• John Oyston

Britain’s Heritage Railways: Travel by Steam Train on Preserved Railways

For the last forty years, young boys in Britain have lacked the ambition of their fathers and grandfathers. Premiership footballer, pop singer or movie star are common aspirations among ten-year-old boys today; but the strong desire of previous generations is lacking– to be a train driver!


Great Central Railway Loughborough Photo John Oyston
Great Central Railway Loughborough Photo John Oyston


For over a century, the railway was king. In the nineteenth century, small independent railway companies sprang up, linking major cities and serving smaller communities that lay on their route. Competition was fierce and services uncoordinated, gradually companies merged until by the end of World War II there were just four regional companies covering the whole country.


In 1948, the government nationalised the rail network and British Rail was born. The next 20 years saw unprecedented changes. Diesel and electric traction gradually replaced steam-hauled services and smaller branch lines closed on economic grounds. In the early 1960s, the Beeching Report recommended massive cuts to the network, and in 1968, British Rail’s last steam hauled service ran.


Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway Photo John Oyston
Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway Photo John Oyston

Stations were closed, tracks lifted and locomotives scrapped. Homes, offices and supermarkets were built on railway land. Motorways soon covered the countryside, car ownership increased and more goods were transported by road. Traditional industries, like coal and steel, declined depriving the railways of vital revenue. The railway was no longer king.


Enthusiasts soon had the idea of heritage railways. They formed independent companies and charitable trusts, overcoming numerous legal and financial hurdles. Eventually, an army of willing volunteers bought land, laid tracks, rebuilt stations; while lovingly restoring locomotives and rolling stock from a state of disrepair.


Slowly, routes reopened. Today, there are over two hundred lines each with a unique character. In Yorkshire alone, there are many alternatives providing vital tourist revenues to local economies. Enthusiasts operate lines under a mile long run each weekend, while professionally operated services daily serve rural communities.


Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Photo John Oyston
Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Photo John Oyston

Narrow gauge railways also run steam hauled services. These are mainly long established independent services, which were outside the control of British Rail. Originally, the nine “Great Little Trains of Wales” carried slate from local quarries to the sea, while the fifteen inch gauge Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent was “the smallest railway in world” when it opened in 1927.


Special events like Victorian days or 1940s weekends recreate a bygone era, special dining trains restore some style and glamour while visits of Thomas the Tank Engine and Santa Claus attract the younger generation.


Some lines even offer the chance to be a train driver for a day – allowing middle-aged men to fulfil their boyhood dreams.


#Railways

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