For those of you that have ever wondered what is on offer,
railroading-wise, across the pond, here in the UK, the natural home of
railroading, wonder no more. I will impart all.
At this point, I should say, that, for this article, the UK
refers to England, Wales and Scotland; not Northern Ireland. Not because I
have anything against Ireland; simply because the Irish railways (both
North and South) are a separate entity to those on mainland UK, and, I
have yet to go there, thus my knowledge is limited by experience alone.
Equally, England, Wales, and Scotland are one land mass that is well
connected by railways, at least for the most part. It is worth pointing
out that the gauge of Irish railways is 5ft 3 in; as opposed to the
standard gauge of 4ft 8½ in we all know, and love.
To put things into perspective, the area of England, Wales
and Scotland is 88,782 sq miles. Slightly larger than Minnesota at 86,939
sq miles, but, well under Michigan at 96,716 sq miles. In fact, there are
11 states that are larger than the combined area of England, Wales, and
Comparing the US and the UK, approximately 95% of the rail
traffic in the US is freight. In the UK, freight covers a much lower
percentage, and the percentage of passenger traffic compared to the US is
much higher. In the UK rail freight accounts for 12% of all surface
During the period 2003/4 there were 416,000 freight train
movements in the UK. In the US there are approximately 140,490 route
miles of class 1 track, much of which is available for the use of Amtrak.
That said, research reveals that Amtrak operates on 21,000
miles of these tracks, and owns 730 route miles of track, all of which
connects to about 500 stations in 46 states. In the UK, there is
approximately 10,500 route miles of track, much of it double track (or
more), which equates to in excess of 20,000 miles of track. This track is
available to both freight and passenger traffic, and connects 2,500
stations. All in an area considerably smaller than Michigan.
Take the Amtrak timetable. It is the size of a magazine.
And it covers all the (inter-city)
passenger trains in the US. Now take the timetable for the UK. It is well
in excess of 3000 pages. Not a tome you’d want to carry around for too
Obviously here, I’m talking about inter-city passenger
traffic. There are cities in both the UK and US that operate their own
light rail/tram or metro systems, independently to the national passenger
Amtrak say they carried 27.2 m passengers in 2008; about
74,500 passengers per day on up to 300 trains. In the UK an average of
2.75 m passengers travel every day by train. On up to 24,000 trains per
day. Thus, over 10 days, more passengers are carried in the UK, than on
Amtrak in a whole year.
If we take the land mass of the US, 3,794,066 sq miles, and
divide it by the trackage (miles), it gives a track to area index of
0.037. If we do the same for the UK, the index becomes 0.118, which can be
considered to be considerably higher. Showing that overall, there is more
available track to the square mile in the UK than the US.
Thus, in the UK, in terms of inter-city passenger trains,
shorter distances, more trains, and higher speeds. On the main routes,
such as the east Coast Main Line, from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, speed
limits are 125 mph, and there are many trains around the UK that can, and
do attain this speed. And, most of these routes feature continuously
welded track, which makes for a quieter journey. Especially on the modern
inter-city trains, which are very comfortable to travel in, with air
conditioning, and other creature comforts.
The UK rail speed record was created on 30 July 2007, on
Section 1 of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, when a Eurostar train attained
the speed of 208 mph. Which brings me on to the Eurostar. For those of you
that want to sample high speed travel by train, this is one place where
you can do it.
Eurostar trains at St. Pancras Station - May 2009
click on thumbnails to enlarge
Operating out of the recently revamped London St Pancras
Station, Brussels can be reached in 1 hour 51 minutes, and Paris in about
2¼ hours. Using the dedicated 67 miles of “High Speed 1” track to reach
the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone. You probably won’t hit 208 mph, at
least, not in the UK, but, speeds of 186 mph are regularly attained.
are a quarter of a mile long, consisting of a power car at each end, and
Much of the above is to demonstrate that there are a lot of
trains of many descriptions to be seen, and enjoyed, in the UK. So, what
can you expect to see, in terms of trains and motive power? There is a
wide selection of locomotives available. Freight trains tend to be diesel
locomotive hauled, possibly because they frequently leave electrified
lines or areas. Though, not always the rule. In terms of diesel
locomotives available, (which applies to passenger services as well),
there are main line locomotives in use which are 52 years old, down to
recently introduced locomotives.
