Seeing Wales By Train - with an Explore Wales Pass

ShowMeTheJourney began work on this guide to using Explore Wales passes months ago, the intention had been 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 which provide some of the connections had to sadly temporarily close, so use the links in the article to check their current situation.

Making the most of an Explore Wales Pass
If you want to put the rather wonderful idea of using an Explore Wales pass for a multi-stop itinerary around the principality into practice, then the two optimum ideas are:

(1)  Following a circular route around the country by train, or
(2) A looping route, which has the advantage of minimising the number of different locations in which you’ll be spending overnight stays.

The slight negative of the circular route is the need to transport luggage with you on most of the journeys you will be taking – and as will be seen, to make the most of a tour around Wales you’ll need to hop and off multiple trains (and buses).
None of the stations you will be taking trains to and from will have left-luggage facilities.

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Setting Off From England
 

The delightful towns of Chester and Shrewsbury both make for good starting points of a round Wales by train itinerary – the trains from Shrewsbury will call at Chester.
Both towns are in England, but the routes between them and Wales are covered by the Explore Wales pass.

Both Chester and Shrewsbury have direct trains from London, Birmingham and Manchester, while Chester also has trains from Liverpool.

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Including the Welsh Highland Railway on Day One
 

The circular itineray begins by taking a Shreswbury/Chester > Bangor > Caernarfon > Porthmadog by the Welsh Highland Railway > Barmouth route
(day one of the looping itinerary is take the alternative route to Porthmadog via The Ffestiniog Railway).


On the train to Bangor, sit on the right so that you can take in the spectacular views of the North Wales Coast.

In Bangor the bus station is a two minute walk from the railway station, so a relatively straightforward connection will be available into the frequent 5C bus route/line which will take you on to Caernarfon – where the bus stop is a five minute walk from the station that the Welsh Highland Trains depart from - there are usually afternoon departures to Porthmadog at 14:20 and/or 15:45.


On arrival in Porthmadog, you could check-in to overnight accommodation in the town, or head on to deliightful Barmouth by train in order to spend the night there.
(Though The Welsh Highland Railway station in Porthmadog is a 12-20 min walk away from the mainline station which is where the trains on to Barmouth will depart from).

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Adding Mount Snowdon to the Circular Itinerary
 

If you want to take a ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway then it’s best to follow the suggested routing above, but wind up your day one of travel in Caernarfon.

On arrival in the town, you’ll then have time to explore Caernarfon Castle.
Then on the next day, exploit the fact that you don’t have to use the Explore Wales pass on consecutive days by making return trip on
bus route/line 88 to Llanberis

Because from there you can take a ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway and/or the Llanberis Lake Railway.

The Explore Wales Pass isn’t valid on this bus route or on these trains.

If you do opt to include LLanberis, you won’t miss out on a journey on the Welsh Highland Railway as you’ll be travelling by it on the day two that you’ll be using the pass
.


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Including the Ffestiniog Railway on Day One
Including a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway when seeing Wales by train

If you want to include a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway on a round-Wales circular itinerary, then you will need to take this different route across north-west Wales - and if you want to take the looping itinerary then this is your Day One route.
 

The schedule which is only available on a Monday to Saturday, usually involves taking these trains.

 

Arrive

Depart

Shrewsbury

 

10:26

OR Chester

 

11:25

Colwyn Bay*

12:11

13:10

Llandudno Junction

13:17

13:30

Blaenau Ffestiniog

14:35

15:05/15:25

Porthamdog**

16:15/16:40

18:06

Barmouth

18:57

 

* To minimise the risk of making the vital 13 min connection at Llandudno Junction, check the train times on arrival at Colwyn Bay, if the 13:10 departure is delayed, you can take an earlier train on to Llandudno Junction.
A break of journey at Colwyn Bay has been suggested, as doing this avoids having to wait for more than an hour between trains at Llandudno Junction.
The station in Colwyn Bay is opposite the main street in the town, which is home to a choice of a cafes.

**If you want to head on to Barmouth, the Ffestiniog Railway station in Porthmadog is a 12-20 min walk to the mainline station.

