A Brief History

Rob Gittins and Dorian Spencer Davies

Gomer Press, 1985

Pages 2-14

The Heart of Wales line is one of the most scenic railway routes in Great Britain. It stretches through the heartland of Wales from Swansea to the border town of Shrewsbury. Its 110-mile route takes in industrial and rural regions, forests and mountain ranges, swooping valleys and dramatic mountain tunnels. The Heart of Wales line is one of the most varied railway routes ever constructed.

The Heart of Wales line first made its appearance in Llanelli at the southern end of the existing route, early in the new railway age. In 1828 the Llanelly Railway and Dock Company was formed to build and operate railways, in the first instance for the carriage of coal from local collieries to the Llanelli Docks. These early trains were horse-drawn and first ran in 1833. The Llanelly Railway and Dock Company thus became the first of the five senior companies that would operate individual sections of the Heart of Wales route.

As one of the first railways in Wales this early line soon became obsolete as the steam locomotive increasingly replaced horses on Britain's burgeoning railway network. The Llanelly Company recognised this by replacing the line with a new track in 1839, now running from the Llanelli Dock to Pontarddulais, and designed to carry the new steam trains. The first such trains ran that same year 梩wo 0𧛬 tender engines 'Victoria' and 'Albert', designed and constructed by T. Hackworth and Company complete with outside cylinders, 4ft driving wheels and a full working weight of 14 tons. A third engine 'Princess Royal'梐nother 0𧛬 tender engine梐ugmented the Company's rolling stock in 1842. This section of track has survived and now forms part of the southernmost section of the present Heart of Wales route.

The first passengers were carried on the Heart of Wales line in 1841 and were also transported by the Llanelly Company. These passengers were carried on open passenger carriages or converted goods wagons attached to goods trains. At this time however there were no stations, halts or shelters.

A branch line from Pantyffynnon to Brynaman was also constructed in the 1840's. This branch line now services the new NCB colliery at Betws.

But it was not long before other railway companies recognised the value and significance of the new route that was inching through Wales. The most attractive prospect for these companies was the link that could be forged between the commercial and industrial areas of the north of England and the mining regions of South Wales. A secondary but no less persuasive attraction was the prospect of a link between Manchester and the ports of South-West Wales. In the early nineteenth-century the West Walian ports were frequently seen as the gateway to the USA and indeed, up to the First World War, Swansea was advertised as the nearest large seaport in Great Britain to North America. But other motives for the construction of the route abandoned. The new line would pass through remote areas of countryside, connecting small towns and villages whilst traversing a hinter­land rich in minerals. It would tap and exploit areas of precious minerals, including regions abounding in lead, slate, copper, limestone, iron ore and, of course, coal. Moreover, the line would be the sole transport of the area, there being no serviceable roads or navigable waterways along much of the route.

The Vale of Towy Railway Company were the next outfit to recognise this potential and this undertaking opened another eleven miles of the Heart of Wales line, from Llandeilo to Llandovery in 1858. This company was incor­porated in 1854 and constructed one of the simplest sections of the Heart of Wales track. In sharp contrast to the rest of the line, this section along the basin of the Towy valley posed few serious engineering difficulties. This stretch of line, was not operated by the Vale of Towy company but was leased to the pioneering Llanelly Company in the first year of operation, 1858.

The Llanelly Company had themselves continued the expansion of the Heart of Wales line by extending the line to Garnant in 1840, to Tirydail (Ammanford) in 1841 and to Llandeilo, 19¼ miles from Llanelli in 1857 to connect to the Vale of Towy's new line. An uninterrupted track thus now ran from Llanelli to Llandovery; from the south to the very edge of mid-Wales.

