The UK’s best heritage and steam train journeys

Back to Days out
Steam Railway

Hop on board for a guide to some of the UK’s best heritage and steam train journeys – from extreme scenery to first-class dining, there’s something for everyone

Britain’s last commercial steam railway service, the Fifteen Guinea Special, pulled out of Liverpool station well over 50 years ago – on 11 August 1968. But since then, our national love affair with steam has ensured that nearly 200 heritage railway lines remain operational today, with a combined 600 miles of track and 460 lovingly maintained stations.

Rather than carry commuters to work, these restored lines transport families and friends to a different era. Mostly under 20 miles long, the UK’s heritage railways pass through some of our most magnificent scenery – from the Welsh valleys to the South Downs, the Scottish Highlands to the east coast. They range from miniature railways such as the Bure Valley Railway in Norfolk, to the 22-mile standard-gauge West Somerset Railway, the longest heritage railway in England. 

Whether you’re looking for a fun family excursion or a nostalgic journey into Britain’s past, you’ll never be far from a steam or diesel locomotive just waiting to take you there. Even better, Boundless members can enjoy discounts on a wide variety of mainline steam day trips with The Railway Touring Company

To help you choose where to embark, here are some of the very best heritage rail days out in England, Wales and Scotland. Jump aboard – you’ll be chuffed you did.

The best heritage railways in England

North Norfolk Railway


North Norfolk Railway

Marketed as The Poppy Line, the North Norfolk Railway was once part of a cross-country line that ambled across Norfolk. The railway climbs from its principal station in the seaside town of Sheringham into the low hills that form part of Sheringham Park. The park was landscaped by Humphry Repton, who thought it had ‘more natural beauty and local advantages’ than any place he had ever seen.

A nature trail leads from Weybourne station to Kelling Heath, while the market town of Holt is a half-hour walk from its station. Among various culinary excursion trains run by the railway is the appropriately named North Norfolk Fryer, which serves fish and chips followed by ice cream. The journey takes 25 minutes each way; board and alight at Sheringham or Holt.

Bluebell Railway

East Sussex

Bluebell Railway

Britain’s oldest preserved standard-gauge railway is deservedly well known for its historic carriages and enchanting stations, redolent of another age. Re-opened for business as long ago as 1960, the Bluebell Railway runs 11 miles through the Sussex countryside. Each station along the route has been restored to a different period: Sheffield Park to the 1880s; the country junction of Horsted Keynes with its refreshment room to the 1920s; Kingscote to the 1950s.

As the Bluebell Railway’s name suggests, the Sussex woodlands bordering the line are at their best in spring, when a mass of deep blue can be seen beneath the trees. Among the railway’s historic carriages are two 1920s Pullman cars, which form part of The Golden Arrow dining train. Tables can be booked for lunch or dinner – in both cases, you can expect a three-course meal, with the total journey lasting around three and a half hours.

Dartmouth Steam Railway


Dartmouth Steam Railway

Few of the many West Country branch lines offered such glorious views over the sea as the one taken by the Torbay Express to Torquay, Paignton and Kingswear. Today, the heritage steam railway links Paignton and Kingswear, on the opposite side of the Dart Estuary from Dartmouth.

Leaving Paignton, the Brunswick green locomotives of the Dartmouth Steam Railway climb into the hills, affording panoramic views over Torbay to the east. They then turn inland at Broad Sands, dropping down past the back of Agatha Christie’s holiday home at Greenway (now a National Trust property) and finally descending to the Dart Estuary. The total journey time from Paignton to Kingswear is approximately 25 minutes.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

North Yorkshire

North Yorkshire Moore Railway

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway carries more passengers than any other heritage railway – over 350,000 each year. The appeal is obvious: this 18-mile line from Pickering to Whitby runs for much of its length through the North York Moors National Park. The line travels through dramatic moorland landscapes and up fierce gradients, passing through beautifully restored stations. Alight at any of them to explore these spectacular surroundings by foot. 

At Pickering Station, there’s a well-designed exhibition about the line’s history and construction by George Stephenson, while the 13th-century Pickering Castle is just a short walk away. Whitby is also well worth a visit, packed as it is with quirky shops and architectural delights. 

Celebrating something special? Why not book your place on one of the railway’s Pullman-based lunch, tea or dinner trains. With delicious grub served at your table while you admire the incredible views, they provide an unforgettable experience. Journeys typically last two hours and 35 minutes.

Swanage Railway


Swanage Railway

It’s like a scene from a Famous Five book cover: a steam locomotive puffing serenely through the green hills of Dorset, with the ruins of Corfe Castle behind. That’s Swanage Railway. This much-loved heritage service runs the five and a half miles from Norden to the seaside town of Swanage on the so-called Isle of Purbeck (really a peninsula), stopping at Corfe Castle station en route. The journey takes around 20 minutes.

Its steam engines may take the prize for romance, but Swanage Railway also runs heritage diesel services, using restored 1960s locomotives that played an equally important role in Britain’s railway history. Check the timetable to ensure that you’re propelled by your preferred source of power – or enjoy steam one way and diesel the other. 

The Shakespeare Express

West Midlands

The Shakespeare Express

Steam trains have run as special services on the mainline rail network since 1971, often combined with one or more meals at a table of white linen, silver and glass – a rare treat. One of the main operators is Vintage Trains, which uses a fleet of steam locomotives based at its Birmingham depot. Its programme of day excursions includes the Welsh Marches via Gloucester, the Severn Estuary and Hereford, with a break to explore the cathedral city. 

