Service, quality and charm – what we can learn from the golden age of Britain’s railways

IMAGINE a mighty express engine heading north on the West Coast main line powering its way effortlessly over the formidable Shap summit in the Westmorland fells. On this brilliant May morning the sun is glinting off the burnished Brunswick green of the boiler as a plume of steam rises high into the azure sky. The beat of the locomotive is as smooth and satisfying as a sewing machine.

In the comfy seats of the first class restaurant car, breakfast is nearly over. No bland microwave fare here.  Liveried waiters have served a first course of porridge, cereals and fruits, followed by sausage, eggs, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms and beans, all stacked high on silver salvers and freshly cooked in the kitchen car. Years of acquired skill have ensured that not a morsel of food, or drop of coffee, is spilled on the starched white tablecloths, despite the movement of the train.

Soon, at Carlisle, the train will negotiate the sidings round the back of the old engine shed and head south, traversing one of the great railway routes of the world – the Settle and Carlisle  line over the Pennines with its noble Ribblehead viaduct and memories of the Midland  Railway and its grand expresses from St Pancras to Scotland.

However, this is no fantasy of some jaded railway enthusiast. This sublime journey took place, not in 1953, but on 13 May 2023, aboard a charter train run by the Railway Touring Company, a King’s Lynn firm dedicated to bringing back the golden days of rail.

And there were more joys to come. After a stop at Appleby, the train headed, behind Merchant Navy class No. 35018 British India Line, to Preston, via a line whose passenger services were withdrawn by Beeching, while a sumptuous four-course meal, accompanied by some fine wine  was delivered from the kitchen car as the sun started to go down.

At Preston, there was evocation of yet another era – the 1960s – when vintage AL6 electric locomotive Les Ross, resplendent in blue-and-white livery backed on to the train for its journey back to London. And here was some fun. It was the day of a rail strike, and with few other trains running, we were able to chase at high speed along the tracks southwards with no signal checks or encumbrances, arriving at Euston 25 minutes early.

Who would want to swap any of this for our current railway of late-running services, cancelled trains, ironing board seats, irritating announcements appalling or absent catering, and the general shamble sthat seems to encapsulate today’s services.

And why do we have to look back half a century to see how it really should be done?