In the same year two new engines were delivered to the Llanelly Company and this marked the climax of an extraordinary period of unreliability and misfortune for the Llanelly Company's rolling stock in the early years of their operation. The Company had attempted to introduce a locomotive of their own design, the 'Prince of Wales', in 1843; another 0 𧛬 tender engine with outside cylinders. After twelve months operation this new loco­motive was withdrawn for repairs and as the 'Victoria' and 'Albert' were also in the repair sheds the line was forced to return to horse-drawn traction. 'Prince of Wales' returned in 1847 and in the same year another company took over the operation of the line's rolling stock, Messrs Gryll and Company, but this firm went bankrupt after just twelve months. The 'Prince of Wales' was then withdrawn again in 1853 and 'Victoria' and 'Albert' were once more pressed into service but their lives ended spect­acularly in 1858 when 'Victoria' literally, and apparently spontaneously, exploded on the approach to Pantyffynnon station on the 29 January that same year. Due to fears of a similar mishap 'Albert' was withdrawn from service soon after. These various difficulties were only eased when the Llanelly Company, in 1858, took delivery of two 0𦴖 locomotives con­structed by the Manchester workshops of Messrs Beyer, Peacock and Company; again tender engines with outside cylinders. The Llanelly Company named these new engines 'Victoria' and 'Albert' presumably in somewhat dubious honour of the line's earliest locomotives.

Despite these problems with rolling stock the line was an immediate success. Passenger traffic increased markedly and indeed the joint Llanelly and Vale of Towy timetables issued on 15 November 1858 advertised three daily through trains in each direction, each train taking one hour and forty-five minutes to travel the 31¼ miles from Llanelli to Llandovery. First, second and third class accommodation was available on all trains and fares (one way) were 6/3d (1st class), 4/8d (2nd class) and 2/7d (3rd class). With the Vale of Towy extension the Heart of Wales line now pointed north-east towards the rich industrial regions of Northern England.

But the next development came not from contractors in Wales but from commercial interests at the northern end of the line who were principally interested in conducting traffic in the opposite direction 梩o secure access from England to the mining areas of South Wales.

During the 1840's Shrewsbury had begun to develop as one of the main railway centres of the Midlands and the large railway concern LNWR had running powers over the various lines that irradiated from this centre. The main line of the Shrewsbury to Hereford Railway was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1846 and opened to traffic in 1852 with a total length of 51 miles. Along the route the line reached Craven Arms and here a branch line was built to Knighton by a group of local magnates who formed a new company for this purpose; the Knighton Railway.

This branch was opened ostensibly to serve purely local interests but this extension became the first step in LNWR's advance down through Wales upon Swansea.

This new line had in fact already attracted the attention of rival contractors while still at its planning stage. In 1858 a new concern named the Mid-Wales Railway Company submitted an application for Parliamentary approval that would have involved construction of a parallel line running from Knighton to Llandrindod Wells and converging on the Vale of Towy Rail­way at Llandovery. The bill for the Mid-Wales scheme was strongly opposed locally and the more local Knighton Railway was preferred. This Parlia­mentary victory provoked wild scenes of jubilation in Knighton by both the shareholders of the railway and local people. The whole weekend of the 30 March 1858 was devoted to celebrations with watch fires and rockets on Garth Hill and a huge bonfire lit in the square of the town. Bells were rung and cannons fired in the village from Friday evening through to the follow­ing Monday morning.

But progress on the new line was much slower than expected with bad weather and labour troubles blamed for the delay. In the event the new line to Bucknell was not opened till 1860 (8 miles) and the line to Knighton itself (12V* miles) was not completed until 1861. In the same year the single engine owned by the Knighton Company was delivered named 'Knighton', an 0 𦴖 saddle-tank locomotive. Passenger trains along this route began in 1865 with initially three trains in each direction. These first passengers were carried by 2𦌾 tender engines built at Crewe though these were gradu­ally replaced by the 2𦴔 Precedent Class. At the Knighton terminus a four-horse coach left daily (Sundays excepted) for passengers who wished to travel to Penybont, Llandrindod and Builth.

