Monday, 27 July 2009

All-Line Rover, Day 6

Sorry for the delay in uploading this - I was without internet all weekend in Wales. Today's post will be along soon too.

If ever I needed a reminder of why I was spending two weeks travelling the country on trains, the railways of north Wales provided the answer. The scenery is simply stunning, and was all the better for getting a hot, sunny day to see it in.

I spent the first half of day 6 (Saturday) with Ian, one of the guys whose floor I was crashing on in New Beckenham every other day, and possibly the only person I know who knows more about trains than I do. He joined me on the first few legs of my trip, before heading back to London, while I headed to Fairbourne on the west coast of Wales to spend a couple of nights with Jonathan and his family in their holiday cottage.

In order to fit everything I wanted to do in, I had to get up at 6:30am. On a Saturday. You know you're getting up at an uncivilised hour when the Today programme hasn't even started - even the presenters want a lie-in on a Saturday, it starts at 7am instead of 6am during the week. Ian and I headed for London Marylebone:

0706 New Beckenham to Charing Cross, arr 0737

Distance 9.5 miles, walk-up price £2.45

Bakerloo line, Charing Cross to Marylebone

0814 London Marylebone to Wrexham General, arr 1226

Distance 189.75 miles, walk-up price £34.30

(Headcode 1J85, operated by Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railways using Mark 3 stock pushed by 67010)

Scenery: 5/10
- Mostly familiar, but nevertheless a nice run, especially in the Welsh marches from Shrewsbury to Wrexham.
Punctuality: 9/10 - Because this service is being threaded through all sorts of other services, it has quite a lot of slack in the timetable, so we were on time the whole way.
Speed: 6/10 - Not bad, but given the amount of slack it's a pity we couldn't have gone faster.
Comfort: 10/10 - A proper train with a superb restaurant car. Well done.
Staff: 10/10 - Friendly, attentive staff, and announcements which were neither too long nor too short. Well done again.

Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railways (WSMR) are one of a handful of so-called open-access companies. One of the intentions of the Conservatives in privatising the railways in the early 1990s was that it would end British Rail's monopoly on running trains. To this end, they made provision to allow anyone to come along and say "I want to run trains on this line at this time", and as long as there was the capacity, they paid the access charges, and they didn't go bust, they were to be allowed to run the trains.

The first, and most successful, open-access operator is Hull Trains. They came along in 2001 and noticed that Hull, a city of 240,000 people or so, had just one direct train a day to and from London, so they said "we'd like to run some more". A decade later, there are now eight direct trains a day between London and Hull, and Hull Trains have their own dedicated fleet of five trains.

Shropshire had, until 2002, enjoyed occasional direct trains from Shrewsbury and Telford through Birmingham to London Euston. But when the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line forced Virgin Trains to ensure the capacity was where it was needed, Shropshire lost its direct services to London because not enough people used them.

So, a couple of years ago, WSMR came along and said "we'd like to run trains between London and Shropshire". They figured there was no hope they could go into London Euston on the WCML, so instead they asked to use Marylebone, via the Chiltern line through High Wycombe and Banbury. Unfortunately this does lead to journey times of around four hours for London to Wrexham and just over three hours for London to Shrewsbury, which could be reduced by up to an hour if they were allowed to run at full speed down to Euston.

On the other hand, I think it's great that the service runs at all: until recent cost-cutting measures they ran five trains a day between London and Wrexham via Telford and Shrewsbury; it's now three to Wrexham and one to Shrewsbury.

They use some of the old Mark 3 carriages that Virgin discarded when they switched to using the Pendolinos. They also provide second-to-none catering on board their trains: they still actually have a restaurant car. As such, Ian and I felt compelled to sample their service.

And we were not disappointed. The restaurant car is excellent, and we enjoyed freshly-made hot bacon baps for breakfast. Restaurant cars (as opposed to buffet cars) are a dying breed, but there was certainly the demand for it on this service (in spite of it being early on a Saturday morning!).

What's more, the staff were friendly, the announcements were just right - neither too long nor too short - and the seats were fantastically comfortable. They've recently acquired their own carriages which they're refurbishing which will be in service in a few weeks, which will provide free wireless internet access as well (in the meantime, they hire carriages in from Cargo-D).

All in all, a superb train.

The route itself I was very familiar with: the first half was the London to Leamington line which I used many times as a student at the University of Warwick, and the rest were mainly lines in the West Midlands I had been on before. The main new section was that from Shrewsbury to Wrexham, which was a nice run through the Welsh Marches.

This brought us to Wrexham General, from where we walked to the centre of town and had some lunch, before returning to the station for our onward journey.

