British steam trips, from the sublime to the lavish

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, June 5, 2018

During my 11-day first visit to the U.K., I got to sample three of the country’s dozens of regularly-scheduled steam-hauled train services. They ranged from the simply pleasant to the absolutely sumptuous. As mentioned previously, the website is the go-to source for all British mainline steam operations, which run nearly every week throughout the year. The U.K. boasts 52 active main line steam locomotives, more than five times as many as remain in operation stateside. In addition, there are over 200 preservation railways separate from the main lines, ranging between standard, narrow and miniature gauges. I was able to work just two of these into my itinerary, along with two mainline steam trips, both behind green Southern Railway-liveried Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2 locomotives.

I spent the entirety of a Saturday enjoying the Cumbrian Mountain Express, a round-trip from London Euston that is operated several times a year. The trips are organized by the Railway Touring Company with red-liveried coaches provided by West Coast Railways, a large preservation organization. It followed the three-class pricing model common to such day trips, with First Class (£60 more than Standard) including snacks and beverages and Premium Class (£90 more than First) including two full meals. In First, the seating was comfortable, the service good and the scenery consistently pleasant. Even before reaching the mountains, the rolling hills, farms and forests of the English countryside offer a continuous feast for the eyes (and lots and lots of sheep).

Preserved 1960s electric locomotive Les Ross prepares to take the chartered Cumbrian Mountain Express from London Euston station nearly 200 miles north on the West Coast main line to Preston, where steam will take over, on May 12. All photos by Malcolm Kenton. Click on any photo to enlarge.

The 1960s-built electric locomotive Les Ross carried us up the West Coast main north to Preston, fairly consistently maintaining the top speed of 90 MPH. There, Merchant Navy Class No. 35018 British India Line, which had just been restored to main line service four months prior, took over and muscled us uphill to Shap and then on to Carlisle, topping out near 80 MPH under wire. There, the locomotive switched ends during a 90-minute late lunchtime layover under the station’s trainshed and took us back south along the scenic Settle-Carlisle Line through the Pennine hills and across the grand Ribblehead Viaduct. This is one of many secondary lines that still uses semaphore signals and manually-operated switch towers. I disembarked at Blackburn, just before the train rejoined the West Coast main, and continued to Edinburgh on regular trains (Northern Railway to Preston, then TransPennine Express) to stay the next two nights.

Merchant Navy Class No. 35018, British India Line, just four months out of the restoration shop, poses for adoring fans at Carlisle station on May 12 after powering the chartered Cumbrian Mountain Express north from Preston, topping out at 80 mph.

After riding around Scotland and returning to London on the Caledonian Sleeper, I rode a Great Western express from London Paddington out to Exeter, where I connected with a half-hourly, 2-car Great Western DMU service via the famous route hugging the English Channel along the Dawlish seawall south to the seaside town of Paignton. There, I walked across the tracks to the adjacent station serving the Dartmouth Steam Railway, which runs 6.7 scenic miles further south to Kingswear, just across the river from Dartmouth, offering spectacular views of the cliffs along the English Channel and of the picturesque River Dart, with many types of watercraft. Its consist of early 20th-century coaches pulled on this day by Great Western 4-6-0 No. 7827 Lydham Manor (one of six steam locos on the railway’s roster) makes five daily round-trips, each of which connects at Kingswear with a paddle steamer to Dartmouth. On the way down, I paid the £2.50 cash supplement to travel aboard the 1921-built Pullman rear observation car Devon Belle, one of two of its kind in operation worldwide, and rode in a standard-class coach with six doors on each side on the return to Paignton.

4-6-0 No. 7827, Lydham Manor, on layover in Paignton before her fourth of five runs between there and Kingswear on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, May 15.

But of course, I saved the best (and the largest single expense of my trip other than the rail pass, including my round-trip airfare) for the last full day of my visit: a day trip aboard the Belmond British Pullman, the finest train regularly operating in the U.K. Departing three to four times a month from London’s Victoria station on different itineraries, its all-premium-class coach fleet is sublimely ornate inside and out. Each car has a unique back story and more than half have carried royalty. Many were part of trains that served as dedicated connections for first-class passengers to and from ocean liners at Southampton. They were purchased and immaculately restored in the 1970s and 1980s by the Venice-Simplon Orient Express company, which became Belmond in 2014. Of the 11 coaches in that Wednesday’s consist, four contained kitchens, each serving three cars capable of seating 75 passengers (my departure was far from sold out, though).

No. 35028 Clan Line preparing to depart London Victoria station with the Belmond British Pullman excursion for Bath on May 16.

My excursion, a round-trip to historic Bath (a Georgian city built around a 2000-year-old Roman bathhouse) mostly via the Great Western, was powered by another Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2, No. 35028 Clan Line, whose London-based owner organization calls her “London’s Locomotive.” Perfectly polished and gleaming, she handled the lengthy train ably without assistance on a relatively leisurely 4-hour, 15-minute schedule each way, topping out at 70 mph. It was hard to leave the coach in which I was seated at a table for one, Phoenix. Even the toilets had intricate tilework designs on the floors, round stained-glass windows and silver toilets with wood seats — the fanciest restrooms I’ve ever seen on a train.

The Belmond British Pullman Historic Bath by Steam excursion boards at London Victoria station on May 16.

The expert staff absolutely pampered us. Each dish in the five-course breakfast and dinner was beautifully presented and delectable. Breakfast started with a peach Bellini and dinner with a glass of champagne followed by a bottle of one’s choice out of eight house wines. I did not notice any other Americans on board — the clientele were mostly Brits celebrating special occasions (mostly wedding anniversaries), along with a handful of Asian tourists. Included in the trip was a motorcoach tour of Bath and admission to the Roman Baths Museum.

The interior of Owen, one of the eleven exquisite premium class coaches in the Belmond British Pullman consist on May 16.

Just to put icing on the cake, before a late afternoon homeward flight from Gatwick Airport, I took a 40-minute third-rail EMU trip on the Southern Railway south to Brighton and (in addition to visiting the Brighton Toy and Model Museum with an extensive collection of rare and vintage European model trains and railway structures) took in the Volk’s Electric Railway, a Victorian tourist attraction dating to 1883 that claims the mantle of world’s oldest electric railway. The 2-foot, 8.5-inch-gauge line has three stops and lies right on the edge of the sand between the beach and the street. Its original partially enclosed cars are similar in body design to San Francisco cable cars. Power comes from a third rail between the running rails, closer to the southern rail. I again lucked out with clear, mild weather and thus said so long to Britain, looking very much forward to my next visit.

Forward view westbound on Volk's Electric Railway in Brighton on May 17.

No. 35018 approaching Carlisle station with the Cumbrian Mountain Express on May 12.

A view of the River Dart from the Devon Belle Pullman observation car on the Dartmouth Steam Railway on May 15.

No. 35028 Clan Line on return to London Victoria from Bath on May 16.

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