*** UPDATED FOR 2013 TIMES & FARES ***
Fancy a day out on a circular tour around North Wales including a steam train on the famous Ffestiniog Railway?
The Ffestiniog Round Robin is valid from stations on the Mid Cheshire line. You can go in either direction, clockwise or anticlockwise. I like both!!
Here’s the Ffestiniog Round Robin Map from the Arriva Trains Wales website.
It’s great value at only £36 (stunning value at £23.75 with a railcard if you have one) and there’s also a family ticket (2 adults, 2 children at £72), and a child fare at £17. The single Ffestiniog fare if you were just travelling on that part is £13.50 (£12.20 for concessions). The Round Robin also includes the scenic Conwy Valley Line, as well as round the very pretty Cambrian Coast. Incredible value!
Tickets can be bought at stations or from the conductor on the train. If buying from the conductor you’ll probably find you have to buy the ticket with Manchester as the “start” station as the ticket doesn’t seem to be in the machines starting at our stations. As it’s the same price this doesn’t matter (though it doesn’t do our “footfall” along the line any good!)
You might like to try the following: -
You can go via Stockport and Crewe to Shrewsbury or else via Chester.
If going via Chester you need to catch the first train along our line to Chester (Altrincham 0646, Knutsford 0700, Northwich 0714) arriving in Chester at 0745.
Then it’s onto the 0819 from Chester, a class 175 train from Holyhead heading towards Cardiff via Wrexham and Shropshire to Shrewsbury due at 0913 and normally into platform 7. As you arrive into Shrewsbury look out for the old semaphore signals. Many are lower quadrant of Great Western Railway or Western Region origin, some are upper quadrant from London Midland Region days, and that at the southern end of platform 3 is almost brand new despite being a semaphore – probably the newest semaphore on National Rail! There’s some colourlight signals and look out for the couple of very old lower quadrant signals at the southern end of platform 7.
The train to the Cambrian Coast will be a class 158 unit and usually leaves from platform 7. It’s arrived from Crewe and is heading for Aberystwyth. Leaving at 0927, you’re on this train as far as Machynlleth. Soon after leaving the station the train turns right along the “North and West” towards South Wales. Look out for the spectacular Shrewsbury Abbey on the left. Then a few minutes later at Sutton Bridge Junction the train turns right onto the single line towards Welshpool – you may spot where there was a left hand branch here down towards Ironbridge and then Bridgnorth and what is now the Severn Valley Railway.
Rural Shropshire is beautiful, then soon it’s into Powys and paralleling the Welshpool Bypass into Welshpool Station. Here the road occupies the land the trains used to run on, with the trains moved a little to the south. The old station building still stands, somewhat oddly presiding over the bypass.
On another day, you might think of alighting here, strolling into town for the local market and lunch, and then strolling a little further to Raven Square for a trip over the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway to Llanfair Caereinion. If you’ve not been on this, it’s a must, being built in the early 1900s when engines were much stronger than in the days many of our railways were built in the 1840s & 1850s. No tunnels or embankments here, the train simply climbs up and down the hills! If you’re thinking of staying round here another time for a few days, try the town of Montgomery only a few miles away and 20 minutes on the bus. It has great views from the castle. The Dragon Hotel is a nice country town hotel worth considering.
Next stop is Newtown another interesting market town, then straight on before turning sharp right and starting to climb through Carno and up to the top of Talerddig Bank where there’s a passing loop for the train coming the other way. Then it’s a steep drop down to Machynlleth and almost sea level, with pretty valley views on the right-hand side.
We leave our train at 1046. There may just be time to collect a take away tea in the station café before joining the 1054 Pwllheli train, another class 158 that is to take you for almost the next 2 hours along the coast to Porthmadog. The best side for the views is on the left, though there are good views on the right, too.
The views on this section are superb. There’s so much to see, I can’t cover it all, but do look out for Ffriog Cliffs, Barmouth Bridge with Cader Idris on the right, the Talyllyn Railway just before Tywyn station, the views across to Portmeirion, an incredibly special place, going under the Ffestiniog Railway just before Minffordd station, and then the views across Traeth Mawr to Porthmadog on the left and on a clear day to the top of Snowdon on the right.
Arrival is at 1245. The Ffestiniog train is at 1335, though you could leave it until the 1600.
If you’re going on the 1335, I suggest you get across town to the FR’s Harbour Station. There’s a good café and real ale bar in the station called “Spooners”, so you might grab some food and drink there, and there are buffet cars on the trains, too. If you’re leaving it until the 1600, you’ve plenty of time to pop across the road from the National Rail station to the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway and also sample some of Porthmadog. There’s the Hen Fecws Restaurant next door to The Ship pub behind the park on the right before you get to Harbour Station which is regularly recommended for excellent food in the Ffestiniog Magazine. If you fancy fish and chips, many of the locals go to the one in the back streets – you turn left at the cross roads in the middle of town and it’s on the far side of the road at the bottom of Snowdon Street.
