The Heart of Wales

Wednesday 7th July 2021

It takes around four hours to travel by train between Swansea and Shrewsbury via the Heart of Wales railway line. You can shave a good hour off that by travelling via Cardiff, Newport and Hereford on the main line but lovely and scenic though that route is, especially between Cwmbran and Hereford, it’s not a patch on the delights offered by the Heart of Wales route.

It’s usually operated by a one coach Class 153 which adds to the friendly nature of the route especially as you often see the driver popping into and out of the cab through its door into the passenger area to change the tokens over from platform cupboards. The tokens are needed to gain authority to travel over each single track section as unlike the West Highland Line there’s no electronic system in place here.

The line is single track from four miles north of where it leaves the main line at Llanelli until it reaches the main line at Craven Arms, south of Shrewsbury. Passing loops at five of the stations (Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd, Llandrindod and Knighton) allow trains to pass each other. It takes three hours to travel along the 90 miles of single track.

The Class 153 trains have been refurbished making them attractive and pleasant to travel in although the seats are rather on the small side and space is tight if four people are sitting around one of the half a dozen or so tables.

On the positive side the accessible toilet is a great improvement on the old arrangements of a rather cramped cubicle.

But it’s the scenery that makes this a “must ride” line together with its rural branch line charm. You’ll see mountains, forests, rivers, meadows and wonderful small towns and villages as you pass through Carmarthenshire, Powys and over the Welsh/English border into Shropshire.

There are just four journeys in each direction on Mondays to Saturdays with two on Sundays. The first two northbound journeys currently start from Carmarthen rather than Swansea and one has a very early start at 04:26.

Three of the Monday to Friday northbound and southbound journeys pass each other at Llanwrtyd (the first early morning journeys and the afternoon and evening ones) while the fourth (the mid morning ones) pass each other at Llandrindod.

Whenever I’ve travelled on these journeys the crews have changed over at the same time so it looks like crews who begin the journey in Swansea or Carmarthen do the southern section of the route, while those from Shrewsbury, the northern end.

To facilitate this, as well as make the timetable work, quite a bit of dwell time is allowed at the passing places including eighteen minutes on the first journey to Shrewsbury. Other dwell times range from six minutes to thirteen minutes, giving a bit of time to stretch your legs.

On Saturdays the early morning and afternoon journeys pass at Llandrindod and the mid morning and evening pass at Llanwrtyd while on Sundays both journeys pass at Llandrindod.

When I travelled previously, the passing loop at Llandeilo was used, and as you might make out from the departure board in the photo below, the first journey used to continue beyond Shrewsbury to Crewe, as others did too, making for an even longer end-to-end journey time.

Llandovery’s passing loop is no longer used, but the station building and well kept platform more than makes up for that.

Similarly Knighton’s loop is not needed in the current timetable.

Including Swansea and Shrewsbury there are 35 stations on the route; 19 of them are request stops. One of these, Dolau is looked after by a local resident who always arranges an absolutely wonderful display of blooming flowers throughout the summer.

Its such a shame some of the dwell time on the route can’t be scheduled for this delightful station so we can all get off for a few minutes in admiration.

The driver gets out of the cab to set the level crossing just north of the platform so there’s a quick minute or two to take a look at the displays if you’re quick.

Even Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philips visited the station 19 years ago.

Another quirky station is of course Sugar Loaf, probably the most famous request stop on the line being the least used station in Wales mainly due to its remote location with no settlement or village nearby. The station is located on the A483 which links Llanelli with Oswestry, and that’s about it.

I spent an enjoyable hour and a half there a couple of years ago (in between the northbound afternoon train departing and the southbound train arriving) and was surprised to find someone else arrive on the platform during my stay but it turned out he was looking after the flower display rather than making a journey. We had a lovely chat and before leaving I made sure I signed the station visitors book.

You can clearly see the long closed southbound platform where a passing loop was once provided….

… and there’s a lovely sign marking Sugar Loaf Summit, but there isn’t much else to see.

