British Queen Elizabeth adores it, claiming it is one of the few places where she can relax in total privacy. Her husband Prince Philip uses it as a mobile office, and heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales, says he could not live without it, and it is the preferred form of travel now the Royal Yacht Britannia is no longer in service.
Wherever the train goes it attracts an enormous amount of attention, with its distinctive ‘Royal Claret’ coaches. Yet apart from its passengers and staff, very few people know much about the extraordinary regal rolling stock. Now Royal expert Brian Hoey has been given unprecedented access to the train and offers a unique insight into Royal life on the move …
The Queen’s carriage
Her Majesty’s personal saloon, or carriage, is now more than 30 years old, having been brought into service, along with the Duke’s, in 1977 when both were used during the Silver Jubilee tours.
The body-shell of the Queen’s saloon is 75ft long and fitted with secondary air suspension giving passengers an exceptionally smooth and comfortable ride.
It has a bedroom, decorated in light pastel shades, with a 3ft-wide single bed in one corner (there are no double beds on the Royal Train) made up with cotton sheets and woollen blankets. While Prince Philip’s pillows are plain, the Queen’s are trimmed with lace, with a small Royal cipher in one corner. The ceiling has subdued strip lighting and there are several reading lamps near the bed.
The adjoining bathroom has a full-size bath, but the fittings are modest and functional. The train operators make sure the carriages are not crossing any bumpy points just after 7.30am: that could make the water slop around when the Queen is taking her bath. The train’s speed is always lower than the normal maximum for any route.
The sitting room has a sofa with hand-stitched velvet cushions, armchairs and the small dining table where the Queen and Prince Philip have breakfast. The table can be extended to seat six people. There is also a desk in one corner where Her Majesty works on her official papers. Even on the Royal
Train, after a full day’s engagements, she spends an hour or two working on her ‘boxes’. These are the red cases that go with her wherever she is in the world, containing official documents from Government departments, both in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, that have to be read and initialled.
The walls of the Queen’s apartments are adorned with paintings of Scottish landscapes by the artist Roy Penny and there are also prints of earlier Royal Train journeys. The saloon is restful and very quiet, owing to the thick carpets.
Privacy is maintained by the curtains at every window and net drapes that enable the Queen to look out but which prevent anyone looking in.
The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales all have Roberts radios in their saloons, usually tuned to BBC Radio 4 as they like to wake up in the morning to the Today programme.
There are also several television sets and a music centre. A video player has been installed so Her Majesty can watch reruns of any races in which one of her horses has been running.
There are double doors on both sides of the carriage so that the Queen can disembark in style.
Charles has monogrammed stationery on his desk
What is the royal train?
It is the only private, non-commercial train service used by one family still in existence in the UK. However, Royal Train is something of a misnomer, implying that there is only one such vehicle. In fact the name is applied whenever a set of rail carriages and locomotives is used by the Royal Family, and the same number of coaches is not used every time.
At present there are nine coaches that can be assembled into whatever configuration is required, and for whom. It is only on very rare occasions that all nine are used as a single train, and then only when the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are travelling together. Otherwise, it is seven carriages.
Charles is the most frequent and regular passenger, and if the Duchess of Cornwall, who, unlike her husband, is not a lover of train travel, accompanies him as she often does on the long overnight journeys to Scotland, an eighth carriage is attached for her use.
A five-coach train is used for short journeys when no sleeping car is required.
The Queen and Prince Philip prepare to board the Royal Train in 2002
Although the train is very popular with the Royal Family, helicopters and planes have replaced it for shorter journeys because they are faster and more economical.
A decade ago, the train was used for a total of 24 journeys with an average distance of 550 miles over the year. Last year it did 17 journeys with an average of 655 miles.
The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh used the train four times during that year. Their most expensive rail journey was in November when they travelled between Euston, Bedfordshire and Windsor. The Queen opened the Samuel Whitbread Community College in Shefford among her other engagements, and the journey cost £21,308.
The overall cost of transporting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh by rail was £69,125 for the year.
Victoria, the first reigning monarch to travel by rail
Only Queen Victoria paid for her own carriages Queen Victoria became the first reigning sovereign to make a train journey when she travelled from Slough to Paddington, London, on June 13, 1842. In 1869 she commissioned a special pair of coaches at a cost of £1,800: a considerable sum in those days.
Victoria remains to this day the only monarch to have paid with her own money for Royal carriages to be built.
When her son succeeded to the throne as Edward VII, he ordered a completely new Royal Train in the second year of his reign, 1902, with the instructions that ‘it is to be as much like the Royal Yacht as possible’.
The interior had bedrooms, dressing rooms, day rooms and a smoking room. It boasted three-speed electric fans, electric radiators and cookers and even an electric cigar lighter.
