The Forgotten Line

Journey of the Heart

The Guardian, 28 February 1994

Shortly after we crossed the Welsh border it became clear that this journey was going to be different from, say, rush hour on the Bakerloo or the 8.17 to Clapham Junction. In the countryside between Knighton and Knucklas the train stopped suddenly. A railwayman, who turned out to be a revenue protection inspector called John, walked through the carriage: “Anyone here any good at catching cows?”

No answer came, which did not surprise him: it was not a train on which he had a great deal of revenue to protect. So out he climbed himself. And for the next half-mile we continued in a bizarre but stately procession.

In front, three sluggish Friesians, padding onwards and looking as if they were quite content to continue at this pace all the way to Llanelli; in the middle, John, nudging the cows up the line to the next opening; at the rear, and perhaps least impressive of all, the 11.12 from Shrewsbury carrying, at that stage, three fare-paying passengers.

Mission eventually accomplished, John got back on. “Somebody left the gate open. They’re all in bloody calf. You can’t run ‘em too fast.” So we gathered speed again, but not too much, through the lovely egg-shaped hills of Radnorshire. It was a marvellous trip, one of the unsung Great Railway Journeys.

This is the Heart of Wales Line, the longest surviving forgotten stretch of railway on the dying British Rail system. Every day (winter Sundays excepted), four single-carriage trains veer off from the more-or-less real world that constitutes the rest of the railway network at Craven Arms and rejoin it just before Llanelli, 90 miles away, through 27 stations, 11 of them beginning with “Llan”, for the first 80-odd miles none of them in a town larger than Llandrindod Wells, population 4,500.

It is still possible to leave Shrewsbury at 11.12 and arrive at Swansea at 15.22. It is also possible to miss the 11.12, take the 11.43 on the more workaday route through Newport, change at Cardiff and get to Swansea 27 minutes earlier, at 14.55 – if getting to Swansea is the object of the exercise.

The Heart of Wales runs through what the politically correct call Powys and Dyfed, what reprobates call Radnorshire, Brecknockshire and Carmarthenshire, and what the politically astute think of as the huge, volatile and marginal constituencies of Brecon & Radnor and Carmarthen.

Most of the line is in Brecon & Radnor, recent election results as follows – 1985 by-election, Liberal majority 559; 1987, Liberal majority 56; 1992, Conservative majority, 130. The line currently generates £500,000 in annual income and gets £2 million in public subsidy. Any guesses how much it would get if it had, say, a 13,000 Labour majority? Yet on a winter Wednesday, it is doubtful if even a hundred people travel on the Heart of Wales.

The 11.12 departed Shrewsbury with ten passengers but all but four had gone by Craven Arms. We were left with a girl coming back to college after an interview, a lady from Knighton who had been shopping, Steven Palmer, a student in Liverpool going home to Llandrindod, and me.

The population fluctuated thereafter but never again went above five. And between Llandrindod and Llangammarch something happened for which I have been waiting my entire journalistic life. I have used the metaphor a hundred times at downbeat cricket matches and political meetings. It finally came true. British Rail staff and myself excepted, the population of the train was, without a word of a lie, two men and a dog.

The Heart of Wales began life in the 1860s, a link-up between the London and North Western, the Central Wales Railway, the Central Wales Extension, the Vale of Towy and the Llanelli Group of lines. It was a serious route between West Wales and the North of England, with the great companies battling for running rights, coal and steel being ferried out of Wales, beer from Burton-on-Trent being ferried back, and mail trains running through the night.

Goods traffic has only recently gone. Now it exists in a curious limbo, as a light railway, meaning that British Rail does not have to spend much on line maintenance and other safety measures for the single carriage trains. Luckily, neither of the two men was very fat and the dog was only medium-sized.

The service, meanwhile, is too flimsy to be quite serious. The first trains get into Shrewsbury just after 10 and Llanelli just before 11, so they are useless for commuting. Cyclists like to use the line but the trains are so cramped there are restrictions on cycles. Officially, it is allowed to survive because for much of the route there is no alternative public transport. But there was no proper alternative to the train in the hundreds of other towns and villages in less marginal constituencies that did lose their railway.

In any case, how can it function as a service for the carless, who are presumably the people with no money, when it costs £9.30 to get from Llandrindod to Swansea? And how can the train compete with the private car in rural areas at an average speed of 25mph?

Attempts to quicken up the trains are thwarted by government health and safety restrictions. “You get these farm crossings,” said one, bitterly, “where you can see the long grass and it’s absolutely obvious no one’s set foot there for months. But the driver still has to slow down to five miles an hour just in case some pillock on a tractor wants to go through. It’s absolutely lunatic.”

British Rail, in its closing Balkanised phase, hardly knows what to make of the line. It lately changed its name from the Central Wales to the more euphonious Heart of Wales in a feeble attempt at marketing. I tried to ring various public relations officers in the hope of getting some information. “This is London. You want Swindon.” “I’m InterCity. You want Regional Railways,” said Swindon.

