As the birthplace of the steam engine, the UK is a paradise for train enthusiasts. The nation took the technology to its heart, and the railway network grew throughout the late Georgian and Victorian ages.
The result was miles of railway lines, station buildings, signal boxes and breathtaking structures. All of this played a key part in the nation’s story and much is open for railway enthusiasts to visit today.
To get inspiration on where to go first, take a look at our must-visit destinations.
Top places to visit for railway enthusiasts
Dotted around Britain are dozens of places that can feed your loco curiosity. Here are a few locations we think should make your list.
1. Cliff Railway, Aberystwyth
Tourism was a key driver of early rail adoption in the UK. Many coastal towns in England, Scotland and Wales grew into seaside resorts after building a station and rail link. Aberystwyth is one example.
One of the draws for visitors was the cliff to the north of the town. Here, you can get incredible views of Cardigan Bay and Snowdonia. Which is why the funicular railway opened there in 1896.
“Funicular” is a type of railway where there are two adjacent tracks and two carriages. They’re joined together by a cable that loops around a wheel at the top of an incline. When one is going up, the other is going down, and the two balance each other.
In 1921, an electric motor replaced the water balance system. Today the Cliff Railway is the longest electric funicular railway in Britain. It’s also still in operation, so get the train to Aberystwyth Station to see it or take a ride yourself.
2. Welland Valley Viaduct
Welland Valley Viaduct crosses the basin about halfway between Leicester and Peterborough. The line links Kettering and Corby in the south and Oakham in the north.
The viaduct is impressive because of its sheer scale. At 1,166 metres in length, it’s the longest brick viaduct in the UK. There are 82 twelve-metre spans along its length and, at the highest point, the line is 18 metres above the ground. Incredibly, it took just 28 months from laying the first brick to completion in 1878.
Today, it’s mainly used for freight, but there are special tourist trains put on for enthusiasts to experience the ride. The best place to appreciate its scale is from below in the village of Harringworth or on the road from there to Gretton.
3. Necropolis Railway, London
As demand for burial plots grew in Victorian London, Brookwood Cemetery opened in the 1850s. Its one drawback was that it was 40 km from the heart of London.
To transport the bodies and mourners, engineers built a steam railway. In 1854, the Necropolis Station opened next to Waterloo Station.
It had waiting rooms for mourners and storage space for coffins, too. It proved successful. After relocating to Westminster Bridge Road in 1901, it finally closed in 1941.
The station building remains to this day. Head out of Lambeth North Underground Station and along Westminster Bridge Road. It might take some searching, but you’ll spot it from the solitary railway line next to those running to Waterloo.
4. Jacobite Steam Train, Edinburgh
Steam locomotives, stunning Scottish scenery and wonderful architecture and engineering. Welcome to the Jacobite Steam Train, one of the finest UK railway journeys.
This route departs from Edinburgh, crosses the Forth Bridge and steams through the Cairngorms onto Culloden Moor.
There, the line turns southwest to Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness and on to Fort William. Then it’s up to Mallaig, where the return journey starts as you roll back down to Glencoe.
The final leg skirts the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park before heading back to Edinburgh. Along the way, you’ll cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a marvel of construction that arcs across the River Finnan.
The 135-kilometre round trip takes two days. You can also get one-way tickets to Mallaig and back. Or pick up the route in other places for shorter trips.
5. Minehead Train Station
Opened in 1874, Minehead started out as a freight station for the local iron ore mine. Then, as the village became a tourist destination, the platform extended, with a second line built in 1905.
The line closed in 1971, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The old ticket office building and sheds remain, and the line and stations reopened in 1976 as a heritage railway. Today, you can admire it all, including an original turntable brought in from Pwllheli in the 1970s.
You can also travel the length of the West Somerset Railway (WSR) by steam locomotive. Trains run throughout the spring, summer and autumn, with Christmas specials in December.
If you’re travelling by train, the closest station on the network rail system is at Taunton. From there, you can pick up a bus to Bishops Lydeard Station, the southern terminus of the WSR, which takes about 15 minutes. You can also park at all the stations along the line.
Travelling across the UK by train
Why not pack in even more to your trainspotting trip by travelling to your destination by rail?
The West Coast Mainline links Edinburgh and London via Glasgow, Preston, Manchester and Birmingham. Avanti West Coast runs services along this main route and onto North Wales, Liverpool, Blackpool and Coventry.