I’ve been visiting heritage railways since I was tiny, and I still love a ride on a steam train. A trip on a heritage railway is a great way to see the landscape from a different perspective and can be a really great day out for the whole family. Many preserved and heritage railways run lots of special events, from Christmas Santa Specials to steam galas and 1940s weekends, so there’s something interesting for everyone.
The heritage railways below are some of my favourites. Some use diesel or electric locomotives but many of the others give you the chance to ride behind a steam engine, with all the amazing sights, sounds and smells that go with the wonderful power of steam.
If you enjoy visiting steam railways and heritage lines, please let me know your favourite in the comments!
Bishop Auckland to Stanhope, County Durham, England
I have to start with my hometown heritage railway. The Weardale Railway runs for 18 miles through the countryside of Weardale in North East England, from the small town of Bishop Auckland (where you can visit the Bishop of Durham’s palace), through village stations and woodland, and along the banks of the River Wear to the current terminus at Stanhope in the heart of beautiful Weardale.
At Stanhope station you’ll find a cafe and an excellent shop, while in the village you’ll find lots of lovely walks and the Durham Dales Centre. Don’t miss the fossil tree in front of Stanhope parish church.
If you go for a ride on the Weardale Railway you’ll travel on a vintage Class 122 diesel railcar for an retro experience. The volunteers who run the heritage railway are hoping to restore a steam locomotive and return steam trains to regular service on the line.
Keighley and Worth Valley Railway
Keighley to Oxenhope, West Yorkshire, England
The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway is one of the most famous heritage railways in the UK. It starred in the 1970 film of The Railway Children, along with numerous TV shows. It’s also famous for winding through the heart of Brontë Country; the station in Haworth is just down the hill from the Brontë Parsonage Museum where Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë wrote their legendary novels including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
The Worth Valley branch line opened in 1864 and closed in 1962. The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society bought the line from British Rail and reopened as a heritage line in 1968.
Today, the preserved railway runs from the main line station at Keighley, up through the Worth Valley to the tiny village of Oxenhope, five miles away. It’s a very pretty ride, and steam train services run frequently for a superbly atmospheric trip. There’s a Museum of Rail Travel at Ingrow Station, while at Oxenhope you can visit an exhibition train shed featuring locomotives and carriages which aren’t currently in use.
Wareham to Swanage, Dorset, England
If there was an award for the most picturesque station on a preserved railway, it’d have to go to the Swanage Railway’s Corfe Castle. If you stand on the station footbridge as a steam train arrives at the station, you’ll get a wonderful view of the beautifully-restored station, the honey-coloured houses in the village square and beyond, the ruins of the 1000-year old castle.
The Swanage Railway runs 9.5 miles from Wareham to Swanage, through the rolling green countryside of the Isle of Purbeck to the Dorset Coast, although most services run between Norden station and Swanage. This railway was built in part to bring Victorian holidaymakers to the seaside, and it’s still performing that role today. Swanage is on the Jurassic Coast, an area that’s absolutely packed with things to do.
Most services on the Swanage Railway are pulled by steam locomotives, which adds to the vintage railway atmosphere.
Central London, England
Mail Rail is quite different to the other preserved railways on this list as it’s completely underground. Mail Rail, otherwise known as the Post Office Railway, carried letters and packages between Royal Mail sorting offices for over 70 years. The entire 6.5 mile-long line was underground, to avoid London’s congested streets.
The Mail Rail system closed in 2003, but a short loop from Mount Pleasant sorting office reopened for visitors in 2017 as part of the nearby Postal Museum. If you take a ride on a Mail Rail you’ll climb inside the smallest train carriage you’ve ever seen, then you’ll set off on a fascinating trip through the Post Office Railway’s miniature tunnels – like a tiny version of the London Underground.
Like the Underground, Mail Rail has stations, many of which have been preserved as they were when the system closed. The train pauses at each station and a film about life on the line is projected onto the station wall.
A ride on Mail Rail takes only 15 minutes but will leave you grinning for the rest of the day, and I totally recommend it as one of the quirkiest things to do in London. If you suffer from claustrophobia you might want to skip this one though!
Ferrocarril de Sóller
Sóller to Palma, Mallorca, Spain
A trip on the preserved Sóller railway is one of my favourite things to do in Mallorca. It runs from Sóller in the Tramuntana mountains, down to the coast at Palma and first opened in 1912 to carry oranges from the citrus groves around Sóller to the port in Palma.
The Sóller railway is operated as a heritage line, and still uses the historic wooden locomotives and carriages. The section between Sóller and Bunyola is the most extraordinary, with thirteen tunnels, a huge viaduct and countless bends. The train goes surprisingly fast, making a trip on the Sóller line an exhilirating experience that at times feels more like a rollercoaster than a preserved railway.
Which is your favourite preserved railway? Let me know in the comments!