Sure, squishing yourself into the commuter train at rush hour is about as far removed from the notion of romance as a wet weekend in Bognor. But at its best, rail travel can be absolutely sublime. Here’s our pick of the UK’s best journeys.

Belmond British Pullman

Christmas Dining Cabin Onboard The Belmond British Pullman

No list of top train journeys could justifiably neglect to mention the Belmond British Pullman. As the sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, rail travel doesn’t get more glamorous.

Belmond British Pullman Steam Train On Tracks

For £625, you could book in for New Year’s Eve for a round trip and a five-course dinner. Or, in early February, why not book a pew on A Moving Murder Mystery for £535 per passenger?

Belmond British Pullman

Think liveried stewards, champagne and a world of luxury good enough for Hercule Poirot himself. None of this comes cheap for most people this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of affair.

Royal Scotsman

Royal Scotsman Train Carriage

For (deep-pocketed) folk whose appetites have been whet by a day trip on the Belmond British Pullman, the logical next step is a lengthier ride on The Royal Scotsman. A much newer train than its south of the border counterpart, having taken inaugural journeys in the 1980s, it is every inch as luxurious (think mahogany clad cars, Edwardian-style country house elegance), and even boasts a sublime Bamford on-board spa.

Royal Scotsman

The journeys range from a couple of nights to full weeks, and the cabins are every bit as extravagantly sumptuous as one might expect; they are all clubby Edwardian style mahogany marquetry and elegant tweeds. There are tours of the Highlands, Whiskey tours and, the piece de resistance, the Grand Western Scenic Wonders Tours. They start at £4,600 per person, and run up to £14,700 per passenger. You have to really love classic train travel to go, but for those who do, the train itself and the jaw-dropping scenery, these are trips that will forever be cherished.

Caledonian Sleeper Train

Caledonian Sleeper

One of only two overnight trains in the UK (the other being between London and Penzance), this may not be as luxurious as the Belmond-run trains, but there is something pleasingly Harry Potter-ish about the whole operation. Perhaps that fairytale quality comes thanks to the fact its been running (in some form at least) since the late 1800s; or maybe it’s the reassuring porters offering porridge, Eggs Royale or a full Highland breakfast upon bleary-eyed arrival in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Either way, hop on at 11pm at London Euston, head for a snifter of whiskey (what else?) in the bar and then retire to your berth, which are gleaming thanks to a recent £150m renovation. There’s something very soothing about the chug-chug of the train through the darkness, though the midnight feast-ish thrill of it all means you may well arrive first thing having barely caught a wink of sleep. Entirely worth it, though. Prices of a classic room for the London to Edinburgh journey vary, but start in the region of £175.

Glasgow to Mallaig

Scot Rail

This five-hour train journey is an absolute jaw-dropping belter. Trains from Glasgow Queen Street to Mallaig start at £25.40 one-way when booked in advance, and it is money truly well-spent; passengers are treated to extraordinarily remote scenes of wild natural beauty, starting at Glasgow Queen Street station. Harry Potter fans will recognise the high point of the journey, when the train begins its ascent to Glenfinnan station via the Glenfinna viaduct, the very same traversed by the Hogwarts Express in the movie adaptations.

The Bluebell Railway

Bluebell Railway

There are few sights so glorious as that of a pristine steam engine rolling through the countryside. The Sussex-based and romantically named heritage Bluebell Railway is one such, made all the lovelier by the spectacular Ravilious-reminiscent bucolic scenes it cuts through. Running between The National Trust-owned Sheffield Park and East Grinstead, many of its locomotives were preserved straight from out of service for British Rail, though the Bluebell Railway only actually began running in 1960. Faithful recreations of trains from the 1880s to its Sixties starting date, it’s little wonder that the line has often been used on screen, notably in Downton Abbey. Get an ‘all day rover’ ticket for £25 but don’t neglect its food and drink offering. Or why not try a murder mystery adventure while you’re aboard?

London to Penzance

Night Riviera Sleeper

We couldn’t mention only one of the country’s two overnight journeys without a sensation of unfair partiality. Plus, London to Penzance on the romantically named Sleeper Riviera Train is a total delight, weaving through bucolic Kennet Valley and Vale of Pewsey and down to Exeter, following the sea line for some truly spectacular views through Dawlish and Teignmouth. Expect viaducts, valleys and a last blast of sea air before you sit Penzance itself – and all this with the joys of a proper dining car. Singles from £68.

By Nancy Alsop
Updated November 2023