Light at the end of the tunnel: Michael Portillo on Britain's greatest rail wonders

Michael Portillo
·3-min read
Michael Portillo - John Hall/BBC
Michael Portillo - John Hall/BBC

While hundreds of largely empty trains run on Britain’s transport systems during the pandemic, our gorgeous heritage lines are shut by government order. The day they reopen – maybe alongside pubs and restaurants – will be an occasion for national celebration. Those antique railways offer so much that is good. They represent our history. They were restored by determined people offering up chunks of their precious time on earth so we could experience unforgettable moments of nostalgia, beauty and joy.

Dr Beeching may be reviled by rail enthusiasts for closing lines in the 1960s, but he opened up enormous opportunities for railway resurrectionists. The Bluebell Railway claims to have been the first preserved standard-gauge railway, running between Lewes and East Grinstead, along the route of the old London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. For those like me, who yearn to live in Agatha Christie’s world, it offers the Golden Arrow Pullman dining train.

If you prefer Edith Nesbit, head to the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, where her 1906 novel The Railway Children was made into a film, starring Oakworth station. In it, Jenny Agutter and the other children memorably flag down a train with their petticoats, averting a catastrophic collision with a landslide.

The narrow-gauge line running from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog in North Wales has a grittier history – built to carry slate, descending 700ft to the coast, and originally operating on gravity (using horses on the ascent).

The Festiniog Railway Company avoided nationalisation, which helped it become the oldest surviving railway company in the world. Today, you can ride in a plush saloon car as the train twists its way around the ­sylvan slopes of Snowdonia National Park. On a smaller scale, I love a track only a mile and a half long, and 12 and a quarter inches wide. The steam railway at Exbury Gardens in Hampshire was built by rail devotee Lionel de Rothschild, and puffs between his display of rhododendrons and azaleas, magnificent in late spring.

railway volunteers - Christopher Pledger
railway volunteers - Christopher Pledger

I was never more pleasantly startled then when, on the Swanage Railway, the train rounds a bend revealing the high-set craggy ruins of Corfe Castle, dating to the 10th century and twice besieged during the English Civil War. But for those who prefer to spot trains rather than buildings, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway operates that pinnacle of streamlined steam elegance, Sir Nigel Gresley, the 100th Pacific class locomotive designed by the eponymous engineer.

That railway employs 100 full-time staff and 550 volunteers, and such numbers are not unusual on heritage lines. The most visible enthusiasts serve teas, blow whistles and clip tickets. But others give up their weekends (for a decade or so), restoring a locomotive or carriage that one day we will ride, oblivious of their unseen oily toil.

Our preserved railways are built on ardour and voluntarism. I hate to see all that passion stifled under the wet blanket of social distancing. Let’s fervently hope that, before we reach summer, they will receive the green flag again. I, for one, will toot with joy.

Michael Portillo’s 12th series of Great British Railway Journeys will be shown on BBC Two in spring