Discover the history of our railways by train

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Fi Darby

18 Mar 202411 min read

Train history is UK history

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Train history in the UK isn’t just a record of amazing engineering feats; it’s the story of our social, political and economic development. When they arrived, our railways provided much more than major employment; they increased freedom of movement, allowed political thoughts to spread, gave people opportunities to mix, and broke down stereotypes. As the train tracks spread, people could work further from home, travel for holidays and even eat more produce from other parts of the country.  

Uk Rail History
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No wonder so many of us find the railway history of the UK so fascinating.

Train history by train

It's easier to discover history when you feel part of it. And what better way to explore the railway history map of Britain than by train. Whether you want to journey over the UK’s most historic railway bridges, find out more about Brunel and Stephenson’s gauge war, or marvel at some of our most famous locomotives in train museums, we have plenty of information to help you put together your own train history tours of the UK. Enough, in fact, to please the most eager of railway enthusiasts.

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The UK’s first train line

Science and Industry Museum Liverpool
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The first train line in the UK designed specifically for passengers and using steam locomotives was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Built by an Act of Parliament in 1826, this line revolutionised transport and had a radical effect on British society. As rapid railway expansion followed, it wasn’t just passengers who could now journey more quickly and cheaply, post and newspapers joined them in the race to travel further and faster across the UK.

Train museums in the UK

Perhaps the most well-known train museum in the UK is the National Railway Museum but we have a whole range of fascinating train museums, all over the country, and many of them are run by volunteers. You’ll find details of the National Railway Museum in York, STEAM in Swindon and the London Transport Museum, as well as their nearest train stations and walking distances from those stations below.

The National Railway Museum – York

Station – York station

Walking time from the station – 7 minutes

Entry – free (booking recommended – charges for selected activities)

Even if you’re not a railway enthusiast, you should visit York’s National Railway Museum at least once, but most people go back several times because there is so much to see. Meet iconic steam locomotives Mallard, Rocket and (for 2024) the Flying Scotsman, as well as a Japanese Bullet Train, and the navvies who built the railways. With plenty of stories, and creative activities for children and adults to enjoy, you’ll want to spend at least a day at this fantastic and ground-breaking museum.

STEAM: Museum of the Great Western Railway – Swindon

Station – Swindon station

Walking time from the station – 15 minutes

Entry – Adults £12.45 but 2 for 1 applies with a 241 voucher and National Rail ticket

Transformed in the 1800s from a small market town into a bustling railway hub by the opening of the impressive Swindon Railway Works, Swindon is a place steeped in railway engineering history. At STEAM, you can get close to an impressive collection of locomotives and rolling stock, including Queen Victoria’s Royal Salon, have go at changing the signals in an authentic signal box, and be an engine driver on board a steam train simulator. You’ll come away with a greater appreciation of how important the history of our railways was to social change in the UK and an even bigger love of trains.

The London Transport Museum – Covent Garden

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Bakerloo, Circle, Victoria; the names of London Underground stations are well-known even to those of us who don’t use them every day, but did you know that London’s Tube was the first underground railway? Or that it originally ran using steam locomotives? Find out more about these and other fascinating aspects of transport history at the London Transport Museum. Discover what London transport used to be like, and how the city’s growth fuelled rapid railway expansion, as you explore buses, trams and even an original steam train. 

London Underground stations – Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Holborn

Walking time – All within five minutes walking

Entry - Adults £24.00 but 2 for 1 applies with a 241 voucher and National Rail ticket

Brunel’s doomed broad gauge

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If there’s one name that’s synonymous with the history of UK railway engineering, it must be that of Isambard Kingdon Brunel. Coming second only to Winston Churchill in a 2002 BBC poll of greatest Britons, Brunel’s legacy is all around us and keeps our railways running today. Paddington Station, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Wiltshire’s Box Hill Tunnel were all groundbreaking Brunel designs, and one of his greatest appointments was as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, an ambitious project to build a rail link between London and Bristol.

But Brunel’s railways weren’t the only ones being built; Robert Stephenson was the chief engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway and had been responsible for building the iconic Tyne River Bridge and the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, as well as deciding on the gauge for the groundbreaking Liverpool and Manchester Railway. 

And it was Stephenson’s 4 feet, 8.5 inches gauge that then spread rapidly across the UK.

But railway gauge history is complicated; Stephenson’s gauge wasn’t the only one in development. Brunel designed his broad gauge of 7 feet, 0.25 inches to speed up the transport of goods. This clash of gauges meant that passengers and goods sometimes had to be moved from one line to another where the two sizes met. The lines of the gauge wars were drawn. A situation the UK government eventually found untenable.

And in 1846 the Gauge Commission chose Stephenson’s gauge as the legal standard.

Such is the fascination with the gauge wars story that rail enthusiasts have worked hard to preserve examples of Brunel’s broad-gauge railway and the trains that ran on it. Even better than that is the news that you can, rather appropriately, visit a few of these by train.

South Devon Railway – Totnes station – 4 minutes walking
South Devon

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Take a steam train ride up the river Dart on the wonderful South Devon Railway to discover the only remaining original locomotive from Brunel’s broad-gauge railway. Tiny doesn’t look like your usual passenger locomotive as it has an unusual vertical boiler and was designed for use at Plymouth harbour.  