The King’s favourite was his smoking room, which was manned by two liveried footmen, one just to light His Majesty’s cigars and the other to adjust the curtains and windows in case the sunlight was too strong, or fresh air was required.
His son and successor, George V, had the distinction of installing the first bath on a train anywhere in the world.
The Duke’s carriage
Prince Philip uses the train as a mobile office and his saloon has one extra piece of equipment that The Queen’s does not possess: an all-electric kitchen that can provide meals for up to a dozen people. This is because Prince Philip often uses the train on his own, and the kitchen means he doesn’t have to take the entire train.
His sitting room contains the usual sofa, armchairs and desk as well as a table that can be extended to accommodate 12 people for meals or used, as it more usually is, as a conference table.
The armchairs are comfortable but not of the deep ‘sink-down’ type because the Duke of Edinburgh’s visitors are usually there on official business and he doesn’t want them to overstay their welcome.
Prince Philip’s bedroom is a duplicate of the Queen’s, but the bathroom does not have a bath: he prefers a shower.
A small section of rail – a piece of Brunel’s original broad gauge presented to the Duke on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Great Western Railway – is framed and kept in a place of honour in his saloon, along with a blown-up version of his Senior Railcard which was given to him when he became eligible in 1987. No one knows if he has yet taken advantage of its discount.
Food and drink
Catering on the train is handled by the Rail Gourmet company. The meals are of superlative quality, even if comparatively simple by Palace standards, and the Queen has been served by the same senior railway steward, Ken Moule, for more than 20 years.
If the Queen wants afternoon tea with toasted teacake or an aperitif (her favourite is one-third gin, two thirds Dubonnet and lots of ice), if the Duke of Edinburgh wants a glass of Double Diamond beer, or kippers for breakfast, or the Prince of Wales asks for a Welsh rarebit made with his own organic cheese, the team will respond.
On a night-time departure, the Queen is offered light refreshments of smoked salmon, warm sausage rolls and chicken or egg sandwiches made with brown and white bread – all with the crusts removed.
The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are woken at 7.30am with the ‘calling trays’: Earl Grey tea for Her Majesty, with no sugar; coffee for His Royal Highness as he drinks only tea in the afternoon.
Liquid asset: The Queen has a bath in her carriage, so a smooth journey is vital to avoid spilling the Royal bath water
They meet to have breakfast together in Her Majesty’s sitting room but are never joined by anyone else. It is one of the few times in the day when they will be truly alone and they treasure the opportunity to chat about private matters.
Ken Moule waits on them and the Queen always enjoys the same breakfast when she is on board: scrambled eggs and bacon, prepared by chef Martin Carter. Her Majesty doesn’t always clear her plate as she is not a big eater.
All the morning newspapers are delivered to the train and one of the private secretaries marks anything he thinks might be of particular interest.
The one newspaper no one ever touches is The Racing Post, the ‘bible’ of the racing fraternity that is required reading at the Royal breakfast table every morning, no matter where the Queen is. Without this, it is said, she would suffer severe withdrawal symptoms.
If the Queen or Prince of Wales is to give a reception on the Royal Train, the stewards’ first job will be to welcome guests on board and offer drinks. Always dressed immaculately, they carry silver salvers with crystal glasses of chilled champagne, buck’s fizz or fruit juices.
For such occasions the Royal dining coach has a long middle table which can be extended to accommodate up to 12 guests. The table is laid with white linen cloths and dressed with beautiful flowers, gleaming silverware and sparkling glasses. The Prince of Wales insists on taking his own travelling crockery and cutlery sets on the train.
Place settings are carefully measured to ensure the appropriate space is laid for each guest. The stewards carry out their duties as if they were waiting at a State Banquet, but with slightly less formality because the Royal dining carriage is quite an intimate area where the Monarch and guests sit in relatively close proximity.
The present Royal Family has few extraordinary culinary demands, unlike some previous monarchs: Edward VII preferred to eat food that had been shot, caught or trapped on his own estates, while Queen Victoria believed it was ‘unnatural’ and harmful to the digestion to eat while on the move.
Prince Charles’s carriages
There are two coaches used by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. They were built between 1983 and 1985, when the Prince and Diana, Princess of Wales, used them. The Duchess now uses the Princess’s former sleeping car.
Charles was involved in the early layout of the saloons and he ordered a number of features that are not standard, even in the Royal Train.
He personally chose the 11 pictures for his sleeping car. The painting immediately over his bed is of the former Royal Yacht Britannia. The en suite bathroom colour scheme is blue. In pride of place on the counterpane of his bed lies a tiny pot-pourri holder that was handmade by a young girl in Wales.
