If you like a scenic train ride, then you’ll be in heaven in North Wales. The region has something like 14 different heritage railways – narrow-guage, steam, miniature and trams – and that’s before you get to the mainline trains, which have stunning views of their own as they run along the coastline. So while I was in the area I had to indulge my train geek side with a trip on at least one. And if I could only choose one, then it had to be the Ffestiniog Railway, the oldest railway company in the world still running train services. Whose original steam engines take you on a 13.5-mile journey from Snowdonia’s mountains to the sea.
The railway was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1832 and built to carry Welsh slate from the hillside mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog down to the coastal port of Porthmadog where it was loaded onto ships. The route was cleverly designed so it was all on a gradient and the trains could just run downhill using gravity. Though the downside was that pulling each one back up to the top took six hours and a whole team of horses. With increasing demand for slate, the horses couldn’t keep up, so in the 1860s special narrow-gauge steam engines were commissioned which could also carry passengers too.
At their peak the trains carried a huge 80 wagons of slate each, but by the 1920s slate demand dropped. The railway experimented with running tourist services in the summer but it wasn’t enough to keep it going and by the end of the Second World War it closed down. But not for long. Because it had been created by an Act of Parliament, it would’ve taken another to get it dismantled, so instead it was just abandoned. A group of rail enthusiasts took it over and by 1955 they’d reopened the first stretch of track.
There were a few obstacles though – the biggest being the Llyn Ystradau reservoir. It had been built to supply a new hydroelectric power station, right on top of a stretch of the old tracks. But that didn’t stop the Ffestiniog’s army of dedicated volunteers, they just built a diversion. And an impressive one it is too – the team of ‘Deviationists’ spent 13 years digging out a new 2.5 mile section, including a tunnel and a spiral loop of track to help the train get down the hill. By 1982 the full route from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog had been reopened and the railway is now one of Wales’ top tourist attractions.
As we boarded our train at Blaenau Ffestiniog station, it was like stepping back in time. The original carriages are still in use and have been restored to their Victorian glory. You can choose between third-class or first-class carriages (second-class disappeared sometime at the end of the 19th century), so we took the luxury option and headed for the observation carriage with its blue velvet armchairs and steward to keep you supplied with cups of tea (or G&Ts). On the way down to Porthmadog, first-class is right behind the engine, so we watched the drivers in action, stoking up the engines to envelop us in clouds of steam.
The route descends 700 feet on its way down to the coast. It starts off in Snowdonia National Park and run along the edge of the reservoir. As it wound downhill we passed waterfalls, oak woodland and fields of bluebells. The track cuts into the hillside so sometimes felt like we dangerously close to the edge, with a huge drop on one side. But that did mean great views across the Dwyryd Estuary and towards Harlech Castle. At Tan-y-Bwlch the trains passed each other in opposite directions before carrying on down through little villages, with some houses so close they could touch the train from their doorstep. The final stretch took us into Porthmadog along the ‘Cob’ – a sea wall built in 1810 to reclaim marshland.
The railway is beautifully restored and really gives you a glimpse of the glamorous era of rail travel. A huge army of volunteers keep everything running smoothly, whether that’s manning the ticket desk or operating the signals. It’s a real labour of love and has a whole community of enthusiasts surrounding it. This year marks 150 years of carrying passengers, and a new, luxury Pullman observation carriage has been built to celebrate. It starts running later this year but until the end of June you can see it on display at London Paddington station – surrounded by 21st-century trains for a real old-meets-new railway experience.
The Ffestiniog Railway takes 1 hour 15 mins to travel between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog. Trains run between two and seven times a day, every day from April to November and three–four times a week the rest of the year. See the timetable for details. Tickets cost £21.50 for adults, £19.40 for seniors and half-price for children up to 16. First-class tickets cost an extra £6 each way. You can only buy tickets on the day, except for first class where you can reserve seats in advance by phone or in person. The company also runs the Welsh Highland Railway, which travels 25 miles from Porthmadog to Caernarfon.