If you rushed to get the Heathrow Express one morning and, still feeling sleepy, think you might be dreaming as the your high speed airport commuter rushes by what appears to be the Flying Scotsman and a whole host of Pullman coaches, don’t be alarmed. You are seeing the Orient Express on one of its regular tourist trips from Victoria Station along the old Great Western main line up to Stafford and Crewe.
Starting its day at Victoria, the train routes south from what was the London home of the great Pullman trains, Britain”s greatest ever steam locomotive traverses the complex train network the other side of the Thames. It then picks up the Gatwick – Clapham – Willesden Junction line before routing west and north at Dicot through the Chilterns to Leamington Spa, past Villa Park and on to The Potteries.
Passengers for Ironbridge and Wedgwood transfer to coaches to continue their journey whilst the train itself goes up to Crewe and a visit to the former Rolls-Royce (now Bentley) car factory. Sadly the Flying Scotsman is now banned from the west coast main line.
Britain”s first 100 mph train, in 1923, accelerates at a somewhat leisurely pace and has a great appetite for water, traits not acceptable to Railtrack. In 2002 there are no high water speed scopes left and every 70 miles or so the local fire brigade have to be on hand for a top up. It does not like tight bends or difficult slopes either. Running a coal fired train is not easy. It”s hard work for the co-pilot (is that the right word?) who has to shovel the fuel from the bunker and then send it into the furnace at exactly the right point. Coffee comes from a flask not the cabin staff!
When 25 years ago James Sherwood decided to diversify his immensely successful Sea Containers company into luxury hotels and trains little did he expect that in the 21st century Orient Express Hotels Ltd would comprise of 41 properties in 16 countries, including some of the most famous luxury accommodation on the globe, as well as running five nostalgic tourist trains. In the UK the British Pullman and the Northern Belle operate a year round series of journeys ranging from a day out from London to Leeds Castle, Chartwell or Beaulieu at ”135 to a Grand Tour of Great Britain including three nights at Edinburgh, one in Chester and two at Bath costing ”2,600. There are plenty of takers. Orient Express is a very profitable division of Sea Containers Plc.
Travelling on the British Pullman is pure nostalgia. Originally conceived as ”Palaces on Wheels” by George Mortimer Pullman each individual lavishly appointed carriage is an original from the 1920s and 30s meticulously restored by skilled craftsman with inlaid marquetry, brass luggage racks and lovely old shaded lamps. The setting is the golden age of rail travel with the staff turned out in the dress of a bygone era. You can sit in an open carriage, on very comfortable armchair seats, two at a table by the window, or more privately in small four seat cabins, lavish in their appointments. It”s great for a romantic day out for two, or perhaps for corporate hospitality. You can take over a carriage (up to 26) or the complete train, 250 souls. Champagne is on hand at the start of the day (even at the crack of dawn it tastes good). Brunch is served late morning and on the way home there is more Champagne, a good choice of wine, plus a five course meal. Brandy and coffee complete the day.
Orient Express now owns 35 Pullman carriages. The trick is not to wear them out too much and in essence the trains operate generally every other day during the peak of the summer season. The Flying Scotsman is used for only 40 trips, for which a premium is charged. Typically on the Victoria – Potteries excursion it took the first part of the journey and then was exchanged for a diesel electric which accelerates much quicker and allowed for the train to come back to London the quick way through Birmingham International Airport station, Milton Keynes, Watford and on to Victoria. 2 hours 30 minutes against nearly 6 hours.
For passengers whether the engine is the Flying Scotsman or the diesel it does not make that much difference. But for the watchers on the wayside you just cannot compare the nostalgia of the steam train as opposed to the one man motorised engine. It”s a bit like flying on Concorde during the early days. Passengers suddenly become minor celebrities and even wave back!
Sherwood has to be complimented on his foresight and skill in bringing back one of the great trains of the past. It gives great pleasure to its passengers and to everyone who sees it as it thunders past.