England is enhanced by a variety of light railways which offer families and individuals of all ages an opportunity to enjoy the experience of riding through a naturally beautiful environment on a fabulous traditional diesel or steam train.
It is a perfect way to learn about Great Britain’s industrialisation and the history of the railways. A round trip on a light railway is a good way to develop understanding about basic engineering as well being a fun day out for toddlers, children and adults alike. Usually, the nostalgic trips take under an hour and offer visitors the opportunity to stop at different stations which usually offer a variety of amenities and interesting things to see and do.
Volunteer’s help keep costs down for an organisation. These enthusiastic team members make these affordable days out accessible to all and ensure the old fashioned railways are reasonably priced, during these years of the cost-of-living squeeze.
Volunteers keep the additional facilities open (including cafes, shops and toilets) and help to create amazing seasonal events that are truly memorable for hundreds of visitors. Below is a selection of vintage railways to try out and there are many splendid locations to discover all over England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
South of England Light Railways
Hayling Light Railway Trust is situated on the south coast of Hayling Island which is reached via a single carriageway car bridge spanning across Langstone harbour, in the southern county of Hampshire, England. The Hayling Light Railway line consists of three stations; Beachlands, Mengham and Eastoke. (1)
The line runs ‘east to west’ along the seafront. See our previous article for more details of this interesting story of rail on a beautiful island on the Solent coast. Volunteers are key to the success of this nostalgic seaside venture and the community spirit is shown in our feature image with the Scarecrow festival ‘passenger’ busking while they are waiting for their train to depart. (2) (3)
One of the first preservation rail networks The Bluebell Railway commenced in 1960. The vintage route runs between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead in Sussex. This is a reopening of part of the line that used to run to Lewes in east Sussex. The four stations along the line have been restored to reflect different architectural periods in rail history.
The Bluebell railway website describes how they have one of the finest collections for steam locomotives. “Horsted Keynes, been seen regularly on television and in films, including Downton Abbey, Muppets Most Wanted movie and Churchill’s Secret. Our station at East Grinstead is adjacent to the Southern Railway station, and therefore accessible via National Rail transport.” (4)
Paddington Bear visits the railway on 7-8th October and The Giants of Steam event is 13-15th October featuring many locomotives. (4)
East of England Light Railways
Other volunteer railways in England include the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway which is based at Brockford station, Wetheringsett, Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 5PW. The MSLR or ‘middy’ ran from the early 1900’s. This line has also had a bumpy ride during its history and after being closed in 1952 due to disrepair, the MSLR was reopened in 1990 as a registered charity recreating the splendours of Edwardian train travel. (5)
The world’s smallest light railway named the ‘Wells and Walsingham Light Railway’ can be found just to the east of Wells-next-to-the-Sea. This relaxing half hour rail journey connects with the village of Walsingham on the north coast of Norfolk. (6)
Midlands Light Railways
Evesham Vale Light Railway spans over a mile across a country park in the Vale of Evesham. The attraction is owned by Adrian and Sandra Corke and operates throughout the year. The Evesham Vale Light Railway website describes how “volunteer roles provide an interesting and enjoyable past-time that enthrals visitors and enthusiasts alike.” At Evesham Vale Light Railway they provide a branded uniform. (7)
Situated in Chasewater Country Park, north east of Wolverhampton in Staffordshire, The Chasewater Railway operates passenger trains from its headquarters at Brownhills West to Chasetown, with intermediate stations at Norton Lakeside and Chasewater Heaths. A round trip of nearly 4 miles takes about 45 minutes.
Chasewater Railway Volunteer Opportunities include an “active junior team” of volunteers “involved in Operations and Permanent Way work” as well as organising a range of fun seasonal events, all coordinated via Facebook communication. (8)
North of England
The Kirklees Light Railway in Yorkshire opened to the public on the 19 October 1991, but the foundations of the line date back to the mid-19th century. Situated in the Pennine foothills, this steam train railway can be found between Huddersfield and Barnsley. The railway line now runs from Clayton West to Shelley, a distance of just under 3.5 miles. The Kirklees Light Railway claims to offer one of the best family days out in Yorkshire!