Interestingly, with the exception of the class 20
locomotives, and diesel shunters (switchers), all of our diesel
locomotives feature a cab at each end. In terms of main line diesel
locomotives, there are 13 main classes, plus a handful of other
locomotives, which total around 1300 locomotives. Plus many shunting
The higher the class
number, the more powerful the locomotive; the highest (diesel locomotive)
class number being class 70. This class of 12 locomotives was built from
2008, in Erie, Pa, by General Electric; their power output is 3690 HP, and
they are limited to 75 mph.
It is worth mentioning that the final member
of the class was dropped about 15ft, while being unloaded at the docks,
the result of which was that it was badly bent. The indications are
that it will be scrapped, and replaced with another! Sad; it did not turn
a wheel on British soil before being written off!
It should also be
noted that around the country, there are a number of former British Rail
main line diesel locomotives, now under industrial ownership and
use. Which also applies to a large number of (preserved) Heritage
Which then brings me to electric locomotives. There are six
classes of electric locomotive, totaling 226. Most of them get their power
from overhead catenary wires, though, one class which is electro-diesel
gets it’s power from a third electrified rail, or it’s own diesel engine.
While another class obtains power from overhead, or a third rail. To this
mix can be added a further 56 locomotives, for exclusive use in/through
the Channel Tunnel.
Plus, of course, there are myriad classes of “multiple
units”, which do not require a locomotive, as, either each (carriage) unit
has it’s own engine, or the leading carriage at either end has an engine.
Or, sometimes, the multiple-unit features just a single engine. And they
can be diesel multiple units (DMU) or electric multiple units (EMU). From
single carriage units for local trips, to two-car up to eight-car units,
or multiples thereof. In many different liveries, depending on where in
the country you are, and who the train operating company is.
Five HST units at the buffers of London's Paddington
a wonderful Brunel designed structure
we're talking about electric multiple units, let's not forget the world's
oldest underground railway: the very extensive London Underground! Which
does not always remain underground... There are many places where
underground trains can be seen, adjacent to "normal" trains.
So, that is an overview of the national railways, in the
UK. All in an area smaller than the state of Michigan. Are your
railroading juices flowing yet?
Well, hold on. This is where things become much more
interesting. Now we will consider the private (enthusiast and/or tourist)
Heritage lines, and the steam movement in the UK.
And, it has to be said here, that we do have a very strong, and indeed,
advanced steam movement.
There are about 80 sites or (Heritage) standard gauge lines where steam
locomotives are operated. I say about; there are still new sites springing
up, even more than 40 years after steam ended on British Rail. There are
certainly 79 working sites!
But then, throw in the National Rail Museum at York, the
largest rail museum in the world, and it's offshoot Locomotion, a few
miles north at Shildon, and the Great Western Railway Museum in the former
GWR works in Swindon, among others, and there is much to see. (And do!)
There are 115 standard gauge Heritage sites in total.
Stainer Coronation Princess Pacific 6229 - Duchess of
National Rail Museum, York.
But, there’s more. There are also 73 (ride-able) narrow
gauge railways that operate steam locomotives. Ranging from 7¼ ins gauge
to 31½ ins. Including 14 in Wales. Some of them, mountain railways that
traverse extremely scenic views. A number of these railways being remnants
of the former mining and quarrying industries there.
One of the unique push-me-pull-you Double Fairlie 0-4-4-0
locomotives, David Lord George,
at Porthmadog on the Ffestiniog Narrow Gauge Railway, on 17
And there are some
interesting things happening here. For example, the 14 mile long
Ffestiniog Railway has been connected to the 12 mile long Welsh Highland
Railway. At 26 miles in length, it is the longest Heritage line in the UK.
With a great selection of locomotives, including some larger Garratts, and
the unique (push-me-pull-you) Double Fairlies.
