Chronicling the development of my Cambrian and Narrow Gauge 4mm scale model railway

Groovy train

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In this post I’m continuing the story of the disco trains on the Ffestiniog Railway. All photographs unless otherwise stated are copyright of Stewart Macfarlane and used with his kind permission. His full album from the Easter 2003 weekend can be found here.

It did sometimes feel to some of us, that although there were a large number of people who understood the time and planning that went into a disco, there was at least the same number, if not more, that just saw it all as a jolly jape and couldn’t get their heads around what went into it. After I had “served my apprenticeship” and got my scout badges in planning discos and planning disco trains, I, with assistance from others, put together a “Things you need to do to run the Disco Train” document, the aim of which was to brief anyone who wanted to help on what was required. It also turned out to be quite useful for people who thought running such a train was something you organised when you were several sheets to the wind. One look at the document usually made them think twice, and the second thought was usually, “maybe not then”.

Reproduced below is the document which I’ve managed to drag up from my archives with a few added notes. In the next post I’ll go through it showing an example of just how complex these things could get.

Over the years the carriage used, number 121, had a number of modifications to make its use as a Disco carriage easier, not that it was noticeable when running normally in traffic.


Put the initial form in

The “initial form” is effectively a notice of intent to be submitted to the Company to show that the requirements had been met, and is used for all special trains. This includes:…

  • Reason for train (usually in this case end of summer season, or on occasion, a birthday)
  • Date
  • Cost (Costs to be covered include items such as paid staff if required, refreshments, and locomotive fuel. The Company very generously has waived these costs in the past)
  • Approval (Approval had to be sought from various departments including Operating and Locomotive)

Put the second form in

This form covers the practicalities of the special train, including:….

  • Footplate crew
  • Standby Driver
  • On call A-Class Controller
  • Controller
  • Guard
  • Buffet Crew
  • Locomotive(s)
  • Stock
  • Timings

The rest of the items is specific to a Disco Train.

Arrange prior to train preparation

  • Shunt set together: Spare, 59, 121. (Spare if going over summit – bowsider if possible)

“Spare” means spare carriage. Bicycle van 59, now back on the Vale of Rheidol railway where it originated, had been a piped vehicle with no vacuum brakes of its own. In the summer of 2003 it was retrofitted with brakes by a team of French engineering students. However, a mistake in their calculations which missed the gravity portion out of the unit of force, Newtons, meant that the van had 9.81 times less brake force than it should have had. The result of this was that a braked vehicle still had to be marshalled at the top end of the set if the train was going over the summit. As Disco Trains went to Dduallt (only the sheep were disturbed there), the train usually ran to Blaenau Ffestiniog to enable the locomotives to run round the train. This meant a spare had to be marshalled on the top end. From preference an original FR bowsider was used, 19 (full individual compartments) the leading preference.

Van 59

Van 59. Note the white vacuum stanchion denoting it as a piped, not braked, vehicle. This picture was taken after the “brake” equipment had been fitted. (C) Kim Winter

  • Fit 59 with slatted doors (should be inside van)

Van 59 had a set of slatted doors made in the same style as the solid ones. This allowed air flow to the generator which was used to power the disco equipment, as the carriage batteries didn’t have sufficient “oomph” for the job.

  • Ensure batteries for generator are charged
  • Ensure jerry cans of fuel for generator are in 59 van along with pint pouring pot
  • Wood fixings for generator & nails (should be inside the van)

A set of wooden battens were made to stop the generator (which was one of the hand-portable types) from moving around while in the van. For safe keeping, these were kept in the van and screwed to the floor as part of the preparation work.

  • Ensure portable charger box is in the van

The electrics for the train were quite simple though there was a lot to remember. The output from the generator was fed through a charge box to give an output of single phase 240V which was then fed using a jumper cable to the carriage. The other end of the carriage had its jumper cables unplugged from the rest of the set as the carriage lighting circuit is controlled from the guard’s van and if it was left plugged in you couldn’t isolate the disco carriage lights – you ended up with all lights on or all off. Isolating the disco carriage from the rest of the set electrically allowed its lights to remain off and all others on. Unfortunately we never managed to include in the Guard’s instructions not to plug the carriage in as their standing instructions state that as part of a train check they should ensure all jumpers are properly connected. So one of the disco orgainser’s jobs after the guard had checked the set was to go back and isolate the disco carriage again!

  • Put floodlights (from Glan Y Pwll) and gazebos (Minffordd) in 59 van for use at Dduallt.
  • Loco availability

Must ensure the preferred loco is available and rostered on a train which will enable it to haul the special.

  • Plan shunt

Generally, these trains involved a fair amount of shunting – see my next post.

  • Penrhyn crossing keeper

Penrhyn is a gated crossing. Are you going to get the train crew to open and shut the gates or can you persuade the family of volunteers who live in a house at the crossing to do it for you?

  • Posters

Advertising is always good. An example appears in the next post.

  • Beer (at Dduallt & on train)

Where is the beer coming from, does it need to settle, are you taking some to Dduallt in the days before the party?

