Step back in time this month as the Scottish Railway Preservation Society Border steam train tour returns to the timetable, writes Rosalind Erskine
It’s not often that you’d travel over the iconic Forth Bridge four times in one day, and even rarer to do so on a steam train, but this is something that travellers on board the Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) rail tours can expect during the trip around the Fife Circle and Borders railway as the Steam Special experience returns to the timetable this month, after a sell-out success last year.
Now in its second year, the SRPS rail tour will run every Sunday in August, as part of a packed programme of events, which includes a trip to Dunrobin Castle in September, a further tour of the Fife Circle in October and an excursion to York in November.
Starting in Linlithgow, the journey begins with breakfast of tea or coffee, a hot croissant with butter and jam and a pack of Border biscuits. Inside the carriages, the old wooden entryways and vintage table seating (including brocade covered chairs in first class) will transport travellers back in time.
There’s also an option to book private group compartments in first class, which are sure to delight Harry Potter fans due to their resemblance to the Hogwarts Express scenes in the famous films. All carriages are vintage 1950s, and are loaned from the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, with the steam engine – Black Five locomotive 44871 – coming up from its home in Lancashire.
The Black Five locomotive was designed by Sir William Stanier for the London, Midland & Scottish railway and a total of 842 were built between 1934 and 1951. It was this type of locomotive that was used to haul the Fifteen Guinea Special, which marked the end of steam on British railways in 1968.
After leaving Linlithgow, the train travels over the Forth Bridge and around the Fife Circle, passing the seaside towns of Kinghorn, Burntisland and Aberdour. After stopping at Dalgety Bay, the journey continues over the bridge southwards towards Tweedbank – following the Gala Water – on the Borders railway. The 31-mile route takes in some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland.
SRPS took over the running of the steam train routes after ScotRail launched them in 2015, and added in the Fife Circle route so that passengers could enjoy the views from the Forth Bridge. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was opened in 1890 and marked a significant development in design and the advancement of rail travel, making it a huge hit with rail enthusiasts.
Speaking of the success of the route, Roger Haynes, commercial director at SRPS says: “Around 85 per cent of our customers travel to and book trains from Linlithgow or Fife so that they can take in the Forth Bridge. Our customers really love and enjoy the experience and nostalgia of being on an old steam train, and the Borders area is really very scenic with lots to do.”
After taking in the scenery and relaxing on board, travellers have around two hours to enjoy the Borders towns, and can either alight at Galashiels for some sightseeing, shopping or to take advantage of discounts on food and drink at the Grapevine Restaurant, or carry on to Tweedbank where coaches will be waiting to escort visitors to Abbotsford House, the historical home of Sir Walter Scott.
On arrival, lunch (if booked) is served in Ochiltree’s restaurant, which is found in the sleek, modern building adjacent to the house, and where visitors will also find the gift shop. Expect a hot meal with dishes including beef bourguignon, creamy fish pie, a traditional Sunday roast and vegetable lasagne, followed by tea or coffee and shortbread. While the tour that followed was brief, Abbotsford House will offer an annual card when leaving, as part of an information pack, which means a full tour and exploration of the house can be done at a later date.
Alternatively, visitors can book on to the excursion to Melrose – home of rugby sevens, Priorwood Garden and the beautiful Melrose Abbey – or enjoy a discounted, seasonal lunch at Seasons restaurant in nearby Gattonside.
On return to the train, and after a photo opportunity or two plus a chance to pop into the toasty engine room, the return journey begins. If booked, afternoon tea – which is made by Borders-based company T-4-2 and includes a selection of finger sandwiches, pork pies and cakes – will be served at this time, and can be enjoyed at leisure along with a regular supply of tea or coffee. If you’d rather something stronger, an Eden Mill gin fizz cocktail, beers, wine and spirits can be purchased in the buffet car.
Staffed by volunteers – some of whom have been working with SRPS for more than 30 years and provide an excellent and friendly service – all proceeds from the rail tours go directly to the SRPS charity (of which the rail tours are a subsidy), where the money will be used to restore rolling stock and locomotives of historical value, as well as supporting the Museum of Scotland’s Railways in Bo’ness.
“The steam train special from Fife, through Edinburgh and travelling down the Borders Railway to Tweedbank last year proved a runaway success, with many of the days completely selling out,” says VisitScotland’s Paula Ward.
“It really is a fantastic opportunity to step back in time and enjoy a relaxing day out to the Scottish Borders, taking in the spectacular scenery and discover two of Scotland’s great scenic rail journeys.
“Without a doubt, passengers are in for an unforgettable day out – they can sit back and relax and take in the picturesque beauty of the Fife coast, the iconic Edinburgh Waverley station, with plenty to see and do when they arrive in the Scottish Borders, all topped off with quality local food and drink.
“The return of the steam train experience provides an important boost to the local economy and continues to shine the spotlight on the quality of tourism offering in these regions.”
Scottish Borders Council’s executive member for business and economic development, Councillor Mark Rowley, adds: “We are delighted to work alongside SRPS and our Borders Railway Blueprint partners to bring back the steam train experience in 2018 after a hugely successful 2017.
“The fact that all four trips were sold out – bringing 1,600 people to the Scottish Borders – was testament to the offering by SRPS, which included spending the afternoon in our wonderful area with plenty to see and do. I am sure that the 2018 steam train days out will be another fantastic occasion on one of Scotland’s great scenic rail journeys.”
Three more Sunday journeys are scheduled for this month on the Borders steam rail tour. Tickets for adult standard class are £82, with afternoon tea an extra £16. First class tickets are £124 per adult. For more information and to book, visit www.srps.org.uk