Pacific No. 8 Hurricane awaits departure from New Romney
on the Romney, Hythe & Dimchurch Narrow Gauge Railway on 18
One of six steam engines working on "children's day",
hence the faces on all the locomotives.
Interestingly, research reveals that there are 78 railroads in the US
which operate standard gauge steam locomotives; so, broadly similar to
the UK. And there are 42 narrow gauge railroads in the US which operate
steam locomotives. Taken together, around 190 steam locos were expected
(or hoped!) to be used across these 120 railroads during 2008. Depending
on availability and unforeseen problems.
At this point in time, there are 140 former British
Railways standard gauge steam locomotives currently available to use over
the 79 Heritage railways in the UK. Out of a possible pool of 359 former
main line steam engines; the number of which is slowly increasing, due to
“new” steam locomotives being built.
Currently, there are 28 steam locomotives
certified for main line use. This number goes up or down, as locomotives
go out of boiler ticket, or newly restored engines join the list. But wait; it gets better! There are also quite a number of
former industrial steam engines now preserved and working on Heritage
lines around the country. Mostly 0-6-0 tanks, often saddle tanks, with a
small number of 0-4-0 tanks.
Factor both the working, and out of ticket former
industrial steam engines into the number, and without doubt, the total
number of prospective steam engines increases to well over 400. And of
course, 0-6-0s are the backbone of the Heritage lines, as they are cheaper
to run, and ready more quickly for use, than say a Pacific. Or, they may
simply be used as station pilots. The Embsay and Bolton Abbey Railway uses
a fleet of about 12, mostly former industrial 0-6-0s.
Former War Department 0-6-0 saddle tank 3794 "Cumbria" at
on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway
But, to return to “new” steam engines, the first brand new
steam engine to be built in the UK for 48 years, Peppercorn A1 Pacific
60163 Tornado, was finally finished in late July 2008, after a 14 year
build process, and is now fully certified for main line use, after
extensive running in, and speed trials. This locomotive has really
captured the imagination of the nation. I have never seen so many people
turn out to see a steam engine! Even whole families.
Peppercorn A1 Pacific 60163 Tornado powers through the Wiltshire
countryside, near Hullavington, on a bright, cold St Davids Day, 1 March
2010, on the outbound journey of an excursion from London to Swansea and
The first main line passenger train was undertaken on 31
January 2009, from York to Newcastle and return. This class of locomotive
was chosen, as there were none left, all having been scrapped in the mid
1960s. And, they were much liked by the engineers who drove them, for
their being economical to use, and reliable, with longer service intervals
than other steam locomotives. Equally, following in the slipstream of
success of this loco, there are now a number of similar ongoing projects
to resurrect other long lost classes of steam locomotive.
Brand new Peppercorn A1 class Pacific 60163 "Tornado" at
Tyseley on 28 June 2009
It is also worth noting that the UK steam movement is
reasonably well imbued with steam locomotives, thanks to a Welshman. Dai
Woodham, the owner of Woodhams Scrapyard in Barry, Wales. Between 1959 and
1968, 297 steam locomotives went into this scrapyard. Fortunately for
steam enthusiasts, the scrapyard had so much work, cutting up railway
wagons, the locomotives were put on the back burner for when the wagon
work slowed up; which, it never did. Thus, out of the 297 locomotives that
went into the scrapyard, 213 came back out. Not all 213 of those
locomotives have been restored to working order. Yet! But, each year, a
small number of former Barry Scrapyard inhabitants are brought back to
full working order. And many continue to be nursed back to full health.
Slowly and painstakingly, according to manpower, and financial resources…
Not the cheapest of hobbies, restoring rusting scrapyard wrecks.
As an example, Bulleid West Country class Pacific 34046
“Braunton” was re-commissioned in September 2008. Once started, the
restoration took 12 years, and about 77,000 man hours. This locomotive had
not steamed since being withdrawn from British railways in the early
1960s. Thus, it can be seen, that the steam movement here in the UK, has a
large number of reasons to be grateful to Dai Woodham. Because of him, we
have a greatly enlarged pool of steam locomotives to use and enjoy, all
around the UK.
