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.