I’ll not say much about the trip over the Ffestiniog – so much has been said. If you don’t know it that well, at the start buy one of the excellent line guides. They’re A4, in full colour and have a full map to open out giving a commentary as you travel up the line.
At Blaenau Ffestiniog it’s just a couple of minutes walk across the tracks to the Arriva Trains Wales class 150 unit down the branch to Llandudno. The Ffestiniog train arrives at 1445 (1720 on the later one) and the Arriva service leaves at 1457 (1737 on the later one), so you’ve not long between trains. If you need teas and coffees, get them on the Ffestiniog train. The food offering on the Ffestiniog service is limited, so if you need more and are nimble there’s a Co-op just the other side of the road from the station entrance, but be quick!
Travelling down the branch is special. You can download a guide in advance. Try to sit on the left-hand side. The first part of the line down to Betws-y-Coed was designed to be narrow gauge, but then laid with standard gauge track, so there’s some very sharp twists and turns. There’s some specular scenery on this section – firstly the moonscape of the slate tips in Blaenau, then the longest railway tunnel in Wales, then out into the daylight and surrounded by beautiful green scenery. Special!
At Betws look out for the Museum on the right-hand side as well as the nicely turned out station building.
From here it’s reasonably flat along the Conwy Valley (you were in the Lledr Valley before). Dolgarrog on the left was the site of a specular dam collapse up the hill early in the last century that almost wiped the village out and caused new dam legislation to be introduced. From here the river becomes tidal. There’s plenty of bird life to watch out for. As you approach Llandudno Junction, look out for Conwy Castle across the estuary and Stephenson’s Tubular railway bridge, similar in construction to the way the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits between the mainland and Anglesey used to be before the disastrous fire.
Arrival at Llandudno Junction is at 1556 (1835). The next train towards Chester is at 1615, being the class 175 service from Llandudno towards Manchester Piccadilly (1853 being the class 175 service from Llandudno towards Manchester Airport). There are trolley services on these trains, but if you’re quick you could go to the Asda in the car park outside the station for some cold drinks and food.
Travelling along the coast, the left-hand side is my favourite. And so are the class 175 units, in my view the best DMUs running on National Rail at present despite their initially-poor reliability. Look out for the wind farms out in Liverpool Bay, the miniature railway tracks in the marine park just before Rhyl station, the poor delapidated “Duke of Lancaster” after Point of Ayr and as the Wirral Peninsula comes into view across the Dee Estuary, Shotton Steelworks, the line in from Wrexham just before Chester, the Roodee, and then the canal locks climbing up between the walls before arriving into Chester at 1710 (1949) where you’ll just have missed the 1704 up our line! (or won’t on the later one, as you’re nicely in time for our 2004). Whilst in Chester you could go to the old Great Western first class refreshment rooms now called “Carriages”, or across the road to the Queen Hotel which is beautifully furnished, great for a reasonably priced tea or coffee though very expensive for real ale!
Our train is adjacent in platform 6.
Catch the train on our line that originates from Piccadilly at 0717, so for Altrincham that’s 0746, Knutsford 0800, Northwich 0814 and Cuddington 0824.
This arrives in Chester at 0848. The official connection is into the 0923 Llandudno train. This comes from Shrewsbury and is one of Arriva Trains Wales’ newly-refurbished class 158 units, arriving into Llandudno Junction at 1016.
The train on our line is the one the scholars and Barclays Bank, Radbroke Hall workers use from South Trafford to Knutsford, and then scholars again from Knutsford, Lostock Gralam and Northwich to Greenbank and is very full indeed, though empties a bit after Knutsford and much more from Greenbank. If you arrive on time into Chester at 0848 and get a move on from platform 6 to platform 3b, you may be able to catch the 0855 from Manchester Piccadilly via Warrington, a Holyhead train and a nice smooth class 175 unit which arrives at Llandudno Junction at 0943. This gives you plenty of time to pop into Denise’s Cafe on the platform for a hot mug of tea and a bacon butty! Make sure you pick up one of the scenic guides for the Conwy Valley line, as well as the informative Ffestiniog Railway timetable.
Our next train is the 1028 to Blaenau Ffestiniog, one of ATW’s nicely-refurbished class 150 units which have some tables. Try standing near the entrance on platform 1 as that’s where the back of the train stops. You want a seat on the platform side of the train, as the right-hand side going forward has the best views. Be ready to dive on quick, though if it’s a sunny day there may already be a few on the train, especially as local bus passes are valid on the Conwy Valley line trains.
