Luxury Railway Travel
A Social and Business History
Barnsley and Philadelphia: Pen & Sword Transport, 2019
Hardback, 366 pp. ISBN 978-1526713247. £30
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
University College London
Confronted by this title, my mind turned immediately to thoughts of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot travelling in luxury to solve a ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1934). In six chapters of markedly varying length, Martyn Pringle charts the history of luxury train travel through a predominantly, but not exclusively, British lens. He traces how the luxury train concept progressed from being ‘incorporated within scheduled passenger services and on-demand ocean boat trains, to a distinct subset of the luxury travel sector’ that is coupled to notions of adventure, expedition, exploration and adventure .
In the first and by far the longest chapter, the emergence of luxury train travel in Victorian Britain is traced. This fashion began in the mid-1840s when Thomas Cook (1808-92), Joseph Crisp and several other entrepreneurs offered train excursions on the European continent. After initial reluctance, Queen Victoria became a train traveller, and in 1851 a special royal train carried her and her entourage to the summer season at Balmoral. In due course, this example was emulated by royal families around the globe. Of course, these early trains were far from comfortable, lacking corridors and lavatories, and having little by way of lighting or heating. Of necessity, comfort stops were frequent. By the 1870s these shortcomings were largely resolved. Nouveaux riches industrialists and traders looked to comfortable trains to reach their country houses and shooting estates, especially in Scotland. Wealthy North Americans, who were already used to luxury trains at home, streamed off liners at Liverpool to travel northwards for the grouse shooting season, starting on ‘the glorious twelfth’ of August.
British railway companies realised that they needed to enhance the quality of their services and carefully studied the business of American George Pullman (1831-97), whose company was responsible for ‘transferring the best elements of hotels to rails, with unrivalled food quality and impeccable service delivery’ . In 1874, the Midland Railway Company pioneered the notion of ‘comfortable and plush travel ... based on American styled luxury Pullman trains’ . Carriages were polished to gleaming perfection and overnight services provided fold-down beds that were sectioned off by curtains. The example of the Midland was duly emulated by companies operating on the east- and west-coast lines from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively. During the 1880s, electric lighting started to be installed on luxury trains and in the 1890s provision of large water tanks allowed cooking facilities to operate. Previously customers had to rely on hampers of food. With decent supplies of water, carriage lavatories became a common feature of express train travel. To attract more passengers, railway companies promoted their service by providing high quality food aboard and building hotels at their termini.
In Edwardian times, the elegance and comfort enjoyed by first-class passengers continued to increase. Competition for clientele between companies was intense. Production of specially commissioned posters and travel literature aimed to capture growing shares of the existing market and to attract passengers to new leisure-time destinations. For example, the Great Western Railway initiated the up-market ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ that ‘delivered a smart West Country image for holiday business’ . North American visitors continued to have high expectations of British trains and the main companies serving major gateway ports ‘upped their game with improved passenger services’ . These also benefitted domestic first-class travellers. Special expresses met ocean liners as they docked, offering spacious and comfortable trains that were ‘instilled with a brand of romance and glamour linking the railway companies to the shipping lines’ . Meals on luxury trains were often gastronomic feasts.
After the disruption of World War I, the inter-war years proved to be a ‘golden age’ for luxury trains . Despite competition from increased car ownership, the introduction of new steam locomotives and carriage stock made long-distance rail journeys more enjoyable experiences for well-heeled passengers. In the mid-1920s, the ‘Royal Scot’ and ‘Flying Scotsman’ services, with ‘Night Scot’ and ‘Night Scotsman’ sleeper trains running overnight, made travelling between London and Scotland ever more acceptable for those who could afford it. Railway companies enhanced their publicity and marketing operations, with pamphlets, guides and travel books complementing the message of attractive coloured posters. An allegedly ‘thrilling board game’ was named after the ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ . After war was declared in September 1939, Britain’s luxury trains entered a phase of austerity, with Pullman, restaurant and buffet cars being withdrawn.
Post-war euphoria was short-lived as austerity continued and Britain’s railways were nationalised on 1 January 1948. After mid-century, trains had to compete with short-haul air flights and greatly increased car ownership, but a few Pullman trains continued to operate. At the turn of the century, these included the ‘Belmond British Pullman’ and the ‘Belmond Royal Scotsman’ services that continue to offer timeless values of luxury accommodation. Demanding, wealthy retirees now travel in style across Russia on the ‘Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express’ or take the ‘Maharajas’ Express’ in India, the ‘Golden Eagle Danube Express’, and various luxury trains on Japanese railways. Looking outward from Britain, Martyn Pringle concludes: ‘Luxury trains worldwide are big business and open to all wealth creators with the relevant imagination, resources and deep pockets’ .
At this point, he draws a second breath to offer four modestly styled ‘appendices’ that cover a further 140 pages. These might better be described as ‘case studies’ since they explore luxury services on four groups of route in Britain. Sixty pages are devoted to three routes to Scotland, with the familiar east- and west-coast services being once complemented by a central route operated by the Midland Railway, following the opening of the Settle and Carlisle line in 1876. Arguably, this was ‘the most scenic and picturesque of the Scottish main line routes’ . The appeal of the West Country was served by Great Western’s ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ from Paddington and the Southern Railway’s lesser known ‘Atlantic Coast Express’ from Waterloo. ‘Pines, chines and perpetual summers’  were important promotional props for the ‘Bournemouth Belle’ from Waterloo and the ‘Pines Express’ from Bournemouth to several midland and northern cities. The ‘Southern Belle’ and ‘Brighton Belle’ Pullman services reached the south coast in just one hour from London’s Victoria station.
This section of the book is richly illustrated with numerous full-colour reproductions of extremely attractive posters promoting luxury trains services to various parts of Britain. Brief notes identify the artists that created them but this topic really merits an essay in its own right, perhaps in the form of a fifth appendix. Further illustration is provided by a valuable array of historic photographs that raise a few questions in the reader’s mind. For example, is the lower photograph on page 323 showing two modest platforms really a depiction of Clapham Junction? And surely the image on page 346 is of the ‘Brighton Belle’ leaving Clapham Junction just short of Wandsworth Common rather than passing through Clapham Common? Overall, Luxury Railway Travel is an elegant, beautifully illustrated and highly informative book, written by an enthusiast for fellow railway enthusiasts. They and many other readers will certainly enjoy it.
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