Beauty of bleeding Heart of Wales

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The Independent Online
A PARTY of railway engineers from Tanzania visited the scenic Heart of Wales railway line last week to see how to run an efficient service with few staff in a remote area. 'It's very good,' said one.

But is it good enough to save the line? The 90-mile route from Shrewsbury to Swansea, 125 years old this year, survived the Beeching cuts of the Sixties, the loss of its freight trade, and a decline in passengers. But privatisation could be the last straw.

Last week the line was marked for cuts under a British Rail 'austerity timetable' to be introduced before the sell-off. One of the four single-coach Sprinter trains which run each day is likely to go. Users fear a spiral of decline, with passenger numbers falling further as the service is reduced.

The line is BR-run but depends heavily on volunteers from the Heart of Wales Line Travellers' Association, who care for its largely unmanned stations. Dolau station, near Llandrindod Wells, this month won a national award for the second year running as Best Unstaffed Station.

The association was formed in 1974 by two railway enthusiasts and now has more than 1,000 members. Volunteers produce publicity material and even provide a buffet on Saturdays and in the summer. Lord Ross of Newport (Isle of Wight), a vice-president of the association, often joins members doling out coffee and sandwiches. He said: 'The buffet service is a perfect example of how people who use this line are prepared to work to save it from extinction.'

The line is expensive: between Llandovery and Llandrindod Wells it cuts through steep, pine-covered mountains; the Cynghordy Viaduct and Sugar Loaf Tunnel are impressive feats of engineering but last year repairs on the tunnel swallowed up the entire pounds 450,000 revenue it produced.

The association believes better timetabling would encourage more use. The tourist potential is not being developed. Three days' notice has to be given before bicycles can be taken on trains - a serious deterrent to many visitors. Recent train timings mean that shoppers get only a few hours in Swansea or Shrewsbury before having to catch their return train.

John Davies, regional railways manager for Wales, believes criticism directed at BR is misplaced. 'We are in an appallingly difficult situation. We are being forced into doing things which make good business sense, but are harmful in social terms.'

If the line is put up for privatisation the association has one last card. A spokesman said: 'We have talked about taking the line over ourselves. Whether we will be able to generate enough interest remains to be seen.'

(Photograph omitted)

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