Rail routes of Wales

This week, in celebration of St David’s Day we are taking a look at some of the very fine rail journeys to be found in Wales. Full of beautiful rivers, lakes, rolling hills and scenic mountains it is easy to explore this great country by rail. Here are some of our favourites:

Firstly there is the historic ‘Heart of Wales’ line which celebrated its 150th-anniversary last year. Said to be one of the most picturesque journeys in Britain, the track travels from Swansea cutting diagonally across the rolling hills of mid-Wales to Shrewsbury, passing sights such as the viaducts at Cynghordy and Knucklas, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Llanwrtyd Wells, the smallest town in Britain. (Table 146)

Our second choice is the short ‘Conwy Valley Line’ which runs from Llandudno on the North Wales Coast to the Heart of Snowdonia at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The journey provides views of historic castles, wildlife-rich estuaries and crosses the dramatic Gethin’s viaduct as well as great views of the rugged peaks of Snowdonia national park. (Table 160). The line also allows you to connect to the heritage Ffestiniog Railway to continue your travel south.

For a view of the country from south to north, you can travel in style from the capital city Cardiff all the way to Holyhead aboard the ‘Gerald of Wales’ which features a restaurant car (one of only two trains in the UK that still has an onboard chef cooking full breakfasts and three-course dinners), so you relax and dine as you are treated to the stunning country and coastal views. (Table 149)

Finally, the picturesque Cambrian Railway which is made up of two lines, one running west from Shrewsbury through rugged mountain terrain, quaint market towns, and castles to Aberystwyth on the western coast. At Machynlleth, the line connects into the Cambrian Coastal route which runs north to Pwllelli offering spectacular views, coastal walks and places to visit along the length of the Gwynedd coast.

TABLE 218: Glasgow – Fort William

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Our final leg of this journey begins in Fort William where, between April and October, you can hop aboard the famous Jacobite steam engine to carry you on the remaining 41-miles to the end of the line at Mallaig which many regard as the most beautiful part of the entire route.

After leaving Fort William we pass Loch Eli where there are some wonderful views back towards Ben Nevis. Next, at Banavie, the train passes over the Caledonian Canal. Look out for Neptune’s Staircase, an amazingly engineered staircase of 8 locks built by Thomas Telford. Just before the train reaches Glenfinnan station, it crosses the now world famous Glenfinnan viaduct which has been featured in the Harry Potter films. The best views of the train passing over its 21 arches are from the left-hand side as the track curves around. You can also catch sight of the Glenfinnan Monument, a statue of an anonymous highlander erected in commemoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie raising his standard here in 1745. At the station itself, there is a wonderful museum located in the station building as well as a dining car and railway shop.

The next stop is Britain’s most westerly mainland railway station, in the tiny village of Arisaig. Here there are views of the small Isles of Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna. Then it’s on to the final destination, the busy fishing port of Mallaig. The population of this village swells considerably with the arrival of tourists on the railway but there are plenty of options for visitors requiring refreshments or accommodation as well as a heritage museum and visitor centre on the pier.  Mallaig is also a ferry terminal where you can extend your journey into the Isle of Skye or other nearby small islands.

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This time we travel on the northbound branch out of Crianlarich station towards Fort William. After passing through Upper Tyndrum the track enters a section known as the ‘Horseshoe Curve’ which was constructed when the railway builders didn’t have enough money to build a viaduct across the valley. The line enters, circles and leaves the glen around the base of Beinn Dorain.

The next stop is Bridge of Orchy, a tiny village which sits directly on the West Highland Way with some wonderful (but very steep) paths starting beside the railway station itself. Then the landscape empties into the broad wilds of Rannoch Moor, one of Europe’s largest expanses of wilderness. The moor is predominantly a peat bog so when the West Highland Line was built the tracks had to be floated on a mattress of tree roots, brushwood and thousands of tons of earth to prevent the heavy steel tracks sinking! Relish looking out of the train window on this part of the journey where you will see nothing but mountains and moorland for miles around. Rannoch station is very pretty and has a tearoom and visitor centre and is at least accessible by road, unlike the next stop, Corrour, which is both the most remote and highest mainline station on the UK network. The nearest road is a 10 mile walk away so unsurprisingly the station is unstaffed, but there is a cafe next door and the former signal box has been converted into a three bedroom holiday let!