Sugar Loaf is one of the stations that’s been closed during the pandemic due to it having a very short platform – you can only alight from the front door of the one-coach train – as to aid social distancing TfW have been running two coach trains on the line with a much reduced timetable meaning this and Hopton Heath (another short platform station) have been out of bounds. However, now trains are back to a single coach and a full timetable there seems no reason why Sugar Load can’t be reinstated, as Hopton Heath has been.

When I queried this with TfW’s twitter team recently, Owen couldn’t give any information as to when Sugar Loaf will be reinstated. One things for sure, it will definitely be retaining the ‘least used’ title while this situation continues.

My latest end-to-end journey on the Heart of Wales was on Tuesday afternoon last week from Swansea to Shrewsbury. As always it was a very enjoyable way to spend four hours, wonderful to see all the lovely scenery again and fascinating to watch all the comings and goings as passengers joined and left the train during the journey. Being a one coach affair, you easily see all the action.

Not unexpectedly I was the only passenger who was on the train for the entire journey. Llanelli, Ammanford, Llandeilo and Landovery were popular stations in the southern half of the route along with Llanwrtyd while in the northern half Llandrindod, Knighton, Craven Arms and Church Stretton (the later two being on the main line) were relatively well used. We hardly stopped at any of the requests stops in the northern half of the route.

The maximum passengers on board was around 15 (leaving Llanelli) and the least was four. We arrived into Shrewsbury with nine on board. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, no tickets were checked or sold but the guard did come through the train asking if anyone wanted a request stop.

It was impressive to see my departure from Swansea at 14:35 was held to await the slightly late arrival of the GWR train from Paddington due in at 1429 but only arriving at 14:35. That extra three minutes before we left at 14:38 made all the difference to anyone making the connection and just goes to show two train companies can work together. We slipped to being eight minutes late by Llandovery but made four minutes of that up at the crew switch over at Llanwrtyd and the rest by passing through most of the request stations without needing to stop on the later part of the journey, arriving into Shrewsbury two minutes early at 18:26.

An anytime day return fare on the Heart of Wales line from Swansea to Shrewsbury is £30.30 which compares to £70.70 via Cardiff, Newport and Hereford on the mainline albeit that journey can be done in 3 hours, saving one hour. Bizarrely the off-peak return fare on the Heart of Wales is listed as more expensive than the anytime fare – showing in the database as £54.30 – goodness knows what the logic is behind that.

There’s also a bit of a puzzle surrounding the names of Llanwrtyd and Llandrindod stations which are known on maps as Llanwrtyd Wells and Llandrindod Wells but in official National Rail and Transport for Wales data they lose the Wells. Yet on the stations, some of the signs do have Wells, and some don’t. I can’t imagine Tunbridge settling for such confusion.

There’s a Community Rail come Friends of the Heart of Wales Line organisation who do great work in promoting the line. Their website gives interesting background information about each station on the line as well as explaining what the buildings are now used for. They also promote the Heart of Wales Line Trail encouraging people to “hop on a train and walk from one station to the next along the trail”. Their website looks forward to 2022/23 for a much improved service – that really will be something to look forward to. More journeys will definitely enhance the attractiveness of the line and increase the range of journey possibilities, which are a little limited with its current low four-trains-a-day frequency.

In summary, the scenery is breathtaking, the train nice and friendly, the stations superbly well kept and the journey just trundles along for 3 hours along the single track. All very delightful and highly recommended.

Roger French

19 thoughts on “The Heart of Wales

Add yours

  1. I wonder if it is just me that finds the juxtaposition of your description of Sugar Loaf being “on the A483” with its accompanying picture showing a distinctly non-A road type of road, rather amusing!?


  2. Very interesting. My great grandfather was a platelayer on this route from its’ inception initially at Garth Station where my grandfather was born in Station House in 1871. For a while they lived at the Railway Cottages at Sugar Loaf and it was whilst based here in the late 1870’s that there was a very bad winter and he suffered badly from exposure to the cold which severely hampered his future life. My grandfather went on to spend much of his working life on the line finishing as a Goods Conveyancer at Swansea and his brother was Station Master at Bucknell for quite a long period.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The removal of ‘Wells’ in their names is an attempt to standardise the Welsh name & English names for the stations. The towns names in Welsh are simply Llanwrtyd & Llandrindod. The Wells suffix was added (as was so many) in attempts to gain tourists in the 1800s.

