WHILE Wales’ heritage and narrow gauge railways get the lion’s share of visitors’ attention, the country also boasts an interlinked mainline network of nearly 700 miles that snakes through some of its most scintillating scenery.

Run for the Welsh Government by Transport for Wales it often offers much the same sense of adventure as the heritage lines but at a fraction of the cost.  And while it sometimes has to cross the border into England to make its connections work, thanks to some dubious political decisions in the 1960s, it nonetheless gives the traveller an unique sense of what Wales has to offer.

Here we take a look at what we consider to be three of the most breathtaking routes that any self-respecting rail enthusiast should have on their bucket list. But be aware that we are talking about slow trains to paradise here, with toilets but mostly without refreshment facilities, so do take food, drink and a sense of adventure with you.

Heart of Wales Line

This trek, between the bustling second city of Swansea on the south coast and the medieval beauty of Shrewsbury just over the border, meanders for 141 long miles that take about four hours to complete. But who’s clock-watching when you’ve all that green gorgeousness sliding gently past the windows?

You can of course hop off at any one of 30 stations on the way, often having to alert the conductor beforehand as to where you’d like to be dropped off. But be aware that there can be several hours between services, so do hold that in mind if you intend to hop off the train in the middle of nowhere.

Not that there aren’t a plethora of small towns en route where you can idle away a few hours in the shops, pubs and restaurants. Stop over in the small spa towns of Llanwrtyd or Llandrindod. Or visit the asteroid-hunters at the Spaceguard centre and observatory  in Knighton, or the town’s Offa’s Dyke Centre where you’ll learn more about this famous 8th century fortification which still largely demarks the border between Wales and England.

For the more active the new Heart of Wales Line Trail uses existing rights of way that connect in and out of most stations along the entire line, allowing walkers to hop on and off and walk some or all of the route.

Knighton railway station on the Heart of Wales Line – platform 2
The Craven Arms Eastbound train departing platform 2 at the small station in Knighton, Powys – although the station sits on the Shropshire side of the border in England.

Cambrian Coast

Wales’ finest railway route without a shadow of a doubt, trundling along sedately between its twin termini of Pwllheli on the Llŷn peninsula and the university town of Aberystwyth to the south.

Be prepared to see the train being mysteriously waved down by passengers at unmanned halts where there’s not a house in sight, cars having to wait patiently as the train blocks the road while at a station, and wondrous views over Cardigan Bay – Wales’ largest expanse of sea water – as the line closely hugs the coast most of the way.

Be aware that usually you’ll need to change trains at Dyfi Junction if you’re travelling all the way between Pwllheli and Aberystwyth or vice versa. Not that that’s a chore. Standing in the middle of a marsh with no public road connection, this is an unique railway station standing proudly in the middle of the UNESCO-designated Dyfi Biosphere , the only one of its kind in Wales. Why not hop off here and walk the couple of miles or so to the nearby Dyfi Osprey Project to wallow in the beauty of these amazing birds as they feed their young?

The Wales Coast Path and Cambrian Line south of Barmouth

Conwy Valley Railway

Named after Afon Conwy, one of Wales’ most majestic rivers, the Conwy Valley is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of landscapes as it plunges from the brooding mountains of Meirionnydd to the genteel seaside resort of Llandudno.

And its namesake 27 mile long railway closely apes the river as it makes its way between the coast, past the architectural wonder of the medieval walled town of Conwy and its castle, right up to the savagely if intriguingly slate mine ravaged post-industrial landscape around Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Having called in at the tourist-oriented honeypot of Betws y Coed (please pronounce it properly as Betoos-uh-Koid) and past Llywelyn the Great’s stronghold at Dolwyddelan Castle on its way up the mountains, it soon passes through a three-mile tunnel hacked by Victorian engineers through a mountain known as Moel Dyrnogydd.

On leaving the verdant beauty of the valley on one side of the tunnel, the train emerges into a startling lunar landscape on the other on approaching Blaenau Ffestiniog, where mountains of slate waste teeter threateningly above this fascinating town. You can join the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway from its shared station at the Blaenau terminus should you fancy extending your railway adventure to Porthmadog, or perhaps even onwards to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.

Locomotives at Blaenau Ffestiniog

You’ll need to plan ahead if you want to travel by steam – these are special one-off events.

Ian Parri
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