Train Day Tours in Britain
A Day Tour with a Difference
When do you think this
picture (at London's famous Paddington Station) was taken?
It could be any time in the last hundred years, but actually
was taken in late 2001.
Most of us have probably
visited London several times, and while it is undoubtedly one of
the world's great cities, there aren't a lot of new things to
So here's an idea for a day tour with a difference -
on an otherwise 'spare day' during your stay in London, why not enjoy
a day excursion by vintage steam train, traveling from one of
London's major railway stations to some interesting town or
city, then returning back to London in the afternoon/early
Excursions Most Weekends
Most weekends one of several
different companies operate a day tour from one of London's main
train stations (such as Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross, etc),
featuring a vintage steam locomotive with a consist of older
style first and second class carriages. The train typically
leaves moderately early in the morning, and then travels over
the public rail network to a destination where passengers will
have two to four hours of leisure time before the train then
takes them back to London for an evening return. You get both
the opportunity for a day tour to some other interesting town or
city and the experience of a main line steam train excursion.
Note also that day tours
operate from other cities as well as London, but not quite so
Sometimes the train is
hauled the entire distance by a steam locomotive, but on longer
journeys, so as to minimize total journey time, it might be
taken part way by diesel or electric loco.
The steam locos are lovingly
restored and many times are famous locos such as the 'Flying
Scotsman'. They are typically given permission to operate at
speeds up to 75 mph - fast by Amtrak standards, but slow
compared to their maximum speed capability which many times
exceeds 100 mph. Because the train travels over mainline rail
track, the ride is typically very comfortable and smooth, and
the loco engineer is able to fully open the throttle and make
the steam loco roar with its unique and distinctive sound as it
rushes up the gradients and along the straights.
You really do get a
completely authentic experience just as it used to be for all
rail passengers 50 years ago, unlike visiting a restored vintage
railway that operates a train over perhaps 3-10 miles of track
at very slow speeds.
First or Standard Class
Most of the excursion trains
feature two or three classes - standard and first class and
perhaps a 'premium' class as well. The trains, which might have
as many as twelve or more carriages, usually include a buffet
car, and of course each carriage has one or two toilets as well.
The buffet car will generally have a range of snacks as well as
tea, coffee, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.
The main difference between
standard and first class is in the seating. First class seats
are of course more comfortable and spacious. Premium class, if
available, is also in first class carriages, and includes fully
catered silver-service meals at your table, complete with wine.
I recommend you treat
yourself at least to first class and perhaps to premium class.
First class is very much nicer than standard class, and premium
class makes a special experience even more special and
I've traveled on excursions
Past-Time Rail (alas, apparently now defunct) on several occasions and have found them to
be well managed and most enjoyable. I've also enjoyed an
excursion operated by
Dreams, and while marred by an unfortunate problem with the
steam loco, their handling of a difficult situation was very
professional and sensitive. I'll happily travel with them again,
A complete listing of all
known rail excursions in Britain, as well as contact details for
the company operating each excursions, can be found
this excellent website.
Prices range from about
£30-60 for standard class, £50-80 for first class and £100-200+
for premium class (£1 = about $1.46 at present). Orient Express
excursions are considerably more pricey - £200-300 per person
for a day trip.
The 'high end' of such
excursions are a series of tours operated by the
Orient Express, as either the 'British Pullman' or the
'Northern Belle'. These use beautifully restored deluxe Pullman
coaches that date back to the 1920s and 1930s, and are so
up-market that they have a dress code for visitors (basically no
A Note of Caution
Lastly, two notes of
warning. Firstly, these excursions are often cancelled or
changed - even at the very last minute, perhaps due to
unscheduled problems with the locomotive, or to changes in the
operating schedule assigned by the British Railways controlling
authorities. This has occasionally happened to me, and I'd urge
you to always reconfirm the itinerary and timings a day or two
prior to departure.
Secondly, be careful if you
are putting your head out the window to listen or look at the
loco at the head of the train. Most British locos burn coal, and
there is a danger that coal cinders might get in your eye (has
happened to me!). Indeed, some die-hard steam enthusiasts bring
a pair of goggles with them to protect against this danger!
And, as a bonus third item,
my personal preference is for excursions on Saturdays rather
than any other day of the week. Sunday excursions are often
disrupted by work on the rail track, and weekday excursions are
more likely to be cancelled due to lack of customers. The
Saturday movements seem to be the most reliable.
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31 May 2002, last update
21 Jul 2020
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