    Whilst Tunbridge might not be seen without its Wells I do find it odd that the stations still refer to themselves as Bath Spa & Cheltenham Spa.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Off Peak Return (8A restriction = no time restriction) is valid for a month for the return, that’s why its more expensive than the Anytime *Day* Return.


    1. Although that is obviously the reason for the difference in price, I’ve never seen the logic in charging less if you come back the same day. Car drivers pay the same for their journey whether they come back the same day or not, and it is not costing the train company any more if you travel back a different day. Other European countries I’ve travelled in, also charge the same.


  5. Rode the line on a Heart Of Wales Round Robin some fifteen years ago, returning to Shrewsbury via Cardiff.

    Lovely line, though four hours on such basic trains are something of an endurance test!


  6. Great post that brought back good memories. It’s been one of my favourite journeys ever since I travelled over it as a child, back when the class 120 units operated the services. One minor point about Dolau: it’s not a token exchange point, but I think the driver has to get out to operate the level crossing.
    The 153s were originally due to leave as TfW were going to use the 2 car 170s on the line. Sadly this is no longer happening and the 153s are staying for the foreseeable future. This is a real shame as I’ve always found the 153s to be cramped and uncomfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. To return to the “Wells” issue – of course Bath once had another station (Queen Square/Green Park) so Bath Spa differentiated them – no longer necessary (since 1966!)

    Conversely when Cheltenham had three stations (Lansdown, Malvern and St James) I don’t think they were generally referred to as “Spa” although the word was officially part of their names.


  8. A well illustrated and informative article. My only journeys on the line were usually overnight and I’ve never seen most of the stations in daylight. Back in the very early 1980s due to work commitments I normally only had either Wednesdays or Sundays off. So most expeditions to photograph buses were mid-week, day return outings. The way to cover south Wales from my then County Durham home was to take a train to York and change onto the “Shrewsbury Mail”. This was a loco hauled mini TPO with one carriage for passengers if I remember correctly. After a very, very early morning arrival at Shrewsbury it connected with the first southbound Swansea train, usually a two car, first generation DMU with the guard’s cage brim full with mail bags off the train from York. As I used the journey to get some sleep I missed most of the stops until we got to Llanelli. This line enabled me to visit Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, even Carmarthen on one wet and miserable trip all on a day return ticket from Newcastle (out via Central Wales Line, return via Bristol) and be back home at the end of the day. Was it all really worth it just to photograph green Crosville Leyland Nationals on loan to red South Wales Transport in Swansea?
    And before anyone asks, yes I did go to Crewe to photograph red South Wales Bristol VRTs on reciprocal loan to green Crosville. I must have been mad!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @William Originally the TPO from York ran through to Swansea via the Heart of Wales. This ceased in 1964 when the Swansea Victoria – Pontarddulais line was closed. Indeed, the last train out of Victoria was the northbound mail. The TPO was then diverted to run to Aberystwyth, before being later cut back to Shrewsbury. The train you used left about 0345 and later they used 2 dmus together to get extra van space.


  9. I’ve been off at Doleu years ago and walked to Knighton .A strange hike as I encountered a huge out of place cat like a puma near the village of Pilleth.I could judge it’s size by the bracken it was next to.When I got to Knighton and told the locals they tried to convince me I’d see a badger!On the rail front Knighton is unique in Wales as it’s station is across the border in England in a hamlet called Panpuntin which is in Shropshire.


  10. Did you get chance to look at the BR era posters at Llandod (as the traincrews called it back in BR days)?


  11. For welsh residents eg living in Wales and over 60 travel is free from October to May, i remember, also the same on the wrexham to Bidston line to Shotton only check the TFW website for details.


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