Meet the rail-mad millionaire with Britain’s only privately owned train

The Chairman's Set private train
British businessman Jeremy Hosking on board his train, The Chairman's Set - Andrew Fox

There are people who love trains – who visit heritage railways at the weekend and spend their holidays aboard the likes of the Ghan, the Rocky Mountaineer, and the Glacier Express.

And then there are people so enthusiastic about trains that their Wikipedia pages have dedicated “Railways” sections – a select group for whom a love of rail is far more than a hobby.

You might find this rare breed hiring – for example – their own rail car, or perhaps chartering the likes of the Royal Canadian Pacific or British Pullman.

Some even buy their own carriage, which they can then hook up to passenger trains in some countries (Amtrak, for example, offers this service on certain routes).

And then there is the most exclusive band of the bunch, the holy grail for every locomotive lover: the rail enthusiast who owns their very own train.

The train's classic 'blood and custard' exterior - Andrew Fox

British businessman Jeremy Hosking is one such man. His train, The Chairman’s Set, is comprised of repurposed former Caledonian Sleeper coaches – in classic 1950s British Rail “blood and custard” livery – and is, officially, Britain’s only privately owned train (the Royal Family have one, of course, but as theirs is owned by DB Cargo, it’s not technically private).

“Of course, every British boy growing up dreams of becoming an engine driver,” he explains. “But there are some special factors associated with the UK that I think are not replicated anywhere else.

“The first is that when the railway was modernised in the 1960s, British Rail sent all the retired steam engines to scrap merchants around the country. Several went to a scrap yard in south Wales.

“A gentleman by the name of Dai Woodham declined to scrap them. Over the following 20 years, some 200 steam locomotives left the scrap yard and were restored to working condition by amateurs and philanthropists – an incredible preservation miracle. And that’s where I came in.”

“When I had some spare money, I identified a group that was trying to restore a steam locomotive from scrap-yard condition: I said, ‘If you sell me the locomotive, I will fund the restoration’, and so they did, and I did.”

Jeremy Hosking
Hosking began work on the train seven years ago with designer Sara Oliver - Andrew Fox

Buoyed by the UK’s rail network’s open-access model – meaning that it can be used by anyone; originally established in order to boost competition amongst rail operators – it was then that Mr Hosking was struck by an intriguing idea.

“It was then that yours truly said ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a private train?’.”

He began work on the train seven years ago, employing the talents of designer Sara Oliver.

“I’m a bit of a sucker for inlaid wood,” he says, “so all the vehicles use marquetry. We found the small family business that designed the marquetry for the Titanic; they’ve done a lot of work for us over the last seven years.”

The Chairman's Set private train
Marquetry depicting a scene from Alice in Wonderland, with the addition of Hosking's two Labradors - Andrew Fox

Once the finishing touches are complete, The Chairman’s Set will be able to carry around 20 passengers, as well as around 20 members of staff .

“Some of those will be concerned with maintenance and driving and servicing the locomotives – they won’t necessarily be the people serving you your gin martini before dinner. But, of course, we have people doing that as well,” says Hoskins.

Wind in the Willows-themed marquetry
Wind in the Willows-themed marquetry in one of the train's bedrooms - Andrew Fox

The finished train will consist of nine cars, constructed by private firm Independent Rail.

The main carriage – The Chairman’s Suite – is a double bedroom with its own dressing room and twin-basin bathroom, sitting at the back of the train so as to offer the best views.

Then there is the deluxe sleeper carriage Moidart (which has three en-suite bedrooms and interiors themed on children’s books) and the private dining car, which seats 12 and has its own kitchen (which can serve the entire train).

The Chairman's Set private train
The master bedroom, The Chairman's Suite, has the best views - Andrew Fox

There are also two bar cars, both with pianos, and a drawing room car, which houses the cabinet of curiosities – an homage to the Duke of Urbino’s studiolo (with fine inlay work, this was designed as a place where the Duke could study and reflect at the Palazzo Ducale di Gubbio, and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It only remains for the final three carriages to be added – Moidart Two, an exact copy of Moidart; an almost-complete generator car; and an observation car, called the Zanzibar – and The Chairman’s Set will be complete.

“The drawing room car is very special,” says Jeremy. It has lattice doors and a model locomotive, among other objects. “And one of the piano bars can also be used as a cinema coach.

“The seats all rotate so they’re pointing toward the screen. On one occasion, our small group had dinner watching a movie in the piano bar.

“We also have a couple of guys shadowing the train in vans, so if you want to do an off-train activity, our guys scoop you up at a station and then take you back to the station when you’ve visited whatever site of interest you wanted to see.”

The Chairman's Set private train drawing room
The Chairman Set's luxurious drawing room is an homage to the Duke of Urbino's studiolo - Andrew Fox

The Chairman’s Set lives at Crewe Diesel Depot in Cheshire and, so far, has been used mostly for “test train” runs – including to St Ives, Fort William and Mallaig, as well as Thurso on the north coast of Scotland, and Glenfinnan, where the train spent the night on the viaduct made famous by the Harry Potter films. There have been several non-test runs, however.

“We were commissioned to take a hedge-fund manager from London to Scotland with his family,” Jeremy explains.

“We can do things like that, if we’re approached. We also take the staff of our investment company out on The Chairman’s Set once a year before Christmas.”

Jeremy Hosking
Hosking: 'Every British boy growing up dreams of becoming an engine driver' - Andrew Fox

But trips like this require enormous planning and plenty of advance warning. “We have to work on the itineraries and timings from about 12 weeks beforehand,” says Jeremy.

“One of the problems of running with steam – apart from the fact that it’s very expensive – is that your routing availability is limited, and so is your progress: every 75 miles or so, you have to stop to give the locomotive more water.”

So, no spur-of-the-moment chugging off into the sunset, then.

Nevertheless, can any rail lover really say, hand on heart, that they wouldn’t eschew the comparative convenience of a private jet or a superyacht, for the experience of gently puffing their way across the country in a locomotive all of their own?

The private train may not be about to replace the likes of the Lear jet, but for the wealthy traveller with time on their hands – and childhood dreams of manning a footplate – there can be no greater luxury.