Rebuilt Bulleid West Country class Pacific 34046 "Braunton"
on 24 September 2008, the day it was commissioned back
following 12 years and 77,000 man hours of work.
But wait! There’s still more. It just keeps getting better!
Because of the way the UK railways are run, (since privatization) there is
an open access agreement, which allows for main line steam hauled
excursions to be run, provided the locomotives being used conform to the
same safety rules and regulations as any other locomotive working on the
national network. This means that provided the steam locomotive is within
it’s boiler certificate, and it has TPWS (train protection & warning
system) and OTMR (on train monitoring & recording; i.e. a data recorder,
similar to a black box on a plane!) it can be used on the main line. And
these main line steam excursions can run virtually anywhere on the
national network, subject to paths being found between the normal
passenger and freight traffic. Such excursions will always play second
fiddle to regular timetabled trains. If the timetable is running late, it
will always take priority over any excursions.
Bulleid Merchant Navy class Pacific 35038 "Clan Line"
powers through Grateley Station
on a VSOE excursion on 11 November 2009
The upshot however, is that, depending upon the locomotive
being used, preserved steam engines are allowed to run at up to 75 mph.
Which is still pretty awesome. Especially on the East Coast Main Line for
example. Nice long runs of cruising in the mid 70s, with all the sounds
and smells remains a wonderful experience.
Throw in the dining
experience, with a four course silver served meal, and you have the
makings of a great day out. I maintain that the most enjoyable meal you
can have out, is on a train, where the scenery constantly changes. And for
good measure, add in the sounds (and smells) of yesteryear.
Of course, if fine
dining is not your thing, you can always do the railfan thing of hanging
out of a door window. Assuming you are able to find an unoccupied one!
But, bring some industrial goggles if you don't want smuts in the eye!
That said, it is hoped
to be able to run the previously mentioned Peppercorn A1 Tornado at 90 mph
on the main line. Because it is a new steam engine, as opposed to a
During the four years it has been running,
Tornado has been a great success, in every way. Both, on the main line,
with totally sold out excursions, and at the Heritage railways it has
visited; pulling in enormous crowds everywhere. As expected, it remains a
much sought after engine, always with a full calendar ahead.
Though, it should be said, that, the engine has had more
boiler problems than was originally anticipated. Almost certainly due to
the fact that Tornado is constantly going through full cold to hot to cold
cycles. Whereas, in normal use, such engines would remain warm for long
periods of three weeks or more, only being allowed to go cold for a
Having been hauled by
it, on the Great Central Railway, during running in trials, and on the
main line, it has to be said that it makes a wonderful noise. To hear it,
and be hauled by it, on the main line will be, possibly, the ultimate UK
steam experience, especially once it is allowed to do 90 mph, hopefully,
in the future.
In 2007, 266 main line steam hauled excursions ran. In
2008, there were 396 steam hauled excursions. In 2009 there were 435.
In 2010, there were 466. In 2011 there were 436. (Though, these figures do
not include the regular services from Grosmont to Whitby, on network
track, run by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.) That is an average of
more than one per day, throughout the year. In fact, although there are
main line excursions during every month, it is no surprise that there are
many more during the summer months than during the winter months.
Although January and February are leaner than other months,
there is usually 3-6 during January, and 6-10 in February. Thereafter,
numbers really increase. During the summer months, there are up to 10
regularly scheduled steam hauled services in different parts of the
country. Some of them daily, some weekly.
Although excursions are occasionally cancelled, it is
rarely because of a lack of passengers. Usual reasons tend to be
engineering work on the line, or the chosen locomotive is out of gauge;
meaning that there are one or more bridges that it may not fit through too
well! Or, very occasionally, the locomotive does not pass its fitness to
Equally, steam haulage on the Heritage lines has a similar
pattern. During the winter months, the smaller lines may close for the
winter, or, revert to using diesel haulage only. That said, some of the
larger lines do operate for much of the year, perhaps with only a short
break after the very hectic Santa season. Some operate almost every
weekend of the year. Ultimately, it is a fact that, there are few days
during the year when I could not find a working steam engine, somewhere in
Nice line-up in front of the original 1932 GWR four road
at Didcot Railway Centre on 8 November 2008
And this is where the real joy of the UK comes into the
equation. It is such a small area, overall, yet, railroading-wise, there
is so much happening. During 2008, I managed to see 80 different standard
gauge steam engines working. Either, on the main line, or on the Heritage
lines. Plus a small number of working narrow gauge steam engines. It would
be easily possible to hit 100 in a year.