Finally, we reach the official end of the West Highland Line at Fort William which sits at the bottom of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. The town has a lovely West Highland museum and being the ‘Outdoor capital of Scotland’ it offers a wide range of outdoor activities and experiences

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Having reached Crianlarich where the line splits, we travel westwards on the remaining section of the former Callander and Oban Railway. The first stop is Tyndrum Lower, this tiny village is the smallest settlement in the UK with more than one railway station, (it’s other being Upper Tyndrum on the Fort William line). Next, we travel through Glen Lochy and onwards past the edge of Loch Awe where you can see the ruins of Kilchurn Castle on the north-eastern end of the Loch. With its stunning mountain backdrop, this is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. The castle is open to the public in the summer months with pedestrian access under the railway viaduct if the water isn’t too high!

The next station is Falls of Cruachan which is a request stop at the foot of Ben Cruachan mainly used by hikers in the warmer months as well as visitors to the nearby hydro-electric power station. Trains then continue through the Pass of Brander to reach Taynuilt on the shores of Loch Etive. If your timing is right you may be able to witness the frothing rapids at the Falls of Lora which form for a few days around the spring tides.

The final part of the journey takes us to the ‘Gateway to the Isles’ Oban with its busy ferry terminal offering links to several Hebridean islands such as Mull and Barra. The modern station is a great starting point for exploring the town which in recent years has also become known as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’ for its remarkable number of award-winning restaurants. The town’s most outstanding feature is McCaig’s Tower, a Colosseum-like building built by a local banker which stands on Battery Hill overlooking the town. It contains pleasant gardens and provides spectacular views over Oban and the neighbouring islands.

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Just three ScotRail trains a day link Glasgow Queen Street with Fort William and Mallaig, fewer on Sundays, in addition to the London-Fort William sleeper train. It’s not a fast journey but there is plenty of scenery to enjoy, it takes just under 4hrs for the 197km from Glasgow to Fort William or approx. 5hrs 30mins for the 264km from Glasgow to Mallaig.

The journey begins at Glasgow Queen Street station, the smaller of the city’s two main line railway termini. Beyond Queen Street Tunnel, the line diverges from the main line to Edinburgh and follows a north-westerly course along the Clyde through the suburbs to Helensburgh, an attractive small seaside town set in beautiful scenery. The town was once a popular Victorian holiday area and is worth exploring; particularly worth a visit is its most famous landmark Hill House, an interior design masterpiece by famous Scots architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The route then continues north via Garelochead, this section is where the West Highland Line is generally accepted to begin. Here you can see high-level views of Gare Loch and Loch Long before emerging alongside the north-westerly shores of Loch Lomond. Try to sit on the left-hand side of the carriage for the best views northbound.  Next, the railway climbs to Crianlarich station where the line to Oban branches off. On Mondays to Saturdays there are six services to Oban, three to Mallaig and one service to Fort William northbound. Crianlarich is the point at which the train typically splits into two parts, with two carriages continuing north on the West Highland Line, and two carriages heading west towards Oban. It is interesting to get off the train and watch it being decoupled (or recoupled), but don’t stay off too long – it’s a while till the next train!  Or you may decide to stop off for an afternoon tea and explore the hills and nearby footpaths of Strath Fillan and Glen Falloch, a haven for keen walkers.

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Throughout April we are going to be focusing on Britain’s finest rail route. This route has previously been voted as the World’s Best Rail Journey by Wanderlust Magazine ahead of the Trans-Siberian Express and other more well-known scenic routes. It is the wonderful West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William & Mallaig in Scotland. Timings are shown in Table 218 of the ERT. This also ties in nicely with the Route of the Month written by Hidden Europe writers Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries in the April edition of the ERT, which features another wonderful Scottish journey – Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh.

This rail journey carries you north along wild and remote areas of the west coast of Scotland, passing steep-sided lochs, heather moors and some of the smallest, remotest stations on the network. The track passes through the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Parks then the line splits at Crianlarich, carrying you either past the north edge of Loch Awe, in the shadow of Ben Cruachan to Oban where you can catch a ferry to other Scottish islands, or high up to Rannoch Moor and on to Fort William and Mallaig where you might catch a glimpse of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. Beyond Fort William the train crosses the now world famous Glenfinnan Viaduct that was used in the Harry Potter films, then on the final stretch into Mallaig there are glimpses of the Isle of Skye, which is just a short ferry trip from the port.

The famous Jacobite Steam engine runs between Fort William and Mallaig at certain times of the year, with the first service of 2018 starting this Easter (Friday 30th March to Friday 6th April 2018) standard and 1st Class tickets can be booked on their website.