Why Wales' quietest station, Sugar Loaf, got busier

By Peter Shuttleworth
BBC Wales News

Image source, Geograph / Jaggery
Image caption,
Sugar Loaf Station has been Wales' quietest station for 20 years before this year

As London's Waterloo is named the UK's busiest station for the 15th successive year with 95m annual passengers, life is a little more sedate in deepest, darkest Wales.

Forget wifi, there's not even a ticket machine, car park or even mobile phone signal at the remote Sugar Loaf station.

And no we're not talking about the mountain overlooking Rio's famous Copacabana beach - this one is miles from civilisation in rural Powys.

Blink and you'd miss the exposed 150-year-old single-track halt tucked away down a muddy track next to a field on the side of the A483, snuggled 820ft (250m) up in the Cledan Valley.

The railway hideaway, a few miles north of Llandovery, used to average one visitor every 36 hours - and that made it one of the quietest stations on the UK railway network.

That was until this year....

Image source, Getty Images/BBC
Image caption,
More trains than passengers pass through Sugar Loaf Station each day

Its reputation as a deserted railway outpost has actually made it popular - and it's seen the biggest hike of passenger numbers of all UK stations this year.

So much so that two lovebirds made the 10-hour round-trip from Didcot to Sugar Loaf in October so Mark could propose to Lindsey.

The retreat attracted as many visitors in the last 12 months than it had done in the previous 17 years - a rise of almost 710% on last year's passenger numbers.

"People have come from all over the world to get a ticket to Sugar Loaf just to say they've been here," said the person who looks after the station for Transport for Wales.

"We've had people from the USA coming here because they've seen Sugar Loaf station referenced in books because it so unused," added retired fine art photographer Peter Joyce, 70, a volunteer who helps look after the station.

Media caption,
Sugar Loaf station: Wales' quietest station draws more people

"The other day I popped down to the station to do a little gardening and there was a man waiting on the platform who had made the 12-hour round-trip from London, just to get a ticket that has the destination as Sugar Loaf.

"It's turning into a bit of a tourist destination."

Sugar Loaf's visitor numbers shot up from 228 passengers last year to 1,824 this year, meaning it gives up the kudos as Wales' quietest station after 20 years at the bottom.

Image source, Peter Joyce
Image caption,
Sugar Loaf Station adopters Peter and Margaret Joyce appeared on a BBC programme with presenter Jamie Owen
Image source, Office of Rail and Road
Image caption,
Cardiff once again boasts the two busiest stations in Wales

That dubious honour now falls to Dolgarrog on the Conwy Valley Line, whose 612 passengers last year was down almost 40%.

The Office of Rail and Road thinks Sugar Loaf's spike in popularity may be because it was the "least used station in Wales in 2016-17 which may have attracted visitors."

A tannoy announces the eight trains a day into Sugar Loaf - one of the 17 request stops on the picturesque Heart of Wales line between Swansea and Shrewsbury - to mostly no-one at all.

It was opened as part of the Central Wales Extension Railway in 1868 and built to serve the nearby railway worker cottages so their children could get the train to nearby Llanwrtyd Wells.

The rural branch line survived the infamous railway cuts of Beeching Axe as it passed through six marginal constituencies and politicians feared they'd lose their seats if the route shut.

Nowadays, the etiquette to stop the train is from a bygone age - basically wave furiously when the single carriage comes into view and flag it down.

If you're on the train, you've just got to politely ask the conductor as it trundles towards the beautiful Cynghordy Viaduct and half-a-mile Sugar Loaf tunnel.

Image source, Geograph / Nigel Thompson
Image caption,
Dolgarrog on the Conwy Valley Line is now the quietest station in Wales
Image source, Geograph / Geoff White
Image caption,
Sugar Loaf Station introduced a big red visitor book in 2017 due to its low passenger use

Only a hardy few of the Heart of Wales' 200,000 annual passengers get on or off at Sugar Loaf, below the natural landmark it honours.

"It's mostly walkers or railway tourists who come here. There's no regular user of the station as far as I know," said Mr Joyce.

He should know as the railway enthusiast and his wife Margaret "adopted" Sugar Loaf in 2011 to tend to the garden and report any maintenance issues to Transport for Wales.

Four years ago they moved from Hay-on-Wye to be nearer their latest project so Peter could follow in the footsteps of his father who worked in the railway sheds in Derby after World War Two.

"It's in my blood," said Mr Joyce.

Image source, ORR
Image caption,
Nine of the 10 busiest stations in the UK are in London

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