SUCH POWER, such technology, such speed! Last month a state-of-the-art Japanese magnetic levitation train smashed the world train speed record, hitting just over 600 km/h (375 mph). The train, known as a “Maglev ”, ran perfectly and the ride was was reported to be very comfortable. What was there not to celebrate?
Yet somehow there was something indefinable missing. You might call it romance and glamour. Or magic even. Once, the railways were brilliant at projecting the mystique and allure of train travel in ways that weren’t simply about speed. Think of the famous Flying Scotsman, the Silver Jubilee the Coronation Scot and the Cheltenham Flyer. In their pre-war heyday these classic British expresses were not only the fastest trains of their kind in the world, but a synonym for character and luxury, too.
They were not defined by abbreviations such as TGV, HST, HS2 or Maglev, but trains steeped in character and personality of their own, headed by locomotives with polished brass nameplates and drivers who were hero-worshipped by small boys as soccer stars are today. Who could fail to thrill to W.H. Auden’s Night Mail crossing the border, “shovelling white steam over her shoulder” or feel that tremor of anticipation in boarding the Golden Arrow to Paris.
It is a sad fact that many of the things that made once rail travel pleasurable have disappeared in our modern homogenised age of the train. Certainly we in Britain seem to have lost the knack, deployed by the old railway companies, of harnessing the innate love of trains that seems to run through our DNA. Gone are railway stations built like cathedrals rather than concrete boxes, haute cuisine in the dining car, cosy compartments, seats that line up with the windows, cheerful porters on platforms.
The thing perhaps we miss most keenly is the sense of excitement and mystique the mystique of the grand expresses – with their individual character and evocative names. Long gone is The Royal Scot, stirring hearts at Euston with its streamlined crimson and gold “Coronation” class locomotives. Memories are fading now of the exotic Night Ferry train to Paris, with an air-smoothed Merchant Navy class at Victoria at the head of a rake of sleeping cars – uniformed stewards in starched jackets at to ready to fulfill the passenger’s every whim. No more grilled kippers and steaming silver pots of coffee at breakfast on the Brighton Belle.
Once upon a time there were more than 130 named trains steaming up and down the land. Now just five of our modern privatised rail companies feature named trains in their timetables. We have lost something indefinably precious about train travel in Britain today.
The first named train in the world was The Irish Mail of 1848. But the idea really took off when the Great Western Railway had the brainwave of naming its own Cornish Riviera Express in 1904. Then, the Paddington to Plymouth leg of the trip to Penzance was the fastest non-stop railway journey in the world.
As the 1930s got underway, railways around the world vied to put a branding on their fastest named trains. In the lead was the Cheltenham Flyer (the unofficial name of the Cheltenham Spa Express), which in 1932 was claimed by the Great Western to be the fastest train in the world. Not to be outdone, the LNER introduced its streamlined Silver Jubilee from London to Edinburgh in 1937, while LMS struck back with its own streamliner – The Coronation Scot of 1938.
In the years that followed a galaxy of great trains flourished: from The Thames-Clyde Express and The Shamrock, to the The White Rose and The Waverley (romanticlly named after the novels of Sir Walter Scott). The carriages often bore decorative insignia proclaiming their route – and some, such as The Caledonian from Euston to Glasgow, even carried their name affixed as an elaborately painted tailboard on the gangway of the final coach. How exciting to watch it vanishing at speed into the distance surrounded by clouds of steam.
There were boat trains, such as The Cunarder, fine dining trains such as the Tees-Tyne Pullman and The Harrogate Sunday Pullman, trains with regal names, such as The Elizabethan from King’s Cross to Edinburgh and trains with the most workaday of names, such as the Trans-Pennine and the Hull Executive. (Whoever named this one must have been blissfully unaware of John Betjeman’s’ famous lampooning poem Executive – “No cuffs than mine are cleaner…I use the firm’s Cortina”.)
Even some freight trains, pulled by the early diesels were elevated with (somewhat less romantic) titles such, as The King’s Cross Freighter and The Lea Valley Enterprise. But by the late 1960s, the times were a’ changing. The age of steam on the main line was coming to an end. With its departure, much of the romance that adhered to the railways vanished, literally, in a puff of smoke. What a wealth of heritage was callously thrown away in almost every sphere of the railway’s operations.
Tragic above all was the loss of the named Anglo-Scottish expresses. First introduced in 1862, the Royal Scot – running non-stop from Euston to Glasgow and leaving simultaneously from both stations at 10am – was one of the most famous trains in the world. From the 1930s onwards, it would always be hauled by one of Sir William Stanier’s powerful “Coronation” or “Princess” class locomotives – some of the most handsome engines ever built.
