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10 Sensational UK Heritage Railways You Will Love!

10 Sensational UK Heritage Railways You Will Love!

Fittingly for the country that invented steam locomotives, the United Kingdom is blessed with incredible heritage railways. A splendid day out for old and young alike, some also offer special events like afternoon teas and fine dining, 1940s themed weekends, and “Rail Ale” trips. Then there are Polar Express and Santa Specials at Christmas. A trip on one of the UK heritage railways is always a treat!

You can even book a “footplate experience” on some! While a number of the heritage railways now use diesel or electric locomotives too, many still offer the thrill of a ride behind a steam engine, with all the nostalgic sights, sounds and smells of steam train travel

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Love heritage railway journeys? Checkout the best 10 preserved railways in the UK in this post.

Like many kids, I fell in love with heritage railways after numerous family outings and many viewings of “The Railway Children“.

At 14, I rode the unforgettable steam train from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Years later, I visited the war graves in Kanchanburi, Thailand before boarding a steam train to cross the famous bridge over the River Kwai.

Despite years of commuting, my love of train travel is undimmed, and I still love the romance of a ride on a steam train! 

What is a Heritage Railway?

In the boom years of the ’60s, car ownership became affordable for the masses in the UK, and road building (including motorways) flourished. As train passenger numbers plummeted, the railways were making huge losses.

In the mid-1960s, a report from physicist and engineer Dr. Richard Beeching (CEO of British Railways) recommended a dramatic programme of cuts. As a result, over 2,000 stations and 5,000 miles of track were mothballed.

Most of today’s heritage lines were originally branch lines – closed during what has become known as “the Beeching Axe”. A smaller number were industrial or colliery lines.

But that’s not the whole story.

How were the Heritage Railways Built?

After the Beeching closures, British Railways had masses of unwanted rolling stock and other assets it no longer needed! Trains, train lines – even the Yorkshire stone from Victorian station buildings were sold off at rock bottom prices – often to train enthusiasts.  

Across the country, bands of volunteers clubbed together, sharing their knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm for steam trains. Bringing these once-glorious railway lines back to life demanded time, herculean fund-raising, and many hours of work.

Thankfully, they soldiered on, rebuilding stations and re-laying track to build today’s superb Heritage Railways for all to enjoy. 

You may also enjoy: Train travel in the UK – Tips, tricks, and everything you need to plan and book your trip

How Many Heritage Railways Are There in the UK?

There are 119 heritage railways operating across the UK, represented by the Heritage Railways Association.

There are also tramways, narrow-gauge railways, and funicular railways! One of the most interesting funicular railways is the Victorian cliff lift at Saltburn on Sea.

Which are the best preserved railways to visit in the UK?

While there is something unique and thrilling about every single heritage railway in the UK, I’ve picked out just a few of my favourites to whet your appetite for further exploration!.

Heritage Railways in Wales

Ffestiniog Railway

Departures from: Porthmadog Station and Tan y Bwlch Station, Gwynedd, Wales

Ffestiniog Steam Railway in the Snowdonia Mountains
Ffestiniog Steam Railway in the Snowdonia Mountains. Image © Milosz Maslanka

I have to start with my first heritage railway experience, which also happens to be the world’s oldest independent narrow-gauge railway. The (almost) 200-year-old Ffestiniog steam railway transports you on a 13½-mile journey from Porthmadog Harbour to the historic slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Wales famous Ffestiniog heritage railway
Ffestiniog Preserved Railway view. Image © Kurt MISAR

The dramatic route climbs over 700 feet from sea level up into the Snowdonia National Park. On the scenic 2 ½ hour journey, you’ll see lush green pastures and magnificent forests, lakes, and waterfalls.

The most spectacular sections are the tight bends as the tracks hug the side of the mountain and the incredible manually dug tunnels. One part is even an astonishing complete spiral! Book your visit here.

2. The Welsh Highland Railway

The Beyer Garratt locomotive on the Welsh Highland Railway at Beddgelet station in Snowdonia Wales
The Beyer Garratt locomotive on the Welsh Highland Railway at Beddgelet station in Snowdonia Wales. Image © Edward Nurse

The Welsh Highland Railway is the longest heritage railway in the UK. It runs for 25 miles from Caernarfon, past the foot of Snowdon and the picture-postcard village of Beddgelert, through the incredible Aberglaslyn Pass onward to Porthmadog. 

