Obituary: Allan Garraway MBE, railway preservationist, manager and engineer

Allan Garraway MBE: Devoted former manager of the world's oldest operational railway company
Allan Garraway MBE: Devoted former manager of the world's oldest operational railway company
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Born: 14 June, 1926, in Cambridge. Died: Overnight 29/30 December, 2014, in Newtonmore, aged 88

Allan Garraway was one of the giants of railway preservation, an expert who was not merely a railway enthusiast but an enthusiastic railwayman, a subtle but a vital distinction.

Internationally renowned in his field, he ran the world’s oldest operational railway company, an enterprise that would not exist today but for his contribution and tenacity.

For almost 30 years he managed the historic Ffestiniog Railway Company in Wales, which he had been determined to reinvent, and in retirement was a director of the spectacular Strathspey Railway in the Highlands, an area he had known as a schoolboy.

A pioneer of the second railway age, which has since seen the emergence of numerous heritage railways, he was the only child of Ron Garraway, locomotive superintendent for the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) in Cambridge, and his wife Connie.

The young Allan was educated at the Leys and Perse Schools in Cambridge but during the Second World War was evacuated to Pitlochry where he became a Rover Scout mate, an early indication of his leadership skills.

He went up to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge to study engineering.

In 1946 he pre-empted national service by attending a War Office selection board and was accepted for training for a short service commission in the Royal Engineers.

During his officer cadet training he successfully applied for further training in the Railway Operating Division and was subsequently posted to 348 Railway Operation Division in Germany where, in 1947, he became locomotive superintendent of the Detmold military railway which had been taken over by the British Army of The Rhine.

Having reached the rank of captain, he returned to civilian life in 1949 and joined the eastern region of British Railways, completing a two-year training course at Doncaster.

He also spent time in Stratford works and sheds in East London and Norwich before being appointed assistant to the motive power superintendent for the Eastern region, with particular responsibility for Automatic Train Control (ATC) matters.

He had already been introduced to the Talyllyn Railway, in Wales, a narrow gauge steam-operated railway built in the 19th century to carry slate, and for which he volunteered.

The Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society was the world’s first such preservation organisation but when he subsequently visited the then closed Ffestiniog Railway he declared: “This is a real railway, this is the one we should be restoring.”

Running more than 13 miles from the harbour in Porthmadog, it climbs more than 700ft up the mountains and through tunnels to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog and boasts a heritage stretching back almost 200 years.

Garraway, a dyed-in-the-wool steam man, attended the inaugural meeting of the Ffestiniog Railway Society in Bristol in 1951 and played an active role in establishing the organisation.

Then in the mid-1950s, when it became apparent that steam was on the way out in British Railways, he gave up his career in the modern rail industry and looked to the past and to his real passion, taking a post as manager and engineer of the Ffestiniog Railway.

Within three years he was promoted to general manager and remained there, leading the rebirth and rebuilding of the route until retiring in the 1980s as the railway’s longest-serving general manager in the past 130 years.

Recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest operational company in the world – founded by an Act of Parliament in 1832 – in 1863 it became the first narrow gauge railway in the world to introduce steam engines, two of which are still in use today.

As an operator Garraway understood the railway and through his stewardship it flourished, even when run on a shoestring. As a result it is renowned today as a leader in railway preservation and as a major tourist attraction, operating both the Ffestioniog and Welsh Highland Railways and carrying up to 400,000 passengers a year.

Garraway, a striking figure who had his own uncompromising but effective way of getting things done, inspired loyalty and affection from those who understood his regime.

Even half a century after an incident in which a crew put a passenger train together in completely the wrong order, his comments on the event are still quoted around the railway.

But he was also an active manager, taking his turn on engine driving duties in the early days of the revival and was regularly seen in oilskins on the footplate of his favourite locomotive, Linda.

In his bachelor days he lived for many years in the flat he adapted from the company’s offices and board room in the upper floor of Harbour Station, Porthmadog and had had his meals provided by a lady across the road who became an institution, offering food and bed and breakfast to various volunteers and long-term temporary staff.

Then in 1965 he married his Moyra Macmillan in Tremadog and the newlyweds travelled by special train to Tan y Bwlch in Snowdonia, greeted along the way by flag-waving locals and with the driver insisting the bride assist on the footplate, an episode that produced rather grubby results for her dress.

After their marriage they moved to Minffordd and on retiring in 1983 he returned to Scotland where he and his wife set up home at Boat of Garten.

That same year he was also honoured with an MBE, a source of great pride to the couple. He later wrote a book Garraway, Father and Son; Two Generations of Railwaymen, charting the very different lives that he and his father had experienced working on steam locomotives.

In the Highlands Garraway fostered an interest in the Strathspey Railway, of which he became a director, and took up rowing on Loch Ness. He had enjoyed the sport in his student days at Cambridge and latterly spent time with a crew of what he described as “other geriatric oarsmen”, taking on and beating much younger teams.

He also returned occasionally to Ffestiniog, the railway that, as one former colleague put it, he had dragged back from the grave. wAllan Garroway was widowed in 2011; he and Moyra had no children.