British Ghost Trains

Updated on February 9, 2019
Nathanville profile image

My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history, and how they project into today's Societies.

Steam Train at Beamish Station, North England
Steam Train at Beamish Station, North England

Not of the Spiritual Type

Ghost trains in Britain are not of the ghostly type, the terminology is used to describe a less mythical and more down to earth situation created by British legal bureaucracy.

What are Ghost Trains?

In simple terms, it’s a legal requirement by train operators to run a train on a redundant route at least once a week to keep that route alive; even if it’s not commercially viable.

As part of their franchis, train operators have a legal obligation to run trains on all routes covered in the franchises agreement with the Government.

Although a particular route might not currently be in great demand, and therefore not profitable, keeping such a route alive is seen by some train operators as resilience in the system and the potential for future expansion.

However, the main reason for running Ghost Trains is that the alternative of decommissioning the route is very expensive, time consuming and bureaucratic process that few pursue e.g. it’s just easier and cheaper to run ghost trains rather than close the line.

Why the UK Runs Trains to Nowhere

Development of the Steam Engine

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen (English inventor) created the world’s first practical steam engine. In 1769 James Watt (Scottish inventor) greatly improved upon the original designs.

However, these were stationary engines, and it was not until 1804 that Richard Trevithick (British engineer) built the world’s first railway steam locomotive.

The world’s first commercially successful steam locomotive was built by Matthew Murray (English Engineer and Manufacturer) in 1812, this was quickly followed by the world famous ‘Puffing Billy’ in 1813, and then in 1814 George Stephenson (English Engineer) improved upon these earlier designs.

It was George Stephenson’s engines that in 1825 operated on the world’s first public carrying steam railway on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, north east England. The line opened on the 26th September 1825, and the following day carried 550 passengers.

Then in 1829 George Stephenson’s world famous ‘Rocket’ won the Rainhill Trials; a competition to find the best engine for the newly built Liverpool to Manchester Railway, in England.

This was the beginnings of the development of the railway network of Britain.

Early Development of the British Railway Network

Following the opening of the commercially successful Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1829, the building of railway lines across the length and breadth of Britain boomed; the heydays being between 1836 and 1847 when Parliament authorised the building of 8,000 miles of lines.

Each railway line built required a separate Act of Parliament because it gave the railway companies ‘Compulsory Purchase Powers’; but where landowners resisted, the lines were often diverted to less than optimal routes.

One exception to this is Berney Arms train station built in 1845 in the Norfolk Broads. The landowner agreed to sale the land for the building of the railway line on the condition that the Railway Company built a Request Stop on his land so that he could flag down and use the train whenever he wanted.

Berney Arms: Request Stop

Rise and Fall of the Railway Network

From its early development in Victorian Britain of over 8,000 miles of railway lines in 1847 the railway network continued to expand and flourish until the 1st world war in 1914, by which time there was over 23,440 miles of railway lines.

Part of its success lay in railway companies buying up canals (its main competitor for long distance haulage of goods), and letting the canals go into disuse. Many of these canals have in recent decades been renovated and reopened, mainly for tourism and leisure activities.

From the 1st world war to the end of the 2nd world war the railways went into decline, with many branches closing. In an attempt to save the railways, the newly elected Labour (Socialist) Government, following their landslide victory in 1945, Nationalised the Industry e.g. brought it under Government ownership and control. Then between 1948 and 1962 Labour and Conservative Governments decommissioned a further 3,318 miles of railway lines as part of a process to rationalise the network in an attempt to make it financially viable. So that by 1965 there were just 18,000 miles of lines and 4,300 railway stations still open.

Then in 1966 came the biggest blow, when following the recommendations of the ‘Beeching Report’, the Conservative Government closed 33% of railways and 55% of the train stations.

Shippea Hill (Opened 1845): Britain's Least Used Railway Station (Just 12 Passengers per Year)

Recycling Britain’s Redundant Railways

Following the Beeching Closures, some of the decommissioned lines were bought by railway enthusiasts who now run steam trains on them for tourists as a way to preserve the old lines and steam trains.

