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Boat Trains

The English Channel and Ocean Liner Specials

History, Development and Operation


Martyn Pring


Barnsley and Philadelphia: Pen and Sword Transport, 2020

Hardback, 384 pp. ISBN 978-1526761927. £35


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



Just a year after the publication of his Luxury Railway Travel : A Social and Business History (2019), Martyn Pring has brought out a companion volume which draws on ‘a wealth of unused material’ [7] assembled in preparation for his previous book. He recalls a visit years ago that took him and his friends from primary schools in Bristol by a special train that conveyed them right into the heart of Southampton docks. This rather unusual schoolboy experience encapsulated the fundamental idea of the ‘boat train’: a special service that does not terminate at the main urban station but carries on right to the waterfront. Of course, the trains that figure in Boat Trains are far grander affairs than the Bristol-Southampton special, comprising ‘fast trains, often equipped with dining facilities [running] directly to and from special harbours and quayside stations so passengers could be transferred seamlessly to and from waiting ships, unencumbered by their luggage’ [10]. Trunks and suitcases were handled by waiting teams of porters. Such services initially involved short crossings in sailing vessels and operated from several ports along the English Channel. They were soon emulated for trans-Atlantic voyages.

The received image of such long journeys is one of ostentatious wealth and glamour, as sportsmen, actors and assorted celebrities crossed the seas for purposes of business or pleasure. Each of these trips involved a substantial number of support staff not only to manage the vessel but also to cater to every whim of passengers. A practical aside on the quantity of towels, table linen and other items having to be laundered is instructive. Demands on washerwomen were especially great when vessels encountered periods of rough water. Pring is careful to stress that boat trains and trans-Atlantic liners also transported their share of impoverished migrants who sought a new livelihood away from the hardships of Europe. In cramped conditions aboard, their experience was far from glamorous. On some boats their quarters had to be hosed down once the voyage was over. Unquestionably, ‘there was a relationship between money and the ability to travel calibrated by social distinction’ [30].

From the 1870s, boat trains served modern steamships which moved from paddle to twin-screw propulsion. By the outbreak of the Great War, an extensive network of boat trains connected cities and harbours throughout Europe and functioned in many other parts of the world. For example, an integrated rail-liner-rail service linked Britain to Japan via Canada in only 22 days. Wartime experience of moving vast armies quickly by train and boat led to new efficiencies which complemented the growing demand for civilian travel after peace was restored. During the 1940s and 1950s, ‘the integrated train and boat relationship continued to flourish but then, with the rise of private car ownership and modern air travel, the boat-train idea declined and slowly died. Its time had passed’ [11]. During the 1960s, cross-Channel ferries became ‘no-frills set-ups adapted for the needs of commercial vehicle freight transport operations and the private car. Boat trains lost their travel grandeur’ [33] and trans-Atlantic liners failed to compete with the speed and convenience of travel by air. Martin Pring recounts this story in two main parts, with the first tracing the evolution of boat-train services and associated harbour developments from Victorian times to the 1990s, and the second exploring great cross-Channel boat-train expresses and famous boat-train ocean liners.

Efficient operation of boat trains required close cooperation between railway companies, shipping lines and port authorities since competition between such associations was remarkably strong. During the Victorian era, Liverpool retained its status as Britain’s main port for trans-Atlantic travel, but ‘its dominance was under threat as Southampton afforded passengers easier and quicker access’ to the main source of long-distance travellers in London [37]. In 1892, the Southampton Dock Company was purchased by the London and South Western Railway and a range of boat trains served sailings from the port to Le Havre, Cherbourg and the Channel Islands, as well as several trans-Atlantic destinations. Until the start of the twentieth century, the port of London was ill equipped to handle ocean-going passenger vessels until out-port facilities were provided at Tilbury, which was just 45 minutes by train from Saint Pancras station in central London. Special boat trains serving long-distance passenger routes also operated through Plymouth, Fishguard and the new Avonmouth docks at Bristol. In addition to regional and long-distance routes, these ports handled cruise ships carrying tourists to winter resorts in the West Indies, the Bahamas and Cuba, and taking others into Norwegian waters to experience the ‘Northern Lights’.