A door leads into the Duchess of Cornwall’s carriage, which is pink. The panelling is Bird’s-Eye Maplewood to match that of the Prince’s. Her Royal Highness does not share her husband’s taste for pictures: her carriage has only one.
Blackout curtains are drawn in the evening because she does not like any light to filter in during the night. Her en suite bathroom is also pink.
Although Prince Charles and his wife have separate sleeping compartments in the Duchess’s carriage, only a thin partition wall separates them. Both beds are located in the centre of the coach: the most stable position.
Alongside the Duchess’s bedroom is a small compartment for her dresser while adjoining Prince Charles’s room is his valet’s ‘ brushing room’, where each evening he prepares the wardrobe for the next day’s engagements. It is in the valet’s workroom that Prince Charles likes to leave personal items such as his shaving brush and razor (he still uses a safety razor), his hairbrushes and cologne.
Who runs the train?
The railway companies, including Network Rail, who control the rail infrastructure; English Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS) who operate the train itself; Rail Gourmet, which provides all the meals and drinks on board; British Transport Police; the Fire Service and any other organisation that might be involved in the hundreds of details that have to be worked out before every Royal journey.
Who drives it?
There has never been a ‘Royal Train Driver’ but a hand-picked pool of around 150 very senior and experienced drivers. In theory they take it in turn, but the same 50 or so names appear on the roster time and again. The Queen and other members of the Royal Family like to see familiar faces around them.
It is a point of honour for the Royal Train drivers to make all departures and arrivals so smooth that the passengers hardly notice. When the train stops at its destination, the driver is not allowed to leave the cab, or even look out of the window, until the Royal party has departed.
The train doesn’t travel through the night. It stops in a secluded siding well away from the main line so that the Royal passengers can have an uninterrupted night’s sleep. The exact locations of these sidings, sited throughout the country, are given to a very few people on a strictly ‘needtoknow’ basis.
The fact that even today these places are referred to as ‘stables’ – and the tracks are called ‘roads’ – is a throwback to the time when travel was by horsedrawn carriage.
The overnight stops are usually made about an hour’s travelling time from the final destination. This means the Royals are able to rise, bathe, dress, have a leisurely breakfast and then be briefed by their private secretary on the day’s programme as the train completes its journey. Arrivals are usually timed so that they do not disrupt any normal rail schedules.
The royal loo
While Queen Victoria’s was the first train in the world to have a lavatory installed on board – in 1850, at the suggestion of Prince Albert – only the Prince Consort used it in the early days of Royal progress. Members of the entourage who invariably accompanied the Queen had to wait until the train stopped and then use public lavatories.
The Duke of Edinburgh is another innovator in this area. In his tiny bathroom, his magnified shaving mirror is placed at face level to the right of the lavatory so he can sit and shave at the same time.
Train journeys are usually planned months in advance or even, as was the case for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, well over a year ahead.
Even Royal funeral arrangements, such as that of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, are worked out down to the smallest detail. Lord Mountbatten took a personal interest in his own funeral arrangements and had even chosen the menu for the meals to be eaten on the train by those accompanying his coffin from London to Romsey in Hampshire, where he was finally laid to rest.
Any rail trip by Royalty involves hundreds of men and women. Engineers and technicians check and double-check the locomotives that will power the train – there is always a spare – while the cleaners, upholsterers and painters who regularly service and maintain the carriages make sure everything is pristine.
An engineering car is attached to the train for every journey and there is a back-up power unit for electricity.
Mobile phones have made life much more comfortable for everyone on board. In the early days of the Royal Train it used to be the task of some unfortunate telephone engineer to shin up the nearest telegraph pole in all weathers to connect the carriages to the phone network whenever the train stopped at night.
When not in use, the Royal Train carriages are based at the railway town of Wolverton, near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, site of a historic railway works. Once the Royal party have left the train it returns to Wolverton and the staff, most of whom are employed full-time elsewhere in the rail industry and released periodically for Royal Train duties, go back to their home towns. The shed where the Royal Train is housed is immaculate and the concrete floors are kept clear of any grease and dust. Two part-time staff look after the domestic side of the train, vacuuming and dusting.
The engines which provide Royal power
Two Class 67 diesel locomotives are used to pull the Royal Train: Royal Sovereign and Queen’s Messenger, both of which were named by the Queen.
Built at a cost of £1.5million each in 1999, they are identical and are both based at the Toton rail depot in Nottinghamshire. They run on biofuel and should last for at least 30 years.
Neither is just for Royal duties: they are often seen pulling the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in the UK. A third locomotive is kept as a reserve: the Royal Diamond.
• The Royal Train, by Brian Hoey, is published by Haynes at £19.99. To order your copy at the special price of £18 with free p&p call The Review Bookstore on 0845 155 0713.