this.

However, I think a wide range of people who would not class themselves as railway enthusiasts have a growing interest in the recent past and I sense a great interest in the history of these lost lines, often accompanied by a sense of ‘what might have been’ if only they had managed to survive into an era where railways are seen as a vital part of our transport infrastructure.

There are fascinating insights into the social history of the time when these services were in operation throughout the series. Is this of equal interest to you, and were there any stories that emerged during your research that were particular favourites?

TF:  Unfortunately there aren’t enough pages in the Lost Lines series to develop this to any extent, but every line has its own folk lore and each presented challenges to railway staff who had to operate them. In Wales this often involved getting trains both up and down the severe gradients such as those of the Vale of Neath and the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line.

In their heyday these lines were at the heart of the communities they served, with most goods and almost all coal going by rail. They also provided stable and reasonably secure employment for large numbers of people. Because of this, it is not too fanciful to say that there is a railway thread in the history of many families the length and breadth of Wales.

The books allow us to re-live these journeys station by station, and get a true feel for what the experience must have been like. Is there any journey so far that has struck you as particularly iconic or representative of this time period and the service these lines provided?

TF: How long have you got? The view from a train crossing the Crumlin viaduct, there is a photo showing this in the Vale of Neath book, must have been breathtaking and, on a windy day, perhaps a bit alarming. Standing by the lineside at Abergele or somewhere along the North Wales coast line on a summer Saturday in the 1950s as a procession of steam hauled expresses took holiday makers to the resorts along the route would also have been memorable.

But when I get the time machine working, my first visit will be to the Mid Wales Line, the archetypal Welsh rural railway, maybe in the late 1940s. Elderly locomotives hauling a few carriages, working hard to tackle the gradients and passing through the most stunning scenery. A leisurely schedule allowing time for a chat with the staff at every station and to unload a few parcels, sheer nostalgia for a lost age.

Tom Ferris is a historian and author. His titles include many authoritative works on Irish railway history, including Irish Railways: A New History and The Trains Long Departed, as well as the Lost Lines of Wales series. He is the Assistant Station Master at Bridgnorth, on the Severn Valley branch of GWR.

The four new titles in The Lost Lines of Wales series, Chester to Holyhead, The Vale of Neath, Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and The Mid Wales Line are available now from Graffeg.

Tom will continue as series editor for two further titles in the series, Bangor to Afon Wen and Corwen to Rhyl, written by Paul Lawton and D.W. Southern and due for publication in May 2018.