Railway expert Rob Carroll shares his tips for on the five best rail journeys to book for 2022
After nearly 15 years of organising escorted rail holidays for groups, I recently rejoined the Leger Shearings Group. ‘What has coach travel got to do with railways?’ you might ask. Well, there have always been enthralling, nostalgic rail journeys included in some of the best coach trips. So I’m keen to share my thoughts on Britain’s five best rail journeys to book for 2022.
I began my travel career at Leger Holidays last century, met my now wife there and our first holiday together was a superb Leger trip to the Austrian Alps. We visited Zell am See, Kitzbühel, Innsbruck and the Grossglockner Glacier. But our highlight was a ride on a chartered heritage train through the Tyrol with crew dressed in splendid Habsburg period uniforms and dresses.
And on my last work trip with WA Shearings in 2004, I sat on the front seat of the Golden Pass Panoramic train across the Swiss Alps from Lucerne to Montreux. The driver was perched above us, which afforded the lucky ones in the front seats a driver’s eye view, descending from alpine Gstaad through the vineyards down to glistening Lake Geneva.
Whilst we gear up towards full-scale continental travel again, I thought I’d share with you my current favourite five rail excursions on our doorstep, all very different and special in their own way.
The Staycation Express
During the difficult days of pandemic, the ‘Staycation Express’ operated as soon as the first lockdown was lifted in 2020. The brainchild of Rail Charter Services, this is a service organised by rail pioneers for the general public, shouting proud from the Pennine peaks about the very special and stunningly scenic Settle & Carlisle Line.
A timetabled tourist service returned for 2021, pulling former first class Inter City carriages from Skipton and Settle northwards to Appleby and Carlisle. You can sit back and enjoy a little bit of nostalgia and escapism amidst the moorland heather, then trundle slowly above the 24 arches of the Ribblehead Viaduct. This is over 100 feet above the valley, the line crossing between Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent, Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks’.
I was lucky to be amongst the first passengers and it was ‘reet champion’, as we say in these parts. I’ve also got a sneaky feeling you might find this excursion in the new Shearings programme.
West Highland Line
Back to old favourites, the West Highland Line is probably our most popular UK rail journey and you can see why. From Arrochar & Tarbet, serving Lochs Long and Lomond, the ScotRail service skirts the top end of the bonnie, bonnie banks before heading up into the wild western Highlands.
North of Crianlarich there’s a feat of engineering, the Horseshow Curve beneath mighty Ben Dorain, the track circling the glen to master the terrain.
Next up is Rannoch Moor, where the track floats on peat boglands across the high heather moorland, a scene of desolate yet devastating beauty, so remote from our existence that no roads lead here. Deer scamper into the distance at the intrusion of human life in a scene of idyllic and splendid isolation.
Tick off Corrour, the highest altitude station in the UK, before journey’s end at Fort William, nestled beneath Ben Nevis, the highest mountain on this island. High drama all the way!
Welsh Highland/Ffestiniog Railway
A classic round trip I prefer to call ‘North Wales in a Nutshell’. From Llandudno we trundle first by coach along the coast to board the Welsh Highland Railway beneath the protective keeps of Caernarfon Castle.
The WHR is the best, most scenic steam excursion on this island. In my opinion. But I’ve done quite a few, so please take my word that it’s magical. A pause for liquid lunch in sunny Porthmadog, then time for the next superlative, the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau with the world’s oldest railway company.
After looping around the mountain on Britain’s only railway spiral, the slate mountains at Blaenau often glisten eerily after rainfall. Landing here in this other-worldly landscape, you feel like you might have accidentally happened upon the film set of the latest Star Wars movie. A trusty coach awaits to descend the pretty and pastoral Conwy Valley back to the coast at Llandudno. I can’t think of many better ways to spend a day.
Tornado – ‘The Aberdonian’
It’s a pretty cool image, I think you’ll agree. A new-build steam train, Tornado, completed in 2008 and waiting at Edinburgh Waverley, ready to haul a regular mainline steam excursion all the way to Aberdeen. If that sounds exciting, well it will only get better.
The journey begins by gently steaming alongside Princes Street Gardens, then crosses the monumental triumph that is the UNESCO World Heritage Forth Bridge. Bobbing into Perth and Dundee, then to the coast, our Tornado then storms up the stunning North Sea coastline.
Spot the fabled golf links at Carnoustie, smell the ‘smokies’ at Arbroath, look out for seals off-shore and bask in coastal panoramas as far as the eye can see.
Exiting Stonehaven along the cliffs, the train runs high above the water all the way to its destination, the handsome ‘Granite City’ of Aberdeen.
Teifi Valley Railway
My final choice is obscure but deserving in your support. The Teifi Valley Railway in west Wales was a successful visitor attraction for many years before it fell into disrepair. In 2014 Mac and his group of volunteers stepped in and the Teifi Valley Railway was reborn with next to nothing. As the track was unusable the miniature ‘Pixie Line’ saved the railway by entertaining children whilst the big railway started to rebuild after its years of destruction.
They have rebuilt their railway by hand, yard by yard through the forest with sheer love and determination. The dream is to restore their steam loco, Sergeant Murphy. With a tantalisingly short gap in the trackbed to bridge and when the steam locos are working again, the Teifi Valley will truly be back in business.
When I was last there they told me they didn’t have much. On the contrary; they’ve got love, hope, belief and great determination in the face of adversity. True pioneers. Good luck guys!