Passengers on the WHR enjoy some of the most comfortable carriages on any heritage railway in the UK, The carriages offer first-class Pullman luxury and freshly-cooked food is delivered to your seat. Book your trip here.

Heritage Railways in England

Bluebell Railway 

The Flying Scotsman on the Bluebell Preserved Railway Line
The Flying Scotsman on the Bluebell Line. Image © philipbird123

The Bluebell Railway started train services in August 1960 and now runs steam trains between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead. 

With an 11 mile run through glorious Sussex countryside, the Bluebell Railway is a delight for heritage railway lovers.

There’s also one of the most exciting collections of vintage steam locomotives and carriages in the country to enjoy, many preserved straight from service with British Railways.

Horsted Keynes Station on the Bluebell Heritage Railway
Horsted Keynes Station on the Bluebell Heritage Railway. Image © PhilipBird123

In addition to luxuriating in the comfort and style of a bygone era, a visit to the Bluebell Railway offers visitors the chance to learn about the history and science of the industrial age and to experience the thrill of getting up close to a working steam locomotive.  

During your visit, you will see railway staff dressed in period clothing, and original working signal boxes, plus four beautiful stations preserved in different periods of history including the Victorian, the 1930s, and the 1950s. 

For a special treat, their dining trains operate on selected dates, offering services for Afternoon Tea and Silver Service dining plus “Supper Specials” and “Rail Ale” evenings.

Location: Sheffield Park Station, East Sussex, TN22 3QL

Book Tickets here

Keighley and Worth Valley Railway

The "White Rose" pulling into Oxenhope Station on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.
The “White Rose” pulling into Oxenhope Station on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway. Image © Grey Globetrotters

If you’ve ever watched the film” The Railway Children” or the BBC’s “Last of the Summer Wine“, then you’ve probably already seen the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway in action!

While the Worth Valley branch line closed in 1962, it reopened as a heritage line in 1968, thanks to the work of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society. Today it’s one of the best heritage railways in Yorkshire.

Join the train from the mainline station at Keighley, the tiny village of Oxenhope or Haworth. You can also book one of the services serving afternoon tea – an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so!

Picturesque Oxenhope Station on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway
Picturesque Oxenhope Station on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway. Image © Grey Globetrotters

Perhaps the most famous stretch of this heritage railway is the short section short through the heart of Brontë Country from Oxenhope to the village of Haworth. It’s a short (but steep) walk uphill from Haworth station to the Bronte Sisters House, which is now the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

Visit to see how the sisters lived and where they crafted their famous novels of 19th-century life, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Location:

  • KEIGHLEY – Keighley Railway Station, Station Bridge, Keighley, BD21 4HP
    There is a PAID car park next to Keighley Station, but it is very busy Monday to Saturday. Ingrow West Station is just 1.5 miles away.
  • INGROW – Ingrow Railway Station, South Street, Ingrow, Keighley, BD21 5AX
    Ingrow West Station and the adjacent goods yard has a large FREE car park – a great place to start your journey to experience the RAIL STORY.
  • OAKWORTH – Oakworth Railway Station, Station Road, Oakworth, Keighley, BD22 0DZ
    There is a small FREE uneven gravel car park by Oakworth Station building.
  • HAWORTH – The Railway Station, Station Road, Haworth, Keighley, BD22 8NJ
    Haworth Station has a gravel PAID car park next to the station.
  • OXENHOPE – Oxenhope Railway Station, Station Road, Oxenhope, Keighley, BD22 9LB
    Oxenhope has a large, FREE car park with an overflow a short walk away.

Book tickets here

You may also enjoy: How to Visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum

North York Moors Railway, 

Pickering to Whitby, North Yorkshire

Goathland Station North York Moors Railway min
Black Steam Engine pulling out from Goathland station en route to Pickering, North Yorkshire Image © Philip

A trip on the preserved North Yorkshire Moors Railway is one of my favourite things to do in North Yorkshire. This heritage line runs from the beautiful market town of Pickering, deep in the Yorkshire Moors, to the wonderful North Yorkshire seaside town at Whitby.  

The largest preserved heritage railway in the UK in terms of route mileage operated and passenger numbers, the North York Moors Railway spans 18 miles through the very picturesque North York Moors. The line has featured in the TV show Heartbeat, and Goathland Station became Hogsmeade Station for the Harry Potter films.

