Europe’s most scenic railway: how a former Welsh mining line became a world leader | Travel by rail

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The train steams through the Cob Embankment: to the right are the peaks of Snowdonia and to the left are the glistening waters of Tremadoc Bay. The elegantly painted locomotive, Merddin Emrys, built in 1879, blasts towards the undisputed European capital of scenic rail travel: Porthmadog. “It’s a breathtaking panorama,” says local resident David Jones, “The best possible start or end to any train journey.” Jones is president of Great Little Trains of Wales, a group that promotes a dozen heritage lines across the country. It is not surprising for him that, according to a new survey carried out by a consumer organization Which?, Wales is home to three of the 10 most scenic railways lines in Europe. “I think we could have filled the whole top 10,” he said.

The survey gathered the opinions of Who? members on aspects of Europe’s most scenic lines, from views to comfort, cleanliness and value for money. The result is a star-studded array of Europe’s best, including Switzerland’s spectacular Glacier Express and dizzying Flam Railwaywhich climbs 867 meters from the fjord to the top of the mountain on one of the steepest standard gauge tracks ever built.

The Flam Mountain Railway in Norway. Photography: Novarc Images/Alamy

Yet all came second to the Ffestiniog, an old industrial line that was pulled from oblivion by teams of volunteers for three decades. While all of the competitors scored highly in terms of sets, the North Wales line edged out the competition with their superior customer service. “It’s very rewarding,” says Paul Lewin, executive director who started as a teenage volunteer 43 years ago. “Part of this service is telling the story of the landscape, especially the quarrying of the slate. We know it can enrich the experience.

The track descends from the old slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog, where it meets another tip line, the Welsh Highland, coming from Caernarfon. A few miles from the coast, at Tywyn, is another beauty: the Talyllyn, also in the top 10. It was here in the early 1950s that author Tom Rolt saw the potential of great landscapes and industrial heritage. The road climbed up to the failing slate quarry of Bryn Eglwys and had a dilapidated locomotive, Dolgoch, which was already almost a century old. In some places, the track was held in place only by grass. Pioneering river navigation as a leisure activity in the late 1940s, Rolt assembled a mixed team of former miners, clergymen and railroad enthusiasts to start the world’s first heritage railway . His experiences resulted in a book, Railway Adventure, and inspired Ealing’s 1953 comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt.

Although the band were dismissed by many as crackpots, the Talyllyns established a successful business model that is still being emulated around the world. In Wales there are now 16 heritage lines, seven of which connect to a mainline service, the unsung classic Cambrian Coast Line.

The Pignes train in Haute Provence, France.
The Pignes train in Haute Provence, France. Photography: Hemis/Alamy

But competition in the scenic rail world is growing stronger as routes are rediscovered and reopened. In Romania, the restored Mocanita train, a former forest service, attracts new visitors; in Slovenia, the classic line of the Habsburg Empire from Bohinj to the Soča Valley is a thrilling end to a ski trip, and France has the magnificent vine go up from Nice to Digne les Bains. Great Britain also has other suitors: the North York Moors Railway and the Settle-Carlisle line among them.

Lewin is not worried about Wales losing their crown of panoramic rail champions. “Great work is still going on,” he says. “There’s a big push for quality, helped by growing diversity – it’s not just old white men with beards anymore.”

David Jones chooses the Vale of Rheidol line from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge. “It has become a real success after years of restoration.” His own passion is Lake Bala Railwaya 4½ mile lakeside route hauled by a collection of five classic Hunslet locomotives built in Leeds between 1885 and 1904. “We’re not that well known yet, but it will happen: the views are stunning,” he says.

Back in Talyllyn, the old locomotive that was there at the start, Dolgoch, built in Cumbria in 1866, is lovingly restored by volunteer engineers. After a summer makeover, it will be back this winter with the Christmas specials.

Top 10

1 Ffestiniog Railway, Wales
2 Bergen Railway, Norway
3 Bernina Express, Switzerland and Italy
4 Glacier Express, Switzerland
5 Brocken Railway, Germany
6 Talyllyn, Wales
seven Welsh Highland Railway, Wales
8 West Highland Line, Scotland
9 Flam Railway, Norway
ten Col d’Or, Switzerland

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