WALES has been indelibly linked in the imagination with trains ever since Oliver Postgate’s low-tech stop motion animation series Ivor the Engine first chugged onto our TV screens.
Now you can meet up with flesh and blood versions of Postgate’s rather stereotypically Welsh railway characters, that included Jones the Steam, Evans the Song, Owen the Signal and Idris the Dragon, in addition to Ivor himself. Just don’t expect them to conform to Postgate’s way over-the-top depiction, although it was in part inspired by real-life locomotive fireman and Welshman Denzil Ellis.
Yep, Wales sure is your heritage railway enthusiast’s dream. But not just enthusiasts either. Go on, admit it. Who doesn’t enjoy a train trip through stunning scenery? Made all the better for being preceded by clouds of steam and whistles echoing from hillside to hillside. Here we offer an insight as to where to go and what you can expect.
The great behemoth of the narrow gauge railway industry in Wales is the umbrella marketing organisation that goes by the name Great Little Trains of Wales. Eleven fascinating lines come under its wing, including some of the better known ones of international renown, but they’re all worth a visit whether you’re the ultimate anorak or a curious day-tripper. They offer loyalty cards giving you discounts on your fares, while some of the individual companies offer discounts for local residents.
The Great Little Trains of Wales
Snowdon Mountain Railway LL55 4TT
Make it to the summit of Wales’ highest mountain without breaking sweat. But please don’t refer to it as some mistakenly do as the highest in England and Wales; that’s silly and the same as saying it’s the highest in Wales and Belgium. This rack railway has been trundling visitors up to the top to experience the awe-inspiring journey since 1896, and terminates just beneath the main peak of Yr Wyddfa alongside its rather incongruous Hafod Eryri refreshments complex.
Brecon Mountain Railway CF48 2DD
Mountain climbing for softies at its best. The fun starts at Pant on the outskirts of the former industrial and political hotbed of Merthyr Tydfil, running for five miles through the Brecon Beacons National Park alongside the stunning Tâf Fechan reservoir, where the Merthyr Tydfil Sailing Club is based. The line terminates at Torpantau, but you can break off the return journey at Pontsticill to enjoy lakeside walks or to relax in the café.
Running for 4.5 miles alongside Llyn Tegid, Wales’ largest natural lake and home to the gwyniad, an unique Ice Age species of fish that survives in this lake alone, this line runs through the Snowdonia National Park along the bed of the former Ruabon to Barmouth mainline ripped up in the 1960s. All the facilities including café, heritage centre and locomotive sheds can be found at Llanuwchllyn station, the opposite side of the lake from the town of Bala, although you can join the train at Bala’s lakeside station by paying the onboard conductor.
Fairbourne Railway LL38 2EX
Fairbourne, a village built as a model retreat by 19th century English industrialists but doomed to fall prey to the tides sometime this century, is served both by the mainline Cambrian Coast railway and this miniature railway. A mere 12.25 inches in gauge, the line connects the village and the Barmouth ferry a couple of miles up the peninsula. But if you’re intent on crossing the Mawddach estuary to Barmouth, be aware that you’ll have to clamber onboard the boat rather than be using any gangways.
Llanberis Lake Railway LL55 4TY
Situated in the heart of Snowdonia and at the foot of Snowdon itself, Wales’ highest mountain. The heritage locomotives leave from the pretty village of Llanberis to take you on a five-mile return journey alongside the lapping waters of Llyn Padarn, one of two majestic lakes lying either side of the village and its ancient castle of Castell Dolbadarn.
Talyllyn Railway LL36 9EY
The world’s first preserved steam railway and the inspiration behind the famous Thomas the Tank cartoons, whose author Rev W Awdry joined the railway’s volunteer force in 1952. The journey covers seven miles of spectacular scenery through the Snowdonia National Park. It runs within sight of one of Wales’ most iconic mountains, Cader Idris, from the coastal resort of Tywyn to the mysterious silence of Nant Gwernol. Tywyn station also features the fascinating Narrow Gauge Railway Museum.
Vale of Rheidol SY23 1PG
Once the last state-run steam railway in Wales, this line explores the stunning Cwm Rheidol valley from its terminus at Aberystwyth – which it shares with the mainline Cambrian Coast service. Opened in 1902, the train climbs 200m in almost 12 miles as it meanders gracefully from Aberystwyth to Pontarfynach – known in English as Devil’s Bridge – where you can scramble down steps to a steep gorge to view three bridges built on top of each other.
