The narrow gauge railways of Wales

Wales is a very scenic part of the United Kingdom, well known for its mountains and fascinating coastline.  They are very proud and parochial people in Wales, but they are also very practical people, and when many of the narrow gauge railways were being shut down from the 1950s onwards, many Welsh people banded together to form preservation societies so that they could keep their railways running, even if it was for their own entertainment.

As it is, the Welsh did such a fine job of preserving their remarkable railways they have now become a major tourist attraction, which has given these iconic branch lines a new lease on life.

There are ten working narrow gauge railways in Wales, many of which were formerly used by the mining industry for the transportation of coal and ore.  These railways are (in no particular order):

The Talyllyn Railway which is situated in Mid-Wales and runs from Tywyn to Abergynolwyn and Nant Gwernol, a distance of seven and one quarter miles (11.8 kms).  It is a steam operated railway that is built to a gauge of 2 feet 3 inches (standard gauge is four feet eight and a half inches).

Llanberis Lake Railway is in Snowdonia and runs from Gilfach Ddu (the Welsh have very pretty, if incomprehensible, place names) via Llanberis to Padarn Lake.  The round trip takes about 60 minutes, but you can get off the train at some of the stations and look around should you wish. It too runs steam trains and carriage which allow great views of the countryside.  The Llanberis Lake Railway claims that it crosses Britain’s shortest river, which may be one compelling reason to visit.

The Ffestiniog Railway is the oldest independent railway in the world and runs trains on two lines. The Welsh Highland Railway is 22 miles in length and is North Wales’ newest railway – which is a great thing to boast, but is hardly in the same league as the Beijing to Lhasa Railway which really is an engineering marvel. The railway runs from Caernarfon across Mount Snowdon’s flank to Point Croesor.  The other line is the The Rheilffordd Ffestiniog Railway, running between the harbour at Porthmadog to Baelnaur Ffestiniog, and is one of the most spectacular of the narrow gauge railways as it climbs some spectacular gradients, even completing a complete spiral as it clings to the side of a mountain.

The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway has a gauge of 2 foot 6 inches and is also steam hauled on its 16 mile journey between the market town of Welshpool and the small village of Llanfair Caereinion.  A couple of their locomotives are over a century old, and the track has some very steep gradients which make the locos work quite hard.

Vale of Rheidol Railway is an eleven and three quarter mile journey along the Cambrian Coast from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge.  This has one of the narrowest gauges, being less than 2 foot.  The rugged landscape through which the railway passes means that travel is quite slow, and a one way journey takes about an hour to complete.

The Brecon Mountain Railway travels through the Brecon Beacons National Park, and is one of the most popular railways in Wales. The journey starts at Pant, which is what the loco will be doing on some of the steeper gradients.  The gauge here is just under two foot in width too. The railway follows the Taf  Fechan Resevoir.  The railway uses some very interesting locomotives including an ancient German loco and a couple of American Baldwins.

The Bala Lake Railway offers a delightful 9-mile return journey alongside Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid), through the beautiful and natural Snowdonia National Park. It is a 9 mile track with a 2 foot gauge running from Llanuwchllyn to Bala.  It too has some very interesting locomotives, including one which was built in the late 19th Century and is still operational.

The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway uses both steam and diesel locomotives on the run from Porthmadog to Pen-Y-Mont.  It is one of the shorter routes, but as well as the narrow gauge railway, you can also ride on a miniature railway as part of your outing.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway is best know because it takes you to the summit of Mount Snowdon, which is the highest mountain in Wales. Beginning at Llanberis Station the train starts its climb to the summit, and on the way you will see some amazing views, assuming that the weather is good. This railway uses a rack and pinion system to help negotiate the steepest gradients.  The steam engines are of Swiss design, as the Swiss have many rack and pinion railways.  This is one of the busiest of the Welsh Narrow Gauge railways and on busy days it can have eight trains running simultaneously.

All of these railways are worth visiting, and if you are considering riding on each of these railways you can get a Great Little Trains of Wales Discount Card that will give up to 20% discount on each journey.

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