If you want to travel by the Ffestiniog Railway AND the Welsh Highland Railway on the circular around Wales itinerary, it’s best to spend the night in Porthmadog so that you can make the return trip to Caernarfon by the Welsh Highland Railway on the next day of your adventure.
Exploiting the fact that you can take time out between the days on which you’ll be using the pass.

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Taking the looping itinerary route

From Barmouth or Porthmadog you can carry on with the circular tour, OR follow this suggested routing to head back to your starting point in Shrewsbury
Do so and you won’t miss out on the delights of Aberystwyth and south-west Wales, but this looping route is better value for money, because you will be travelling further, yet using the same pass.

Also because you’ll be looping back to Shrewsbury at the close of both days two and four, you can split your luggage, so that on your travel days you’ll only need to have the equivalent of an overnight bag with you.
 

The first stage of the loop is to take the morning departure on the Welsh Highland Railway to Caernarfon - so  if you’ve spent the night in Barmouth, you’ll need to head back to Porthmadog to make the connection.

Then from Caernarfon you can return to Shrewsbury by taking the 5C bus route/line on to Bangor and then a train on from there – take a seat on the left for the lovely views of the North Wales coast
The
bus station in Bangor is two minute walk from the railway station.
 

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Adding the railways in Llanberis to the looping itinerary
 

Or if you want to include the Snowdon Mountain Railway or the Llanberis Lake Railway on the itinerary, then your final day one journey will be taking bus route/line T2 on from Porthmadog to Caernarfon.

Then having overnighted there, head to Llanberis on bus route/line 88 in order to access the Snowdon Mountain Railway and or the Llanberis Lake railway.

Having done so, you can then either:

(1) spend another night in Caernarfon (having not used the Explore Wales Pass for the day trip to Llanberis, because the pass isn’t valid on the bus to Llanberis or its railways).

(2) Head back to Shrewsbury via Bangor in the early evening – on Mondays to Saturdays the final direct train of the day to Shrewsbury usually departs Bangor at 20:00.
 

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On the next day, the third day on which you will be using the pass - depart from Shrewsbury on a direct train to Aberystwyth on the lovely Cambrian Line route.
Take the mid-morning train, which is usually scheduled to leave just before 10:30 and you’ll be arriving in Aberystwyth around 12:20 – in good time to take journey on the
beautiful Vale of Rheidol Railway.
Riding the Vale of Rheidol Railway when exploring Wales by train
From Aberystwyth back to Shrewsbury, you’ll be following the same itinerary as the circular route.
Though don’t use your pass when heading to Swansea or Tenby from Aberystwyth and buy tickets for those journeys instead.

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Summary of the optimum 8 day looping itinerary
 

You can exploit the fact the Explore Wales Pass is valid for an 8 day period to pursue this ultimate looping route itinerary – the four days on which you will be using the rail pass are marked with an *

1 –Shrewsbury to Barmouth via Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog*
2 – Barmouth to Porthmadog and then by the Welsh Highland Railway to Caernarfon.
3 - to Llanberis for Mount Snowdon and then from Caernarfon back to Shrewsbury vis Bangor *.
4 – Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth*, taking the ride on the Vale Of Rheidol Line when you arrive there.
5 – Aberystwyth to Swansea.
6 – A day trip from Swansea across the Gower Peninsular.
7 – A day trip from Swansea to Tenby or Cardiff.
8 – Swansea to Shrewsbury on the Heart Of Wales line*
.

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Along the Cambrian Coast on Day Two of The Circular Tour

On this day you’ll be heading to Aberystwyth.
To Aberystwyth with an Explore Wales Pass

If you’ve overnighted in either Barmouth or Porthmadog you can take a train to Machynlleth and connect there for Aberystwyth – in Machynlleth the station is a 10 min walk from the town centre, if you want to explore it between trains.

Or if you have spent the night in Caernarfon, you can take the morning Welsh Highland Railway train to Porthmadog and then travel on from there to Aberystwyth via Machynlleth.

When heading towards Machynlleth, take a seat on the right hand side of the train, to make the most of the glorious views of the coast.
Along the Cambrian Coast with an Explore Wales pass
Then while you’re in Aberystwyth, a ride on the beautiful Vale of Rheidol Railway is highly recommended.