1300 Wrexham General to Holyhead, arr 1511

Distance 96.5 miles, walk-up price £15.05

(Headcode 1D18, operated by Arriva Trains Wales using Sprinter 158830)


1523 Holyhead to Llandudno Junction, arr 1623

Distance: 40 miles, walk-up price: £6.80

(Headcode 1G60, operated by Arriva Trains Wales using Sprinter 158830)

Scenery: 8/10
- Fantastic views of Conwy Castle and from the Britannia Bridge, as well as lots of rugged coastline.
Punctuality: 6/10 - Sloppy timekeeping left us six minutes late on the way to Holyhead and three minutes late into Llandudno Junction on the way back.
Speed: 4/10 - Averaging just 45mph on what used to be a very important mainline to Ireland shows just how much some parts of our railway have been run down.
Comfort: 7/10 - The seats were a little hard, but not too bad, and the visibility was good.
Staff: 8/10 - Cheery and friendly staff with frequent ticket inspections and a reasonably-priced trolley service; pity about the automated announcements.

Our next journey took us on to Chester, where we reversed and proceeded along the North Wales Coast Line to Holyhead, and back on the same train to Llandudno Junction. The North Wales Coast Line was built for one purpose: Ireland. Traffic, especially postal traffic, between London and Dublin was hot competition in the 19th century, and Thomas Telford's A5 road to Holyhead was matched soon after by Robert Stephenson's superb railway along the north coast.

This is another route I'm familiar with - but not by rail. The A5 and A55 are the two main routes between Holyhead and England, and I have used it many times in transit between university and home in Northern Ireland. The A5 runs through the mountains from Shrewsbury through Oswestry, Llangollen, and Betws-y-Coed, while the A55 runs from Chester north-west until it hits the coast around Abergele, before hugging the shoreline.

The railway line is much closer to the coastline for the eastern part of the route, and you get really good views of the Dee Estuary and the Wirral Peninsula. Then the route turns slightly more west, and the views get more rugged: on one side you have the Irish Sea, and on the other you have huge hills and rock-faces.

One notable way in which the line differs from the A55 is through Conwy. The A55 is a fairly recent dual-carriageway, and tunnels under the historic town of Conwy. The railway line, however, crosses the River Conwy on a tubular bridge, from which you emerge into fantastic views of Conwy Castle, one of four castles in North Wales which is protected as a World Heritage Site, and it really is quite something.

Eventually the mountains run out, and you sweep onto George Stephenson's Britannia Bridge taking you from the mainland to Anglesey. The Britannia Bridge is a double-decker bridge, with the railway lying below the road (both the A5 and A55, in fact), and you get superb views out into the Menai Straits, including over to Thomas Telford's original Menai Bridge, which is rather lower and narrower but which carried the original A5.

I had previously only crossed Anglesey in haste on the A55, which lies in quite a lot of cuttings; the railway line, however, is at a height where you can see rather more of the landscape, which is rather nice, though nothing spectacular in comparison to the mountains of the mainland.

An on-time departure from Chester turned into six minutes late at Bangor due to nothing other than sloppiness, but we arrived one minute early into Holyhead by virtue of padding; we were similarly a couple of minutes late on the way back.

At Llandudno Junction, Ian remained on the train to proceed back to London via Liverpool, while I got off the train to head up over the roof of Wales.

1633 Llandudno Junction to Blaenau Ffestiniog, arr 1733

Distance: 31 miles, walk-up price £4.15

(Headcode 2D18, operated by Arriva Trains Wales using Sprinter 150255)

Scenery: 10/10
- Stunning views of the Conwy Valley in fantastic bright sunshine.
Punctuality: 8/10 - A couple of minutes late out of Llandudno Junction, but we arrived early at Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Speed: 9/10 - Not fast at all, averaging just 31mph, but you'd struggle to do much better on a railway like this - and it would spoil the view!
Comfort: 5/10 - The seats weren't great, a bit hard really, but the visibility was pretty good.
Staff: 6/10 - A slightly confused ticket inspector, and rather unclear announcements, which was surprising for a prime tourist railway.

Just for once, it didn't matter that the seats were as hard as rocks. It didn't matter that the announcements were almost unintelligible. It didn't matter that there were times when we were travelling at 20mph.

Because the views were magnificent. Breathtaking. A masterpiece of engineering, and a tour de force of nature's beauty. In fact you start to run out of superlatives rather quickly.

The Conwy Valley line climbs from sea-level at Llandudno alongside first the Conwy and then the Lledr, before reaching to 790 feet and tunnelling under the Crimea Pass to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The views of the valley on a hot summer's day are really superb - it feels like you're in a Welsh version of a Norwegian fjord. At first, it starts out like a U-shaped valley, with a wide and colourful flood plain; ever so gradually, it begins to narrow as we climb slowly up to Llanrwst and Betws-y-Coed.

Then we start climbing hard, twisting and turning, clinging to the side of the mountains, now within Snowdonia National Park. We go over Gethins Viaduct, a bridge in the middle of nowhere that's impossible to photograph because it's so inaccessible. We pass Dolwyddelan Castle, dating back to the 12th century, set among hills so high you start to wonder how we got here in the first place.

Then finally we plunge into the longest single-track tunnel on Britain's railways (not counting the Underground), the two mile and 333 yard tunnel which takes us down to the slate-trade town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Some have likened the scene of Blaenau Ffestiniog to a "post-nuclear bleakness"; I can see what they mean, but that doesn't mean I don't like it. It's a welcome dose of man-made reality to bring you down from the high of the natural scenery of the Conwy Valley.