Also, following the successful purchase by Sustrans (a charity) of the redundant railway line between Bristol and Bath in 1977 and converting it into a cycle path, the charity has since bought up most of the old redundant lines as part of creating a traffic free nationwide cycling network of 16,575 miles that stretches the length and breadth of Britain.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Redundant railway line in Staple Hill, Bristol (where I live) converted in 1977 to a cycle path running from Bristol to Bath.  The old railway line in Staple Hill, Bristol of how it looked back in 1965 before it was decommissioned.
Redundant railway line in Staple Hill, Bristol (where I live) converted in 1977 to a cycle path running from Bristol to Bath.
Redundant railway line in Staple Hill, Bristol (where I live) converted in 1977 to a cycle path running from Bristol to Bath.
The old railway line in Staple Hill, Bristol of how it looked back in 1965 before it was decommissioned.
The old railway line in Staple Hill, Bristol of how it looked back in 1965 before it was decommissioned.

The National Cycle Network (Utilising Britain’s Redundant Railways)

Privatisation

Initiated by the Thatcher (Conservative) Government of the 1980s, the Railways were split into two operations, the rail network (including train stations) and train operators; and then promptly privatised in the early 1990s.

Privatisation, although its pushed up the price of rail fare, forms a major part of Conservative political ideology, and it’s also this privatisation of the railways that has led to the anomaly of Ghost Trains in Britain.

Initially there were 25 train operator franchises, with a view to renew the franchises every three years; although the system has evolved and now there are only 17 franchises lasting for a minimum of 7 years.

In 2003 Railtrack, the private company responsible for maintaining the tracks and railway stations, collapsed. So that side of operation was taken back into public ownership (Nationalised) by the Labour Government. The new ‘Public Company’ (no shareholders) taking over from Railtrack being branded Network Rail. The Labour Government’s policy (when back in power) is to re-nationalise the rest of the railway e.g. by not renewing the train operators franchises as they expire.

Is it time to renationalise Britain's railways?

Revitalisation of the Railways

Ever since their creation the railways have always been popular with the travelling public for getting to work and for leisure; and until their privatisation in the early 1990s was a cheap form of transport.

In 1992, about the same time as the railways was privatised; the Conservative Government stopped building new motorways in the belief that the future in transport lay in the railways e.g. a desire to get traffic (passengers and goods) off the roads and onto the railway network.

Since then, predominantly through private investment initially, Governments have encouraged the revitalisation of the railways. Between 2010 and 2015 this revitalisation programme was boosted by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government who, with the help from EU funding, invested heavily in the modernisation and upgrades of the railway network infrastructure; including electrification and the construction of Crossrail. Crossrail is 73 miles of new railway track through London, linking to existing services in the south east of England. Albeit, the minority Conservative Government elected in 2017 has since scaled back on this investment.

Ghost Train Hunting in the UK

Sources

Having lived through the modern history of railways in Britain from the last days of steam, the axing of services under Beeching, the privatisation of the railways, and its subsequent revival with funding from the EU for infrastructure Projects, I have written this article from my own personal experiences and knowledge.

I’ve included a few choice videos in this article from authoritative sources to showcase the points made; and the Wikipedia links below are just a few of many sources that provide further supportive evidence of the information and data mentioned in this article.

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      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Thanks, yes the Mourne Mountains is a beauty spot, especially the nature trail; and the coastline along there is beautiful e.g. the coastal towns of Holywood and Newcastle, Northern Ireland, can also be quite a picture.

        The Isle of Man is one place we haven't yet visited; although it's on our wish list, so perhaps in a few years time!

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        Great photography. It looks like a beautiful spot. On our Belfast trip I was very taken with the Northern Irish coast as we flew over it. On the way back ww got a bonus as we went over the Isle of Man as well. We definitely plan on returning to Northern Ireland at some stage.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Fasinating. It sounds as if we took the same boat trip around Caldey Island from Tenby in Wales as you did.

        And on our Northern Ireland holiday, we past by the Titanic museum several times but didn't find time to stop as we were always off somewhere else including the Giant Causeway, the Mourne Moutains Silent Valley Nature Trail, and the Caslte Espie Wildlife Wetlands, County Down, all of which were great days out.

        Our holiday cottage was a gem. It was one of three cottages in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains that overlooked the bay with wonderful views at sunrise. It was about 40% cheaper than anywhere else in the vacinity, had great reviews, and a resident donkey (who loved carrots) too boot; and the owners were kind enough to leave us complementary food provisions for the weekend, including milk, bread and a bottle of wine etc., to give us a chance to settle in before doing the food shopping; which proved to be advantages in that unlike the rest of the UK few shops are open in Northern Ireland on a Sunday.