Another popular steam option is The Shakespeare Express, which runs from Birmingham through north Warwickshire to the Bard’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon – a Victorian-style journey back into the Elizabethan era. Excursions run all year round, and the journeys take around an hour each way. 

More steam and heritage railways in England

Steam train mountains

Down south, you’re never far from a vintage railway ride. In the West Country, the pretty West Somerset Railway will take you over the Quantock Hills and Exmoor to Minehead. The Watercress Line visits lots of picturesque stations in Hampshire and the South Downs, while the equally Instagram-able Bluebell Railway lets you see Sussex by steam. 

In the Midlands, the Severn Valley Railway runs through the Shropshire and Worcestershire countryside (crossing the historic Victoria Bridge). Moving east, the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway runs through Derbyshire. And the Great Central Railway in Leicestershire is the world’s only standard-gauge double-track railway – in other words, the only place you can see classic steam trains passing each other, as they would have routinely during the golden age of steam. 

The north of England is also packed with steam and heritage railway lines, including the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in Cumbria, The East Lancashire Railway near Manchester, the Wensleydale Railway in the Yorkshire Dales, and the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in the Pennines – where the original movie adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children was filmed.

The best heritage railways in Wales

Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways


Steam train North Wales

The two narrow-gauge railways of Ffestiniog and West Highland join at the seaside town of Porthmadog. Together they provide unrivalled ways to enjoy the dramatic landscapes of Snowdonia, or reach the innumerable walks through its valleys and up Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh).

Ffestiniog is the world’s oldest narrow-gauge railway, with nearly 200 years of history. Its 13.5 miles of track carry passengers through spectacular mountain scenery to the former slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. 

The even steeper gradients and sharp curves on the Welsh Highland line lead in the other direction, covering the 25 picture-postcard miles from Porthmadog to the recently restored station at Caernarfon. The Welsh Highland is the UK’s longest heritage railway, and also one of its most comfortable, with first-class Pullman carriages and a tempting range of on-board hampers and picnic boxes.

Llangollen Railway


Llangollen Railway

The pretty vale of Llangollen in north Wales has been a tourist draw since Victorian times, and its steam railway originally served both sightseers and the mining industry. Today, it’s just the former – and what sights you can see. 

Running along (and over) the River Dee from the village of Llangollen 10 miles east to Corwen, the Llangollen Railway lies in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Rolling hills, whispering woods, picture-book villages and the ever-present river Dee combine to provide a classic two-hour ride. Both steam and diesel engines operate on the line, and ‘driver experiences’ are available for those who refuse to grow out of that sort of thing.

More steam and heritage railways in Wales

Railway track Welsh mountains

Wales is home to dozens of narrow-gauge and miniature railways, built to navigate the country’s mountainous terrain. Perhaps the best known is the Snowdon Mountain Railway, a spectacular single-carriage journey to the top of Wales’ highest peak. Also in Snowdonia National Park, both the Llanberis Lake Railway and the Bala Lake Railway offer lakeside views of the peaks, while the Fairbourne Railway runs to the mouth of the Mawddach Estuary in the south-east of the park. 

Elsewhere in Wales, both the Rhyl Miniature Railway – Britain’s oldest – and the West Shore Miniature Railway pootle along the north coast, while The Brecon Mountain Railway offers more dramatic upland scenery in South Wales.

The best heritage railways in Scotland

The Jacobite Steam Train


The Jacobite steam train

The West Highland Line from Fort William to the port of Mallaig in north-west Scotland has topped many a list of the world’s greatest railway journeys. Remarkably, the West Highland is both a working train line and a spectacular heritage railway. You can experience it on a standard Scotrail train, but for a truly romantic ride, book onto The Jacobite Steam Train

Classic Scottish landscapes fill the window every minute of the two-and-a-quarter- hour journey (tunnels apart), with miles of running beside deepwater lochs, the islands of Muck, Eigg and Rum in the distance. The graceful curve of the viaduct at Glenfinnan featured in the Harry Potter films, while Bonnie Prince Charlie’s last throw of the dice is recalled by the Jacobite monument at the head of Loch Shiel. 

More steam and heritage railways in Scotland

Scottish steam railway

The five-mile Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway on the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh is home to the Museum of Scottish Railways. As well as the Strathspey Railway in the Cairngorms, you can explore Scotland aboard steam trains running on regular main lines – The Aberdonian, for example, is a luxury service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. 

Experience the excitement of fast running on the mainline

The Railway Touring Company

The Railway Touring Company has been organising mainline steam services for over 25 years and, today, offers over 80 steam departures a year from stations across England, Wales and Scotland. Services such as The Cumbrian Mountain Express, The Waverley and The Hadrian feature breathtaking scenery as they cross the famous Settle & Carlisle Line. The Welsh Mountaineer heads up into Snowdonia, and The North Wales Coast Express couples the thrill of steam travel with captivating coastal views. Summer steam days out head for favourite seaside resorts such as Scarborough, Minehead, Weymouth and Bournemouth. Christmas excursions, such as The Edinburgh Christmas Markets and The Capital Christmas Express, provide steam to great cities for festive treats.

With The Railway Touring Company, you can choose from the Standard travel option, purchasing refreshments on board or taking along your own picnic; First Class for light meals at your seat; or Premier Dining to enjoy a full English breakfast and a four-course dinner freshly prepared on board and silver served at your linen- clad table.

Do more with Boundless

Boundless members can enjoy discounts on a wide variety of mainline steam day trips with The Railway Touring Company – why not treat yourself or take someone special on a vintage day out? If you're working or retired from the public sector or civil service and not yet a member, discover more about Boundless membership here.

You might also like