They’re more environmentally friendly than any other form of public transport.
Who ran the first commercial train line?
Henry Booth, a 19th-century Liverpudlian entrepreneur who laid 31 miles of train track between Liverpool and Manchester before anyone had properly invented the train. He wanted to rapidly transport people – and, more profitably, cotton – between the mills of Manchester and the port of Liverpool. As treasurer of the “L&MR” line, Booth offered a £500 prize for anyone who could build a reliable steam-powered locomotive, which he promptly won after teaming up with inventor George Stephenson to produce the Rocket.
Did this create a stir?
The night before the grand opening on 15 September, 1830, Booth slept with a gun by his bed. He was hated not just by canal owners, who stood to lose out financially, but also by the public, who had heard dark rumours that their lungs would collapse if they travelled faster than 10mph. Nevertheless, the opening ceremony was a starry occasion, attended by the hero of Waterloo and then PM, the Duke of Wellington, and the actress and top Hanoverian celeb Fanny Kemble. “You can’t imagine how strange it seemed,” Kemble wrote, to be aboard the “magical machine with its flying white breath and rhythmical unvarying pace”.
Did everything go smoothly?
No. The assembled dignitaries piled into eight trains, which set off from Liverpool along two parallel lines – the Duke of Wellington and his chums on one track, the other seven locomotives on the other. When Wellington’s train stopped to take on water halfway through, local Tory MP William Huskisson decided to take advantage of the ebullient mood to go up and shake the PM’s hand. As the Rocket came steaming up the second track, Huskisson grabbed the heavy door of Wellington’s carriage – which swung open, launching him into the path of the oncoming train. Huskisson’s death made headlines across the world, giving the new tech far more publicity than Booth had dared imagine. Within 20 years, that 31-mile track had grown into a network 7,000 miles long.
Was the rollout popular?
Not with Victorian nimbys. When a line was built through the Severn Valley in 1849, local landowner Thomas Charlton Whitmore insisted that the railway should enter a tunnel through his Apley Park estate so it didn’t spoil his view. A sizeable offer of compensation – a chunk of cash and his own station – changed his mind. In a stunning volte-face, he started cutting down trees to get a better view of passing trains.
How did the railways become glamorous?
Luxurious dining and sleeper trains such as the Orient Express were brought to Europe by Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banking heir who got the idea while touring America in the 1860s. (His family had sent him to cool off after he fell in love with a cousin who didn’t love him back.) It wasn’t always a plush ride – the first British passengers on the Orient Express, travelling from Paris to Constantinople, were advised to bring a teapot (to make their own tea) and a revolver, in case things got a bit tasty during border crossings.
Where did Nagelmackers find inspiration?
He was influenced by George Pullman, the American rail tycoon whose Pullman Company established a monopoly over US railways after crushing the wealthy Vanderbilt family. Pullman perfected the art of luxury train travel, decking out double-glazed carriages with soft suspension, deep shag carpeting and chandeliers. He hired an army of recently freed slaves – the “Pullman porters” –and called them all George to make life simpler for passengers. This convention was scrapped after a passenger called George Dulany founded the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George. He enlisted 31,000 members, all called George.
Why aren’t trains more popular now?
The 20th-century automobile boom and the rise of affordable flights made the economics of train travel in Britain pretty wobbly – not helped by the post-war Labour government’s decision to nationalise the railways in 1948. So in 1961 the transport minister, road-building magnate Earnest Marples, hired an industrialist called Dr Beeching to “economise” the failing railways. His first economy was to negotiate a whopping salary of £24,000. (The PM was on £10,000.)
What did he do to Britain’s railways?
Beeching cut 200 branch lines, shut more than 2,000 stations and pulled up 5,000 miles of track. Just 60 years after the railway had first reached the Cornish village of Padstow in 1899, carting fish out and tourists in on the Atlantic Coast Express, the track was carried off for scrap. At the old station, there’s now a car park where the trains once stopped. In 1965 Beeching put down his axe and picked up a peerage, returning to the private sector as Lord Beeching of East Grinstead – which, unlike West Grinstead, kept its station.
Should we be getting back on trains?
To have any hope of achieving our climate goals, we need to make the 21st century the new “golden age of the railways”, says Clare Foges in The Times. Transport accounts for 27% of the UK’s carbon emissions and trains are by far the greenest option, emitting just 14g of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, compared with 158g for cars and 285g for planes. Taking Eurostar to Paris, rather than flying, cuts emissions by more than 90%. And when the option is there, people prefer the train: Eurostar carried nearly 80% of traffic from London to Brussels and Paris in 2019, and the number of flights between Milan and Rome fell by more than half after a high-speed rail line opened in 2007.
Are there any hopeful signs?
Boris turned up at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow aboard HydroFLEX, the country’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train. It’s even greener than normal trains: the only waste is pure water. And local stations are reopening thanks to the government’s Restoring Your Railway fund, launched in January 2020 to keep a manifesto promise. The last passenger train left Okehampton, a market town in Devon, on 3 June, 1972. After 11 miles of spanking new track were laid in a brisk three weeks, the next train will arrive from Exeter on 20 November at 7.10am. All aboard.
Five great rail journeys
Zermatt to St Moritz
The optimistically named Glacier Express takes 7½ hours to travel between the two Swiss ski resorts, at an average speed of 24mph. But with dramatic mountain views the whole way, the time flies by. One-way tickets from £123.
Fort William to Mallaig
You’ll recognise the Glenfinnan Viaduct from the Harry Potter films, and the train that crosses it is the only daily steam service in the UK. The two-hour journey on the Jacobite was once voted the most scenic in the world. April to October; returns from £49.
Salta to La Polvorilla
The Tren a las Nubes translates as “train to the clouds”. The 16-hour trip takes you from Argentina to Chile and back, through the Andes and across the Viaducto La Polvorilla, 13,845ft above sea level. £120.
Tokyo to Osaka
You can see Mount Fuji on the Tokaido Shinkansen, but you’ll have to concentrate. The bullet train covers the 320-mile journey between the Japanese cities in 2½ hours – blink and you’ll miss it. £120.
Londonderry to Coleraine
It takes only 38 minutes, but Michael Palin described this as “one of the most beautiful train journeys in all the world”. The line follows Northern Ireland’s rugged coast and you can spot porpoises from the windows. £10.