Steam trains in the UK: Britain's best heritage railways

Do you go loco for steam trains? We track down where you can ride the rails - and taste the soot - up and down the UK...

If you have a yearning for the nostalgic pleasure of a steam train journey, then satisfaction is never too far away - nearly 150 heritage or preservation lines are run across the country, and that’s not including the many miniature railways or tramways.

The vast majority of these lines were started thanks to the hard work, patience and often financial backing of local volunteers who refused to see a major part of our heritage slip away. Most are still operated to a large extent by volunteers.

Almost every heritage railway runs regular services from spring to early autumn, with curtailed services and ‘specials’ only in the winter months.  Most also operate a mixture of steam and diesel or petrol locomotives, so if you are looking for an authentic steam train experience, be sure to check timetables before travelling. 

Here is just a small selection of some of the most popular preserved steam railways to be found across the UK.

A journey through history

Arguably the most famous of all British heritage lines, the Bluebell Railway runs for 11 miles from East to West Sussex, between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead.  It was the first standard-gauge heritage railway to offer a passenger service, in 1960 – just three years after British Rail had closed the line.

Now run largely by volunteers, it has the largest stock of steam locomotives outside of the National Railway Museum, 10 of which are still in service.

Renowned for its regular appearances in films and television series, the line’s four stations from Sheffield Park and Kingscote have been refurbished to reflect a different era of its original history, from Victorian times to the 1950s.

The Bluebell runs regularly from April to October with a limited service in the winter months. It has regular themed and dining events, and excursions are run to nearby attractions such as Chailey Windmill and Folk Museum, and 400-year-old Sackville College.

The Bluebell Railway

Island line

At 15.3 miles long, the Isle of Man Railway is one of the longer narrow gauge heritage lines in operation in the UK today, but it was originally part of a 46-mile network that covered the whole island. It now operates between Port Erin at the island's southernmost tip to the capital, Douglas.

The line, which is said to have inspired the Rev Wilbert Awdry ‘s Thomas the Tank Engine, still runs five of its original steam locomotives built between 1874 and 1926, and has 30 liveried coaches. It runs from February to November.

Many attractions in the south of the Island are located near to its stations, including the ancient capital of Castletown, Rushen Abbey at Ballasalla and the Port Erin Railway Museum, and the line passes through a host of dramatic coastline and countryside views.

Saved by Parliament

The Talyllyn Railway, running from Tywyn to Nant Gwernol in Gwynedd, Wales, was the first narrow-gauge railway licensed by Parliament to carry passengers, and also holds the title of oldest heritage railway in the UK, saved by a public committee when closure looked imminent in 1951. Its story provided the inspiration for the Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt.

Alongside some diesel trains, the service still uses seven steam locomotives - two have which have been employed on the line for almost 150 years. Operating mainly between Easter and October, trains run just over seven miles through the Fathew valley and the station stops are great starting points for woodland walks.

Sightseeing highlights nearby include the Dolgoch Falls, three magnificent waterfalls in the woods near Tywyn, as well as the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, Talyllyn Lake and the 13th century Castell- y-Bere, while Cader Idris and other peaks of southern Snowdonia are within easy reach.

Talyllyn Railway

Severn heaven

Much of the Severn Valley Railway’s 16-mile route follows the course of the River Severn through Worcestershire and Shropshire. After the original line was closed to passenger traffic in the 1960s, enthusiasts organised its restoration and a short section was first reopened in 1970. The railway now attracts over 250,000 passengers a year.

Operating on standard gauge, the services are largely pulled by steam locomotives built mainly in the first half of the 20th Century, though some diesel engines are used. A number of other steam trains are being overhauled, while more are on display at The Engine House in Highley.

Ride across the river at Hampton Loade on the ‘foot ferry’ and visit 17th century Dudmaston Hall, while Bridgnorth and Bewdley are attractive towns worth exploring. The length of the line provides stunning views of the river and valley, and the railway holds dinner evenings, special events and driving courses.

Long service

The West Somerset Railway originally ran between Taunton and Watchet until its closure in 1971, but was saved by enthusiasts and reopened just five years later. Spanning 22.75 miles, it is currently the longest standard gauge heritage line in the UK. Normal services run 20.5 miles between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard; the additional two and a quarter miles to Norton Fitzwarren are used for special events.

The line owns eight steam locomotives, though not all are operational at any one time. Most of its regular services (which run from March to October) as well as various winter ‘specials’ are steam-hauled.

There are 10 restored stations along the line, which takes in the Quantock Hills and the edge of Exmoor. Nearby attractions are the medieval village and castle at Dunster; 13th century Cleeve Abbey monastery near Washford; and the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian gardens at Hestercombe, reached via a bus service from Bishops Lydeard.

The West Somerset Railway

Great scots

The Strathspey Railway is a 10-mile standard gauge heritage line from Aviemore to Broomhill through the Cairngorms National Park, in the Scottish highlands. Volunteers helped to preserve the line after it closed to passengers in 1965, and trains began running again in 1978; the full route to Broomhill has been running since 2002.

It currently has three operational steam locomotives and others being overhauled, which run in tandem with diesel engines.  The line retains many original features; Boat of Garten station still has its original buildings, dating as far back as 1904, while Broomhill stood in for ‘Glenbogle Station’ in the BBC series Monarch of the Glen.

The Cairngorm Mountains provide the backdrop for the 90 minute round-trip, much of it alongside the River Spey. There are some stunning walks and cycle routes along the line, which also offers a dining service, special events and train driving experiences.

Stephenson country  

The original North Yorkshire Moors Railway opened in 1836 under the guidance of no less a figure than George Stephenson. Reinstated in 1973, it runs for 18 miles between the village of Pickering and the coastal town of Whitby, and claims to be the busiest heritage railway in the world.

Trains are mostly steam-hauled, though occasionally heritage diesel engines are used. One of the six steam locos in use on the line is is the A4 Class Sir Nigel Gresley, one of only three of its kind still approved for main-line use. Trains run every day from April to October, with a reduced service in winter.

As well as the fine views of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, attractions close to the line include Pickering Castle, the moorland towns of Levisham and Newtondale, and Goathland station, which doubles for Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter movies, as well as the seaside delights of Whitby.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway

From coast to Boot

Known in local dialect as ‘La’al Ratty’ (little railway), the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway runs from the Cumbrian coastal town of Ravenglass, to Dalegarth near the village of Boot. When the original line was closed in 1960 it was purchased for preservation by local businessmen and has run as a tourist attraction since.

The line runs four steam locomotives ranging from the River Irt, built in 1994, to the Northern Rock, completed specially for the railway in 1976, as well as diesel and petrol engines.  Services are regular from March to October, with a reduced service and ‘specials’ in the winter.

The seven-mile journey passes alongside the Scafell Range and takes in beautiful scenery of the Ravenglass Estuary and the fells of Eskdale Valley.  Attractions nearby include a Roman Bath House at Ravenglass and a fort at Hardknott, as well as 13th century Muncaster Castle.  Boot boasts a working corn mill and a micro-brewery.

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