Location:

  • GROSMONT: Front St, Grosmont YO22 5QE
  • PICKERING: YO18 7AJ
  • LEVISHAM: YO18 7NN
  • GOATHLAND: YO22 5NF (Hogwart’s Station)
  • GROSMONT: YO22 5QE
  • WHITBY: YO21 1YN

Find full directions and booking info here.

Epping Ongar Railway

Check out: The 20 Most Beautiful Towns in Yorkshire

For visitors to the UK, who are staying in London, this is perhaps the most convenient heritage railway to visit, as it’s easily accessible by London Underground from Central London.

The six-mile countryside line includes a run through Epping Forest and is the longest heritage railway in Essex

Location: Ongar Station, Station Approach, Ongar CM5 9BN

Book your trip here.

Great Central Railway

great central heritage railway uk min
Steam Engine pulling into Station on Great Central Railway. Image © harlequin9

Experience the only double-tracked, mainline heritage railway in the country. The Great Central Railway is where you can see steam trains pass each other. 

Open all year round, the Grand Central Railway offers steam train driving and some of the most popular steam train dining experiences too.  

Location: Great Central Road, Loughborough, LE11 1RW

Find full timetable and booking information here

Ribble Steam Heritage Railway

This heritage railway in Preston, Lancashire is small but unique in that the line runs through the middle of town! The line crosses the Navigation Way swing bridge on the banks of the River Ribble then over the road in the town centre crossings too.

Heritage Railways in Scotland

Keith & Dufftown Railway

Keith & Dufftown is the most northerly heritage railway in Scotland. It runs from Dufftown (known as “The Whisky Capital of the World” because it produces more whisky from its seven working distilleries than anywhere else in Scotland), to Keith. 

The 11-mile “Whisky Line” offers stunning views of Drummuir Castle and the spectacular Banffshire countryside. Look out for views of wildlife on this trip – you’re likely to see deer, red squirrels, buzzards, and other large birds of prey too. 

Preserved Railways – Offshore British Islands

The final heritage railway in this round-up is tiny, off-the-beaten-path and it’s the most southerly railway in the British Isles! While it’s not in the UK, it is on British soil, as it’s on Alderney, one of the British Channel Islands. I think that makes it OK to include here, don’t you?

Alderney Railway

The final remaining working railway in the Channel Islands is on the tiny island of Alderney, which is just 3 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide! 

Old London Underground carriages on the Alderney Railway.
Old London Underground carriages on the Alderney Railway. Image © allard1

The British Government built the Alderney Railway in the 1840s, to transport stone 2 1/4 miles from the east of the island to build a breakwater and forts.

At the time, Alderney was strategically important to maintaining British naval dominance in the English Channel, as France was extending the fortifications and harbour at Cherbourg. The railway was so important that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert travelled to Alderney to open the railway.

Today, two London Underground carriages and a diesel engine carry visitors from Braye Road Station to Mannez Station near the Lighthouse. 

Check operating dates and charter information here.

Do you enjoy visiting steam railways and heritage lines too? Which ones have you visited and which was your favourite? Is there a unique heritage railway in the UK still on your bucket list? Please let me know in the comments! As always, I love to hear what you think x

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Peter Hunt

Saturday 20th of March 2021

My history of heritage railway visits: 1961 Festiniog to 2019, TR ditto, Vale of Rheidol ditto. Welshpool 1969 to now, Bluebell 1969, Welsh Highland 2011 to date. Others, East Lancs, Ecclesbourne, GCR and a fair few more. Introduced my wife to the Festiniog in 1969 and fortunately she fell in love with railways!

Coralie

Monday 28th of June 2021

You sound like an avid fan of trains - so it was lucky that your wife loved them too!

Sue

Friday 4th of September 2020

Great post & I learnt a lot about the history of the railways which I didn't realise as well. I was lucky enough to ride my first steam train a few weeks ago - The Jacobite from Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland. It was made famous by the Harry Potter films. Watching as it traversed the Glenfinnan Viaduct was spectacular & then we treated ourselves to the return journey...first class! It was a real event & there is definitely something very special about these old engines, both being on them & just watching them pass. Just magical, thanks for sharing!

Coralie

Tuesday 8th of September 2020

That sounds wonderful Sue - the Glenfinnan viaduct is on my list of things to do! I've just read your post about your tour which sounds amazing!

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