Vintage Railway Carriages, Cinderellas or Saviours?

Pullman Car Balmoral


Most heritage railways operate common 1950/1960 carriages.  Many also have much older, historically significant wooden railway carriages that are outside, rotting gently away.  The carriage date base underlines just how many Victorian and Edwardian carriages in particular are threatened.  Those railways that have restored such carriages then have to fund accommodation.  They may only want to use them occasionally to keep them in pristine condition.  This means that they are unlikely to repay the time and money spent in restoration.  Some railways feel that they have no option other than to scrap unrestored coaches despite their historical interest.  They take up valuable space, make the area look tatty and there is no one willing to take on such liabilities.  The database shows that the numbers of carriages outstrips demand, so what is to become of the rotting historic examples?

A pragmatic answer

Most visitors to heritage railways are not enthusiasts, and while the enthusiast male may not worry too much about travel conditions, there is no doubt that the average family appreciates finer carriages and are willing to learn about their history.  As the 1950s onwards coaches age, heritage railways are shocked to find that to bring them up to standard can be very expensive.  Two of the leading heritage railways have taken such coaches out of traffic and spent a six figure sum each to do a good restoration job.  With this in mind, they are looking again at their sidings full of older coaches as their restoration appears viable.

Conventional wisdom suggests that wooden carriages can cost up to £100,000 and ten years to restore.  Grant aiding such work may lead to storage and use restrictions as well as dictate restoration methods.  Grants from the lottery and PRISM are wonderful, my only reservation being that the headline grabbing ‘£50,000 awarded to restore carriage’ may deter carriage owners from even starting work as they fear that their project is beyond their means. 
There is another way that can cut time and expenditure and create a good life for the carriage.  Reduced time and money spent on restoration plus the prospect of profitable use yields funds available for maintenance and to plough in to more ‘at risk’ carriages. Works may or may not be to approved museum techniques and total authenticity is compromised to suit 21century taste and function.  However I would argue that as most museums are sadly unable to accept more artefacts of that size, it is up to individuals to use cost effective methods to reduce the long lists of ‘at risk’ carriages so starkly described in the carriage register.


If one accepts that almost anything to bring an ‘at risk’ unwanted carriage back in to use is legitimate, short cuts can be taken.  Some restorers replicate the oak floor bearers and three layers of floor boarding, an expensive exercise.  Consider modern fire check wood materials.  Half a days work to fit machined panels, a better job, not at all as original but hidden under the floor covering.  Some use solid teak or other hardwoods for the panels of painted carriages.  Good quality ply can give a cheaper yet superior job.  Why use expensive and endangered teak for frame components?  Salvage material from grounded bodies or consider alternative timbers.  After all, they are hidden and will have the same strength and stability properties. 

Consider the end use of the carriage.  It is likely that the entire interior is missing.  Snack preparation areas could replace lavatory compartments.  A décor may not be as original but, while looking right, is more to the taste of 21st century passengers. Legitimate, as long as evidence of original is recorded and all changes reversible so that future generations have the opportunity to return the coach to original. Alterations that destroy evidence and character or restoration techniques that threaten the use, structure and well being of the carriage should be resisted.


The first four carriages to run under the Stately Trains banner have shown an income exceeding the bank base rate after paying the host railway standard ticket fare.  They were all over 100 years old, unwanted and neglected for over 30 years.  They are now in demand for hire and film contracts.  Spreading the word. The annual ‘Carriage Convention’ pioneered at Embsay is intended to share parts, work methods and enthusiasm.  Around 80 people from over 30 railways attend and several new initiatives have taken off as a result. 

I am evangelical in my wish to spread restoration techniques, use and general education of such special carriages.  They give railway visitors such pleasure while easily commanding a premium fare.  As their use spreads, if there is an over capacity, the worst of the common Mk. 1 fleet will be scrapped.  Is that good or bad?  That is a decision for the owning railways.  Railways that are registered museums have collecting policies where rare, unique and old should take priority over common, more recent items.  However ALL coaches should be looked at to verify what is original (to record and restore) and any aspects that make vehicles special or unique.

Prove it!

This is not an academic argument but a case backed up by examples. 

Great Eastern Railway No. 14

GER 14 of 1889 is a district engineer’s saloon that the Rutland Railway Museum sold in a derelict condition.  Co-incidentally my late father’s boss was district engineer when he joined the LNER in 1942 and actually used this coach!  I hired a barn from a local farmer to house the carriage.  The project took two years.  In 1996 Ipswich council invited it to its’ old home to celebrate 150 years of railways in Ipswich.  There were several carriages there from museums and I was horrified that the public was discouraged from entry or even looking inside them.  (You can see little from ground level.)  I grabbed some steps and actively encouraged visitors while my father told them of its’ use and restoration.  Out of the hundreds that boarded, I believe that several were inspired to take further interest and become involved in heritage restoration.  I was so gratified by the public’s response that I resolved to run the carriage and save similar examples.

