THE NORTH WALES COAST
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CREWE TO HOLYHEAD
The town of Crewe was created by the railway, and even today railways are a major source of employment. The station, located at a six-way junction, is always busy and a favourite haunt of train-watchers. Part of the station became disused when the track and signalling was altered in 1985, and in 1997 all mail traffic was transferred away to Warrington and Stafford, leaving some of the remaining bay platforms with little traffic. There are two tracks through the centre of the station for non-stopping trains, and four principal through platforms. A fifth platform, now numbered 12, was retained in the 1985 changes for 'emergency' use, and is often used by North Wales trains. Normal departure platform, however, would be bay no.9 for trains starting from Crewe.
The traditional advice is to sit on the right-hand side of the train leaving Crewe, to get the best views of the sea once the Coast is reached. Leaving Crewe, and branching immediately away from the West Coast main line past the now-preserved Crewe North Junction signal box, the train runs for a mile or so on a deviation line opened in 1868 to allow for expansion of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) locomotive works which eventually grew to occupy a large area. The original route was to the right of the present line and was incorporated in to the Works site, the first part of which has now become the 'Railway Age' which is both a museum open to visitors and a small maintenance and overhaul works specialising in heritage trains. Preserved diesel and electric locomotives are often seen here, and it also acts a base for steam locomotives when special trains are operated on the Coast line. Crewe North steam locomotive depot, one of the most famous in the country, lay to the left of the line here but has been eradicated in favour of a car park: some way from the line is Crewe Signalling Centre, a long, low industrial building opened in 1985: most unlike a traditional signal box, but painted red with a white stripe to resemble a huge semaphore signal arm.
Soon afterwards on the right, a high brick wall marks the
the currently operating part of the Locomotive Works. Today it is
by Bombardier as an overhaul
little is visible from the train, although you might catch a glimpse of
the works shunting loco through a gap in the wall. On the left here is
Crewe electric locomotive depot, which includes in its allocation all
Class 92 locos built for Channel Tunnel duty,
the view from the train is not good. The northern exit tracks of the
on to our line are controlled from a small signalbox called Crewe Steel
Works, built the the LMSR in 1935: this was the site of a Bessemer
plant built by the LNWR. A short distance further on, the overhead
wires end and we are on a traditional country railway. The maximum
permitted over the line to Holyhead is 90miles/hour with many sections
restricterd to lower speeds.
The line from Warrington joins from the right, and just before the station on the right can be seen Chester signalling centre, an anonymous grey building which seems to have little relationship with the railway. This came into use in May 1984, replacing several old signalboxes. Chester station, 21 miles from Crewe, has a historic main building, designed in Italianate style by the Chester and Holyhead Railway's architect Francis Thompson. The platform area retains some of its steam-age atmosphere, with no overhead wires. One platform line is, however, fitted with an electrified third rail for services to Liverpool.
The city of Chester is one of the most beautiful and historic
with its almost-complete city walls, ancient cathedral and the
of timber-framed buildings in the shopping centre, laid out on two
known as 'The Rows' and crowned by the world-famous clock. The city
is about one mile from the station;
buses run frequently to the city centre,
is also an open-topped city bus tour.
Leaving Chester, North Wales trains swing left at Chester West Junction away from the Liverpool line, beyond which can be seen the Traction Maintenance Depot complex. The Diesel Multiple Unit shed of 1957 and the old steam locomotive shed of the Great Western Railway were demolished in 1998 to be replaced by a a new depot for the Class 175 railcars. This depot os owned and operated by Alstom. Chester Wagon Repair Depot (closed 1998) was on the left here, and on the right at Chester South Junction a single line joins to form a triangular junction which is used by some freight trains avoiding the station and occasionally to turn complete trains by traversing all three sides of the triangle.
There are four running lines through the rock cuttings and tunnels for the next mile, a reminder of the fact that most of the route to Llandudno Junction once needed four tracks to handle the traffic. The second of the two tunnels here. Northgate Street Tunnel, carries the line below the site of the Cheshire Lines Committee's Chester Northgate station, now a leisure centre. The line cuts through a corner of the old city walls and crosses the Shropshire Union Canal alongside a staircase of locks designed by Thomas Telford, then passes the Roodee racecourse (dates of race meetings) before crossing the river Dee into Wales. The original river bridge here, designed by Robert Stephenson, collapsed under a train not long after it was built, killing people and damaging Stephenson's reputation. The four-track line crossed the river on two parallel bridges built by the LNWR, and referred to as the Roodee Viaduct: only one is still in use.