        The video below gives footage of our holiday cottage (and the resident donkey) at the base of the Mourne Mountains, followed by our walk along the nature trail high in the mountains.

        The Mourne Moutains and the Silent Valley Nature Trail, Northern Ireland: https://youtu.be/mW7TToUvLC4?t=140

        Yep, I could well be the one left to switch out the lights in the UK while my son and wife take advantage of their EU/UK dual nationality and flee to the EU for a better life.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        We took a boat trip to Caldey Island(not to be confused with Canvey Island as I almost did!) from Tenby.

        A few years ago we spent a weekend in Belfast, which we enjoyed. A return trip is on the agenda to visit the Titanic museum, which was in the planning stage then and also to take a trip to Giant's Causeway.

        Unfortunately we can't claim any Northern Irish ancestry, but others in our family are eligible for EU passports. Sounds like you could be left to switch out the lights in the UK when your wife and son leave for the EU!

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Hi Liz, yes we spent a day at the walled town of Tenby (medieval wall), Pembrokshire, Wales, and took a boat trip from their around the nearby island. And Fishguard is where we took the ferry from to Rosslare in Ireland for a weeks holiday in Northerland Ireland e.g. a pilgrimage to Northern Ireland and family history research because that's where my wifes paternal family come from.

        Because Northern Ireland is special to my wife (as her father was born) now she's retired, we plan to go back to Northern Ireland later this year for another holiday. And it's something to celebrate because due to her father being born in Northern Ireland both my wife and our son have an automatic rights to dual EU/UK nationality (dual citizanship with the Republic of Ireland), which they claimed last year, so they are both now proud owners of their EU/Irish Passports.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Yes, Bradmaster..... unlike the USA and other countries the London Underground had always stopped running at midnight; which in the early hours of the morning did only leave the London Black Cabs; which could be a bit of a pain. Although on the occasions we've wanted a Black Cab one has always arrived as soon as we put our hands out; so it was interesting to hear your experience.

        However, due to a public campaign, and popular demand, as from August 2016, a 24 hours service is now run on weekends, for the 5 busiest main lines on the Underground; so it is a step in the right direction.

      • profile image

        bradmasteroccal 

        5 months ago

        Thanks for the additional informative, I appreciated it.

        I road the Underground from London to Heathrow on a Saturday night and I was surprised that I was on the last train as it was midnight. And it went to 3 instead of 4 and there were no cabs as we were staying at a nearby hotel. Good news a Bobbi gave us a ride to the hotel and there were several confused travelers in the paddy wagon.

        Cheers

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        A few years ago we had family holidays in Tenby and Fishguard. I remember visiting St.David's, Cardigan and taking a boat to Ireland, but we didn't visit these places. The video looks interesting.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        We've only been to North West Wales a couple of times, so haven't had a chance to explore Lleyn Peninsular yet, and I don't think we've been to Potmerion; but if the rest of Wales is anything to go by then I'm sure they are lovely places to visit.

        Athough a couple of years ago we spent a week's holiday exploring Pembrokeshire, West Wales. We only had a holiday challet on that occasion, but the highlight of the week was Dyfed Shire Horse Farm, Eglwyswrw, Crymych, Pembrokeshire, West Wales.

        Dyfed Shire Horse Farm, Pembrokshire, Wales: https://youtu.be/fvajEjaiU9w

        We had a great time at the farm, we ended up spending all afternoon there. It's a family run farm, and only open to the public two days a week during the summer; so it's advisable to check their website before visiting. It's unique in that the farm didn't switch over from working horses to tractors after the 2nd world war, and consequently they now play a crucial role in helping to preserve the shire horse in England.