The next extension on the Welsh railway map was now clearly visible; a line from Knighton further south and this new line, from Knighton to Llan-drindod, was undertaken by a new company called the Central Wales Railway. Incorporated in 1859, this company had several very close links with the Knighton Railway and indeed many of the luminaries of the Knighton Railway were also directors or shareholders of the Central Wales Railway. From the start it was envisaged that the new line would actually conect up to Llandovery and from there to Llanelli and, possibly, Carmarthen.

Perhaps the prospect was heady for the officials of the Central Wales Railway. Certainly this initial mood of optimism led to one of the most wildly inaccurate predictions in the history of the whole line when the engineer to the new Railway, H. Robertson, stated that 'no great engineer­ing difficulties would be involved in the construction of this line'. The 20-mile track was intended to take five years to construct. The first section aimed at reaching Penybont by August 1861. In the event this extension to Penybont was not completed until the end of 1864.

This delay was largely due to problems with the Knucklas Viaduct and the summit tunnel at Llyngoch, at 645 yards long the second longest tunnel on the whole route between Craven Arms and Swansea. These delays forced a cash crisis in the now hard-pressed Central Wales Railway and, in 1862, the giant LNWR poured £30,000 into the fast-dwindling funds of the ailing railway company. In return, LNWR wrung from the Central Wales Railway the lease to provide locomotives and rolling stock to work the line. It was the first major stage in LNWR's advance upon the individual companies that were operating the new Heart of Wales line and it would end in LNWR's virtual control of the entire Heart of Wales route.

With the funds of LNWR injected into the operation, construction work proceeded more speedily and the formal opening of the new Knighton to Llandrindod line took place on 10 October 1865. Once again huge crowds greeted the first appearance of the new railway. The initial 18-carriage train was met by marching bands at each stop and at Llandrindod a huge marquee was erected for the major dignitaries to formally celebrate the opening of the new rail link. Again 2 𦌾 tender locomotives provided the early motive power, being gradually replaced once more by the 2𦴔 'Precedent' class.

With the Vale of Towy extension from Llandeilo to Llandovery and the Central Wales Railway running to Llandrindod, the way was now clear for the Heart of Wales Railway to run uninterrupted from Shrewsbury through to Llanelli and Swansea by the construction of the final link between Llandrindod and Llandovery. While the line from Knighton to Llandrindod was still under construction the Central Wales Railway (for this purpose named the Central Wales Extension Railway) was authorised by Act of Parliament to complete the final 26¼ mile extension. Once again scenes of optimism and celebration surrounded the launch of this final rail link but once again that new optimism and celebration proved sadly premature. While con­struction work began on 15 November 1860, the first section of the line, from Llandrindod to Builth Wells was not completed until 1 November 1866.

The pace of construction quickened the next year and extensions from Garth and Llanwrtyd were completed in 1867. But the contractors still faced the most difficult link of all, from Llanwrtyd to Llandovery, taking in the Sugar Loaf summit and the construction of the Cynghordy viaduct. The prospect of these last ten miles of the line led the company, even though they now had direct LNWR backing, to seek an extension of time for its completion.

The contractors hit various problems; an immense body of water in the very centre of the Sugar Loaf Tunnel, a dangerous area of unsound rock in the tunnel itself extending for approximately 500 yards and the relining of the foundations on the Cynghordy viaduct. In all, the final link was not completed until 1868 梕ight years after Parliament had authorised the con­struction of the line.

In that same year too LNWR completed its effective takeover of much of the new Heart of Wales line. The two major northern companies, the Knighton Railway and the Central Wales Railway were totally amalgamated into the LNWR system. The help rendered by LNWR to these two outfits in their early years, was now being repaid in full.

But while these routes were being cut through the very heartland of Wales, other changes were taking place at the southern end of the track and the final shape of the Heart of Wales line was now beginning to emerge.