Following negotiations with the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway I ran No. 14 on a trial of 10 summer Saturday evenings on the understanding that I paid any losses and split profits 50/50.  No. 14 has only 16 seats.  All were booked in advance and tickets included strawberries and cream with wine or soft drinks.  I broke even and it was clear that a further similar carriage was required to make the operation viable.  Further income opportunities became apparent when No. 14 was hired to Channel 4 TV and BBC TV and used with GER No. 37 in the Warner Brothers film ‘Possession’.

Great Eastern Railway No. 37

GER of 1897 was originally built as a third class family saloon, this probably being the only survivor of a once numerous type.  It was in about as bad condition as it could be and experts reckoned that it would never run again.  However it made the perfect match for GER No. 14 and could carry 38 passengers.  It is believed that it was converted for the use of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Alice.  Evidence found during restoration supports this.  It became clear that luggage racks were removed to facilitate the fitting of fine American black walnut and all the ceiling beads were plastered in place, silver leafed and gilded in gold along the edges. Not a common way to treat a third class interior!

Around £15,000 was spent within 12 months for a sound but speedy restoration outdoors in the corner of a Harrogate stable’s car park.  Most of the money went on hiring specialist contractors to replace 70% of the rotten frame.  Certainly, this carriage was beyond economic repair unless you change the laws of economics! It is now in a condition that will guarantee many years use.  It can earn its’ living and maintenance while giving thousands of passengers an enjoyable, educational and unique travel experience.  It makes a lovely pair with No. 14 and they were hired by the North Norfolk Railway and North Yorkshire Moors Railway (twice), proving very popular.

Great Eastern Railway directors’ saloon No. 63

GER No. 63 was built in 1911 for the directors and lasted in railway service until 1971.  Although passing in to heritage railway service and use, for some reason this lovely coach was stripped of roof covering and side cladding and left for over ten years, exposed to the elements under trees.  Sadly this is the fate of so many carriages, good intentions strip the carriage out.  Then fear takes over as the work and expense involved in restoration brings the project to a halt.  It was in a rotten condition and at risk when I was offered it for £1.  I took it only because I feared for its’ future and it has not been a priority.  Nevertheless it is just about finished and will shortly go to ‘Locomotion’ at Shildon for a spell to carry passengers.

East Coast Joint Stock Dining Car No. 189.

ECJS No. 189 of 1894 is one of the world’s oldest surviving dining cars, yet in January 1998 it was a week away from destruction.  No one would take on this project but the Vintage Carriage Trust kindly put me in touch with the owner and I acquired it.  The interior was amazingly complete and the body frame in very sound condition.  It worked the London to Aberdeen run, possibly forming part of the trains that were in the informal ‘races to the North’ and was part of the Flying Scotsman train.  Wabtec at Doncaster (its’ birthplace) has almost finished underframe and varnish work and soon it will earn its’ keep.  The polished gold engraved wood, fine etched glass, painted glass and clerestory roof make this a craftsman’s delight.

Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Directors’ Saloon No. 1.

L&Y No. 1 of 1906 is truly a luxurious carriage.  All the original interior mahogany remains in good condition. The underframe was overhauled by a contractor and the coach has worked several seasons on E&BASR service trains.  For a single journey premium of just £1 it gives public access to what was once an inner sanctum to a privileged few.  It joined the ECJS dining car in Doncaster for Doncaster Works 150 and while there had new tyres fitted on a wheel set. 

The interior features a genuine mosaic floor showing the Lancashire and Yorkshire roses entwined (in the lavatory!) carved rare Domingan mahogany porticoes and pillars, etched glass and even the original long table and apprentices’ photographic club winning picture of 1914 framed in the smaller saloon.  (Grateful thanks to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Preservation Society for that!)  The North Norfolk Railway offered this coach free to a good home.  It was reassuring that the condition and paperwork satisfied the powers that be and it was given permission to cross the East Coast mainline by rail. It reached the National Railway Museum and now runs in its’ yard.

Great North of Scotland Railway No. 34

GNoSR No. 34 of 1894 is very unusual.  Although only 36 feet long it had a corridor, centre gangway, and lavatories.  It was originally all first class but rebuilt as 1st/3rd in 1909.  Fine gilding on panels has been reproduced in first class and I discovered the joys of wood grain painting as original in the third class compartments.  This coach is so different from English equivalents.  It is the only Scottish coach operational in England and only one of two complete GNoSR carriages left.  It now works with the other six wheelers and its’ internal layout makes it very popular with passengers.