        Other places we visited in Pembrokeshire that week, as well as the beaches and local towns included Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort, Carew Tidal Mill, and Carew Castle built in 1270.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        We once stayed in a farmhouse on the Lleyn Peninsular. It was like going back in time to the 1970s. Very unspoilt and surprisingly good weather. The clouds would gather over the hills, but the coast would keep the sun. Another time I recall visiting Portmerion.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Yep, that's also why we haven't visited Ffestiniog railway yet. We've passed it several times while on our way to other destinations, but never had the time to stop and explore. However we have now decided to go on holiday in the area next year, specifically so that we can spend time exploring Ffestiniog and the surrounding area.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        I remember now my father being extremely put out when, given the choice between the beach and the Ffestiniog railway, I and my brother chose the beach. We have taken two of our children subsequently on a steam railway around a lake nearby since then.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Yes, we also like to visit the renovated steam railways when we can, our favourite so far are the ones in the Lake District; but one which we haven’t gone to yet, which is on our bucket list is the Ffestiniog steam Railway, in the Snowdonia Mountains, Wales.

        Ffestiniog Railway Victorian Weekend 2018: https://youtu.be/l8NA3eVBNlY

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        We have a steam railway running out of Loughborough, which we went on many years ago, as my Dad was a steam train enthusiast. I have a vague memory of going to the Avon railway in the 1970s with my parents. Over the years we went on several renovated steam railways.He also collected model trains, but his layout in the loft was a work in progress which never got completed.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Thanks for your feedback Brad, which is very informative.

        There are busy routes that are overcrowded, especially at peak times, and there are not enough trains or carriages for those routes when needed e.g. the rush hour. That is partly logistics e.g. there is a limit to how many trains you can fit onto the platform at any one time, and partly because private train operators don’t want to spend the money.

        Clapham Junction, London (Britain’s Busiest Train Station): https://youtu.be/ccG2nKn-zgs

        The London Underground which unlike the rest of the rail network is Government owned and run, is always busy, even though there is train pulling into each platform every 2 minutes. The London underground (the oldest in the world) is a separate entity not covered by this article. To improve the service on the London underground, and ease some of the problems you mention (with financial assistance from EU funding) the Government has invested heavily in ‘CrossRail’, a new rail route and high speed trains (including new and upgraded underground stations) that cuts through London and links to the rail networks in the south east of England and beyond.

        Crossrail Explained In 2 Minutes: https://youtu.be/S36fHqXWKdw

        London is by far the busiest city, but as long as you avoid the rush hour it’s not so bad e.g. if I catch a train from Bristol to London to arrive after 9am it might be busy on the London Underground when I get there but I can always find a seat on the tube trains as I use the Underground to get from my train station to my final destination. And on my return journey, as long as I avoid catching the train from London to Bristol between 5pm and 6pm, there are always sufficient seats on the train.

        For the rest of the country, once you move away from the big train stations in the big cities, and the intercity routes, the number of passengers using the train service does drop off quite dramatically, sometimes down to a trickle, so even in big cities like Leeds, there can be rail routes into the city from rural areas that are not popular, and thus the need of a ghost train.

        There are two main types of trains in the UK, the slow trains (travelling up to 80mph) who stop at every local station and serve local rural communities e.g. city suburbs, small towns and villages, and the fast intercity trains (travelling up to 125mph), stopping at only the large towns between cities.

        The old 125 intercity trains, brought into service in the 1980s, is quite slow by European standards, where on mainland Europe most intercity trains travel up to 200mph. Although the Government is investing heavily in a new high speed rail link and new trains connecting London with the Midlands and the north of England, which if/when completed the trains using this route will run up to 250mph.

        HS2 - Engine for Growth: https://youtu.be/kPU7i5RaOfU

      • bradmasterOCcal profile image

        Brad NOYFB 

        5 months ago

        Cheers Arthur

        I enjoyed reading this article and I did some googling and found more.

        "Given the overcrowding on Britain’s trains, it may seem odd for these empty carriages to ride the rails – or for empty stations to stand sentry over them. From 1995-96 to 2011-12, the total number of miles ridden by train passengers leapt by 91%, while the entire UK train fleet grew by only 12%."

        There was also mention of the Leeds station, the 2nd busiest after London that has ghost trains. This is interesting in light of the quote above.

        I was only in England once as I was a contractor for a couple of months works for Smith in Cheltenham in 1996 in a very hot summer. I stayed at the Rising Sun Hotel in Cheltenham and when not working, I would travel around covering from Rugby in the north, to Salisbury in the east, and Wales.

        I did like Bristol and Bath not that I hated any of the other spots.

        I didn't take any trains while in England although I would have like have done it.