I had been slightly nervous about making some of the connections today. For one, I had only ten minutes to change trains at Llandudno Junction, and if I missed the branch line train to Blaenau Ffestiniog I would have a three-hour wait for the next one.

But more importantly, if the train to Blaenau was late, then I ran the risk of missing my two-minute connection at Blaenau, on to the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway:

Ffestiniog Railway: 1735 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog Harbour, arr 1845

Distance: 13.5 miles, price £12.00

The Ffestiniog Railway is one of the Great Little Trains of Wales. Wales has a strangely large number of narrow-gauge railways, with the rails being (normally) just two feet apart (61cm) instead of the usual 4ft 8.5in (143.5cm). Narrow-gauge is good for one reason: twisting and turning. Which is rather necessary when your task is to get through the mountain ranges of Wales in a train.

The Ffestiniog Railway is privately owned and run mainly by volunteers. But because it forms what would otherwise be the missing link in the Great Circuit of North Wales, there has been a long-standing arrangement with British Rail (and subsequently with the Association of Train Operating Companies) that the All-Line Rover and some of the Welsh rover tickets are valid on the Ffestiniog Railway.

I had, technically speaking, a two-minute connection from the Conwy Valley train to the Ffestiniog Railway at Blaenau. Fortunately the Conwy Valley train ran a few minutes early, and I made the connection with time to spare.

I shouldn't have worried, because as a private company with no connections to guarantee, their approach to punctuality was, shall we say, somewhat more lax than I had become accustomed to. A few minutes after the scheduled departure time, I overheard the guard say to one of the platform staff, "Well, I was ready to go, Jo." As she then responded, you just can't rely on engine crews.

And certainly not when they're driving steam trains.

Thirteen miles of iron-road spaghetti, draped on the Moelwynion, being driven along it by a steam train. Sheer brilliance.

I don't think it's fair to rate this train like the other trains. We left ten minutes late and arrived half an hour late thanks to an unscheduled stop in the middle of the forest. The guard said there was a "minor incident with the...", but I didn't hear any more. And even for track this sinewy it was pretty slow; we averaged just under 10mph. Cars in Central London can do faster; but they don't have the view to look at, so I think I'll let them away with it.

The carriages were vintage carriages made out of wood with limited cushioning and, of course, limited height due to the narrow gauge. The windows were half-open, enabling photography without reflections from the glass. There was also an at-seat refreshment service, and the staff were all very friendly and attentive.

I arrived in Porthmadog Harbour station armed with a recommendation of a good fish-and-chip shop on Snowdon Street. It wasn't just good, it was very good indeed, and the fifteen-minute queue (understandable at 7:30pm on a Saturday in high summer) was well worth the wait. I walked the ten minutes or so over to Porthmadog station proper, on the Cambrian Coast Line, for my last train of the marathon.

2023 Porthmadog to Fairbourne, arr 2121

Distance: 21.75 miles, walk-up price: £3.85

(Headcode 2J32, operated by Arriva Trains Wales using Sprinter 158833)

Scenery: 10/10 - Stunning sunsets over the Llyn peninsula and back towards Snowdon.
Punctuality: 8/10 - A few minutes late here and there, but it didn't make much difference at this time of night.
Speed: 6/10 - Quite slow: I think it could be a little faster without sacrificing the superb views.
Comfort: 7/10 - Another Arriva Trains Wales Sprinter; I shall say no more.
Staff: 6/10 - Reasonably thorough ticket inspections, though the attitude towards request stops seemed a little lax, placing too much onus on the passengers.

The Cambrian Coast Line, running along the west coast of Wales between Machynlleth (on the Cambrian Line proper between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth) and Pwllheli, is one of the real jewels of the railway network; not just the British railway network, but the world railway network.

For once, I shall agree with the mantra that a picture speaks a thousand words. This is the view of the Llyn peninsula and Snowdonia from the train window:

I think you'll agree it's simply stunning. Other views include Harlech castle, perched high on the cliffs above the line, and Barmouth bridge, which is a two-mile long bridge over a causeway that saves a very long detour up one side of the estuary and down the other.

It was the perfect way to arrive at my place of rest for the weekend in Fairbourne, where Jonathan's family have had a holiday cottage for seventy years, in a fantastic location overlooking Fairbourne and Barmouth.

The overall statistics for the day:
Total time spent on trains: 11 hours, 27 minutes (including 25 minutes delay on the Ffestiniog Railway).
Distance travelled: 402 miles.
Walk-up price: £66.60, plus £12.00 for the Ffestiniog Railway.

In terms of distance, my shortest day, but in terms of time, my longest excluding the sleeper train. Just goes to show that distance travelled isn't everything; the long day was well worth it.

1 comment:

  1. Ahem, it's a bungalow, not a cottage! (Helpful hint: there's only one floor.)

    Sorry to be pedantic, but we get a bit annoyed when one of my cousins refers to it as "The Cottage", when it's not. Maybe "bungalow" doesn't give as good an impression, but it's more accurate. :-p