Is there new life for the famous holiday train which has run since the days of Queen Victoria? After the last summer-only Pembroke Coast Express ran in 2017, the service seemed doomed. It appeared that the new successor trains would not be able to negotiate the curvy lines west of Carmarthen.
Following Philip Hammond’s Budget speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Nov 22, the Budget Red Book highlighted investment in Welsh rail links, stating: “The Government will invest in infrastructure upgrades that will provide direct services from Pembroke Dock to London via Carmarthen on new state-of-the-art Intercity Express trains.)
Picture: The Pembroke Coast Express at Ferryside, Carmarthenshire, 2016. By the author.
In the summer of 2017, it seemed it was goodbye to the Pembroke Coast Express. The illustrious train from Paddington to the far west of Wales, which has run in some form or another for over 120 years, made what might yet still be its final trip, as a summer Saturdays-only service.
The irony was that it was not neglect, decline or too little use, the usual reasons stations and trains fade away, that have done for this direct link from the capital to holiday destinations deep inside the principality. In fact passenger numbers have been rising in West Wales, a trend apparent across the country. It’s the opposite, the very thing transport ministers love to boast about – investment and, at least at it applies to other parts of the network, progress.
This winter (2017) the first new trains to run between Paddington and Wales since the 1970s come into service. The trouble is the coaches on the £5.8bn Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains (to run on GWR and Virgin East Coast lines) have been made longer than on existing trains in order to accommodate more seats. This means they won’t be able to negotiate the curvy lines west of Carmarthen, which is where the London train will now terminate.
Now, if you wish to travel on to Pembrokeshire, you will have to change onto a prosaic little diesel train for those final stages, and the start of the holiday experience won’t be the same. The romance will be gone. No more boarding the express in Paddington and basking in those blissful few hours of respite from the world that comes with long-distance train travel, while somebody else takes the decisions, all the way to that most delightful of seaside Victorian resorts, Tenby.
Travellers from London’s Euston and King’s Cross stations can still take a through train to T S Eliot’s “northern part… Of the Northern Hemisphere” via Bridge of Orchy, Pitlochry, Gleneagles and Ardlui in Scotland, just at they can still journey directly to Truro, Hayle and St Erth in far-off Cornwall. But anyone travelling from London and the Home Counties to Tenby or any of the other increasingly popular destinations in Pembrokeshire such as Saundersfoot, Manorbier and Narberth will find the spell broken in Carmarthen station.
The Victorians came to Pembrokeshire’s bejewelled coast on holiday even before the railway. George Eliot is said to have been inspired to become a writer while on holiday in Tenby in the 1850s. (The writer Roald Dahl spent a succession of childhood summer holidays there from the early 1920s through to the 1930s.) Visitors came for healthy walks and guaranteed shelter – to dodge the wind you either go north to the sandy beach, or south to the exquisite little harbour. A line of high and narrow Georgian and Victorian town houses in delicate pastel colours wraps around the sea front.
In the 1890s the Great Western Railway (GWR) gave the little seaside town its very own through service from London, the Tenby and Carmarthen Bay Express.
A writer in the 1895 Railway Magazine noted: “The great railways [including the GWR] have each of them commendably striven to make as much as possible of these prettily-situated spots which for natural beauty can hardly be surpassed by any in the kingdom – as accessible to the metropolis and other large inland towns, as Bournemouth, Weymouth and other favoured resorts.
“If there be any one train more than another, the sight of which stirs the patriotic pride of an enthusiastic Great Westernite, it is the Tenby express leaving Paddington at 10.45 AM in the thick of the holiday season, its uniform string of chocolate and white coloured coaches fully-loaded and drawn by one or other of the specimens of Mr Dean’s genius, the [Armstrong Class locomotives] Gooch or Charles Saunders.”
By 1953 the steam train had evolved into the Pembroke Coast Express, now leaving Paddington at 10.55 (reaching Tenby at 5.55 PM), and running on to Pembroke Dock. The train ran daily until the end of steam traction in the late 1960s, its usually gleaming loco bearing the name on a proud curving board on the smokebox.
And so it survived, as a 125 mph diesel train, until this summer, as the 08.45 from Paddington. Still called the Pembroke Coast Express, it was the only train from London to continue on past Carmarthen, weaving through a landscape of ever more soothing fields and woods and slopes and rivers. That train journey was still an integral part of the Pembrokeshire holiday for some.
It would take four hours and 51 minutes from London to Tenby, a considerable saving over the other services, which require at least one change. (There were actually two direct summer Saturday trains back to London, morning and afternoon, timed for the returning holidaymaker.)
People in South Wales are likely to be more concerned about the government’s decision not to extend electrification from Cardiff to Swansea, than the continuation of the historic link to the far west.
Yet as roads became ever busier (the M4,/A40 stretch through South and into West Wales is notoriously busy on summer weekends), the appeal, and logic, of travelling by train for a weekend break or a longer holiday will become stronger. Truncating a service that has lasted since the 19th century is a backward step, even if it is the inevitable consequence of new technology.
Back in 1895 the Railway Magazine had high hopes, admittedly in a pre-motor car era, for the future of Tenby as a railway destination.
“There is every reason to believe that given judicious publicity by means of artistically executed photographs at a service of conveniently arranged weekend excursions, Tenby, together with other favoured resorts, will receive increased patronage to the pecuniary benefit of the railway company as well as the good people who lay themselves out to comfortably accommodate their visitors.”
I guess that holidaymakers heading west next summer, if they are set on using the train, will put up with the awkward change, with all their suitcases, at Swansea or Newport, or if they prefer to ride one of the new trains all the way, at Carmarthen.
Or they may simply decide that if boarding a direct train to Pembrokeshire is no longer an option, they might as well drive. Or take the through train to Devon or Cornwall instead.