A panting steam locomotive, hissing its way through a dense oak forest, traversing valleys and clinging to the mountain sides while offering spectacular views of a scenic nature. That is one of the best ways to take in the wonderful Welsh countryside. Or at least the most luxurious.
Hop on board with us on a train ride through the stunning Snowdonia National Park with the oldest operational railway company in the world.
Standing on the platform in the little, Welsh town Porthmadog, ready to board the train, we feel like kids again. The polished, black steam train reminds me of “The little train that could” I read as a child, and the joy of anticipation makes my stomach flutter. I haven’t been on a steam train since I was a kid and now we’re going to take one through a beautiful, Welsh landscape. Harry Potter style.
Some of the trains are more than 150 years old and an extensive group of passionate volunteers together with the 100 full-time employees keeps the engines running and the steel polished. Since the 1950s, the Ffestiniog Railway has become a leader in railway preservation and is now one of the UK’s top tourist attractions. The line we’re taking from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog reopen in 1982.
On the 1 hour 20 minute ride to Blaenau Ffestiniog, we’re seated in Third Class, where the tables have the route depicted on them. As we set off from the station, the views to the east, to the imposing mountains of Snowdonia and to Wales’ tallest mountain itself, Snowdon, are amazing. As the route continues, we ride into the National Park, along mountain ridges, above scenic valleys and through oak forests. Our Flat Whites have never had a view like that.
Oldest locos in the world
The Ffestiniog Railway is recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest operational railway company in the world, being founded by Act of Parliament in 1832. 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the start of passenger services in 1865. In 1863, it became the first narrow gauge railway in the world to introduce steam engines and they are indeed the oldest locos in the world still operating on their original railway and celebrated their 150th birthday in 2013.
Continuing our train ride, we go round UK’s only railway spiral before we reach our destination, the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The railway was actually built back in 1832 to transport the slates from Blaenau to Porthmadog but not by using steam power, but horse power! The narrow gauge track (23,5 inches / 60 cm) was wide enough to allow the horses to work efficiently when pulling the empty wagons and narrow enough to enable the railway to negotiate the sharp curves made necessary by the mountainous terrain.
The stop in Blaenau Ffestiniog allows for a stroll past the few houses and into a local café to enjoy a light lunch before the trip back. For the return trip we enjoy the luxury of First Class. The observation carriage has huge windows that allows for fascinating views to the jet black locomotive panting in front of the train. We particularly enjoy observing the intricate, manual token system that prevents the trains from colliding. And the moment when we just exit a tunnel and are shrouded in the steam from the loco. My glass of wine has never come with a better view!
Welsh Highland Railway
While the Ffestiniog Railway from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog and back again can be done under 3 hours, a return trip on the Welsh Highland Railway from Porthmadog to Caernarfon will be a whole day’s fun outing. Typically leaving in the late morning, the excursion will allow for time to visit the lovely seaside town with its commanding castle.
The train traverses Snowdonia National Park, past Snowdon and the village of Beddgelert and through Aberglaslyn Pass – voted UK’s most beautiful by members of National trust. At 25 miles / 40 km, this route is the longest heritage railway in the UK – and coupled with the Ffestiniog Railway, you can do a narrow gauge steam train ride for 40 miles / 64 km.
Not only the distance is impressing. Because the route faces some of the longest and steepest gradients in the UK, the railway relies on the most powerful narrow gauge steam engines in the world, the 60-ton Beyer Garratt NGG16.
Snowdon Mountain Railway
Another popular steam train ride is the Snowdon Mountain Railway, that takes you to the summit of the highest mountain in Wales, Snowdon. It opened in 1896 and still carries more than 130.000 tourists to the summit every year. Operating from Llanberis this 4,7 / 7,6 kilometre train ride doesn’t always get to reach the top. It operates in some of the harshest weather conditions in Britain, only reaches Clogwyn Station in the early spring when ice and snow prevent further commute, and remains closed during the winter from November to mid-March.
The return journey to the summit of the highest Mountain in Wales and England takes approximately two and a half hours, which includes a 30 minute stop-over before returning to Llanberis. Just enough time to climb the last 68 feet / 21 metres to reach the summit of 3.560 ft / 1.085 metres – and get a hot cup of cocoa in the Visitor Centre.
Other Vintage Steam Train Rides
Wales is a magnificent country to enjoy historical train rides. Forget about Switzerland, that may offer a spectacular scenery but is also very expensive to visit. Especially if you’re a family with kids. The narrow gauge railways of Wales are perfect for family outings and will make an unforgettable holiday memory of your visit to this charming part of great Britain.
We’ve provided a link to a list of other narrow gauge train rides on Wales’ official tourism website below.
- Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways website
- List of Narrow Gauge Train rides on Visitwales.com
- Snowdon Mountain Railway
- Big Train Little Train – a train guide to Wales
- Wales’ official tourism website