The Heart of Wales line (Welsh: Rheilffordd Calon Cymru) is a railway line running from Craven Arms in Shropshire to Llanelli in southwest Wales. It runs, as the name suggests, through some of the heartlands of Wales. It serves a number of rural centres en route, including several once-fashionable spa towns, including Llandrindod Wells. At Builth Road, two miles (3.3 km) from the town of Builth Wells, the line crosses the former route of the earlier Mid Wales Railway, which closed in the 1960s.
Historically, the line was known as the Central Wales line (Welsh: Rheilffordd Canol Cymru)[nb 1] and also included routes through Gowerton, where the railway crossed the West Wales lines and ran through Dunvant and Killay then down through the Clyne Valley to Blackpill, and then along the sea wall to Swansea Bay station, (near the former slip bridge) before finally reaching Swansea Victoria railway station. This section, originally built by the Llanelly Railway and Dock Company to compete with the Great Western Railway and break the monopoly they held on Swansea Dock, closed in 1964. Nationalisation of the railways had removed the need for competing routes, and the running down and closure of Swansea North Dock ended the need for freight services on this section. Trains now use the original LR main line to reach the West Wales lines at Llandeilo Junction and thence Llanelli and (after a reversal) Swansea.
North of Llandovery, the route was opened in stages between 1861 and 1868 by a number of different companies (all backed by the LNWR) – the Knighton Railway, the Central Wales Railway and Central Wales Extension Railway.
The 1963 Beeching Report proposed the remainder of the Heart of Wales line for closure. As a rural branch line, it survived the Beeching Axe since it carried freight traffic, serving the steelworks at Bynea and industrial areas such as Ammanford and Pontarddulais, linking them with the docks at Llanelli. It also passed through six marginal constituencies. During engineering work, the line is still occasionally used as a diversionary freight route. The basic service over the line since the seventies has remained more or less constant, with four or five trains per day in each direction on weekdays and two or three on Sundays (although the latter ran in summer only until quite recently).
The line is single track throughout (except for a few miles at the southern end shared with the Swansea District line) and has been operated under a Light Railway Order since 1972. There are five passing loops, at Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd, Llandrindod and Knighton. Unless "Out of Course" working occurs the Llanwrtyd passing loop is used on two of the Monday – Saturday services and the Llandrindod passing loop is in use on the other two and also on the Sunday services. The signalling was modernised in 1986, when a system known as No Signalman Token Remote working was introduced. This is overseen by the signaller at Pantyffynnon, with the token instruments at the aforementioned five passing loops being operated by the train crew (the surviving signal boxes at each station having been closed as part of the modernisation scheme and the points converted to automatic operation) by British Rail.
For more than two years only two of the loops (Llandrindod and Llanwrtyd) were operational as Network Rail were unable to source spare parts for the points mechanisms used at all five: the design used is now obsolete. Parts had to be taken from the three decommissioned loops to keep the other two operational. In 2009 NR stated their intention to install new conventional electric point machines at all five loops and restore the three out-of-service ones to full working order (after being heavily criticised by the chairman of the South Wales branch of Railfuture at the organisation's recent Annual General Meeting) but were unable to give a timescale for this to be carried out as design work on the new equipment was still ongoing. NR began the replacement works for the points after first installing the system on the line to Pembroke Dock, at the Tenby loop, on 7 December 2009 and then making minor alterations in Feb 2010. Llandeilo was the first on the line to be modernised, the rest followed. The £5 million project was completed in October 2010.
In 2014 Network Rail added exit indicators at the trailing end of each loop to aid in the reversing of services: a decision taken so that all moves have an active indication of the status of the motor points.
In 1987 tragedy struck the line near Llandeilo when the Glanrhyd Bridge collapsed following heavy flooding, and an early morning northbound train plunged into the swollen River Towy, killing four people. For a while the future of the line was in doubt (the equally rural Carmarthen – Aberystwyth line had been closed in 1965 following serious flood damage as the cost of repairs was deemed unacceptable) but political forces of all sides rallied to ensure the line's survival.
After leaving the West Wales Line at Llandeilo Junction (east of Llanelli), the route is shared with the Swansea District line as far as Morlais Junction before passing beneath the M4 Motorway & turning northwards towards Pontarddulais and Pantyfynnon. The short tunnel before the former station is the oldest surviving example still in use in Wales (dating from 1839), whilst the freight-only branch along the Amman valley to Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen diverges at the latter. North of Ammanford, it follows the valley of the River Tywi north to Llandeilo (formerly the junction for Carmarthen) and then Llandovery, crossing the river at Glanrhyd by a replacement single-span bridge built & commissioned in 1988. North of Llandovery the character of the route changes, as it ascends into the Carmarthenshire hills towards the first of the line's two major summits at Sugar Loaf (820 feet (250 m) above sea level) on gradients as steep as 1 in 60. En route, it passes over the 283-yard (259 m) long Cynghordy viaduct across the Afon Bran valley before crossing the county boundary into Powys through the 1001-yd (915 m) summit tunnel beneath the Black Mountain range. A descent at 1 in 70-80 follows to Llanwrtyd Wells along the valley of the River Irfon, from where it continues via Builth Road to Llandrindod Wells - the largest settlement on the line.
From Llandrindod, the line climbs steadily once more, skirting the Radnor Forest as it heads for the remote station at Llanbister Road (some 5 miles (8 km) distant from the village it is named after) and another summit near Llangynllo Tunnel, the highest point on the route at 980 feet (299 m) above sea level. There then follows a 4-mile (6.4 km) descent (again at mostly 1 in 60) to Knucklas, where the line is carried above the village on a 193-yd (176 m) viaduct with ornate castellated turrets at each end. It then heads to Knighton, where the station is in England but the town it serves is in Wales. The last portion of the route then runs through southwest Shropshire along the valleys of the River Teme & River Clun to join the main Shrewsbury to Hereford line at Craven Arms.
For many years there were four trains per day in each direction on weekdays and two on Sundays. From May 2015 an additional Monday to Friday train pair in each direction was introduced north of Llandrindod and south of Llandovery, ostensibly to improve commuting possibilities, although the consequential changes to existing services substantially lengthened the working day for those travelling to Shrewsbury. Trains are one or two carriages each, with a small team of staff. A buffet trolley service runs occasionally. The Heart of Wales line proper runs between Llanelli and Craven Arms, however train services normally terminate at Shrewsbury and Swansea. Two northbound weekday trains travel onwards from Shrewsbury to Crewe and there are a pair that start from Crewe southbound. Most stations are request stops.
Passenger services are operated by Arriva Trains Wales using Class 150 or Class 153 diesel multiple units, although Class 175s have been used on rare occasions. The continued use of Class 153 DMUs has received criticism, notably from Kirsty Williams AM, who says:
The 153 units have a poor reliability record, can carry few bicycles—which we desperately need to be carried on the line—little bulky luggage, and offer poor visibility, and this on a line that is supposedly promoted as scenic.
The line has also been used for exceptional train movements, including:
Although no regular scheduled freight services use this line, the route is maintained to W5 standard to accommodate the occasional EWS diversions for Margam and Llanwern traffic when the south Wales route is closed.
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