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: in 2021 there were no through trains from Paddington to Tenby and West Wales on summer Saturdays, breaking a link which has endured with only a few gaps since 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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Before the pandemic GWR (Great Western Railway) ran a train that was 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 was composed of the new Class 800, derived from the Japanese Bullet Train.

Victorian loco for the original Tenby Express

So on the main summer holiday departure day of the year, holidaymakers bound, say, for Tenby could turn up at Paddington station for the 08 45, and not leave their seats until the train reaches the delightful Georgian town in Pembrokeshire. 

Driving from Paddington to Tenby would take (Google Maps) 4 h 57 min (240.2 mi) via the M4. In reality it’s a lot longer, because you have to stop, and summer jams on the M4 and A40 are notorious. In contrast the 08 45  from Paddington, no changes, took 4 hours 49 minutes, arriving Tenby at 13 33.

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 had 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

With the train a clear winner on this line in terms of journey time, there is a case 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. 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.