All aboard

Date Posted: 29/12/2011

From whistle-stop tours to once-in-a-lifetime journeys, railways offer a wealth of options for groups.

Watching an ever changing landscape from the comfort of your seat is one of the joys of train travel. Whether you incorporate a nostalgic ride on a steam heritage line into an itinerary, organise a journey on one of the UK’s iconic railway routes, treat your group to a day trip on the sumptuous Orient Express or make tracks to exotic destinations overseas, a train trip will transport your group members to a world where travel is an adventure and not simply a way to get from A to B.

Classic tracks

Swansea to Shrewsbury, Exeter to Penzance and the Conwy Valley Line from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog are among the classic rail routes running through some of the most picturesque parts of the country. Rail enthusiasts treat them as a trip in their own right whereas general interest groups can use them to stop off and visit other attractions en route.

Perhaps the most famous of all is the Settle-Carlisle route; a 72-mile line through the magnificent Yorkshire Dales and Cumbrian Fells. It runs over the 24 arches of the Ribblehead Viaduct – instantly recognisable to fans of the Harry Potter films - before plunging into the longest tunnel on the line at Blea Moor and past Dent station, England’s highest mainline station at 1,150-feet above sea level. It finally makes its way through the rolling hills of the Eden Valley before arriving at the great border city of Carlisle.

Although the route is steeped in history, it is part of the national rail network. Various organisations work together to promote the line and group bookings, with discounts for ten people or more, can be made through the Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company, which provides groups with a volunteer on-train guide to provide fascinating information about the line and a refreshment trolley service.

Full steam ahead

The Kent & East Sussex Railway, winding its way from Tenterden to Bodiam Castle, has teamed up with rocking horse makers, Stevenson Brothers, to offer a new group tour for 2012. Reins and Trains begins with a visit to the Bethersden workshops of twin brothers Marc and Tony to see horses being made and antique rocking horses restored. Groups then embark on the 21-mile round trip from Tenterden and enjoy a ploughman’s lunch on board the steam train. Trips can also be combined with other attractions including the Mill Toy & Pedal Car Museum, Great Dixter House and beautiful Bodiam Castle.

The North Norfolk Railway, known as the Poppy Line, runs from the Victorian resort of Sheringham to the Georgian town of Holt and offers spectacular views of coast and country. It’s a full size railway and the magnificent steam engines include one of the most powerful ever built for British railways - Black Prince, now owned by wildlife artist David Shepherd - and one built in the 1920s for the boat train services from London to Harwich. The line celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2012 with a host of special events including a weekend in June marking the 60th anniversary of the Ealing comedy Titfield Thunderbolt Live, about villagers trying to save a fictional branch line from closure. The railway offers discounted rates for parties of 20 or more.

Running through 20 miles of picturesque countryside, with ten stations en route, the West Somerset Railway is promoted as Britain’s longest gauge heritage railway. The line operates between Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, to Minehead and passes through the beautiful Quantock Hills and along the Exmoor coast. The railway has teamed up with the Yarn Market Hotel in the medieval village of Dunster where the restaurant is available for exclusive group use. Other group options include an old style mystery tour around Exmoor. GTOs can find full details on the recently enhanced group travel section of the railway’s website.

The Lake District is another beautiful part of the country to explore on a leisurely train journey. South Tynedale Railway, northern England’s highest narrow gauge railway, runs from Alston in Cumbria into Northumberland and your group can be among the first to travel along a new 1.5 mile section of track between Kirkhaugh and Lintley Halt due to open at Easter. Also new for groups travelling on the steam-hauled Fellsman, operated by Statesman Rail, is an optional tour on a 1950s coach through the Lake District to Glenridding followed by a steamer cruise. Another railway option in this region is the historic branch line that makes up Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, which travels through the Leven Valley at the southern end of Windermere and is celebrating its 140th anniversary.

Over in the West Country the seven-mile South Devon Railway is part of the former Great Western Railway and travels along the valley of the river Dart between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. Most groups start at Buckfastleigh where there is free coach parking and trips can be combined with visits to top local attractions such as Dartmoor Otters & Buckfast Butterflies and the Totnes Rare Breeds Farm.

For groups heading to Wales, Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways comprise two narrow gauge railways offering a variety of different trips. This year the railway opened the final section of a link between Caernarfon and Porthmadog, which means passengers can cover a total of 40 miles of historic track. The Ffestiniog, founded by an Act of Parliament in 1832, is reportedly the world’s oldest operational railway and will transport your group on a fascinating journey from the harbour in Porthmadog to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, whilst Welsh Highland trains start a spectacular 25-mile ride from beneath the castle walls at Caernarfon.

Overseas adventures

A rail journey is an easy and exciting way to travel further afield. Great Rail Journeys and its sister company Treyn, which specialise in both UK and overseas holidays, have introduced 60 new tours for 2012. These include a journey to Europe’s highest railway station marking the 100th anniversary of Switzerland’s Jungfrau Express, a French wine tour and a tour of India’s golden triangle taking in Delhi, Agra - home of the Taj Mahal - and Jaipur.

New for 2012 from the luxurious Danube Express, whichruns through central and eastern Europe, is the Polish Explorer route. For the first time the train will visit Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital city, and travel through the beautiful Moravian countryside on the eastern side of the Czech Republic.

One of the world’s ultimate train journeys is the Rocky Mountaineer between Vancouver and the majestic Canadian Rockies. A variety of routes are offered starting with a two- day trip to Jasper which is ideal for GTOs planning a train trip as part of a general touring itinerary. Whichever you choose, the carriages’ domed windows always ensure the most panoramic views.

For green-fingered groups, Brightwater Holidays offers garden tours at home and abroad with travel by coach, rail and air. Trips combine famous and grand properties with small and private gardens, usually in the company of an expert horticulturalist. Overseas itineraries cross the globe from Europe to South America, and Brightwater works with GTOs to arrange private group tours that can take in a host of other attractions to suit individual group requirements.

Many GTOs will be familiar with The River Cruise Line and when it’s time for a trip on dry land their sister company is Diamond Rail Holidays, which runs fully escorted tours throughout Europe and beyond. Some of the most popular tours are to the Italian lakes and new itineraries for 2012 include a trip to magical Morocco, a tour of Renaissance Italy that includes Venice, and a tour of Spain’s Catalonia region. All trips include travel by Eurostar from London and the company operates a dedicated group booking service.

And if you’re making plans for next Christmas you can take a fabulous festive ride to Lapland aboard the Polar Express. The rail tour, offered by Taber Holidays and available from December to March, runs from Sweden’s capital Stockholm to Kiruna, above the Arctic Circle, and includes an overnight stay at the amazing Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi.

Take the tram

For another journey down memory lane, Crich Tramway Village on the edge of the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire is a lovingly restored period village that’s also home to the National Tramway Museum. Groups can take tram rides over the cobblestones and visit the exhibition hall that’s home to a new exhibition tracing 100 years of tram history from horse-drawn trams through the steam years and to the electric trams of the 1960s. Discounted admission is offered to groups of ten or more.

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