If you’ve headed there from Barmouth or Porthmadog, you’ll have time to squeeze in an afternoon return trip by the steam trains before the end of the day.
But if you’ve travelled from Caernarfon, you’ll need to spend the night in Aberystwyth and ride the steam train on the next day.
Though taking some time out to relax in Aberystwyth is highly recommended
.

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On to Pembrokeshire
 

The T1 bus line/route from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen is the best option for travelling on to Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales.
It plugs a gap in the current rail network, since the closure of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway line back in the 1960s.

From Carmarthen station you can take a train to either of the two locations that are good choices for an overnight stay – the delightful coastal town, of Tenby, or the city of Swansea.
Sit on the right when taking the train towards Swansea to take in the lovely coastal views.

A plus of staying in Swansea is the access it has to the beautiful Gower Peninsular.
Bus line/route 118 from Swansea Bus station crosses the centre of this Outstanding Area of Natural Beauty on route to and from Rhossili.

Stopping off to visit the Gower Peninsular when passing through Swansea is compromised by its rail station having no left luggage facilities – and the city’s bus station, which the 118 bus departs from, is a 15min walk from the rail station.
 

If you opt to stay in Swansea you don’t have to miss out on seeing Tenby, as it’s an easy day  trip by train from Swansea.
The journey’s short enough for it not to be worth using the pass for that trip.


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Travel Across The Heart Of Wales


There are two routes available for heading back to Chester or Shrewsbury by train from south-west Wales.

For those that don’t want to miss out on making the most of the Welsh scenic railway journeys, then one option is to take the direct route across central Wales on the beautiful Heart Of Wales railway line.

However, if you opt to spend the night in Tenby, the theoretically available connections at Llanelli station into the trains which take that Heart Of Wales route, are awkwardly timed.

Though if you opt to overnight in Swansea or on the Gower Peninsular, you won’t have to worry about making any connections when taking that Heart Of Wales route, as its trains commence their journeys in Swansea.

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Or spend some time in Cardiff


Or if you want to explore the Welsh capital during the trip, you can stop off in Cardiff, while on route from Swansea or Tenby to your starting point in Shrewsbury or Chester – both towns have direct trains from Cardiff.

Though a Cardiff stopover is compromised by the lack of left luggage facilities at Cardiff Central station.
If Cardiff is a must, you could make a day trip from Swansea or Tenby.

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The Optimum 8 Day Routings on a Circular Tour
 

If time and budget are available the ultimate means of seeing Wales by train, is to exploit the fact the Explore Wales Pass is valid for an 8 day period.
So on the 4 days on which the pass won't be good value for money, you can make other optional journeys.
On the summaries below the four days on which you will be using the rail pass are marked with an *.
 

1 – Chester or Shrewsbury to Caernarfon via Bangor *
2 – day trip to Llanberis for Mount Snowdon
3 – Caernarfon to Aberystwyth*
4 – A day in Aberystwyth, including a ride on the Vale Of Rheidol Line
5 – Aberystwyth to Swansea*
6 – A day trip from Swansea across the Gower Peninsular
7 – A day trip from Swansea to Tenby or Cardiff
8 – Swansea to Shrewsbury or Chester on the Heart Of Wales line*

OR

1 – Chester or Shrewsbury to Porthmadog via Blaenau Ffestiniog*
2 – A day trip from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.
3 – Porthmadog to Aberystwyth*, taking the ride on the Vale Of Rheidol Line when you arrive there.
4 – Aberystwyth to Tenby*
5 – A day relaxing in Tenby
6 – Tenby to Swansea by train
7 – A day trip from Swansea across the Gower Peninsular
8 – Swansea to Shrewsbury or Chester on the Heart Of Wales line*.


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Explore Wales Pass vs Tickets

Using Explore Wales Passes to travel around Wales by train will very likely be cheaper than buying tickets for the journeys by the Transport For Wales trains and the bus routes covered by the pass.
To be certain of whether the pass will save you money there's no substitute for spending arond 10 minues to look up the train journeys you want to take and compare it to the pass prices.
Though allow around £15 to cover the cost of the bus journeys you will be making.

However, ShowMeTheJourney has made a comparison between the likely costs for those suggested itineraries outlined above.


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Other info to assist with British train travel

Wales By Train      l       Welsh Day Trips by Train

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.