In the early 1860's, the Llanelly Railway made application to Parliament to construct extensions of their line from Llanelli to Carmarthen, at the Aber-gwili junction, and from Pontarddulais to Swansea at the South Dock. The first of these extensions, to Carmarthen, was opened to goods and mineral traffic on 14 November 1864 and to passenger traffic a year later on 1 June 1865. The link between Pontarddulais and the Swansea terminus at the South Dock's Victoria station was delayed for two further years owing to difficulties with the construction of the station building and was not opened till 14 December 1867. In the same year too, the Llanelly Company decided to standardise its rolling stock, ordering 0 𧛬 standard locomotives with inside cylinders. In all, six such locomotives were delivered to the Company over the following two years.

The Llanelly Railway now owned 72 miles of track, from Llanelli to Swansea, through to Carmarthen and on to Llandovery. But the Llanelly Company's lease of the Vale of Towy's line was to expire in 1868 and the new lease granted to the Company forced them to share running powers over this section with LNWR, who now controlled the line from Shrewsbury through to Llandovery.

In the course of their negotiations over this lease, the Llanelly Company made an extraordinary mistake. The new lease inadvertently granted LNWR the right to run trains through to Swansea, Carmarthen and Llanelli. Realising their error, the Llanelly Company tried to repudiate the offending clause in the new lease but without success. The ensuing battle reached the House of Lords who found in favour of LNWR. The Llanelly Railway was now forced to either relinquish or share its more modern and profitable concerns with LNWR and the effect on the Llanelly Company was dis­astrous. By 1871 the Company was reduced to a mere 36 miles of track and, unable to struggle on with the reduced operation, the lines were eventually leased to another railway giant, GWR, in 1873. The Llanelly Railway and Dock Company was eventually completely absorbed by the Great Western Railway in 1889.

But these battles meant little to the passengers on the new complete rail link through the heartland of Wales as the line became a vital and forceful factor in the economic and social life of Wales serving business and passenger, social and commercial interests all along the route; carrying coal, agric­ultural goods and livestock, parcels and mail. It connected hitherto remote regions with the great English and Welsh cities and towns and accelerated the growth and prestige of spa resorts such as Llandrindod and Builth Wells. It is not too much to say that, but for the Heart of Wales line, these towns would have remained forever a collection of sparsely inhabited and economically dependent villages.

The Heart of Wales line thus continued through the last years of the nine­teenth-century and remained unchanged till 1921 when the Railways Act was passed by Parliament. As a consequence, the mainline companies amalgamated and most of the Heart of Wales route became vested in the care of the London, Midland and Scottish Railways, the LMS, though GWR retained control of the line between Llandeilo and Pontarddulais. This new grouping was expected to lead to increased prosperity on the railway network and indeed the early 1920's saw an increased number of new engines pressed into service including the 3F and IF 0 𧛬 side tank engines, the prototype of the later Fowler 'Jinty' design which appeared in Swansea during the 1950's. But any optimism engendered by the new management soon faded. Several branches and stations were soon closed including Grovesend station on the Pontarddulais to Gowerton line, and a GWR scheme to connect the Heart of Wales line with the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth branch by making a new branch from Llandeilo to Lampeter was abandoned in 1924. Passenger facilities were abandoned on the Garnant and Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen section from 4 May 1926 and the branch from Gowerton south to Penclawdd and Llanmorlais was closed to passengers on 5 January 1931.

The Second World War brought a temporary reprieve to the declining line when services over part of the track were revived with the opening of a new department of the Royal Ordnance factory at Crofty between Penclawdd and Llanmorlais. Freight and passenger trains again ran over the line but the increased business was sporadic and patchy at best. In general the Heart of Wales line suffered from the same restrictions imposed on the rest of the railway network. The line also suffered direct damage 梚n 1941 when the German air raids over Swansea blitzed the town centre and dock area. LMS and GWR property suffered the most serious damage with the town's Victoria Station the principal target.

As the war ended, another event changed the character of the Heart of Wales line once more 梐n event that many felt to be the fourth major disaster to hit the line in as many decades.