Several ports along the Channel coast underwent substantial improvements to their harbour facilities as the demand for sailings to France continued to grow. As early as the 1840s, English railway companies and travel agencies were organising day trips across the Channel and running cheap excursions to Paris and Brussels, using connecting rail services from the French ports. In 1851, a Paris-bound boat-train service was inaugurated for first-class passengers, with special carriages provided with washbasins and chamber pots. Additional luxury boat-train services between the two capital cities were provided to cater for special occasions, such as the Paris International Exhibition of 1899. Travel brochures promoted the distinctive advantages of each route. Thus, services through Dover and Calais offered the advantage of short journey time, whilst those using the Newhaven-Dieppe route introduced travellers to the pleasures of the picturesque Normandy countryside. Advertisements for sailings from Plymouth highlighted the distinctive cultural appeal of Brittany. The years between the two world wars were indeed ‘the golden age of luxury train travel, whose power, speed and glamour’ [103] were fully exploited in full colour posters and elegant brochures. Despite numerous promotion exercises after 1945, the days of the boat-train services between England and France were numbered, with ‘the opening of the Channel Tunnel (in 1994) effectively signing their death warrant’ (137).

Having traced the story of boat trains operating from Britain, Martin Pring adjusts his gaze in the remaining two chapters of his book to focus more sharply on cross-Channel boat-train expresses and on special trains that met ocean liners. He emphasises that rival companies sought to out-do each other in terms of luxury and efficiency. Following the creation of Wagons-Lits in 1876, the next couple of decades witnessed a form of ‘love-hate relationship’ [141] between that organisation and the operations of the Pullman Company, the crux of the matter being the running of competing services across France and Italy, especially the operation of trains from Calais to Rome. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Wagons-Lits improved its connections with the ‘Calais-Meditérranée Express’ which provided a sleeper service in luxury carriages that whisked wealthy travellers non-stop from the Channel coast, along the petite ceinture line surrounding Paris, and on to the Mediterranean. Relaunched in 1904 as the ‘Côte d’Azur Express’, 'this luxury train incorporated the latest modern railway amenities of flushed lavatories, hot and cold running water, and electric lighting, and also featured specially adapted carriages for the needs of invalids drawn to the therapeutic powers of the Riviera’s waters' [145].

After World War I, this service was renamed ‘The Blue Train’ and became ‘synonymous with a unique and sophisticated experience combining hope, anticipation and reward’ [163]. Winston Churchill figured among the elite who patronised the luxurious ‘Blue Train’. His secretary, Mary Penman is quoted as recalling Churchill’s ability to imbibe large quantities of strong liquor aboard the train and still be ready to dictate a word-perfect article for a newspaper to appear in print on the following day.

Launched in 1929, the ’Golden Arrow’ service was especially favoured by high-spending Britons and by Americans who were keen to discover their European family roots. Indeed, ‘the Golden Arrow departure platform at Victoria was like a page from Who’s Who’ [182]. After a non-stop journey to Dover, passengers boarded a first-class ferry to Calais and then joined the ‘Flèche d’Or’ train to take them direct to Paris. Seven years later, a unique sleeper service was introduced between the two capital cities via Dover and Dunkirk, with the train being driven directly on to one of three specially built ferries. Enormous engineering problems associated with the large tidal range at Dover were overcome by the construction of a unique enclosed dock. Once the ferry was ‘inside the sealed dock, the level of water was either raised or lowered depending on the state of the tide’, the pump house being capable of moving nearly 750,000 gallons of sea water per hour [211]. On occasions when Churchill used the night train, he ordered the normally non-stop service to call at Sevenoaks station, which was conveniently close to his residence at Chartwell. Surrounded by an aura of romance, the night ferry continued to operate until 1980 when it finally fell victim to competition from air travel.

Complementing these remarkable cross-Channel boat trains were special services linking London with either Liverpool or Southampton, thereby enabling travellers to board trans-Atlantic liners directly. Other passengers chose to spend a night or two in one of several luxurious hotels built and managed in these ports by railway companies and shipping lines, before continuing the next stage of their journey. Less well known are the boat-train services that operated out of Glasgow en route to India, Canada or the USA. And there Martyn Pring ends the story abruptly, with no formal conclusion being offered.

Like its companion volume, Boat Trains is crammed with fascinating detail as well as a most impressive array of full-colour illustrations reproducing posters and historic photographs of trains, docks and stations. These will most certainly appeal to enthusiasts and to some general readers. Less successful are the black and white reproductions of whole pages taken from periodicals. Unfortunately, these are so over-reduced that they are not easily legible. Critics will be surprised at the very variable length of chapters, with chapter 6 covering 134 pages but chapter 4 only four. The absence of a conclusion will be of concern to some, who may also feel that the bibliography could be extended to advantage. However, these are minor quibbles that should not detract from the overall qualities of the book. Boat Trains is certainly packed with fascinating information. Once again, Pen and Sword must be congratulated for producing an attractive book that is a real feast to the eye.



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