Ffestiniog Railway LL49 9NF
Now proudly sporting the correct spelling according to Welsh orthography, after decades of being mis-spelled as the Anglicised Festiniog, this is one of Wales’ most famous heritage lines. Formerly used to carry roofing slates, from the mines high up in the mountains at the still fascinatingly pock-marked Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog harbour, it offers an enthralling trip through industrial history and unique scenery alike. It connects with the Welsh Highland Railway at Porthmadog for 40 miles of travel magic all the way to Caernarfon.
Welsh Highland Railway LL49 9NF
The culmination of a dream to see Caernarfon re-connected to the railway network, trains leave from an impressive new station near the World Heritage Site that is Caernarfon Castle. The railway then climbs to the foot of Snowdon at Rhyd Ddu, where you can alight to trek to the summit, before dropping again past the mystical village of Beddgelert and through the stunning Aberglaslyn Pass to sea level in Porthmadog. Connecting here with the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog, you can enjoy 40 miles of pure smoke-tinged adventure and nostalgia.
Welsh Highland Heritage Railway LL49 9DY
Not to be confused with the Welsh Highland Railway, also based in Porthmadog, this outfit had visions at one time of running the services that their near-namesakes now offer. The WHHR, based opposite the mainline station, nonetheless offers three experiences for the price of one, all of them an educational introduction to the world of heritage railways eminently suitable for families: a short train ride to Pen y Mount and back, a miniature railway and an interactive museum.
Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway SY21 0SF
Opened in 1903 to link the rural community of Llanfair Caereinion in Powys to the local market town of Y Trallwng – known in English as Welshpool – and the national railway network. This unusual 762mm gauge steam railway runs for 8.5 miles and features tight curves and steep gradients climbing 600 feet which proved a major challenge when it was being built.
More of Wales’ Heritage Railways
The Corris Railway is not one of the Great Little Trains of Wales marque, and was originally built in 1859 as a horse-drawn tramroad to carry roofing slate from the quarries at Aberllefenni and Corris Uchaf. It generally offers scheduled services at weekends in the summer over its short run of less than a mile, but has ambitious plans to extend the line southwards towards a forestry amenity site at Tan y Coed. In the workshops you can view four replica Victorian-era carriages and parts of the company’s new locomotive.
Station Yard, Corris, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 9SH
The Teifi Valley Railway was created from the Newcastle Emlyn branch line of the Great Western Railway which served the largely rural areas of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.
Enthusiasts had originally hoped to see it retained as a standard gauge heritage line, but it now runs for two miles on a 2ft gauge track using heritage diesel engines.
Henllan Station, Llandysul, Ceredigion SA44 5TD
However just down the line the Gwili Railway achieved its ambition to remain a standard gauge railway, running from its base at Bronwydd just north of Carmarthen. It chugs through the delectable farmland and wooded hillsides of the Cwm Gwili valley for some four miles up to Danycoed. Having closed to freight traffic in 1973, it re-opened as a heritage line just five years later. You can tuck into a traditional Welsh cream tea or a full-blown Sunday lunch in a 1950s dining car.
Wales’ longest standard gauge heritage railway is the Llangollen Railway, often used as a set for period films and TV series. It follows the River Dee through stunning landscape for some 10 miles, the whole of which is designated as an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). It terminates in the historic town of Corwen, long associated with Owain Glyndŵr, the last Prince of Wales, for whom an impressive memorial has been erected in the town centre.
It’s not just popular TV series Gavin and Stacey that Barry Island has given the world. The Barry Tourist Railway is part of the Barry Rail Centre, offering training and filming locations, and operates services for passengers on certain dates throughout the year from Barry Island to Barry’s mainline station. They use either their own refurbished heritage diesel engines or one of their regular visiting steam locomotives.
Meanwhile the Cambrian Heritage Railways operate a 1,200 metre section of line from a replica, period station at Llynclys in Powys, just over the border from Oswestry in Shropshire. All passenger trains are heritage diesel multiple units.
Llynclys South Station, Llynclys, Oswestry, SY10 8LJ
For one of the best views over the sweeping, azure Cardigan Bay, a trek up Constitution Hill at the northern end of Aberystwyth’s promenade is a must. And while it can be a bracing hike, the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway makes it a breeze. It is the longest funicular cliff railway in Britain, and has been open since 1896. And apart from the stunning vistas on the summit, the Consti café and one of the world’s largest cameras obscura make for an enjoyable hour or two.
Llandudno’s Great Orme headland is unique in Wales in that it can be reached by foot, car, cable-car or tramway. The Great Orme Tramway similar to the famous ones in San Francisco, is the only cable-hauled tramway in Britain that shares public roads with other traffic. It opened in 1902 and climbs over a mile from Llandudno through a country park and nature reserve to reach the often windswept summit using the original tramcars, now lovingly restored.