The Kirklees Light Railway is supported by dedicated volunteers who assist the small team of permanent Whistlestop Valley staff to maintain and operate the railway. “This involves an immense amount of work undertaking a multitude of activities.” (9)
The East Lancashire Railway is located at the heart of Bury town centre which is north of Manchester. The 12-mile line includes 7 stations and stops at the Bury Transport Museum. Visitors can choose from countryside walks to more bustling village destinations offering a custom-made day to suit everyone. The ELR’s autumn events programme features days out with the popular train character Thomas and Friends, Halloween Ghost Trains, wine tasting and dining onboard and an Autumn Steam Gala on the 13th to 15th October. (10)
The East Lancashire Railway “relies on volunteers all day, every day.” The ELR states that without them “we wouldn’t be able to maintain and run our heritage trains, open stations or host the events and experiences our guests love.” (11)
West of England
Swanage railway operates a service with full size steam and diesel passenger trains that cover five 5.5 miles of line from Norden to Corfe-Castle and down to the Victorian seaside town of Swanage. As well as Norden and Corfe-Castle the vintage trains stop at Harmans Cross and Herson Halt and Swanage. (12)
Although not a heritage line The St Ives Bay Line in Cornwall claims to be one of the most scenic in Britain and we think this could well be possible. Spectacular views along the coast from Hayle Towans and Carbis Bay can be enjoyed whilst traveling by rail. St Ives station is right next to the beautiful Porthminster beach. (13)
The Bodmin Railway connects Bodmin General with peaceful Colesogget Halt, Bodmin Parkway, Boscarne Junction. This month the railway is delighted to receive their wedding license so eloping and engaged couples can now plan their special day in 1950’s country style. “Your skills could be just what we need!” declares the Bodmin Railway management. They explain that the steam and diesel route “could not run” without its treasured volunteers who are all aged over 14 years. The Bodmin Gala will be on 14-15th October 2023. (14) (15)
Valued volunteers benefit and can experience a variety of roles on the railways
Volunteers of all ages are key to enabling visitor attractions and organisations all over the United Kingdom to continue to offer reasonably priced educational and leisure activities, during a challenging time in our country’s economic history. Volunteering with light railway companies can involve steam driving, diesel driving, guard duties and shop and ticket sales, track maintenance, engineering works, overgrowth clearance, building works, grounds maintenance and more.
The benefits of keeping fit, making friends, expanding an interest for history and engineering, enjoying the outdoors and countryside as well as making a difference to the local area are all really positive incentives for people who have some spare time to contribute to their community.
Volunteers keep these historic pleasure routes on track and looking forward to further development as cultural destinations as an essential part of the tourist industry in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and an important part of the UK’s national identity and income.
Dozens of light railway attractions contribute to UK economy
Wikipedia is a good place to read more details about the more than fifty narrow-gauge railways in Britain today and also all the museums that can be visited across the British Iles. (16)
For an interactive map of the dozens of wonderful miniature railways in the United Kingdom head over to Britain’s Great Little Railways website. Britain’s Great Little Railways (BGLR) represents the UK’s leading narrow, miniature and minimum gauge steam & diesel railways. The organisation covers trains of every size and shape whether they are powered by steam, petrol, diesel and batteries. (17)
There is also a Great British Railways Facebook page with news and events around the country. Scenic rail Britain is a visually impressive blog that outlines the best railways to visit and where to see coastal train views. (18) (19)
Heritage railway systems sales are not covered by government statistical analysis at present. However, the light rail and tram railways generate a substantial amount of revenue altogether which contributes to the UK economy. Last month government figures reported that passenger revenue was up by 23% in England to more than 211 million journeys and operators received a passenger revenue of £329 million. (20)
(1) Hayling Light Railway Trust, official website, 27th September 2023 Hayling Light Railway Trust
(2) ‘The Hayling Light Railway Trust’ Facebook page, 27th September 2023 ‘The Hayling Light Railway Trust’ Facebook
(3) Scarecrow ‘busker’ Hayling Scarecrow Festival, Hayling BEST community group website, 27th September 2023 Scarecrow ‘busker’ Hayling Scarecrow Festival at Hayling Light Railway
(4) Bluebell Railway, The Stations, official website, 27th September 2023 Bluebell Railway, The Stations
(5) Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, official website, 27th September 2023 Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, official website
(6) ‘Wells and Walsingham Light Railway’ official website, 27th September 2023 ‘Wells and Walsingham Light Railway’ official website
(7) ‘Evesham Vale Light Railway’ official website, 27th September 2023 ‘Evesham Vale Light Railway’ official website
(8) Chasewater Railway’ official website, 27th September 2023 ‘Chasewater Railway’ official website
(9) The Kirklees Light Railway official website, 27th September 2023 The Kirklees Light Railway official website
(10) East Lancashire Railway official website, 27th September 2023 East Lancashire Railway
(11) Swanage Railway, official website, 27th September 2023 Swanage Railway, official website
(12) Great Scenic Railways, St Ives Bay Line, St Erth (P & R) – St Ives, 27th September 2023 Great Scenic Railways, St Ives Bay Line, St Erth (P & R) – St Ives
(13) Bodmin Railway on Facebook Bodmin Railway on Facebook
(14) Bodmin Railway website, 27th September 2023 Bodmin Railway website
(15) British narrow-gauge railways, Wikepedia, 27th September 2023 List of British heritage and private railways
(16) List of British heritage and private railways, Wikipedia 27th September 2023 British narrow-gauge railways, Wikepedia
(17) Britain’s Great Little Railways, Find a Railway, 27th September 27th 2023 Britain’s Great Little Railways, Find a Railway
(18) Great British Railways Group on Facebook Great British Railways Group on Facebook
(19) Scenic Rail Britain website, 27th September 2023 Scenic Rail Britain website
(20) Light rail and tram statistics, England: year ending March 2023 Department of Transport published 5 September 2023 Light rail and tram statistics, England: year ending March 2023