After leaving “the Junction” the train turns right heading up the Conwy Valley. Watch out for the bird life on the right and the views towards the mountains, and looking behind you Conwy Castle and Stephenson’s Tubular Bridge. From Tal-y-Cafn the valley narrows. There’s great views all the way along to Betws-y-Coed. From here the line becomes much more windy and steep. This bit was originally built to be narrow gauge, but in the event was laid as standard gauge. A few miles after Betws the line heads over a castellated viaduct and into the Lledr Valley. It’s very scenic and green from here, through Dolwyddellan and Roman Bridge before heading into Wales’ longest railway tunnel and emerging a few miles later into Blaenau Ffestiniog surrounded by slate tips and anything but green. A bit like suddenly landing on the moon! Look on the right for the Ffestiniog Railway tracks and on arriving at the station at 1130, the Ffestiniog train may already be in.
Head quickly over to the Ffestiniog platform. The best side for views is the left-hand side facing forwards. There’s a buffet service in the front part of the train, though no sandwiches, just tea, coffee, snacks, beer, etc.
The train leaves at 1150, possibly hauled by one of the Ffestiniog’s double-ended Double Fairlie locos. If you’ve not travelled over the line before ask one of the buffet stewards to sell you a line guide soon after leaving Blaenau. It’s got an excellent map in it, shows you what to look out for as you’re travelling along and explains about the history of the world’s oldest still extant railway company incorporated in 1836.
Just after Minffordd Station you pass over the Cambrian Coast line. Remember this as you’ll be on it soon!
As you cross the Cob (embankment before Porthmadog) on a clear day you can see the top of Snowdon. You arrive at Porthmadog Harbour Station at 1300.
The National Rail station is 10-15 minutes walk away at the other end of Porthmadog. You could stop for lunch at Spooners in Harbour Station which has lots of railway artefacts inside as well as one of the early engines, “Princess”. If it’s busy you’ll probably rather get across to the other end of town. There’s a pub on the National Rail station that does good sandwiches, hot pies, etc., so you might try that, or pop into the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway just across the road to look around there.
The next train is at 1400, an Arriva Trains Wales class 158 destined for Machynlleth. The side to sit on is on the right facing direction of travel. The views for the next 3½ hours all the way to Shrewsbury are quite something. The next 2 hours is a slow meander to Machynlleth. Look out for The Ffestiniog Railway crossing above in Minffordd Station, Portmeirion on the left shortly afterwards, Harlech Castle, Barmouth, Barmouth Bridge, Ffriog Cliffs, the Talyllyn Railway on the left at Tywyn, Aberdovey, Dovey Junction where the line from Aberystwyth comes in from the right and then Machynlleth arriving at 1554.
Here you change for the train from Aberystwyth to Crewe which leaves at 1607. Then it’s off along the flat for a few miles and before the steep climb starts up Talerddig Bank, feared by steam engine drivers, but now all a bit of a breeze with class 158 units!
Then down through Carno, Caersws and along through Newtown and Welshpool and scenic mid Wales before arriving into Shrewsbury’s grand station at 1728.
Unfortunately the connections off “the Cambrian” northbound to Chester are pretty poor. The train leaves at 1724, so you’ll probably miss this one. There’s a café on the station and if you’re not in a rush have a look around Shrewsbury’s beautifully-restored station or even take time to pop into the town itself, just as interesting as Chester but without anything like so many tourists.
From Shrewsbury there are two ways to Chester, either via Crewe or via Wrexham. If you’ve travelled from the Manchester end of our line you could also travel from here to Stockport, in which case catch the 1751 class 175 train which originates at Milford Haven coming via Cardiff and is heading for Manchester Piccadilly. This arrives at Stockport at 1858, so the next connection along our line is at 1930.
The next train to Chester is at 1810. This goes via Crewe to Chester arriving at 1904, just as our 1904 is leaving!
So you might choose to stay in Shrewsbury a little longer and catch the 1824 service. This starts at Shrewsbury and goes to Holyhead via the old Great Western main line. Look out for Gobowen’s tastefully restored station, the canal aqueduct alongside just before Chirk. Chirk Station is a recent winner of a community award – you’ll see why – and then Cadbury’s followed by the Kronospan chipboard factory on the right which receives up to 2 log trains a day from Ribblehead, Carlisle and various locations in Scotland and South West England. After Wrexham the line was singled to make the Wrexham Bypass cheaper to build. Most of this line is being redoubled during 2013/14, though not the section over Gresford Bank down to Rossett, a section that both the Great Western and British Rail found very expensive to maintain due to the bank continually slipping. Our train arrives into Chester at 1920, so there’s time to pop into Carriages or even the very smart Queen Hotel across the road from the station before returning for the 2004 up our line.
Whichever way round you go, it’s a long day but a very good day full of interest.
If you take this trip and take some good pictures, email them in to me and I’ll add them to this post.
Have fun! Enjoy the day!