“You’re getting on a train in the Central Division,” said his colleague, who was trying his best. “You need Birmingham.” “No,” said a particularly snotty and suspicious youth in Birmingham, “it’s South Wales and West. Swindon.” The one man who knew anything turned out to be in Cardiff. The operating officials are in Carmarthen. There Michael Hurley, the manager in charge, has been instructed not to release any statistics about anything.

The windows were so filthy on my train that it was hard to see out of them. There is a cleaning facility in Swansea, but it belongs to InterCity, which is a separate division. If Regional Railways wish to use it, they have to pay. So they take their trains all the way to Cardiff for cleaning. But not so often. This is progress, apparently.

But the men who work the line still love it, and it turns them into lyricists. Of course, they said, it was the wrong time of year to be travelling. I should come in the spring, when the primroses are out, or when the rhododendrons are in bloom above the little station at Garth, or perhaps when it’s really cold and the Sugar Loaf is all white. But it’s lovely even in February, right until after Pontarddulais, when the train comes down into the Loughor Estuary, and the wind blows softly through the rushes and the seagulls wheel over the mudflats.

The conductors often see buzzards: there was one on a fence when we passed Llanwrtyd Wells. The drivers, who get the best view, sometimes see them snatch up a live rabbit. Occasionally, they also glimpse red kites. But kites live on carrion. And, with only eight trains a day, all travelling pretty slowly, there is not much roadkill on the Heart of Wales.

It is a quietly beautiful railway. The mountains are not high and the two viaducts do not quite match the Ribblehead, on the Settle-Carlisle, which has already been Heritaged and marketed and drooled over to death.

But it is a long way from the rest of British Rail with its “customers” and “station stops” and the negotiating process of buying a ticket which is now only marginally less slow, complicated and – at the wrong time of day or week – expensive than buying a house. The Heart of Wales reminds me most of the glorious line that did and, I hope, still does run through the middle of Jamaica, stopping to avoid goats and pick up hawkers.

In a society that is less instinctively entrepreneurial, but perhaps more public-spirited, the nearest thing to a hawker comes on the busier days. Ted Conway was standing at Dolau station last Saturday with a supply of tea, coffee, Crunchies and Mars Bars, prices below normal railway levels, profits to the Heart of Wales Line Travellers’ Association, who work harder than anyone to promote and boost this railway. Their tea trolley is the male equivalent of the WVS.

The station at Dolau is itself a tribute to the British genius for voluntary effort: a mass of heathers and conifers in beds on the platform and a neat little waiting hut full of Best Kept Station certificates and railway poems, one of them written by Thomas Corbet, a 19th-century postman from Llanfihangel Rhydithon and a sort of undiscovered Welsh McGonagall:

They started from Knucklas o’er a viaduct grand
Where the scenes of the Teme are at your command,
In the month of October, in the year of sixty-four,
An engine they started which ne’er ran before…

It is very impressive, Dolau. “How many of the people who do the work actually go on the train?” I asked Mr Conway. “That,” he said sadly, “is the problem.”

It is absurd that such a line goes maundering onwards with two men and a dog while Britain is incapable of building a railway between Lodnon and Folkestone that is crucial to the commercial fate of the nation. It is equally absurd that whereas Britain’s original railway system was more or less completed in a couple of decades of frenzied mid-Victorian activity, it has taken the Government eight years even to decide which terminus to use for the Channel Tunnel.

But perhaps it would be most absurd if this line did close. Elsewhere in the world railways shut down and no one notices; there have been huge cutbacks in the past year in both Australia and South Africa. The British have a unique sentimental attachment to their trains. Babies are weaned straight off the breast and on to Thomas the Tank Engine. Anoraksia is the national disease.

Most of us think that a railway enhances the landscape, rather than destroys it. Surely one as good as this cannot go? However, even the preservationists are not optimistic. Alun Rees, general manager of the private Severn Valley Railway, was a fireman on the line when it was known as the Central Wales. He reckons it is too long, too expensive to maintain and too remote from both potential volunteers and potential customers to be a viable proposition simply as a tourist route.

An hour on a steam train is quite long enough for the Thomas the Tank Engine generation. “It is difficult for BR,” says Rees. “If I think I’m not going to get any business in February I just don’t run any trains. They don’t have that option.”

British Rail says it has no plans to close the Heart of Wales. From April it will simply be run by one of BR’s successors, the Regional Railways South Wales and West Technical Operating Company. Theoretically, the line will be permanently for sale. But unless a rich madman, of the type who usually buys newspaper publishers, comes along it will moulder until it has to close down or a government comes in that actually possesses a proper transport policy.

One of the worst aspects of this privatisation is that it cuts off the one possibility that might make a line like this actually work: old-fashioned public service commitment mixed in with a bit of small-scale business flair. A real marketing man would try and give it a recognisable symbol, a logo, a coat-of-arms even.

How about one dog, two men and three cows, pregnant?