Pullman Car ‘Balmoral’

This is a very early Pullman car and built in kit form in America in 1882 for France. The order was cancelled so the Midland Railway agreed to assemble it and they sold it to the Great Northern Railway after very little use.  It converts from a day car to a sleeper and is the only surviving example of a three axle Pullman out of four made.  From the GNR it went to the Highland Railway but was not terribly successful, despite the railway putting conventional four wheel bogies on to improve the ride.  It was used little after 1906, saw some work during the first world war but withdrawn in 1919.  The manager of the Pullman car works at Brighton, himself son of the first Pullman attendant in Britain was given the body to make a home upon retirement.  His family gave me photos and the interior components retrieved during demolition. 

I negotiated title to the body of Balmoral, currently residing in the former Pullman car works at Preston Park, Brighton, a building with difficult access.  Removal, Network Rail permitting, is imminent.  With French, American, English and Scottish connections, it is truly a carriage of international significance.  The standard of marquetry and glass work is absolutely incredible and the complete interior currently fills my garage!

An LNWR 12 wheel directors’ saloon of 1913 is currently being overhauled at Embsay and the main frame repairs are completed.  Other coach projects include Prince Albert Edward’s (Later Edward VII) GER 1877 saloon and Queen Victoria’s LSWR jubilee coach of 1885.  They are currently bodies but they should go back on wheels without too much trouble.

My collecting policy has been ‘unique or sole survivors’ that have special stories to tell.  That makes them attractive to use, fine to ride in and easy to interpret.

Nos 14, 37 and 34 are used as a complete train for regular trips, film work and charters.  The larger carriages join service trains comprising standard carriages to give passengers an option.  Facilities to serve light refreshments will be in all carriages.  If the magic 10% return on investment figure is attainable an important point is made.  This financial argument is so important if railways are to be encouraged to restore their own old coaches.  Heritage railways that want to borrow one or two of my carriages are offered a marketing plan to make sure that they and their passengers get maximum benefit.  They may then see the importance of their own neglected vintage carriages and begin restoration.

Over time, the purchase and restoration costs of the carriages may be repaid, but most of the income will go on their maintenance.  Currently their value is far less than my costs.  The sheer wonder and beauty of such carriages encourages visitors and gives whole families a memorable journey.  There is very little resistance to paying the premium and running true vintage trains reduces the dependence on Thomas and Santa for income, returning railways to a more legitimate ‘museum’ role.  Used like this, vintage carriages have a securer future than a carriage that earns nothing yet requires maintenance or expensive covered accommodation. 

A carriage shed has been built on the E&BASR for my carriages and should extend the life of paint work, improve security and give better working conditions.  Visitors to my unrestored carriages compare the experience with viewing the hazy underwater shots of the more modern interior of the Titanic.  They are amazed that such fascinating history is generally so neglected.  As I complete current projects, other important carriages are waiting for restoration. 

It is good to see that some museums, heritage railways and individuals are beginning to look at what they have and save the tangible remains of a lost way of life.  100 year old plus wooden carriages are running on one of Britain’s luxury trains on the mainline and more heritage lines are investing in carriages that have long been neglected.  The Isle of Wight Railway leads the way with a wonderful collection of long and short wood carriages.  The Bluebell Railway is completing short carriages for an ‘even more vintage train’ and the Kent and East Sussex Railway is turning out some wonderful examples.  Large lines (Severn Valley, North Yorkshire Moors, North Norfolk Railway, etc) have very exciting vintage trains in the pipeline and smaller concerns (Chasewater Railway, Tanfield Railway etc. are restoring their enviable stockpile of unusual Victorian carriages.  The Great Western Society at Didcot has a fine reserve and its’ 1906 steam powered wooden bodied railcar is not far off completion.  Narrow gauge lines have always used their old wooden carriages and some have built new ‘old’ carriages.

Saving vintage carriages is possible on a low budget and restoration can be rapid.  The public is willing to support such work by travelling on finished carriages, learning, enjoying and returning with friends for more trips.  I can certainly vouch for the fact that it is immensely rewarding work, especially when I am privileged to serve happy passengers on carriages that were so recently considered worthless.


The Transport Trust, Heritage Railway Association and Yorkshire Forward for awards and encouragement.
GNER (Great North Eastern Company) for training, advice, cutlery, crockery, uniforms and for their ‘mentoring’ role.
NRM for encouragement and its’ library for research.
Many individuals and heritage railway lines for advice, parts donations and support.
E&BASR for believing in me and allowing me to bring some very scary looking carriages!