On the 1 January 1948, all four mainline companies working the Heart of Wales line were nationalised and the whole route passed under the control of the newly-formed Western Region of British Rail. It was a takeover greatly opposed by local interests along the route and accomplished much to the displeasure of the predominantly LMS/LNWR staff.

Nationalisation did little to halt the general process of decline. Passenger services on the Pantyffynnon to Brynaman branch were reduced throughout the 1950's and finally withdrawn on the 18 August 1958. Sheds at Paxton Street in Swansea and at Knighton were closed on 31 August 1959 and 1 January 1962 respectively. A glimmer of hope for the beleaguered track was glimpsed in 1960 when BR announced a plan to install Central Traffic Control (CTC) throughout the whole line with a view to resuscitating the route as a major freight link. Indeed £676,000 was earmarked to invest in the line principally in the section between Craven Arms and Llandovery. New signal boxes were to be introduced together with Continental lifting barriers and remote control sidings; in all a prosperous future was predicted for the historic Heart of Wales line. But retrenchment, changes of policy and second thoughts hit British Rail and CTC was abandoned for the Heart of Wales route.

The LNWR faction on the Heart of Wales route suffered further humiliation when BR instituted a wholesale reduction of ex-LNWR engines on the line. Stanier class '2' 2 𧛮's were introduced to work many local passenger services, the Stanier Black Fives's being gradually replaced from 1960 onwards by the BR Standard Class '5's'. By 1961 these Standard Class 5's had monopolised nearly all through-passenger workings.

This general decline led to its inevitable effect. In 1962 the Western Region of BR proposed closure of the whole Heart of Wales route. After objections from a variety of quarters the Minister of Transport refused consent but the retention of the line was achieved at the cost of a number of damaging changes.

Swansea Victoria station was closed as was the original Heart of Wales line between Swansea and Pontarddulais. The branch line from Carmarthen to Llandeilo was closed on 9 September 1963. In that same year marshalling yards closed at Pontarddulais and similar closures took place at Felin Fran and Burry Port. Sadly, during this period, the Llanelli 桪afen Dock branch line was closed, this being the original line of the old Llanelly Railway and Dock Company. Through freight services north of Llandovery were with­drawn on 10 August 1964, hitting local farmers who consequently had to divert to Hereford and Cardiff, travelling over the generally poor roads between Mid and South Wales. By this time Swindon cross-country sets took over all passenger workings on the revised route between Shrewsbury and Llanelli though with little noticeable improvement in time-keeping. Freight and mineral traffic was mainly relegated to English Electric type '3' diesel-electric locomotives assisted by Brush Type '4's'.

Again the general decline led to a proposal for destruction. Three years later, in 1967, the second proposal to close the Heart of Wales line was sub­mitted by British Rail to the Minister of Transport. The Minister took almost two years to debate the issue and at one time it seemed that closure was indeed imminent. It was actually rumoured that the Minister of Transport had presented the Cabinet with an unanswerable case for the line's closure and that this decision was only reversed when the Secretary of State for Wales, George Thomas, pointed out that the line ran through a number of marginal constituencies! This reminder seems to have acted on the Minister quite remarkably. Together with his decision to oppose closure the Minister announced an increase in grant aid to the Heart of Wales line of £370,000 annually, payable every two years. A drive was simultaneously initiated to attract more passengers and the passenger service was redrafted. As a result, in the twelve months ending May 1971, the number of passengers carried numbered 180,000梔ouble the number carried the previous year and receipts were up by a total of 27%. It all demonstrated that investment and sound passenger management alone guarantees the profitability of railway systems and their survival. In the recession-hit atmosphere of the 1980's, it is a lesson as relevant today as at any time in the Heart of Wales line's history.

Link: The Heart of Wales Treavellers' Association (HOWLTA) has an excellent website about this line including current timetables and news. Click on the HOWLTA website.

Date this page last updated: November 26, 2010