If you're ever thinking of travelling from London up towards the Welsh Borders, say on a lengthy journey to Much Wenlock and back, one way to get there is via the Wrexham & Shropshire Railway. It's one of Britain's littler independent railway companies, running Inter-City services to a smattering of towns with a handful of trains. Why go Virgin, or London Midland, or both, when you can W&S? And what's a mini-scale long distance train operator like? Here's the lowdown.
One thing you have to get right when travelling by tinytraincompany is the time of departure. Wrexham and Shropshire only run four trains a day in each direction, so if you miss one it's a very long wait. First train out of London on a weekday is at 0733, and it reaches far flung Wrexham before the second follows on behind. And the last train back's ridiculously early, heading through Shrewsbury at four o'clock to get back to London by 1915, so if you're planning a day out then that day may not be very long. Weekends run later, if that helps. But of course this isn't really a train service for Londoners to go to Wrexham and Shropshire, it's optimised for folk travelling the other way. Leave on the first train from Wales and you can enjoy almost 12 hours in the capital before having to head home.
OK, so it's not fast. But it ischeap. W&S don't believe in peak fares, so a walk-up-on-the-day return ticket will cost you exactly the same no matter what time you turn up. It's no more than £40 to Telford or Shrewsbury and back, for example, whereas ask Virgin for a similar ticket turn-up-and-go ticket and they'll screw you for more than double that. Just be aware that W&S travel to a very limited list of destinations. They're not allowed to stop anywhere too profitable, because that might annoy Richard Branson. So it's Coventry and Birmingham no, but Gobowen, Chirk and Ruabon yes. England's rail market is still stitched up by the big cartels, which is why the W&S train is grudgingly allowed to stop at Wolverhampton but Londoners aren't permitted to get off.
Wrexham & Shropshire's southern terminus is at Marylebone, because they're only allowed to sneak into the capital via the back way. The first train of the day sits up the end of a far platform, well out of the way of teeming hordes of Chiltern commuters. A sleek greycreature with appropriate branding, yet somehow very obviously not quite new. I walked up to the front and took my seat in the first of four carriages - a bog-standard chunk of old-school rolling stock - and spread out ready for the journey north. So, erm, just me then. In fact I managed to have the entire carriage to myself for more than two hours, all the way to beyond-Birmingham. Surely they can't make a profit like this, I thought.
Eventually I decided to take the plunge and visit the buffet, because I'd heard they sold tasty Wrexham-sourced food. And it was on my way through the train that I discovered lots of previously-hidden passengers sitting at spacious tables in freshly-spruced carriages. Here were the businessmen and businesswomen tapping away on their laptops, and the young couples heading somewhere far distant, all of them enjoying considerably more pleasant conditions inside a revamped grey-black capsule. Regular travellers know never to sit in the plain and simple carriage, it seems, not when most of standard class is comfortabler.
And the food? I could have plumped for twocourses of silver service for £12.50, which I'm told is very good, but instead I headed lower down the menu because it was breakfast time. A bacon and sausage bap, lovingly prepared in front of me (OK, assembled and microwaved, but hey). And yes, it was most definitely yummier than the usual plastic-tasting fare that most train companies churn out. One long sliced sausage with a slightly spicy tang. One thick rasher of bacon freshly-carved since Marylebone. A proper big floury bap, of a size that didn't leave me wanting more. And free ketchup, obviously, because you have to. I never normally buy food on trains, but I'm glad I made the exception here.
Live in London and you'll have limited reasons to travel W&S, especially if you want to head northwest fast. But for travellers who prefer a bit of independentclass, or Borders/Shropshire folk venturing in the opposite direction, what's not to recommend?