What Was It Like to Ride a Victorian Luxury Train?

Martyn Pring

5 mins

28 Feb 2020

Most people believe luxury train travel was the product of the 20th century’s inter-war years.

While it is true that some of the most illustrious luxury trains were firmly entrenched in this period, the history really unfolds much earlier.

Towards the end of Victoria’s reign

Ideas surrounding luxury rail travel really began in the mid-1880s, when society was on the move and the Old World was attracting tens of thousands of new international visitors.

In Britain there had been some railway company experimentation. However the notion of civilised travel arrangements had hardly moved on from 1862, when new Anglo-Scottish expresses were made up of primitive 4 and 6-wheeled non-connecting carriages.

GNR’s No 990

Clerestory carriage stock still dominated prestige Anglo-Scottish expresses but by 1898, the east coast route was powered by the first 4-4-2 locomotives. GNR’s No 990 entered service in May of that year (Credit: John Scott-Morgan Collection).

This was the norm before two 4-wheeled (and later 6-wheeled) bogie stock caught on. Sprung bogie construction was still some time off to enable a smoother passenger ride.

Some railway companies like the Midland were true trailblazers with “luxury 12 wheelers”. Others remained unconvinced of benefits they delivered, citing the fact that they were heavier, required more powerful locomotives, and were a prerequisite for greater investment and capital expenditure they were loath to spend on.

For travelling passengers, the advantages were self-evident; new bogie carriages provided greater comfort and freedom to move around.

The Orient Express

The first Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke).

The launch of the Orient Express in October 1883 provided a pivotal moment in the development of the luxury train concept.

The initial service linking many European capitals ran with two sleeping car saloons and a dining carriage sandwiched between the two fourgons or luggage cars.

However it was the idea of a better travelling experience with sumptuous accommodation that caught the media’s eye.

The launch event and the celebration of cuisine delivered by a small band of chefs working in cramped conditions was universally received with journalistic plaudits and especially with British audiences, who went on to form the majority of the luxury train’s customers.

The return journey lasted 11 days, but clearly demonstrated Georges Nagelmackers’ uncanny ability to negotiate complex travel arrangements involving national institutions and myriad railway companies across the pockets of European states.

1888 poster advertising the Orient Express (Credit: Jules Chéret).

Railway route expansion fueled the expansion of first-class trains largely driven by a combination of railway competition and increased traveller expectation.

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A better to way to travel

The 1890s marked a significant step-change in Britain and how railway companies saw their customers, belatedly realising passenger expectancies surrounding the quality of travel and services were clearly evolving.

It was a decade of rapid and bewildering change as science and technology transformed the country, giving rise to the modern world. The bigger railway companies were a key lever of industrial expansion altering everything around us forever.

Whilst railways possessed the infrastructure to effect change, society as a whole was knocking on their doors demanding transformation.

An educated and moneyed upper and middle-class, benefiting from the professionalisation of society (on both sides of the Atlantic), demonstrated personal ambition, self-confidence and a willingness to tap into life’s better things.

Railway companies and shipping lines were the new conduits of better ways to travel.

The age of decadence

Train advert

The 1890s saw significant strides in express train carriage development with improved comfort and passenger facilities ensuring longer rail journeys could be enjoyed rather than endured (Credit: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans).

The end of the Victorian age was discernable as a period of decadence and interest in arts, popular culture and the written word altering the travel landscape and demand for luxury products and services.

Frequent and short breaks were now on travel agendas – railways got you there fast. Domestic and overseas travel became cornerstones of urbane lifestyles.

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Notions surrounding adventure, walking, outdoor pursuits, culture and heritage registered ever more prominently on peoples’ radars.

From the 1890s decadent places to stay, restaurants, eateries and new concepts surrounding the luxury floating palaces of trans-Atlantic liners and their accompanying boat trains were on architect and designer drawing boards – but constructed to mirror society’s accepted class segregation.

The British Pullman Company

Pullman advert

In the early days of railway grouping, the Pullman Car Company was seeking to enhance their promotional image with a tag line of ‘the maximum of luxury at the minimum of cost’ as shown in this advertisement from the 1924 ‘Railway Year Book’ (Credit: James S. Baldwin).

So how did all of these ideas transform themselves into better ways to travel by rail? Certainly increased use of longer and spacious bogie carriages provided improved passenger comfort and facilities.

Gangway/corridor connected stock with compartments and lavatories became the norm. Some railway companies invested in raised clerestory roofed coaches providing more natural light; elliptical shaped roofs became the standard from Edwardian times when aided by new electric lighting technologies.

This came about in 1894 when dynamos were attached to bogie wheels; dimly lit coaches on premier services were consigned to the past.

One of the first benefactors were the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s (LBSCR) Brighton Pullmans and Newhaven boat trains.

It was the beginning of ‘Pullman and Deluxe train travel’ whispered in the same breath as the British Pullman Company came under new ownership.

A golden era of train travel

Southern Belle

Advert for the Southern Belle (Credit: Public domain).

Improved gas technologies also provided safer environments for lighting, food preparation, cooking and the dining carriage, although in the event of collision and derailment, seeping gas was always a potential fire hazard with wooden constructed coaches.

High-quality dining cars provided sophisticated “food on the move” rail travel for both first and third-class passengers.

On the continent, it was more complex as second-class travel still existed, but British food service developments were innovative; new third-class diners were akin to first-class of other railway companies.

Train advert

The Tatler was another key publication for railway promotion. The title’s editorial in December 1907 coincided with the GNR’s ‘Luxurious Hotels on Wheels’ initiative (Credit: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans).

Similarly, first-rate sleeping car services on long-distant runs were ever more pleasant places especially on the consortia led Anglo-Scottish expresses. Viewpoints of “hotels on wheels” entered everyday language.

After a difficult start in Britain, The Pullman Company gradually gained a foothold on LBSCR and South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) services providing some of the first named luxury trains.

By Edwardian times affluent first-class passengers increased substantially; the new Southern Belle Pullman was described as “The Most Luxurious Train in the World” when launched in 1908.

Visitors from the New World

Illustration from 1885 Chicago & Alton Railroad timetable (Credit: Public domain).

One of the major drivers to the extension of luxury facilities enjoyed by period travellers was the value and numbers of New World tourists coming to Britain.

The impact of the US source market in shaping luxury travel agendas in this country was a significant signature of the times.

New classes of trans-Atlantic liners could be found; the first-class “floating palaces” reflected the value of American visitor economy and exercising a profound influence as all involved recognised the high-spending potential.

Travel providers – railway companies, shipping lines and hoteliers – went out of their way to provide simply the best.

Martyn Pring is currently an author and independent researcher with interests in culinary tourism, destination marketing, luxury branded sectors and travel histories. He is a self-confessed railway, maritime and aviation enthusiast from a young age. He is the author of Luxury Railway Travel: A Social and Business History published by Pen and Sword.

Luxury Railway Travel