No matter where you are, in the UK, you are never far from
some steam action at some point during the year! For the real enthusiast,
it is possible to visit two Heritage lines a day. If you really want an
intensive dose of steam action, come visit during the summer months.
Easily possible to see working steam engines every day over a two or three
week period. And experience steam on the main line.
Mid to late September is a good time, as that is when many
of the Heritage lines hold their autumn steam galas. Often with any number
of working steam engines for the occasion. For example, The Watercress
Railway usually has six or seven in steam, and the West Somerset Railway
usually has upto 12 in steam. On very intensive timetables. And, as a
side note, there are also many former main line diesel locomotives, now
preserved, on the many Heritage lines. And equally, used on main line
The grand finale at the Llangollen Railway steam gala: a
10 loco cavalcade,
on 26 April 2009. Awesome!
What else do we have here? The three most famous steam
engines in the world!
Gresley A3 Pacific 4472 Flying Scotsman.
Part of the national collection, this locomotive is based
at York. Due back in main line action in the summer of 2012, following a
prolonged total overhaul.
Gresley A4 Pacific 4468 Mallard.
The fastest steam engine in the world; having attained 126
mph on 3 July 1938 on the East Coast Main Line. Now a static exhibit at
Thomas the Tank Engine!
With the addition of Tornado, make that four!
Of notable merit, there is also Gresley A4 Pacific 60007
"Sir Nigel Gresley" which holds the post war steam engine speed
record of 112 mph, attained in 1959. Based at the North Yorkshire Moors
Railway, this loco is main line certified, and is a joy to ride behind, on
main line service!
Read 'em and weep! Four of a kind wins!
For the first (and only) time in 44 years, a group of
four Gresley A4 class Pacifics are seen together, on 5 July 2008, at the
National Railway Museum, York. Including Mallard, the fastest steam
locomotive in the world, and Sir Nigel Gresley, the holder of the post war
speed record for a steam engine, from 1959. Great pedigree....
This sign commemorates the exact spot at Stoke Summit on
the East Coast Main Line, where Mallard set the world speed record for a
Photo taken on 1 March 2008, at about 60 mph, behind
sister locomotive 60019 "Bittern."
One other thing we have, is Clapham Junction (station).
Once known as the busiest station in the world, which it could still be...
it is almost certainly the busiest station in Europe. Located in
south-west London, in commuter belt, this 17 platform station sees about
2000 trains a day pass through, many stopping there. Being at a
confluence where a number of lines converge, every type of train can be
seen here. During peak times, 180 trains per hour pass through, about 60%
of which will stop there. If it is quantity you're after, this is where to
come! Could you handle them all?
So, to summarize; the UK is an area slightly larger than
Minnesota, with many more, and faster passenger trains than the whole of
the US, and many freight trains. Broadly speaking, there are the same
number of standard gauge Heritage lines as there are in the whole of the
US, where working steam can be experienced; but, for much of the year, as
opposed to six or seven months of the year. And, considerably more narrow
gauge railways where steam operates. Plus, there are many more steam
engines, working or otherwise to see and enjoy. Along with a much higher
number of main line steam hauled trains. And a very advanced steam
movement that is now resurrecting steam locomotives from long extinct
classes of locomotive.
All this in an area equating to Minnesota! What’s not to
like about that? With a little bit of planning you could have one of the
best railroading experiences available. In a country that uses the same
language, and has a broadly similar culture. What are you waiting for?
You are invited to relax and review the rail
scene in the U.K. with a cup of tea and a shortbread ...