Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Romance of Train Travel: not gone yet!

I was given a copy of Andrew Martin's "Belles and Whistles" about the decline of the famous named trains, the fall in standards from monogrammed cutlery on express trains to wooden stirring sticks.

The cover picture says it all, really, but although it is generally true that travel is not as special as it was (by car or by air as well, come to that, as well as rail), there are still four or five trains in the UK which are still rather special and I have made a point of seeking these out and travelling on most of them as part of my railway adventures. Their future appears shaky at times but at present is as secure as anything that requires commercial success can be.

All my train journeys have been described in posts in this blog, but I list them here for convenience, and there is one I have not yet done but is on my "list".

1 The Night Riviera

Great Western Railway has retained several named trains in its timetable, but most of these are just any old inter-city train, with a name in the timetable notes. The one real exception is the Night Riviera, the sleeper train service between Penzance and London Paddington, with dedicated coaches and a tailored provision of service. A movie about it can be seen in my post last summer. We travelled on it from London to Penzance and it was a great experience, quite different from many a frenzied departure from Paddington. The coaches have recently been upgraded and so the experience is probably (even) better than when I tried it.

The Night Riviera departs from platform 1 with its polished marble surface, and sleeper train passengers are entitled to use the First Class lounge on this platform. The gleaming train is brought in well in advance of its departure time and passengers are met at the doors by attendants and taken to their berths. A pack of toiletries is included and there are all the facilities needed for a night aboard the train (though no showers on board, but there are at the terminus stations). There is a Club Car serving food and drink, and breakfast can be taken in sleeping compartments or in the Club Car: I always prefer sitting fully-dressed in the Club Car, feeling ready for the day, and it is great to look out on Cornwall slipping past the train windows while eating breakfast.

This train operates every night except Saturday (few need to be in Cornwall first thing on Sunday morning!) and the London-bound one (which I have not yet tried) arrives in time for work. Weekend in Cornwall: no waking travel required (if you're in London)!

My description is at The Cornish Riviera!

2 The Caledonian Sleeper

This is actually two trains: the Highland Sleeper with sections for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, and the Lowland Sleeper with sections for Edinburgh and Glasgow. Both depart from and arrive at Euston station in London, the former leaving much earlier in the evening than the latter. Both are special but the Highland train more so, and that is the one I describe at West Highland Adventure.  Like the Night Riviera, the train is at the platform in good time and passengers may use the First Class lounge, but in this case there is no beauty in the platform itself, looking as much like a cellar as any other Euston platform. We are met by the attendant and shown to our berths. This train includes a Lounge Car with leather sofas and a few dining tables, and leaving early enough in the evening it provides a decent dinner menu (which I understand is even better now than it was when I travelled - I think another trip is called-for!) with a Scottish feel.

It is worth travelling to Forth William just for the train ride! Arrival is well into the morning, for the ride is so long, and this train just takes you to another world, finishing on winding single track in wild landscape after its departure from London along some of the busiest main line in the country. Again, it is worth dressing and having breakfast in the Lounge Car, with coffee on the sofa watching the snow-capped peaks slip by the windows.


New rolling stock has begun to be used on the Caledonian Sleeper there is an opportunity for even more romantic travel, including double beds in some berths, and en-suite showers.

3 The Highland Chieftain

This train does not have dedicated coaches, it is "just" another HST (Inter-city 125 High Speed Train), but it is the only daytime train between London and Inverness (the sleeper being the only other through train) and is the longest trip available on the East Coast Main Line. I have used this a few times in both directions (although never end-to-end, having to connect into it along the way). The catering is just like that on other Virgin Trains East Coast services, but you do get to consume quite a lot of it on such a long journey! There are no longer restaurant cars on these trains, but a First Class ticket includes an at-seat meal service of decent-enough food and drink.

It feels particularly special when standing at the platform at Inverness among the two- or four-coach Sprinters going to other parts of Scotland, and, naturally, even more special if you travel, as we always have when visiting Scotland, First Class. 


The Highland Chieftain now uses the Hitachi Intercity Express Train sets which the present operating company LNER calls "Azumas", just like almost all of the other LNER trains. But its route, and its once-a-day timetable, still makes it special.

4 The Gerald of Wales

Dinner on the northbound Gerald, with thanks to
Thomas Isherwood on Twitte@ThomasIsherwoo2
This is the train that needs to be included, but which I have not yet tried, Transport for Wales's Gerald of Wales between North and South Wales, which has dedicated coaches and complimentary cooked meals in First Class and sounds wonderful, one journey per day in each direction. I understand that the tablecloths have now been removed to give a more "businesslike" atmosphere, which is a pity for leisure travellers but understandable! The train leaves very early in the morning from Holyhead with breakfast served on the way to Cardiff via Chester, and the crew aims to serve everyone, not just those boarding early. The return evening service is more likely to appeal to leisure travellers than the early southbound one, and a three-course cooked dinner is served on this.

I understand that there is a simple First Class upgrade available to Standard Class ticket-holders, this being the only TfW train conveying First Class accommodation. I can feel a triangular trip coming one - starting with an outing to South Wales and ending at Llandudno via the Gerald (apparently named after a medieval Archdeacon ...).


I understand that TfW now runs a similar train a few times per day on its Cardiff-Manchaster rail route. Makes it an even more enticing proposition for those of us living in England!

5 Pullman Dining

I said there are "four or five" special trains. The one I did not know whether to include or not is the handful of ordinary First Great Western train services that convey what the company calls a Pullman Restaurant Car, the only remaining full restaurant service on ordinary British main line trains. The trains are nothing extraordinary, but the dining is! It is not cheap, but neither should it be with this standard of catering. You have to look carefully in the timetable to select a train that has the Pullman Restaurant Car, for most of them do not, and you have to budget for the meal as if you were going out to an expensive restaurant. It was one of the best meals I've ever enjoyed and it was served beautifully. Fully recommended as a way to make a 125mph journey to Devon pass even more quickly - we were in Exeter as the table was cleared!

Posted at Return to the Dart 


Since writing this I have travelled on the direct train to the French Riviera and would definitely now include that journey in this list. It is mostly not in the UK, of course, but it started in London and is long enough for two on-board meals. It is just one train a day at most (less in the off season), but sadly does not have a name. My report at Mediterranean Sunshine, part 1.



  1. We took the family to Rome a few years ago and travelled there by train. The jpurney from Geneva to Milan through the Alps was just stunning. I'll nevcer forget it.

  2. That trip is definitely on my list! I have explored the Swiss Alps a bit on a package holiday with Great Rail Journeys and will return this summer to see the area without snow. My plan one day is to travel to Italy and explore then return on the Venice Simplon Orient Express, or vice-versa.