A mile further on, At Saltney Junction (controlled from
single line towards Shrewsbury curves away to the left. This was once
part of Birkenhead - London route of the old Great
Railway, with expresses to London Paddington in fierce competition with
the LNWR service to London Euston. Next, an area of waste land with a
sidings and a long row of railway-built houses marks Mold Junction, now
just a signalbox but once the junction for a branch inland to Mold and
Denbigh and a busy steam locomotive shed (closed 1966) and marshalling
The next landmark, to the left of the line, is Hawarden
known as Chester Airport, whose main runway is at right angles to the
and the landing path takes aircraft across the line. Should any
land short of the runway, the control tower staff can switch signals to
red and stop the trains; even so, to be aboard a train as a landing
place is a somewhat unnerving experience. There are no scheduled
here, however, only private ones, and this is also the location of the
British Aerospace factory which manufactures wings for the Airbus
range of airliners including the giant A380.
There are several closed stations on this section: Sandycroft and Queensferry,which precede the first working station on the coast line at Shotton. This is located at the point where the line from Wrexham to Bidston passes above and has platforms, and forms a useful interchange for passengers from the Wirral area. Despite this, the coast line part of the station was closed in 1966, but reopened again in 1972. There were once four tracks on nthe main line here here, but by 1972 the outer two had been removed, so new platforms had to be built. This area of the Dee estuary is highly industrialised. In the right distance can be seen the huge buildings of Shotton steelworks, which is a major customer of the railway, being reached by sidings from the Bidston - Wrexham route. Incidentally, the Wrexham line was once a Welsh outpost of the London and North Eastern Railway.
Little remains of Connah's Quay station, closed in 1966. The scenery in this area has been transformed in the last few years: to the right among the electricity pylons stands a new road bridge over the Dee, built on the cable-stayed principle, completed in 1997 and known as the Flintshire Bridge. The tower is 118 metres high, and the assymetric main span is 294 metres. Rockcliffe Hall signalbox had to be demolished when the road was bridged over the railway, and its replacement, a basic prefabricated structure, can be seen on the right by the bridge. Next on the right the Connah's Quay electricity station comes in to view, built in 1996 and notable for its row of huge concrete 'plant pots.' Operated by Powergen, it is a combined cycle gas turbine plant, based on a design first used in 1992 at Killingholme on Humberside, and fed by gas which comes ashore by pipeline from the Liverpool Bay gas field. This site once housed a traditional coal-fired (and rail-served) power station known as Rockcliffe Hall.After passing through the short Rockcliffe Hall Tunnel, the train arrives at the town of Flint (or Fflint: there seems some doubt as to whether the Welsh spelling should be used) - an important town which does not get the train service it deserves. The ruins of the castle can be seen in the middle distance on the right as the train enters the station. Flint Castle is not as well known as the others along this coast: it was completed in 1284 at the command of King Edward. Severely damaged in the Civil War of the 1640s, it fell into greater ruin when much of keep collapsed in 1848, the year the railway opened. See the excellent Castles of Wales website for much more information.
Beyond Flint we encounter on the right-hand side the
sight of a sea-going ship, now beached high and dry above the
water. Duke of Lancaster was a British Railways ferry
which was launched in 1955 from Harland and Wolff, Belfast, with
accommodation for 600 First and 1200 Second-class passengers. She was
BR/Sealink service between Heysham and Ireland from 1956, but was sold
in 1979 to Empire Trading of Liverpool, replaced on the Irish Sea
services by roll-on roll-off vessels. In 1980 she was towed across
Liverpool Bay to Llanerch-Y-Mor, Deeside,
beached at high tide and was concreted in afterwards, allegedly
before there was time for anyone to object.
The ship has been used at
times as a nightclub and a supermarket, but at the present time it lies
more or less derelict awaiting its fate; an appreciation society has
recently been formed, whose website gives much
information about the history of the ship,
This is classic holiday country for the people of the
textile cities, and bears all the hallmarks, such as caravans, holiday
camps and 'amusements.' The sea and the beaches are wonderful, but a
jarring note is sounded by a road called the 'North Wales
which has been blasted alongside the line, in places shoving it aside
to a new alignment. Rhyl (51 miles) is the biggest and brashest
holiday town, with its funfairs and indoor 'sun centre'. After leaving
Rhyl station the train passes Rhyl Marine Lake on the right: this is
circled by the Rhyl
Miniature Railway, one of the oldest fifteen-inch gauge
railways anywhere in the world. Its origins go back to 1911, and on
peak days in 2004 you can ride on the same train that a visitor in 1920
would have found. The River Clwyd is crossed immediately
afterwards on a girder bridge which wad doubled in late Victorian
times, like much of the route, to carry four tracks, but is now reduced
More caravan parks are passed on the journey onwards to Abergele
Pensarn station, with the North Wales Cycleway keeping the line
company on the seaward side. There now follows a more rural
stretch as the train heads up to Llandulas with the folly-like Gwrych
on the left, built in 1819 at the bequest of Lloyd Hesketh
Bamford-Hesketh and now in bad condition: a society, formed in 1997,
led by a teenager called Mark Baker, kept the place in the public eye,
and eventually it was bought in 2006 for £850,000 by
Yorkshire-based Clayton Hotels who planned to spend millions turn it
a five-star hotel; the last we heard (December 2008) some tidying up of
the site had occurred and an architect had been appointed to prepare an
application for planning permission.
