Why Britain’s scenic rail journeys are the best

Jools Townsend is CEO of the Community Rail Network. Here she reveals why Scenic Rail Britain is promoting UK rail travel in 2021 and which train journeys get her vote

Why is Scenic Rail Britain promoting the joys of rail travel in the UK?

Our campaign is all about promoting sustainable days out, especially on lesser- known railway lines, and encouraging more people to discover the great pleasures of rail travel. The campaign is a bit different from the norm as it’s drawing on the amazing amount of knowledge and insights across the community rail movement, which is made up of hundreds of volunteer groups and community rail partnerships right across Britain.

Our members are passionate about the railways and making a difference to their local communities, and through this campaign we’re taking that passion and sharing it out across the travelling public. We hope this will inspire more people to give rail a go, which has huge benefits for local communities, for our climate, and of course it makes for brilliant day trips and holidays.

The campaign focuses on different themes so there’s something for everyone. This includes helping people get ‘Off the Beaten Track’, promoting ‘Spectacular Views, highlighting how rail can help you ‘Reconnect with Family and Friends’, showcasing ‘Purse-Friendly Days Out’, and drawing attention to the brilliant ‘Scenic Walks & Cycle Rides’ you can do straight off the train.

2021 has been the year of British staycations. How do train journeys fit into this?

So many of us are holidaying at home this year. In many ways there have been lots of benefits, with people realising how many wonderful experiences and destinations there are closer to home, without having to get on a plane. But we’re also seeing downsides, with lots of heavy traffic on the roads and especially in popular tourist hotspots and national parks.

This brings pollution, noise and road safety implications, and makes these really special places less pleasant and enjoyable places to be. Taking the train means that you’re not adding to the traffic problems that can blight many areas. And it avoids all the stress and tension that can be the result of holiday traffic and finding somewhere to park. Your holiday starts as soon as you take your seat and leave the station. So you can sit back, enjoy the view, read, chat or listen to music, and hopefully arrive much more refreshed and relaxed at your destination.

Why do you think train trips appeal to all ages?

I think there is a romance to railway journeys that you just don’t get with driving or flying. Watching the world pass by as you journey from one place to another can be quite magical – you get a special sense of place and peek into the communities along the tracks. It can also be quite a nostalgic experience, especially if you’ve not been on a train for a while!

For younger generations, it’s amazing how much excitement travelling by train can bring. The journey really does become part of the experience. I was on the Jacobite Steam train recently in the West Highlands of Scotland where we were going over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct which featured in Harry Potter. There were two young children on the train near us, travelling with their grandparents, and both generations were clearly thoroughly enjoying the experience. The children were jumping up and down with excitement. And wow, the scenery there from the train window is just stunning.

What is your favourite British rail journey?

It’s difficult to single any one out because they are all so different. But a memorable trip for me was when I visited the Community Rail Cumbria, where we took a ride around the beautiful Cumbrian Coast Line.

Although this part of the world is well known for the Lake District, the Cumbrian Coast is less well visited, but I’d highly recommend taking the train. The views are amazing, and there are some lovely stations too with impressive community-led activities, like the museum and rail room at Millom. It’s possible to go right round the coast and at the southern edge the train goes over the estuary between Grange-over-Sands and Arnside, which is truly spectacular.

A special mention should go to the West Highland Line, which is also spectacular, and deservedly famous.

Why do you think Britain excels at rail travel?

I think it’s partly to do with our history and the important place the railway has in our sense of heritage and place. In community rail, you see the passion and pride people have around the railway, and there are so many fascinating local stories.

For example, one of our members, the Friends of Glossop Station, work with our members in Lowestoft to commemorate the evacuation of children during the war between Suffolk and what’s now a key gateway to part of the Peak District. The railway is not only part of our history and the fabric of these communities, it also I think brings you closer to local histories – it takes you right to the heart of historic towns and quaint villages, over bridges, and through lovely landscapes.

Thinking ahead, as a nation we are starting to awaken to the need to transform our travel and transport habits if we’re to create a greener future. The railway offers a far more sustainable travel alternative to taking the car or a flight. And there’s a lot of work going on within the rail industry to make it even greener, and more convenient and accessible too.

How important is sustainable travel to the UK?

I think it’s one of the most important issues, not just to the UK but the world, in terms of preserving our shared future, but also delivering lots of benefits too. In the UK, transport is now the biggest contributing sector to greenhouse emissions; most of that is from cars and vans, and those emissions haven’t been falling as car mileage has continued to rise.

Experts now recognise we need to reduce private car use, and rapidly, if we’re to turn that corner. Rail has the potential to play a huge part in that: if we can shift as many journeys as possible onto public transport, it will rapidly reduce the overall carbon footprint for transport.

What’s your all-time favourite rail trip?

A journey we do fairly regularly is to take the Night Riviera Sleeper train down to Cornwall, which is probably my favourite place in the world. We catch the train to London from our home in West Yorkshire, have a nice dinner in London, and then board the train at Paddington just after 11.

You can have a drink in the on-board bar, and then go to sleep in your cabin. You’ll be rocked to sleep, and then wake up for the last few miles chugging through the green hills of Devon and Cornwall. It also means you don’t waste the first day of your holiday travelling or sat in a jam – you arrive first thing in the morning, feeling refreshed and ready to go. 

Which country have you most enjoyed visiting by rail?

A good few years ago we went to Sri Lanka and getting the train there was quite an amazing experience, with the scenery, and chatting to other passengers. In terms of getting to other countries by train, we had a lovely trip to Paris a couple of years ago on the Eurostar, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Who is your ideal travelling companion on a rail journey?

It would have to be my husband. We don’t have a car (by choice!) so whenever we go on holiday or into town it’s on the train and together. We have enjoyed some truly breath-taking and memorable journeys over the years.

What’s your dream train trip?

Yes, I would love to take the Orient Express – I’ve always wanted to go overland from West to East.

What’s been your favourite train meal?

Probably a packed lunch with my husband’s homemade sourdough bread. And maybe a can of cider on the side, and a piece of cake to finish!

What do you always take with you on a train journey?

It depends on the journey. I use the train for both pleasure and work. So, if I am commuting or travelling between meetings, I will always have my laptop. I’m actually answering these questions sat at a train station!

But for pleasure, I always pack as light as I can, usually a backpack, so it’s nice and portable, especially as we usually do some walking at the other end. Oh, and whether it’s work or pleasure, I’ll always have my Chilly bottle, filled with tea in the morning and then refilled with water, which it’s great you can do at most big stations now.

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