  • Key for Dduallt

If you’re taking beer up beforehand, it’s worth locking away to prevent the sheep or walkers having it

  • Bonfire

If you’re having a bonfire at Dduallt, you need to build it (which may include bringing materials in by rail) beforehand.

Train preparation

121 before conversion

121 before conversion

  • Large thin bladed screwdriver for seat floor fixings and battery box seats

The seats in the tin carrs were held in place using a foot screwed into the floor and a side bracket fixed to a T-bolt rail in the carriage side, an arrangement commonly used on “the big railways”. The only exception to this were two sets of seats which were screwed to the wooden box covering the vacuum cylinder which protruded through the floor. The tables had the floor fixing but then slotted into another rail in the carriage side with no positive fixing. All the seat and table floor fixings in 121 had been fitted with quarter turn screws to speed up the process. However a normal large screwdriver blade was too large for the slots in the screws so a common job on the afternoon of the disco train was to hunt round the works for a screwdriver that would fit.

Removing tables

Dan showing how the tables were removed. Unscrew from the floor and then lift.

Removing podium seats

Em removing the seats from the “podium” (vacuum cylinder cover). You can just about make out the screws holding down the next seat along which are the quarter turn ones mentioned in the text. 

  • Metric (15 or 17mm) sockets for seat T-bolt rail fixings

You need both sizes. Can’t remember why. “Because it’s never simple” generally sums it up.

  • Vacuum floor and clean side rails & heater cover

It was only in taking the seats and tables out you began to appreciate how filty the carriages got. 121 was the cleanest carriage on the railway much of the time as it got a regular deep clean as part of the disco train preparation!

  • Cover seat fixings with gaffa tape

We learnt this the hard way. This prevented debris from going down the holes in the floor which then prevented the seats going back in the next morning…

  • Smoke fluid

Forgetting the smoke fluid could be all too common.

  • Sound Kit – 2 sets of lights, amp, decks, 2 speakers in X – key?

The kit was kept in a house near the railway. As it was a private dwelling, if the residents weren’t home we had to make sure the key was available.

  • Mounting brackets for bottom end lights (can use wire attached to washers behind screws in wooden beading

The disco desk was set up across the top end of the carriage. Cables were then run down the length of the carriage to a speaker and lights at the bottom end. For a long time, one of the struggles was mounting the lights. Eventually Heath Robinson stepped in and we made mounts which used the screws that held the wooden beading down. I suspect when the carriage was dismantled, those screws would have been the easiest to remove!

  • Cables in crate c/w smoke generator upstairs (Speaker leads are different lengths – not all long enough)

A 12m carriage requires long cables. Again, the signs are here that this document was written from experience.

  • Top hat for bottom end speaker

A device knocked up in the  carriage works with no flat surfaces to prevent drunken oiks putting their drinks down on the speaker

  • Shelf for disco kit upstairs– cover with sheets from rag bin

The shelf was made to measure – yes it was even if it was 2 pieces of angle iron, a plywood top and rags from the rag bin housing the rags for cleaning locos!

  • 1xx Crepe paper, use Velcro fixings

The rest of the set was usually decorated too. The reference to Velcro fixings is because the walls of many of the FR carriages were lined with carpet…

121 after conversion

121 after conversion. Note the gaffa tape on the floor covering the seat fixings holes, the lovely floral rag for the disco eqt shelf, and the carriage lights still on indicating it is still coupled to the rest of the rake. Also note the colour of the carpet extreme left. As mentioned in the text, 121 was frequently the cleanest carriage on the railway because you got the chance to reach places other cleaners can’t reach. 

Post train clear up

59 van

  • Fit solid doors back on
  • Remove floodlights, gazebos, generator from van. Leave wood fixings in van but remove from floor.
  • Remove charging box

Carriage 121

  • Remove disco kit
  • Vacuum floor
  • Remove gaffa tape
  • Attach seats and tables
  • Mop vestibules

Whole train

  • Vacuum through
  • Clean tables (hot water followed by spray clean)
  • Clean windows inside (and outside of 121)
  • Mop vestibules
  • Polish door handles
  • Replenish leaflet boxes


So there you have it. The only thing I couldn’t find in this was an example of a risk assessment which is also carried out for any party or special train. However, I did find one I wrote for a land based party…

Item No.                                                10

Risk                                                          Noise level disturbing neighbouring resident

Risk level                                               Medium

Mitigation                                             1. Set music level before beginning of party.                                                                                             2. Present neighbouring resident with the usual

Post mitigation risk level                 Low




Author: Chris H

Having now officially reached middle age, I am a rolling stock engineer and have worked in many different locations including a 7 year spell in Sydney, Australia, where I arrived with a suitcase and left with a wife and a son. I am now based back in my home county of Yorkshire where I juggle full time work, being a Dad to two rascally mini-mes, and trying to fit in railway modelling, assisting the GWR 1014 County of Glamorgan project, and visits to the top left hand corner of Wales. In addition to my heavily railway themed life, I am interested in rugby, cricket, reading crime novels, falconry, and medieval re-enactments.

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