At Llandulas is a jetty used to load stone into ships from the
adjacent quarry. After passing through Penmaen tunnel the wide sweep of
Colwyn Bay opens out as the train passes first Old Colwyn, which once
had a station of its own, and then arrives at the station of Colwyn
Bay - Bae Colwyn. The Victoria
Pier, seen down below, was built in 1900 and has
survived fires and threats of demolition: in 1994 it was purchased by
Mr & Mrs Paxman who worked hard to restore it and make it a going
concern, despite shortage of funds. In 2003 they sold it on to a
gentleman who also intended to restore it to some of its former
glory, but in 2009 it closed again, the owner being mired in a legal
battle with Conwy Council over updaid debts - see the pier's website
gory details as well as the full story of the pier.
Through Colwyn Bay (61.5 miles) the railway runs on embankment right along the shore giving sunbathers and promenade-strollers a view of passing trains, before striking inland in company with the new road. The 'obelisk' which occupies a prominent position on the hillside to the right of the line looks like some ancient monument, but it seems that the 64-feet-high tower was built in the early 1990s by the owners of nearby Bodysgallen Hall Hotel, on whose land it stands.
From Llandudno Junction (65.5 miles - known to all as 'The Junction') there are two branch lines: a short one past the pleasant small town of Deganwy to the elegant resort of Llandudno, and a longer one which climbs the valley of the Conwy river through Llanrwst and Betwsy-y-Coed to reach Blaenau Ffestiniog and the connection with the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway. Llandudno Junction station, which has a refreshment room, is a good place to watch and photograph the trains.
(Trains bound for Llandudno diverge to the right here, passing
antiques centre which was once a rail-served banana warehouse, for the
short but scenic journey of just over three miles along the shore of
the Conwy estuary through the small resort of Deganwy to the terminus
Beyond the bridge, the only route for the railway lay alongside the medieval Conwy Castle, piercing the town walls: Stephenson attempted to harmonise the railway with the castle. The new road, at this point, is in tunnel, in fact in a tube built on the river bed, but it makes its presence felt again as the line follows the coast through Penmaenmawr, where a quarry supplies the railway with granite track ballast (shunting operations can easily be observed from the station platform), and the little resort of Llanfairfechan. Beyond here can be seen to the right of the line the estate of Penrhyn Castle, preserved by the National Trust, is its main attraction for tourists. Built by Thomas Hopper between 1820 and 1845 for the wealthy Pennant family, who made their fortune from Jamaican sugar and Welsh slate, the castle is crammed with fascinating things such as a one-ton slate bed made for Queen Victoria. The stable block houses an industrial railway museum, a model railway museum and a superb dolls’ museum displaying a large collection of 19th- and 20th-century dolls. The 18.2ha (45 acres) of grounds include parkland, an extensive exotic tree and shrub collection and a Victorian walled garden.
Bangor (80.75 miles) is the first city we encounter since eaving Chester. The four-platform station here is sandwiched between two tunnels; at one time the area alongside the station was a busy steam locomotive depot and goods yard: the buildings and many of the tracks survive. Bangor is an old city,with a Cathedral (founded in the year 525) and a University as well as a historic pier which has recently been fully restored.
From Bangor station, frequent bus services are available to the ancient town of Caernarfon with is mediaeval castle, and to the narrow-gauge Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) with its Garratt steam locomotives repatriated from South Africa. Also reached by bus is Llanberis which has two railways, the Snowdon Mountain Railway and the Llanberis Lake Railway.
After Bangor, the train turns right to cross the Menai Strait on to Ynys Mon, the island of Anglesey. The bridge here was the second and largest of Stephenson's tubular bridges, of four spans. The railway had to be over 100 feet above the water to allow the tallest warships to pass. Opened in 1850, the tubes were damaged beyond repair in a fire in 1970, caused by trespassers. The piers were retained for the new steel arched bridge, opened in 1972, which carries just a single rail track, plus an upper road desk which was added in 1980.
On the island, the line serves a series of villages, beginning with the one which is world famous for its long name, Llanfairpwll... which was mostly contrived by Victorian railway publicists, and has since been beaten for length by a halt on the narrow-gauge Fairbourne and Barmouth Railway! At Valley, a siding serves the nuclear power station, a train once or twice weekly carries nuclear waste to Sellafield in heavy steel flasks for reprocessing. The final stretch of line is over a causeway onto the small 'Holy Island' and into the terminus at Holyhead (105.5 miles from Crewe) where the trains meet the ships and catamarans on the busy Irish service.
Last updated February 2012.