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Enjoy a Day Tour to an interesting destination by restored steam train

Relive the 'golden age of steam' next time you're in Britain by taking a day excursion in a restored steam train.

You'll get to visit an interesting destination, and have a fascinating fun journey getting there and back.

 
 
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Steam 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 see.

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 evening.


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 frequently.

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 memorable.

I've traveled on excursions operated by Past-Time Rail on several occasions and have found them to be well managed and most enjoyable. I've also enjoyed an excursion operated by Steam 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, too.

A complete listing of all known rail excursions in Britain, as well as contact details for the company operating each excursions, can be found on this excellent website.

Pricing

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 jeans).

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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Originally published 31 May 2002, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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