The Steam Train Rail Co. has launched the first scheduled steam train service in modern history to run regularly from London Waterloo Station. It has in fact been over 50 years since steam trains ran from Waterloo and it’s a wonderful sight to see!
Four new scheduled services are being run out of the central London station every Tuesday this summer. The first is The Royal Windsor Steam Express from Waterloo to Windsor three times a day, giving passengers the opportunity to enjoy a rather more relaxed way of train travel whilst enjoying a delicious Champagne Brunch as they journey through the English countryside.
The other service is The Sunset Express which leaves Waterloo at 7:20pm every Tuesday evening and takes passengers on a three-and-a-half-hour scenic circular tour around the Surrey Hills and countryside whilst enjoying a delicious three-course dinner in elegant 1950s Pullman Style carriages.
It was one of those miserable rainy days in London last month when all the trains on my line into London were suffering delays thanks to signalling problems yet again, that I was to board the inaugural Sunset Express in the evening for my nostalgic journey back in time. And I am sure the signals were far more efficient back in the 1950s when steam trains ran up and down the country’s expansive rail system.
We had instructions to meet at Platform 19 at London’s busy Waterloo Station and not to be late, as our train was on a tight schedule and has to leave on time.
I have to confess that I had been looking forward to the evening for some weeks, as I don’t recall ever riding on a proper steam train, so I was a bit like an excited child that day.
The train arrived on the platform backwards, so I scampered to the front of the train, past the beautifully restored Pullman carriages and finally made it to the shiny new-looking Mayflower locomotive that was to take us on our journey of nostalgia and glamour from a bygone era.
61306 Mayflower is one of two surviving B1 Class locomotives that was built for the London & North Eastern Railway. They were designed to be mixed traffic locomotives that hauled passenger trains and freight traffic, so they were powerful engines capable of going pretty much anywhere in the country.
Mayflower was built in 1948 by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow but was delivered after nationalisation and acquired the number 61306 by British Railways. Her first roll was at the Hull Botanic Gardens Depot followed by time spent at Hull Dariycotes Depot before ending up at Low Moor Depot in Bradford. Mayflower was in fact the very last B1 in service and her final trip was hauling the ‘Yorkshire Pullman’ from Leeds in September of 1967.
She was almost immediately purchased for preservation and was initially based at Steamtown in Carnforth before being fully restored for mainline operation and worked a number of railtours in the 1970’s.
Mayflower was then bought by Steam Dreams owner David Buck in 2014 and briefly returned to the mainline in 2015 before being withdrawn for a complete overhaul. Earlier this year she returned to full mainline operation and looks absolutely resplendent in the early British Railways apple green livery she was originally given when delivered new back in 1948.
For those of you interested in the technical side of steam trains, Mayflower has two cylinders, 6 driving wheels, a firebox grate area of 30 square feet and can operate at speeds of up to 75mph, so she is no slouch!
The engine needs 4,000 gallons of water and six tons of coal to keep her going and a stop at one of the stations on our outward journey was required to fill up her vast tank with water. Of course the huge water towers that used to line the railway lines are no longer there, so I was somewhat amused to see a large Fire Brigade tanker filling Mayflower up with water. It also gave us a chance to stretch our legs and take some photographs of this magnificent train as the sun was setting.
Now 75, David Buck had for many years wanted to build his own rail track, and today he has a half-made circuit sitting in the 12 acres of land he owns with his wife Patricia between Windsor and Maidenhead. He also has five engines, Mayflower being the one that earns her keep.
And so to our journey. Thankfully the rain had cleared by the time we boarded the train and the sun even put in an appearance as we departed Waterloo at 7:20pm on the dot. Our route through the Surrey Hills headed south, taking us through the London suburbs of Brixton, Herne Hill, Streatham, East Croydon and on through Purley, Coulsden, Redhill, Reigate and towards the North Downs. Champagne and delicious canapés were served by the charming staff almost as soon as we left, and the stresses of the day melted away.
We were seated in an elegant 1950s wood-panelled Pullman Car at a table of four with seats that can only be best described as comfortable armchairs, nothing like those thin uncomfortable efforts they put on the modern trains of today. As we gazed out of the large picture windows we were able to take in the beautiful countryside and only imagine what it must have been like to travel by train back in the 1950s when there were no iPhones and people talking non-stop and life was altogether more relaxed and dare I say pleasant, when you could actually take the time to enjoy a rail journey and not feel guilty. As we passed through stations and level crossings, we saw people taking photographs of Mayflower and her carriages, it must have been a wonderful sight.
As we head towards Dorking and Guildford our starter platter of smoked salmon mackerel and horseradish tian was served along with a selection of artisan breads. This was a proper five-star meal, the quality of which you’d expect in a London restaurant. Our main course was a tasty roast rosemary and garlic free range chicken breast which was served with spring onion and mashed potato and fresh vegetables. A quality selection of wines is available to accompany the meal, priced from £28 a bottle, as well as an assortment of beers and spirits. And as we sped through Woking, Byfleet and onto Addlestone, Chertsey and Virginia Water, our chocolate trio dessert with berry compote, raspberry and caramel crisp and honeycomb was served.
By the time coffee arrived with some truffles, darkness had set in as we passed through Feltham, Hounslow, Brentford and towards Acton on our journey back to Waterloo.
As we disembarked our steam train, we all agreed that this had been a most memorable evening back to a bygone era when the pace of life was slower, and quality of service deemed to be important. Steam Dreams owner David Buck and his team have created something rather special with these new services out of Waterloo which will appeal not only to many a Brit but also to the many visitors we get coming over to London every summer. I can’t wait to do I again next summer.
The Steam Dreams Rail Co
The Royal Windsor Steam Express
Timetable: Every Tuesday from 4th June to 3rd September 2019 from 08:05 – 09:36; 11:18 – 12:36 and 14:09 – 15:27 (Waterloo to Windsor).
The Sunset Steam Express
Timetable: Every Tuesday from 4th June to 3rd September 2019 from 19:20 – 23:00.
Tel: +44 ()1483 209888 between 9:00am and 5:30pm weekdays.
Prices for the Sunset Express start from £99 per person in Premier Dining and go up to £129 per person in Pullman Style Dining. You can purchase standard tickets for £49 and snacks can be purchased on board. You can also bring your own picnic along if you prefer.
Simon Burrell is Editor-in-Chief of Our Man On The Ground, a member of The British Guild of Travel Writers and professional photographer.
Photographs courtesy of The Steam Dreams Rail Co and by Simon Burrell