Didcot Railway Centre – at Didcot Parkway station

Didcot Parkway station has direct services from London, Oxford and Bristol, and once you’re there, it’s just a short stroll through the ticket hall to Didcot Railway Centre. As well as locomotives, a signalling centre and a turntable, Didcot Railway Centre has a section of broad-gauge railway, recovered from Burlescombe in Devon and re-laid as mostly mixed-gauge track. While you’re there, keep an eye out for Fire Fly, a beautiful replica of an original steam locomotive designed to run on Brunel’s broad gauge. 

Famous train stations in the UK

Many UK train stations are works of architectural art. From the Corinthian columns of Huddersfield station to the modern web-like ceiling structure at London’s Kings Cross, it pays to keep your eyes open as you leave the train. And when it comes to distinction, it’s not just the UK’s famous trains that have a great reputation. London’s St Pancras station is a stunning home to the Eurostar and Europe’s longest Champagne bar. At 411 metres above sea level, Scotland’s Corrour station is the highest mainline station in the UK. And who could forget Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch, which has the longest station name in the UK?

Perhaps the easiest way for a train station to find fame, however, is to feature in a popular film or drama.

Train stations featured on the big screen

Platform 9 3:4Image credit: petekarici | Getty Images Signature

Over the years, dramas and films featuring British trains and train stations have become as much a part of train history as the railways themselves. Who could forget the evocative 80s drama God’s Wonderful Railway that followed the fortunes of a family from the construction of the line through to the Second World War. You can get a taste of the scenery on and around the fantastic Severn Valley Railway, which is right next door to Kidderminster station. 

Platform 9 3:4
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Get a Harry Potter style trolley photo at platform 9 ¾ at London Kings Cross station, replay your favourite scene from The Railway Children at Oakworth station in West Yorkshire, say hello to Paddington Bear at Paddington station (he’s changed position in recent years) or have your very own Brief Encounter at Carnforth station. And don’t forget to take a few photos while you’re there.

Famous railway bridges in the UK

 It would be impossible to talk about the history of UK train lines without mentioning the network’s famous railway bridges. You can still cross some by train today but, where permitted, you can get an even greater sense of their history by walking across. We’ve listed a few of the UK’s favourite train bridges below.

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Blackfriar’s Bridge – Built originally in 1769 and replaced in 1869, Blackfriars is one of the most famous bridges in London. Not only is it the capital’s widest bridge, it’s also the only bridge across the Thames to have station platforms that span the river.

Brunel’s Tamar Bridge Travel across from Plymouth station, alight at Saltash station, then walk back from Cornwall to Devon over the neighbouring Royal Albert Bridge for a close-up view of the Tamar Bridge’s distinctive oval-shaped trusses. On the Devon side, make a point of visiting the fascinating (and free) Tamar Bridge Learning Centre.

Barmouth Bridge Walk across between Barmouth station and Morfa Mawddach station to enjoy stunning estuary and mountain views from this beautiful wooden railway viaduct. You can take the train back or walk. As the tide changes, so do the views.

The Ribblehead Viaduct It's an easy walk down to the Ribblehead Viaduct from Ribblehead station. While you’re in the area, don’t forget to visit the Ribblehead Visitor Centre, explore the remains of the workers’ camps and shanty towns, and take a ride over the viaduct up to Dent, England’s highest mainline railway station.

The Forth Bridge this impressive cantilever bridge is one of the most famous railway bridges in Scotland. It was completed in 1890 and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can only cross the Forth Bridge by train, and Dalmeny and North Queensferry are its nearest stations. But pedestrians and cyclists can get a great view of the Forth Bridge’s iconic red framework from the nearby Forth Road Bridge.

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UK railways at war

Although we may not immediately associate our railway history with the two World Wars, they played a big part in both. In fact, our railways were an important part of both war efforts.

During the First World War, families waved their loved ones off at train stations, then saw some of them return on ambulance trains. Received at select stations all over the UK, these trains were more like hospitals on wheels. They were used to get injured personnel to safety and even had operating theatres. You can step on board for an ambulance train experience at the National Railway Museum (nearest station York).

During the Second World War, railway companies helped to evacuate over a million children away from the dangers of bombing in big towns and cities. Bexhill Museum (nearest station Bexhill) has a beautiful winter wartime railway model that shows the town’s extensive seafront defences as well as the stations from where children were evacuated.

The big rail companies also sent trains to continue the rescue of over 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk, and move troops around on the run up to D-Day. This video from the Imperial War Museum shows Dunkirk veterans at Margate station.

History all around us

It’s almost impossible to travel on our rail network without noticing its history. As well as stunning train station architecture in all kinds of styles, here are a few examples of what you might find as you journey.

Secret passagewayslike the one to the hotel near Great Malvern station.

Stunning sculptures a personal favourite is The Meeting Place at St Pancras station.

Commemorative blue plaques the one at Marple station celebrates the fictional detective.

Literary quotes the ones at Edinburgh Waverley station are from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley.

Even the newest train stations have their place in UK transport and social history. Keeping your eyes open as you travel doesn’t just make your journey go quicker; it uncovers the stories of people and places of whom you might never have heard if you hadn’t chosen to go by train.

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