UNITED KINGDOM, December 10, 2016 – When we think of British heritage our visions often take us to the world of literature, royalty, fog shrouded streets or majestic castles. But there is another often overlooked aspect of the United Kingdom that has played a major role in its history since the middle of the 19th century; trains.
For decades Britain’s railways were second to none connecting major cities through rural countryside, majestic highlands and unspoiled scenery filled with muscled mountain peaks and deep glacial lakes.
Great Britain’s rail transportation system connected virtually every corner of the nation. By 1923, the Railways Act of 1921 left four primary rail companies to dominate a particular geographic region: the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR).
From these four companies, British Rail (BR) was formed to nationalize the train systems between 1948 and 1997. From 1994 until 1997, the rail systems of the UK were privatized into the system that operates throughout the country today. Many of the branch lines that had been so prominent in the past simply disappeared and, though the rails remain a major source of mass transit, some of the early heritage and tradition was lost.
Thanks to the insights of rail historians, Heritage Railways have re-opened several of the previously closed lines in an effort to preserve the history and tales told by the rails.
For train enthusiasts wishing to experience the bygone era of steam locomotives and smoke belching engines, here are three of the best.
The Keighley Worth Valley Railway: The KWVR Company opened in 1867 when wealthy mill owners funded the project in order to get their products to market. The sound of the engine sent echoes throughout the steep sides of the valley while gigantic clouds of steam rose from the rails.
One of the major problems in operating the line was the steep gradient from Keighley which has always been a challenge for steam locomotives.
Many of the wool mills that lined the tracks no longer exist, but those that do remain are permanent reminders of the glory days of textiles in that part of the country.
Coal was as important for the mills as it was for the railroad, so hundreds of tons of it was transported into the valley to keep looms running and the trains operating. Though the journey was only five miles long, it was romanticized by the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne.
Two-thirds of the passengers today are visitors seeking to relive the golden age of steam that hearkens to a simpler day.
British Rail shut the line down in 1962 but locals and railway enthusiasts to united to save it. After six long years, the Preservation Society had rail service operating again by purchasing the line outright.
Today, the KWVR is one of the premier heritage railways in the UK operating more than 200 days each year through the stunning British countryside.
The Great Central Railway: The unique feature of the Great Central Railway is that it is Great Britain’s only double track, main line heritage railway. For a truly spectacular sight, the GCR is the only place in the world today where two full-size steam engines can be seen passing each other.
The Great Central Railway operates every weekend of the year, bank holidays and selected weekdays through the summer as it travels between Loughborough and Leicester.
Among the special services is the First Class Restaurant Car Services which offer five course meals during the journey.
The GCR traces its origins to the earliest days of railroading in Britain in 1847. The company was the combination of four railways for the purpose of moving coal and other goods across the rugged Pennine moorland and through the Woodhead Tunnel.
When Edward Watkin took over as general manager in 1854, the Great Central Railway began undergoing major changes. Not only was Watkin ambitious, he was also visionary. Developing a grand plan to link the industrial heartland of Britain to the continent of Europe through a tunnel under the English Channel.
The Channel Tunnel did not become a reality until the latter part of the 20th century, but the idea existed for almost a century.
Watkin resigned due to ill health in the early 1890s, but the GCR continued to expand under the leadership Alexander Henderson. The line was constructed from Annesley through Nottingham, Leicester, Rugby and on to Quainton Road. One short spur even went beneath Lords Cricket ground and is now known as the London Extension.
It is on this line that the Great Central Railway operates today. Thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers stations have been restored as have signal boxes, signals, carriages, wagons and steam and diesel engines.
It has taken 40 years to restore the Great Central Railway to its proper place in history.
Severn Valley Railway: For 16 miles the Severn Valley Railway is a full-size passenger rail line between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire.
The SVR is operated primarily by unpaid volunteers who perform repairs, painting, reconstruction of infrastructure and rebuilding of locomotives.
The line began in 1858 and was completed in 1862. Just a century later the line was closed to passengers as part of a national rail rationing program.
By 1965, a group of approximately 50 local rail enthusiasts met in Kidderminster to form the Severn Valley Railway Society.
Sir Gerald Nabarro spearheaded the project to purchase nine miles of rail line from Alveley Colliery to Foley Park near Kidderminster. Nabarro was flambuoyant to say the least, but he got things done. By 1973, Sir Gerald had made made everyone unhappy to the point of threatening to strike. The strike never came about, but Nabarro had lost interest in the project and died later that year.
By 1984 a new station at Kidderminster opened with important function of maintaining a link with the national railway network.
In the end, the Severn Valley Railway along with its Heritage Railways sisters provides a link to the past when giant steam locomotives connected Great Britain and kept the Kingdom United.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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