The best railways in Britain

Britain from the Rails author Ben le Vay gives his favourite British railway journeys. 

There’s a magical romance about trains that no other form of transport can ever capture. Gathering speed through city, town and country, swooping across viaducts, rattling across junctions and whistling through tunnels.

At long last you are in a small Sussex beachside halt, or a Welsh valley country station, beside a quiet Norfolk waterway, or winding through a remote forest high above a Scottish loch.

1. The West Highland Line

Come in by sleeper from London, and finish off with steam. This sensational route will change your life with indelible memories. Beautiful ones. 

2. The East Coast Main Line

Speed, style and scenery in abundance, plus the double drama of the Forth and Tay bridges. Two great capitals, with stunning views north of Newcastle. The Flying Scotsman route – rightly railway royalty. 

Forth Bridge Scotland UK by Copycat37 Shutterstock
The Forth Bridge is an internationally recognised outline © Copycat37, Shutterstock

3. The Wherry Lines 

Charm on wheels. The layout of the lines is eccentric, like the waterways they follow, and defies explanation; their survival inexplicable too. Much overlooked gems. 

Reedham Swing Bridge UK by Gerry Balding
Crossing the Reedham Swing Bridge © Gerry Balding

4. The Skye Railway 

This is what they mean by remote possibilities. Sea to shining sea, and a chance to avalanche on the way! A classic that tells almost incredible tales.

Isle of Skye Scotland UK by Tom Dawson
The line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, the iron road to Skye, rightly attracts superlatives © Tom Dawson

5. The Settle & Carlisle Line

A mad, moody, magnificent and mountainous main line – England’s highest. Unmissable. 

Settle & Carlisle Railway England by David Horner
Travel through miles of pristine countryside on this famous railway © David Horner

6. The Looe Branch  

Or maybe the St Ives, it’s so hard to choose in Cornwall. These Enid Blytonish short-but-sweet numbers will charm the socks off you, guaranteed. Do both in a day, go on! 

St Ives Cornwall England UK by Dan Breckwoldt Shutterstock
This quaint line is just lovely © Dan Breckwoldt, Shutterstock

7. The Cambrian Coast Line 

Wales has a total treasure trove of railways, but this is the best. Made into a North Wales circuit with the help of the Ffestiniog line – it’s simply superlative. 

Barmouth Viaduct Wales UK by Kevin Eaves Shutterstock
This line isn’t just one of the great railway journeys of Britain – it is one of the great railway journeys of the world © Kevin Eaves, Shutterstock

8. The Great Western

It might be well known, but it offers constant joys: from Brunel’s billiard table in the Thames Valley to viaducts over Cornish rivers, curving around bays and coves.

Maidenhead Bridge UK by Andrew Shapland
Maidenhead, a stop on one of the Thames Branches © Andrew Shapland

9. The Wessex Main Line

Very little known outside its region, it brings before you a glorious variety of scenery and, with its long arm to Weymouth, returns you to Hardy’s Wessex.

10. West of England Main Line

The forgotten way west. As you near Salisbury it starts getting lovely and then just gets better and better.

Lady Chapel of Salisbury Cathedral © Diliff

More information

Inspired by these routes? Read more in our window-gazer’s guide: