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Then and Now

Rail Tours

Rail Tours for enthusiasts have been around since the late 1940’s. Specials have run since the turn of the last century but these have not necessarily been specifically for enthusiasts, being troop trains, rambler specials and the like.

This article looks at how rail tours operated 50 years ago in contrast to today.

One topic which caused a great deal of discussion in the letters pages of the railway press was that of photographers who did not contribute to the running costs of tours. Sounds familiar? One society even went to the lengths of refusing to issue timing sheets. More on this later.

In the 1960’s trains often comprised 8 or 9 coaches including a buffet restaurant. Tours tended to use stock that would otherwise lie idle, especially at a weekend. They were therefore cheap to operate. In contrast, today there are dedicated rakes of coaches for tours owned by companies such as Riviera Trains or West Coast Railways. As their only use is on rail tours, the ticket prices reflect the cost of dedicated maintenance.

Whilst today tour participants have reserved seats, accommodation on a 1960’s were generally unreserved although party bookings were catered for.


What's interesting are the two coached reserved for those with tape recorders, something that Vintage Trains offer today.


In 2016/17 dining is a large part of a rail tour operation with probably more than half passengers taking this option. Seated in specific dining cars, two or three meals are often provided, ranging from a full breakfast to a Silver Service, three course dinner. A separate buffet car caters for non-dining passengers with light refreshments. Tours today attract a clientele that are not necessarily rail enthusiasts but those looking for a day out that is a little special.  

Back in 1966/67, where a dining service was offered, a buffet/kitchen car was included with an open coach for diners. But this was reserved for use by diners who had pre-booked a meal and for use at specific sitting times.  

An example of what was offered is set out below:

This seems pretty good value. In contrast this is a sample offering from the current Steam Dreams menu:  


Photographic Stops.

Back in the 1960’s most rail tours had photo stops – an opportunity for tour participants to get out of the train and take pictures of the engine. 

The stops were not that long – it wasn't uncommon for a photo stop to last just 10 minutes. But in that time most passengers managed to get their pictures. It could be a bit of a scrum and quite challenging to get a shot without other passengers getting in the way.

It was customary for the engine to sound its whistle to get passengers back on board to ensure a swift departure. 

Unlike today’s safety conscious environment, it was not uncommon for passengers to wander over the running lines to get their shot.  

The pictures below show a photo stop at Salisbury in 1966 where tour participants walked confidently off the end of the platform as a matter of course.

The second shot was taken at Chinley in 1968 and again passengers freely wandered over the main running lines and sidings. I think the assumption was that if a signal went "off", indicating a train was passing, everyone would stand to one side. 

To be fair, this kind of mass trespass tended not to happen on the Southern Region's third rail lines or around the larger or busier stations.

Rail Tours Silly Season

The September 1966 issue of the Railway Magazine had a letter from one Mr. G Jones. He protests at the tours advertised to run by “so-called societies”. He says that on one rail tour, “it is omitted that stout boots are required, as I am sure one of the branches to be visited has been lifted!. On another, the array of motive power to be used is (to say the least) fantastic. One wonders if B.R. knows about these trains.”

Were there too many tours advertised in the 1960’s? 

Here's a selection of tours advertised in 1966.

Out of the four advertised on the left - which one's ran and did they run to plan?

"The Elizabethan" 22 October 1966
This ran but it was quite a different tour to the one advertised. It was originally advertised to run from Peterborough to Edinburgh Waverley using A4 no. 60034 'Lord Farrington' and A1 no. 60530 'Sayajirao' but was then changed at the organisers requesting a Kings Cross start. This meant the final destination was Newcastle due to time constraints. 

The two advertised locos were then withdrawn from service and attempts to secure A2 no. 60532 'Blue Peter' failed as the Scottish Region would not release it. The tour was then advertised for A3 no. 4472 'Flying Scotsman' between Kings Cross and Doncaster, 60024 'Kingfisher' from Doncaster to Newcastle, 60019 'Bittern' back to Peterborough and 4472 taking the train back to Kings Cross. Although 60019 & 60024 were in store a month prior to the tour's running date, British Rail had apparently assured organisers they would be available. I'm not sure what happened to the planned V2 locomotive.

The actual tour ran with 4472 from Kings Cross to York and return and the section from York to Newcastle has taken by Merchant Navy no. 35026 'Lamport & Holt Line'

"The North Briton" 5 November 1966
An ambitious tour which planned to use an original Bulleid light pacific and two USA Tanks. I am intrigued as to the leg these two shunting engines would have worked. The run over the Settle & Carlisle? Or maybe a trundle along the East Coast Main Line from Newcastle to York? 

You've guessed. This tour did not run! 

"The Border Countryman" 25 February 1967
A success! This tour appeared to have run as planned with Jubilee locomotive no. 45562 "Alberta" and Ivatt 2-6-0 no. 43106.

Special Excursion on 30 October 1966
Another tour bringing a Bulleid pacific to the North West. And another one that bit the dust and didn't run.

According to John H Bird's book "Southern Steam Specials 1966/67", the Altrinchamian Railway Excursion Society planned a brake van tour in the Wigan area using a Southern S15, N, U and/or Q1 locomotive. The planned date was 26 June 1966 and all four classes had been withdrawn from service and were on the scrap line at least 3 months beforehand! This society, who must be commended for their imagination, also planned a tour over Shap and Ais Gill with two of these same four classes in July 1966. 

The Manchester Rail Travel Society planned a tour from Waterloo to Weymouth and Salisbury using a Crosti boilered BR 9F and a LMS 'Crab' 2-6-0 locomotive. This was another non-runner.

And the Bulleid Pacific Preservation Society planned to run an original West Country from Crewe to Carlisle and back to Stoke on the 25 June 1967. This was just two weeks before the end of steam and the two remaining engines were not in the best of health. Again this tour didn't get beyond the planning stage but was advertised.

The Railway World editorial comments on the chaotic situation of enthusiast excursions (November 1966). The editor, G. M. Kichenside, writes that during the spring and summer of 1966, trips had been advertised using all types of locomotives, suitable and unsuitable and over a variety of routes. But when it comes to the actual operation of a tour, “many, far too many, of those published in advance do not run.”

“Clearly organisers of some tours have not even bothered to find out beforehand whether their proposals are practicable; a few have advertised trips over lines not merely closed to traffic but lifted.”

The editorial goes on to say that the contraction of steam operated lines means that tours are largely confined to the North West and the South Western Division of the Southern Region. This leads to itineraries being repetitive and with more rail tours being advertised the smaller the chance of any of them running.

“Until recently, the major societies consulted with each other on rail tour plans to avoid duplication of trips in the same area on the same date. Now with all and sundry joining the bandwagon, the whole aspect of rail tour operation is becoming chaotic”.

The editor suggests that a halt must be called to the present situation, “otherwise BR may not be so keen on co-operation in the arrangements of tours by responsible organisations during the next and final year of steam.”

And when rail tours did run, not everyone was happy. In the November 1966 issue of the Railway Magazine, Mr. D. Masters complains about the thoughtless conduct of participants on rail tours and particularly non participants. He cites problems of trespass. “These people contribute nothing to the running of the tour and are more often not even in possession of a platform ticket". He suggests the suspension of platform tickets and access to areas where a tour train stops. He also suggests timings are kept secret.

But Mr. G. R. Hounsell writes that it is “regrettable that a leading club has recently announced that the practice of issuing timing sheets to those wishing to photograph tour trains from the lineside is to be discontinued” and goes on to say that “it seems unfair that in order to obtain vital timing details enthusiasts should have to pay 3s (shillings) for a copy of the printed itinerary.”

The following month Mr. P. R. Arnold wrote in response that he usually studies maps and gradient profiles before following a special train “with the idea of finding scenic positions at which to obtain good photographs” rather than at “photographic stops behind hordes of enthusiasts attempting a photograph. It is for this reason that I often prefer to get lineside shots rather than travel on the special trains.” He goes on to defend the practice of charging for a timing sheet or even a printed itinerary which “will prove to be a useful reference in future years.”

The society who suspended the issue of timing sheets was the Locomotive Club of Great Britain and their Hon. Treasurer, Mr. C. F. D. Bottoms, wrote in defence of their decision. He claimed that “so many people are choosing to photograph the train in action, rather than travel on it, that the situation has been degenerating into the state where nobody travels on the train but everybody wishes to record its passing.” Understandably promoters of special trains cannot regularly run them at a loss and the “3s charge for a copy of the itinerary is, I submit, an all-too-modest charge for the privilege of securing details of passing times.”

Today we are blessed with the internet. The UK Steam web site is invaluable and forums such as National Preservation provide updates and reports on the progress of many tours. And Real Time Trains provides a running commentary of the progress. 

In 2016 when the reappearance of “Flying Scotsman” resulted in a number of serious trespass incidents, the publication of times were suspended. That didn’t stop those in the know getting details from various web sources.


Published 23 May 2017

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