The train whizzes on the Cob embankment: on the right the peaks of Snowdonia and on the left the waters of Tremadoc Bay glisten. The elegantly painted locomotive, Merddin Emrys, built in 1879, snorts towards the undisputed European capital of scenic rail travel: Porthmadog. “It’s a breathtaking view,” says local resident David Jones, “The best possible start or end to any train ride.” Jones is president of Great Little Trains of Wales, a group that promotes a dozen historic lines across the country. He is unsurprising that Wales is home to three of Europe’s 10 most scenic railways, according to a new survey by consumer body Which? “I think we could have filled the entire top 10,” he says.
The poll sampled the views of What? members on aspects of Europe’s most picturesque lines, from views to comfort, cleanliness and value for money. The result is a star-studded string of the most beautiful in Europe, including the spectacular Swiss Glacier Express and the dizzying Norwegian Flam Railway, which climbs 867 meters from the fjord to the mountaintop on one of the steepest standard gauge tracks. never built.
Yet all came second at Ffestiniog, a former industrial line that has been dragged out of oblivion by teams of volunteers for over three decades. While all contenders scored highly on the scenario, the North Wales line outperformed the competition with its superior customer service. “It’s very rewarding,” says Paul Lewin, general manager who started as a teen volunteer 43 years ago. “Part of that service is to tell the story of the landscape, especially the extraction of the slate. We know it can enrich the experience. “
The track descends from the old slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog, where it meets another peak line, the Welsh Highland, coming from Caernarfon. A few miles along the Tywyn coast is another beauty: Talyllyn, also in the top 10. It was here, in the early 1950s, that author Tom Rolt saw the potential in a stunning scenery and industrial heritage. The route ran to the ruined Bryn Eglwys slate quarry and owned a dilapidated locomotive, Dolgoch, which was already nearly a century old. In some places the track was held in place only by grass. Pioneering canal navigation as a leisure activity in the late 1940s, Rolt assembled a mixed band of former miners, priests and railroad enthusiasts to start the world’s first historic railway. His experiences led to a book, Railway Adventure, and inspired Ealing’s 1953 comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt.
Although the group has been dismissed by many as insane, the Talyllyns have established a successful business model that is still being emulated around the world. There are now 16 historic lines in Wales, seven of which are connected to a main line service, the classic unsung Cambrian Coast line.
But competition in the world of scenic railways is growing stronger as routes are rediscovered and reopened. In Romania, the restored Mocanita train, an old logging service, is attracting new visitors; in Slovenia, the classic Habsburg Empire line from Bohinj along the Soča Valley is the thrilling end of a ski trip, and France has the stunning Via Pignes which climbs from Nice to Digne les Bains. Britain also has other contenders: the North York Moors Railway and the Settle-Carlisle line between them.
Lewin is not worried that Wales may lose the scenic railway champion crown. “The great work is still going on,” he says. “There’s a big boost to quality, aided by growing diversity – it’s not just about old white beards anymore.”
David Jones chooses the Vale of Rheidol line from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge. “It has become a real success after years of restoration.” His passion is the Bala Lake Railway, a four and a half mile long lakeside route pulled by a collection of five classic Hunslet locomotives built in Leeds between 1885 and 1904. “We’re not that famous yet, but it will happen: the views they are astounding, “he says.
Back in Talyllyn, the ancient locomotive that was there in the beginning, Dolgoch, built in Cumbria in 1866, has been lovingly restored by volunteer engineers. After a summer overhaul, it will be back this winter for Christmas specials.
The top 10
1 Ffestiniog Railway, Wales
2 Bergen Railway, Norway
3 Bernina Express, Switzerland and Italy
4 Glacier Express, Switzerland
5 Brocken Railway, Germany
6 Talillyn, Wales
7 Welsh Highland Railway, Wales
8 West Highland Line, Scotland
9 Flam railway, Norway
10 Golden Pass, Switzerland