Romancing the rails with the Great Little Trains of Wales

Travelers with a passion for trains will find a treasure trove of scenic miniature railroads in and around Snowdonia National Park in Wales.

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At the summit in Snowdonia National Park (wikipedia)

WALES, September 18, 2016 – Travelers with a passion for trains will find a treasure trove of scenic miniature railroads in and around Snowdonia National Park in Wales. There are so many, in fact, that the Great Little Trains of Wales are a national monument that a Garden of Eden for rail enthusiasts.

Each railway is special in its own unique way, but they also share one characteristic; they are all narrow gauge stream trains with over a century of history.

Chugging through the countryside of Wales (wikipedia)
Chugging through the countryside of Wales (wikipedia)

Today the Great Little Trains of Wales are a major tourist attraction, but back in a simpler day, most of them were used to carry slate from the mountains to the sea. Even so, no two are the same and each offers its own personal story as they chug leisurely through the best scenery the country has to offer.

Here are some of the most popular Great Little Trains of Wales.

Bala Lake in Wales (wikipedia)
Bala Lake in Wales (wikipedia)

Bala Lake Railway: This railway is one of the youngest, opening only as a narrow gauge train in 1972. Though it is a rookie as far as narrow gauge trains are concerned, all the steam locomotives are more than 100 years old.

The steam engines are all ex-quarry machines with all but one coming from the slate quarry at Llanberis. The “Lone Ranger” was built in 1911 and was used by Rugby Portland Cement.

Today, Bala Lake Railway uses the original tracks of the former standard gauge Ruabon Barmouth line which comprised the Great Western Railway between Llanuwchllyn and what used to be Pen-y-bon Halt on the opposite side of Bala Lake to the market village of Bala

The original standard gauge station and signal box are still in use.

The Great Little Trains of Wales are fun for everyone (wikipedia)
The Great Little Trains of Wales are fun for everyone (wikipedia)

Fairbourne Miniature Railway: What makes this narrow gauge train so unique is that it has had four different track gauges during its 100 year history.

Originally built as a horse-drawn tramway, it was converted to a miniature steam railway in 1916. Except for a halt in service during World War II, the Fairbourne Railway has carried passengers continuously since 1895.

Children especially enjoy the Fairbourne line because the steam engines are half the size of traditional narrow gauge locomotives. The route runs from Fairbourne through the breathtaking scenery of the Mawddach Estuary and the Cadair Idris mountains before arriving at Barmouth Ferry Station.

To make a full day of it, travelers can take a short boat ride into Barmouth.

Photo op at the Ffestiniog Railway (wikipedia)
Photo op at the Ffestiniog Railway (wikipedia)

Ffestiniog Railway: For travelers with a penchant for history, the Ffestiniog Railway is the ideal “Great Little Railway.” It was established in 1832 by an act of parliament which makes it the oldest independent railway company in the world at 184-years.

Built to serve the slate industry of Blaenau Ffestiniog, this train was gravity powered, using brakemen who maintained control of the train by leaping from wagon to wagon to either tighten or loosen the brakes as it rumbled down the hillside. Up ahead another operator would blow the train whistle as a warning of its arrival.

Eventually steam locomotives were added in 1860 and today the Ffestiniog Railway transports visitors through the stunning scenery of Snowdonia National Park.

Most trains start and finish at Porthmadog’s Harbour Station which is the headquarters of the railway.

Llanberis Lake Railway passes through majestic scenery (wikipedia)
Llanberis Lake Railway passes through majestic scenery (wikipedia)

Llanberis Lake Railway: This train begins in the town of Llanberis and takes you past the 13th century Dolbadarn Castle. It crosses Afon y Bala, which is said to be Britain’s shortest river, before entering Padarn Country Park where it joins the original slate railway beside Lake Padarn.

En route on the outbound journey are breathtaking views of Snowdon and surrounding peaks. During the return, there is a brief stop at Cei Llydan where passengers can get off and have a picnic. There is also a children’s play area.

Every place you look in Snowdonia National Park is stunning (wikipedia)
Every place you look in Snowdonia National Park is stunning (wikipedia)

Snowdon Mountain Railway: Arguably the most popular of the Great Little Trains of Wales, visitors from around the world have been using this line since 1896 to travel to the Summit of Snowdon. At 3,560 ft, Snowdon Mountain is the highest mountain in England and Wales.

It also boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes and scenery in the British Isles. Thanks to Victorian engineering at the turn of the 20th century, Snowdon Mountain Railway is the only public rack and pinion railway in the United Kingdom.

Steam engine set to go at Tywyn Wharf (wikipedia)
Steam engine set to go at Tywyn Wharf (wikipedia)

Talyllyn Railway: Beginning in Tywyn on the Mid-Wales coast, this railway opened in 1865.

Though the slate quarries closed just after World War II in 1946, passenger service continued. Today the terminus is Nant Gwernol, is situated seven miles from Tywyn with no road access. The line is operated by a full time workforce comprised of volunteers dedicated to the preservation of the railway line.

Tywyn now features the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum which opened in 2005 with two floors of exhibits that tell the history of narrow gauge railroading.

Of particular interest is the stop at Dolgoch where passengers can visit majestic waterfalls and take a variety of country walks.

Welsh Highland Railway captures the essence of rail travel (wikipedia)
Welsh Highland Railway captures the essence of rail travel (wikipedia)

Welsh Highland Railway: The attraction with this line is that it is said to be “rail travel as it used to be.” Next to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Welsh Highland Railway runs a close second to the awe-inspiring scenery of Snowdonia National Park.

Incorporating the world’s most powerful narrow gauge locomotives, which are stronger than standard gauge engines, and combined with first class Pullman carriages, the Welsh Highland Railway is regarded as one of the top experiences in North Wales.

The line begins beneath castle walls in Caemarfon before climbing to the foot of Snowdon and then descending to the sea at the harbor in Porthmadog.

Scenery from Llyn Llydaw (wikipedia)
Scenery from Llyn Llydaw
(wikipedia)

There’s whale watching and there is “Wales watching”, and all you have to do is “train yourself.”

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world.

Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.