Love the railway – heritage railways

Love the railway – heritage railways

Published 16 June 2021 | Average read time
7 min read
Stories Industry-leading People and the railway

“Catch the train, enjoy the view, leave the car at home – you don’t need it.”

Britain’s heritage railways run through some of our most stunning landscapes, from the heart of Snowdonia to the North York Moors and Northern Scotland.

Many of them reopened for passenger services in May, giving visitors the first chance this year to experience the magic of steam up close.

There are more than 150 heritage railways across Britain covering 560 miles of track between 460 stations, says The Heritage Railway Association.

And you can catch a train on the modern mainline to reach one of these wonderful destinations.

Click here for a map of heritage railways all over Britain.

60+ years of heritage

Among the most popular is the Middleton Railway in Leeds – the world’s oldest continuously operating railway. It reached its 60th anniversary as a heritage railway a year ago, having become Britain’s first heritage railway on the standard gauge in June 1960.

A steam engine runs along the heritage railway The Middleton Railway, daytime
A steam train on The Middleton Railway.
Image credit: Janet Auckland, retail manager, The Middleton Railway.

Alongside the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, it built upon the success of the narrow gauge heritage railways and helped kick-start the movement as we largely know it today.

Government restrictions derailed the Middleton Railway’s 60th anniversary celebrations but this summer volunteers like Ian Smith are hoping to share their love of our rail history with plenty of holidaymakers.

Ian said: “They’re an attraction in their own right; people love steam engines.”

Passionate volunteers operate these lines, which run on their own networks and are not part of our mainline railway.

A 1930s photograph of a train on the Ffestiniog Railway
Step back in time – Snowdonia’s Ffestiniog Railway in the 1930s

The Heritage Railway Association says on its website: “Visitors to heritage railways can experience travel on unique century-old cliff railways and rare electric or horse-drawn trams; and they can take a journey in original Victorian or pre-war carriages hauled by an historic narrow-gauge locomotive or a famous icon such as Flying Scotsman.”

They’re a fantastic part of any holiday, especially when more of us are planning on exploring Britain this summer.

Ian said: “Heritage railways are open, we’re all covid safe … We still have wonderful activities you can do, you can go to the largest parks in Leeds, we’ve got ancient woodland to enjoy … it’s the same for most of these railways.

“They all go to attractive destinations and they’re open now, there’s plenty to see and do and with the weather we’ve been having recently, it’s wonderful.”

Modern train services are a great way to travel to them, he said: “[The Middleton Railway is] in Leeds, which is a gateway to other railways in the area, you can come up form London on [the London North Eastern Railway], come down from Glasgow on the Settle to Carlisle – one of the most famous railway lines in the world …

“Catch the train, enjoy the view, leave the car at home – you don’t need it.”

Middleton Railway, Leeds, Yorkshire

How to get there – Leeds railway station is about three miles away.

Take a train trip to vibrant Leeds and visit The Middleton Railway. Founded in 1758 to transport goods wagons, this gem became the first heritage railway on the standard gauge, in June 1960. It started passenger services in 1969.

Ian remembers volunteers from Leeds University’s railway society taking over The Middleton Railway close to his house when he was six years old. He drove his first steam train at just 16.

Ian said: “Middleton, like many railways at that time, was always short of staff and I remember coming in the yard and the lad who was driving it was only a couple of years older than me and he said to me, “Have you ever fired one of these?” He said, “Right, you’re going to learn. And that was my first foot plate experience … It was amazing.”

The railway and museum are the result of decades of dedication, expertise and Lottery funding.

One of the Middleton Railway's first trains, on 24 June 1960, daytime
One of the very first trains run by the Middleton Railway, in its first week as a heritage railway, very 24 June 1960. Image credit: MRT collection.

Ian said: “We didn’t have a platform [in 1969]. People would climb up the steps of the brake van. The following year we put a small platform in but it was very derelict for many years … you wouldn’t recognise it.

“Now, we’ve got the visitor centre. The whole area’s been landscaped … We’ve worked very closely with Leeds City Council and … in 2006 had a big Lottery bid and built this massive museum. We’re very much part of the community now.”

Ffestiniog Railway, Gwynedd, Wales

How to get there – Porthmadog railway station is about half a mile away. Minffordd railway station is just two miles away.

Volunteers from Network Rail help out trackside along the Ffestiniog Railway
Volunteers from Network Rail help out trackside along the Ffestiniog Railway

Snowdonia’s Ffestiniog Railway is one of the best-known heritage lines and even starred in the first series of The Architecture the Railways Built on Yesterday.

This living museum stretches from the harbour in Porthmadog, Gwynedd to historic slate mining town Blaenau Ffestiniog in Merionethshire. It passes through forests and waterfalls and chugs round a complete spiral on the way.

The Architecture the Railways Built – Ffestiniog Railway

With services named Mountain Prince and Woodland Wanderer, you can be sure you’ll enjoy incredible views.

Its start at Porthmadog is just a few miles from the world-famous Italianate-style village of Portmeirion.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway

How to get there – the heritage railway is just three miles from Ryde, on the north side of the island. From the main land, take the Fast Cat from Portsmouth Harbour railway station to Ryde Pier Head.

Now in its 50th year, the idyllic Isle of Wight Steam Railway is excited to welcome you back with events including galas and its 1940s experience.

Its main station, Havenstreet, is a restored 1940s building that includes a museum, the Train Story Discovery Centre, museum, locomotive and carriage and wagon workshops, and refreshment rooms. You’ll also find the Haven Falconry Bird of Prey Centre.

Re-enactors outside a station on the Isle of Wight Railway, a heritage railway, daytime
The stations along the Isle of Wight Steam Railway are idyllic

Connect with the electric Island Railway at Smallbrook Junction to explore beaches, stunning coastlines and enjoy some of Britain’s warmest weather.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

How to get there – take the Esk Valley Railway to the seaside town of Whitby, where the heritage railway serves the modern mainline station.

A steam train on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, daytime
Experience the golden age of travel

Experience the golden age of the railway with a dining experience on The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s Pullman Dining Services through the scenic national park.

This line is full of must-see railway stations. Its stops include Goathland Station, which became Hogsmeade station in the first Harry Potter film.

You can also call at Whitby – famous for its associations with Captain Cook and Dracula – and the 1930s-themed Pickering station.

Whisky Line – Keith & Dufftown Railway, Dufftown, Moray

How to get there – Keith mainline station, on the Aberdeen to Inverness line, is only about five miles away.

In Scotland, The Keith & Dufftown Railway hopes to resume services from 2 July. It runs on an 11-mile-long line that links Dufftown, the world’s Malt Whisky Capital, with historic the town of Keith.

It says on its website: “Experience the true spirit of this unique part of Scotland. There are the rolling hills, forests, the deep glens, fields of ripening barley, the leaping deer but it is the living stills which provide that aroma pervading the atmosphere all along the track.”

Read more:

The Architecture the Railways Built – Ffestiniog Railway

Love the railway: Community Rail

Love the railway: take a rail trip to the site of the Sutton Hoo treasure

Love the railway – Heart of England Community Rail Partnership

Meet Britain’s most remote signal box

What happens to signal boxes when they retire?

The Architecture the Railways Built – Severn Bridge Junction

Step back in time… and inside Britain’s busiest signal box

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