Like in the rest of the UK, the Welsh rail network has been privatised. National Rail provides centralised timetable information for all train operators in the UK, and allows you to buy tickets online using a credit card. You can also buy tickets online through http://thetrainline.com.
In Wales, most of the services are operated by Arriva Trains Wales, although the Great Western Railway operates the London Paddington–Newport–Cardiff–Swansea route and Virgin Trains has the London Euston–Chester–Llandudno Junction–Bangor–Holyhead route.
There are two classes of rail travel in the UK: 1st class and 'standard' class. First class costs about 50% more than standard and simply isn't worth the extra money.
You can roll up to a station and buy a standard single (one-way) or return ticket, but this is often the most expensive way to go. Each train company sets its own fares and has its own discounts, and passengers can only use tickets on services operated by the company that issued the ticket.
You might find that the same journey will have a different fare depending on whether you buy it at the station, over the phone or online. The fare system is so bizarre that in some cases two singles are cheaper than a return ticket, and even a one-way journey can be cheaper if you split it into two (ie if you're going from A to C, it can be cheaper to buy a single from A to B, and another single from B to C; go figure). You can check your options at www.splityourticket.co.uk.
The least expensive fares have advance-purchase and minimum-stay requirements, as well as limited availability. Children under five years travel free; those aged between five and 15 pay half-price for most tickets. When travelling with children, it is almost always worth buying a Family & Friends Railcard.
Main fare classifications:
Advance Has limited availability so must be booked well in advance; can only be used on the specific trains booked.
Anytime Buy any time, travel any time.
Off-peak Buy any time, travel outside peak hours.
Railcards are valid for one year and entitle the holder to discounts of up to 30% on most rail (and some ferry) fares in the UK. You can buy a railcard at most train stations or at www.railcard.co.uk, but it must be delivered to a UK address. Railcards are accepted by all train companies.
16–25 Railcard (£30) For those aged 16 to 25 years, or a full-time UK student of any age.
Two Together Railcard (£30) For two people travelling together, aged 16 or over.
Disabled Persons Railcard (£20) Applies to its holder and one person accompanying them.
Family & Friends Railcard (£30) Allows discounts for up to four adults travelling together (only one needs to hold a card and you'll need one child in tow), and a 60% discount on children's fares.
Senior Railcard (£30) For anyone aged 60 or over.
BritRail passes (available only to non-Brits and bought overseas) are not cost effective for a holiday in Wales. More useful are the Rover and Ranger day passes (adult/child £12/6) offered by Arriva Trains Wales, covering its Cambrian Coast, Cardiff and Valleys, West Wales and North Wales networks. Other passes include the Ffestiniog Round Robin (£36/17) and Heart of Wales Circular (£39/20).
To a large extent, trains along Wales' north and south coasts were built to link the English rail network with seaports at Swansea, Pembroke Dock, Fishguard and Holyhead. But there are some fine rail journeys across the middle of the country and a staggering number of 'heritage' railways (mainly steam and narrow-gauge), survivors of an earlier era, worth seeking out for their spectacular scenery and hypnotic, clickety-clack pace.
Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways An integral, but incredibly scenic, part of the network heading from Porthmadog (on the Cambrian Coast Line) to Blaenau Ffestiniog and Caernarfon.
Heart of Wales Line (www.heart-of-wales.co.uk) One of Wales' most beautiful railway journeys heading from Shrewsbury to Swansea through southern Mid-Wales.
Cambrian Lines (www.thecambrianline.co.uk) The Cambrian Main Line crosses northern Mid-Wales from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, and its spectacular branch line heads up the coast from Machynlleth to Pwllheli and the Llŷn.
Conwy Valley Line (www.conwy.gov.uk/cvr) A little gem heading down through Snowdonia from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog.