Fittingly for the country that invented steam locomotives, Britain 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.
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
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 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.
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!
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
Departures from: Porthmadog Station and Tan y Bwlch Station, Gwynedd, Wales
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.
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 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
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.
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 Victorian, 1930s and 1950s.
For a special treat, there 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
4. Keighley and Worth Valley Railway
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!
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.
5. North York Moors Railway,
Pickering to Whitby, North Yorkshire
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.
Epping Ongar Railway
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. Book your trip here.
Great Central Railway
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.
Ribble Steam Heritage Railway
This heritage railway in Preston 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 likley 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?
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!
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.
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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