Over at King’s Cross, the same fate befell the other famous Scottish trains, such as The Talisman and The Elizabethan. The Talisman was the heir to the pre-war streamlined morning express to Edinburgh – The Coronation – and was always hauled by the most immaculate locomotives King’s Cross shed could provide. The name even lasted into the era of the “HST” diesel trains, before finally expiring in 1991. The Elizabethan, named for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, was less enduring. Despite being the most heavily loaded fast train in Britain at 420 tons, it didn’t even survive the diesel era, being consigned to the scrap heap in 1961.
Equally sad was the loss of the holiday trains. The most famous, the Atlantic Coast Express, was axed in the 1960s despite a noble history bearing generations of families with their buckets and spades to the resorts of Devon and Cornwall. The ACE, as it was known, dated back to 1926 – when a guard at Waterloo won a prize of three guineas for suggesting its name to the Southern Railway. In its heyday, the ACE carried more through portions to more destinations than any other named train in Britain.
Despite such demand, it was abruptly and painfully axed in September 1964. We may perhaps be thankful that today’s First Great Western franchise has revived the title. But this is affixed to a train on a different route, running from Paddington via Reading to Newquay.
The previous year had seen the end, too, for that other famous seaside express The Scarborough Flyer. Unlike the ACE, this one really did go fast. Launched in 1927 and running only in the summer months, the timetable was boosted in 1935 with the timing cut to three hours between King’s Cross and York, making it one of the fastest trains of the day. Today the North Yorkshire resort has no through trains to the capital of any kind.
No more would genteel folk take afternoon tea aboard the Pullman Cars of the Bournemouth Belle on their way to “select” private hotels of the Dorset coast. The era of luxury was terminated on July 9 1967 when commuter -style electric trains took over the line. Gone, too, was the Southern Region’s all-Pullman Devon Belle, with its famous observation car at the rear.
The legendary Pines Express, which bore the toiling masses from the factories and mills of Liverpool and Manchester across the Mendip Hills for a refreshing fortnight on the s South Coast came to an abrupt end when the Somerset & Dorset line, which allowed a direct route avoiding London, was closed.
In fact, almost every social tribe of Britain was diminished as the lights went out one by one on the great named trains. No more excited émigré’s to far-flung corners of the world on the Ocean Liner Express to Southampton, nor hiking boots and crampons on The Lakes Express from Euston to Windermere. Hard-nosed West Midlands businessmen would miss doing their deals after a trip up to the “smoke” on The Midlander or The Inter-City. Doing business in Manchester would never be the same after the demise of The Palatine or in Liverpool without The Merseyside Express or in Hull minus The Hull Pullman.
Some of these grand old trains didn’t give up without a struggle. Passengers, led by actor Lord Olivier, fought back when British Railways started to run down the Brighton Belle, the world’s first all-electric Pullman train at the end of the 1960s. The famous thespian’s protest at the withdrawal of his breakfast kippers received media coverage from across the world. But to no avail, the train was withdrawn entirely in April 1972.
Some ghosts still survive. The private rail franchises First Great Western, Virgin East Coast and East Midlands Trains are all still running a modest stable of namers. Thankfully there is still the spirit of poetry and romance in the press and publicity offices of some of our hard-nosed private railway companies. But you can spend an entire day watching the destination board flash at Euston or Birmingham New Street and not encounter a single named train.
And there is no escaping from the fact that no matter how romantic the name, today’s bearers of even such formerly grand titles as the Cornish Riviera Express are all anonymous trains in identikit formation. The Flying Scotsman, sometimes has a specially decorated locomotive, but there are none of the luxury features, such as an onboard hairdressing saloon that set the train apart in the 1930s.
As for the rest, none of them carry headboards or any other insignia – mostly making do with a bit of card or paper affixed to a window and some small print in a timetable. They go mostly unrecognised by their passengers, unless you happen to be a nostalgist or an anorak.
But let’s be thankful for the ones we have got – at least they remind us of the heritage and allow us to bring back the spirit of the glamour of the railways – albeit vicariously.
There’s no doubt about the stardust such trains confer. An article in The Times in 1938 to mark the centenary of the London Midland & Scottish Railway got to the heart of it: “Sentimentality, snobbishness, romanticism – call the weakness by what name you please –will always make the passenger prefer to travel by a train with a name, rather than the 9.15.”