Gareth Huw Davies

Travel / Travel Blog

The great (rail) way west – to Pembrokeshire

One of the new GWR trains at Paddington Station

The holiday express: through trains are running from Paddington to Tenby and West Wales this summer (2019), continuing a link which began in the days of Queen Victoria.

“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.”

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GWR (Great Western Railway) despatches a train that is the Pembroke Coast Express (which evolved from the Tenby Express) in all but name every summer Saturday from Paddington to Tenby and West Wales. It is composed of the new diesel units, derived from the Japanese Bullet Train, first introduced in 2017. These trains have replaced ageing HST stock, in service on UK lines since the 1970s.

There had been fears that the new trains, made of longer carriages, would not be able to negotiate the tighter bends on the line west of Carmarthen. However a GWR spokesman confirmed to me (November 2018) that the necessary preparatory work had been done, and the new trains were clear to run through to Tenby and Pembroke Dock, direct from London, continuing a service which had operated since the days of Queen Victoria.

Victorian loco for the original Tenby Express

The trains will still only run through to West Wales on summer Saturdays, and there are no plans to continue that service beyond Carmarthen throughout the week, let alone throughout the year. However, on the main summer holiday departure day of the year, holidaymakers bound, say, for Tenby will be able to turn up at Paddington station for the 08 45, and not leave their seats until the train reaches the delightful Georgian town in Pembrokeshire. 

According to Google, driving from Paddington to Tenby takes 4 h 57 min (240.2 mi) via the M4. In reality it’s a lot longer, because you have to stop, and the summer jams on the M4 and A40 are notorious. In contrast the 08 45  from Paddington, no changes, takes 4 hours 49 minutes, arriving Tenby at 13 33. The return trip is direct from Tenby to Paddington, leaving at 15.35.

With the phase-out of the old HST trains, the future of the service was uncertain. The story that the new trains wouldn’t take the curves beyond Carmarthen gained some credence, in blogs and on social media. However, it seems to have been unfounded.

It remains the case that, outside summer Saturdays, anyone travelling to West Wales (as well as Tenby, the other increasingly popular destinations in Pembrokeshire include Saundersfoot, Manorbier and Narberth) from Paddington or intermediate stations (Reading, Didcot, Swindon, Bristol Parkway) will have to change in Swansea or Carmarthen and continue their journey on a prosaic little diesel train. For holidaymakers with suitcases, the change can be awkward, especially in Carmarthen.

(Carmarthenshire, has its own charm, as distinct from Pembrokeshire as Devon is from Cornwall).

Tenby, 2018

Now GWR needs to be persuaded that, with the train a clear winner on this line in terms of journey time, that there is a demand, from leisure travellers at least, for through trains throughout the year. (Consider, for example, Bluestone, the year-round resort near Narberth, which was full on my visit in December, 2015. I would guess that the great majority of visitors travelled by car.)

As roads became ever busier (the M4,/A40 stretch through South and into West Wales is notoriously congested on summer weekends), and the case for reducing car use becomes more urgent, the appeal, and logic, of travelling by train for a weekend break or a longer holiday will become stronger.