How To Explore Wales by Train

ShowMeTheJourney began work on this guide to seeing Wales by train months ago, the intention had been to publish it back in March, to help with planning holidays for summer 2020, but it's purpose is now to inspire future journeys.
Most of mainline trains and bus services referenced in this guide are now operating again, but the steam railways had to sadly temporarily close, so if you want to travel by them, use the links in the article to check their current situation.


Exploring Wales By Train

Wales is blessed with a fantastic landscape and dramatic coastline, very few areas of the principality are flat and unmemorable.

The Welsh railway network is much sparser than it had been in its heyday, but most of the longer-distance routes have endured and virtually all of them are wonderfully beautiful!
So exploring lovely Wales by train is a fabulous means of accessing the best of this country, while appreciating some fantastic scenery.

The gaps in the rail network are filled by bus routes, so a car is most definitely not an essential requirement for seeing the best of Wales, whether you want to travel around the country by train, or take multiple day trips from one holiday location.
Wales by train
Scenic Journeys By Steam Train

Plus there is an aspect to enjoying Wales by train that is wonderfully unique and wholly delightful.
 

When I was a small child my grandmother gave my mum a holiday souvenir of a tea towel (a dish towel) emblazoned with images of the ‘Great Little Trains Of Wales, with their utterly charming steam engines.
Few objects that came into the family home fired up my imagination as much as this did and thankfully, not only are all of those railways still waiting to be explored, there has also been the thrilling more recent addition of the West Highland Railway.

And by happy accident, the majority of these miniature steam railways can still be accessed by main line trains.
The opportunity to travel by them hugely enhances a holiday in north-west Wales, which is where the gorgeous Snowdonia national also park happens to be located!
Riding the Ffestiniog and Vale of Rheidol Railways
How to see the best of Wales by train

There are two great options of exploring the best of Wales by train:

(1) Travelling around the country by using an Explore Wales pass.
Find out why the pass tends to be better value for money for this travel idea

(2) Using a location as a base for taking multiple fabulous day trips by train (and bus)
Find out why tickets tend to be better, even when taking multiple day trips.


The two plus points of taking this day trip approach are;
- avoiding having to make multiple transfers to overnight accommodation, and
- the freedom to react to the weather.

Rainy days and beautiful train journeys is a set of circumstances best avoided and Welsh weather is unpredictable.

But if you use a base location, you’ll be unfortunate for every day of your stay to be washed out, so you can then target the finer days for making the particularly scenic journeys.
 

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The Welsh Rail Network Explained
 

Some of those miniature steam railways also plug gaps in the network of the remaining mainline railways, so they make it easier to travel around Wales by train.
 

The existing Welsh rail network is reminiscent of a reversed letter E.
The north and south of Wales are linked by a railway to the east, which mainly runs through England, and from it there are three main routes which head west into Wales:

(1) Along the North Wales Coast Line to Holyhead via Bangor.
(2) Across mid-Wales to Aberystwyth and Pwhelli by the Cambrian Coast Railway with its fantastic sea views.
The Cambrian coast from the train
(3) Through the south of Wales to Pembrokeshire -  take a train west of Swansea and you’ll experience a lovely journey.

Though at the western extremities of those routes, there isn’t a railway line which traverses the west of Wales to connect them, but there are easy alternatives available to taking main line trains.

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The end of the Cambrian Coast Line is connected to the railways of South Wales, by the T1 bus line/route.
It still provides a regular link between along the route of the long-closed railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

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Travel between The Cambrian and North Wales Coasts.

There are three options for travelling between the North Wales Coast Line and the Cambrian Coast Line:

(1) Taking a mainline train between Llandudno or Llandudno Junction station and Blaenau Ffestiniog, then connecting there a ride to or from Porthmadog on the beautiful Ffestiniog Railway
From Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog

There is also a junction station at Minffordd, which avoids the need to walk across Porthmadog town centre between its two stations.
 

(2)Taking the frequent 5C bus route/line between Bangor (which has a station on the North Wales coast line) and Caernarfon and then travelling between Caernarfon and Porthmadog on the West Highland Railway.

(3) Taking the T2 bus route direct between Bangor and Porthhmadog.

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Ticket Or Pass - when touring the country

An Explore Wales pass costs £99 for adults and £49.50 and its core benefit is that it allows the freedom to hop on and off any train operated by Transport For Wales,  on any 4 days during an 8 day period – so you won’t have to take the train on every day of your holiday.

It can also be used on the railway route through England via Shrewsbury and Hereford, which connects North Wales to South Wales, plus many of the bus services which plug the gaps in the Welsh rail network.

If you follow either of the suggested around Wales itineraries, the Explore Wales Pass will be a money saver against the costs of buying train tickets at the standard prices.

On the looping itinerary you’ll save just under £60 on the train ticket costs on the four days that you’ll be using the pass.

You’ll save at least £15 against the cost of the train tickets on the circular itinerary and you’ll also be able to use the pass on the buses between Caernarfon and Porthmadog and between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

But if you already have a railcard, then for the circular itinerary, it’s likely that the cost of the mainline train tickets + the bus journeys will be cheaper – despite taking a route all the way around Wales!
Though if you do have railcard, the Explore Wales Pass is still cheaper than buying tickets on the looping itinerary.

The typical pricing policy used by Transport For Wales contributes to the Explore Wales pass being cheaper than standard train tickets.
Because on the TFW (Transport For Wales) trains, single journey tickets are comparatively expensive, as it doesn’t offer discounted Advance tickets for single journeys solely within Wales.

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The Ffestiniog Round Robin ticket.

OR if what appeals to you most is a combination of;
- a journey from England on the North Wales line to Llandudno Junction,
- heading to Blaenau Ffestiniog on the Conwy Valley Railway,
- a journey on the Ffestiniog Railway to Porthmadog,
- taking the the Cambrian Line back to England,
then it’s worth considering whether a Ffestiniog Round Robin ticket would suit you better.


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Ticket Or Pass - when making multiple day trips

For day trips on Transport For Wales trains, Day Return tickets tickets can be comparatively good value, because they won’t cost much more than the price of single tickets.

As a result the rail passes won’t be such good value when multiple taking day trips by train from the suggested locations.

The price of an Explore North and Mid-Wales pass is £69, but for example, even when making the four longest suggested journeys from Machynlleth - 2 x trips to Porthmadog and the trips to Barmouth and Aberystwyth, the total costs of the four Day Return tickets will be approximately £50.

This Explore North and Mid-Wales pass also won’t be value for money for the suggested day trips from Bangor and from Llandudno.
Though a contributory factor is that only certain bus companies accept the rail passes and among those on which it’s not valid, are the operators of the bus routes to and from Llanberis and of the T2 route between Caernarfon and Porthmadog.

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Though when making the suggested return journeys between Bangor and Porthmadog, or between Llandudno and Caernarfon, it’s worth to checking to see whether a North Wales Rover/Ranger ticket will be a money saver.
This rover/ranger ticket uses a zone system, the more zones you travel through the higher the price, and if you use an all zone North Wales Rover/Ranger ticket, you can obtain a 20% discount on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways.

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Other info to assist with British train travel

Cornwall By Train   l    Scotland By Train

An Introduction to taking British trains

Ticket Summary   
l     Reservation Info

Which TOCs operate on each route

The services proided by each TOC


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This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make.

As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.