        So, I you tube from train spotting to cab view all around the world.

        I did see some on you tube that were about these ghost trains, and found them very interesting.

        BTW, here in California we are still waiting for our $100 billion High Speed Train. There may be a train somewhere, but if there is there are no rails for it to fly. Probably won't see it run until 2030 or longer.

        BTW, I don't remember the details but in the 1920s in New York there was a steam engine locomotive that was doing over 140 miles an hour. Even of existing East Coast Acela doesn't go that fast today.

        Have a great day.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Do you have any steam train railways open in your area for tourism?

        In Bitton, Bristol, just five miles from where we live is the Avon Valley Railway. Originally opened in 1869, but axed by Beaching in the 1960. A small section of it re-opened in 1977 by steam train enthusiasts who now operate a regular and very popular steam train service for tourists.

        Avon Valley Railway (Steam Trains) in Bitton, Bristol: https://youtu.be/P6i8-_AhWIQ

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        It's a few years since we were last in theme parks too.

        I had no idea there was a cycle path along the old railway line from Bristol to Bath. It looks great. We have an old line near us. Like you say, it would have been useful for getting into town. Nearby industry uses it and at weekends the occasional steam train can be seen there.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        I’d almost forgotten about the fairground ghost trains, we haven’t been to these types of theme parks in years; although we still like a stroll on the Victorian piers whenever we visit British seaside resorts.

        Beeching is never far from my mind because one of the railway lines closed by him (Staple Hill) isn’t far from where I live (just five minutes’ walk) and it’s an important part of my past, and my life:-

        • My great-great grandfather (born 1829) wrote in his diary in 1899 that he was born in the house above where the entrance to the railway tunnel is in Staple Hill (the tunnel was opened in 1869).

        • When I was at primary school I used to walk over the railway bridge further down the line, in North Common, on the way to and from school; and whenever a steam train went under the bridge we used to rush to the opposite side of the bridge to see the steam coming up as the train emerged.

        • My grandparents on a few occasions took me on day trips to the countryside or seaside using the Staple Hill train station.

        • Then after the redundant line was converted to a cycle path in 1977 I used the cycle path for over 20 years to get to work in the city centre. I then switched to using the bus service after Poland joined the EU because the Bristol Bus Company employed hundreds of Polish Drivers which resolved a hitherto chronic labour shortage and the bus service was dramatically improved e.g. one bus every 10 minutes. However, since the Brexit Referendum most Polish workers have left England, and since then the local bus service has been trimmed back to just 2 buses an hour serving our route.

        • And, every August I nip down to the cycle path to pick several Kgs (kilograms) of wild blackberries.

        As convenient as the cycle path has proven to tens of thousands of people each year, I would have preferred if it had remained as a railway line. It would have been so convenient to have hopped on a local train and be at work in the city centre in just 5 minutes, or 10 minutes to nip to Bath for a day out, or just 30 minutes on the train to the seaside at Weston-Super-Mare etc. But notwithstanding that, the cycle path is great.

        Back in the late 1980s a local politician did back a consortium of private businesses to fund a commercially viable scheme to replace the cycle path from Bristol to Bath with a ‘Light Rail System’; but the scheme faced too much opposition from locals who wanted to keep the cycle path intact; so the scheme was abandoned.

        History: Beginning with the Bristol and Bath Railway Path https://youtu.be/g9w9zn8Z8AI

        Tour: Car Free Cycling on the Bath to Bristol Railway Path https://youtu.be/sVqSpItWGyA

        As regards the HS2, I’ve no idea whether it will make full completion. The Government has really bungled the management of it, and if we leave the EU, then EU funding for infrastructure projects in the UK will cease; and I can’t imagine the current Government (with its track record on public spending) keen on spending money.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        I thought this was going to be a fairground/theme park tour as I had not come across the term in this context before. It's surprising how many people still reflect on the Beeching report. I wonder if HS2 will make it to full completion.

      • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

        Arthur Russ 

        5 months ago from England

        Yes I can imagine it must be hard for small communities if the Canadian Railway passenger service is lacking. How do people get about in these smaller communities, are you purely dependent on the car, or is there a rudimentary bus service to the nearest towns.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I wish there is a ghost train concept in Canada and that railway companies keep running some trains in crucial areas. It is hard when there is a very small population in a huge land area.

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