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History of the Royal Train

When it comes to travel, the royal family is hardly lacking in options. Although the royal yacht Britannia was decommissioned in 1997, their collection also includes another equally historic means of transport – the Royal Train.

Inspired by the documentary Secrets of Royal Travel, which premieres on PBS on November 15 at 10 p.m. ET (take a quick look up), let’s take a look at the storied, and often mysterious, story of this royal locomotive.

Queen Victoria was the first queen to take a train in 1842.

Although her husband Prince Albert was a huge fan of locomotives, Victoria was initially a little more reluctant about the idea of ​​a royal train. It was only at Albert’s insistence that she finally agreed to try it out at the age of 23 and became the first Queen to ever travel by rail when she took a train from Slough to Paddington.

“”[The Royal Train] was critical to Victoria’s reign, “explains royal historian Kate Williams.” She saw it as her duty to travel the country, while the monarchs did not necessarily think so before. They were pretty happy to be sitting in their palaces and not really going on tour. Victoria has a completely different mindset in which she is very much convinced that it is her job to travel around the UK as much as possible. So the Royal Train makes it easier for her. ”

Queen Victoria’s royal train was designed to look like a palace on wheels.

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The Queen took it easy and in 1869 commissioned a private set of wagons. It cost £ 700 of its own money (about $ 60,000 today) and was painted 23 carat gold and covered in silk and satin. Over the years it was also upgraded with cutting edge technology such as electric lighting in the 1890s and an onboard toilet that Victoria refused to use. She preferred to stop the train so she could take toilet breaks every few hours.

In fact, Williams said, a train station was even built in the village of Ballater in 1866 to make it easier for the Queen to take the train to Balmoral, a long-time royal favorite vacation.

The Royal Train was a state secret until 1946.

Understandably, information about royal travel has historically been carefully guarded, and the Royal Train was no exception for much of its life. During World War I, King George V, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, used it not only to travel the country but also as a shelter as he found it inappropriate to beg his subjects during these resource scarce times Arrange accommodations for him Williams.

His son, King George VI, also took advantage of areas of the country that were bombed by the Germans during World War II. This decision led to a major renovation of the train for security reasons, replacing the wooden wagons with a white roof with a 56-ton armored version that was filled with security measures, including special cabinets to store top secret documents.

Salon of King Edward Viis Royal Train, 1903

King George V’s bedroom on board the WWI-era Royal Train.

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The train’s existence was only announced to the public after the war ended, but to this day the details of every Royal Train trip are guarded – even the train staff are not informed which of the royals will be traveling with them.

The newest Royal Train was handed over to Queen Elizabeth in 1977.

On the occasion of her Silver Jubilee Tour, Her Majesty received the modern version of the Royal Train. It has been updated over the years, including a £ 320,000 renovation in the 80s according to Secrets of Royal Travel, which added protection against machine gun fire, missiles and bombs. Not only did the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles improve the safety of the train, but they also contributed to the design, which occasionally added a whimsical touch like a shaving mirror that was attached to the toilet for Prince Philip.

In contrast to Queen Victoria’s opulent interior, the 9 carriages of the current Royal Train are more restrained in their design. “Everyone assumes the royal train is extremely luxurious and a bit like the Orient Express, but functional rather than extravagant in practice,” said royal historian David McClure in the documentary. But this restrained look is just as much a part of Queen Elizabeth’s style as the gold plating and tassels of Victoria. “The way the queen decorates all of her private areas is really very convenient. The fact that the train isn’t surprising is exactly what she likes,” says Williams.

And just as she clearly does – the Royal Train remains a firm favorite of the Queen, who has said it’s one of the few places where she can really relax in privacy.

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The dining room on board the Royal Train seats 12 people.

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It offers royal food.

While Queen Victoria refused to eat on the train (she thought it was bad for digestion), food on the Royal Train has a long history. King Edward VIII insisted that any protein serving on the train be hunted or fished from his own property. Prince Charles is less demanding and only requires that the products served in the train’s 12-set dining car come from the region and are served on his own monogram china.

And a tub.

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The tub in the bathroom of the former Royal Train still has a red line indicating the water level.

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Queen Victoria wasn’t the only queen who made history with train installations. Under the reign of George V, the Royal Train was fitted with what appeared to be the first bathtub ever put on a train. This feature has proven itself over time, but is not always the easiest to use.

The tub used by Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, has a red line to mark the water level. The measure was common during World War II rationing to save the fuel used to heat the bathing water, but on board the train it may have served a different purpose – to prevent sloshing while it was in motion. According to Secrets of Royal Travel, Queen Elizabeth is reportedly taking less stringent measures to prevent bathroom spills by simply stopping the path on a side rail.

It’s never been the fastest.

Don’t expect breakneck speeds when it comes to royal train travel. Queen Victoria set strict limits on how fast the Royal Train should run – 40 miles per hour during the day and 30 mph at night. This may be due to the popular belief that moving too fast could drive a person crazy.

While we have long since moved beyond these beliefs, the modern day Royal Train still keeps a steady pace on the rails compared to other passenger trains – while the fastest trains in the UK typically travel at around 200 mph, the Royal Train tends to run about 70 mph. In fact, the modern Royal Train even has an employee dedicated to routing the faster trains to avoid delays on the rails. And while they may not be known for their speed, the Royal Train staff make up for it with precision and are reportedly proud to consistently arrive within 15 seconds of their scheduled arrival.

Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at work abo

Queen Elizabeth works aboard the Royal Train.

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Prince Harry never rode it.

As if personal transportation wasn’t exclusive enough for the royal family, the Royal Train is even more private. “The Royal Train is really only for the senior members of the royal family,” said Emily Andrews, a royal commentator for The Sun in Secrets of Royal Travel. “Right now this is the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.”

While other royals and guests may sometimes partake in the convenience of the train at the invitation of the senior royals, this is not an honor accorded to many. While there’s a chance Prince William may have ridden the train before, Prince Harry and Kate Middleton have reportedly never been on board. Meghan Markle, on the other hand, was invited by the Queen to join her on the rails in 2018 for a royal engagement in Cheshire.

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While only a few royals drove the Royal Train, Meghan Markle was invited to the Queen in 2018.


It is expensive.

Train travel may be more old-fashioned than flying, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. According to Secrets of Royal Travel, traveling on the Royal Train is roughly four times more expensive than air travel, costing around £ 52 per mile compared to £ 12 by plane. The spending has occasionally sparked some controversy as, like all official travel by the royal family, the Royal Train is paid for by the Sovereign Grant, a taxpayer-funded grant given to the Queen each year to cover the official expenses of the monarchy.

Given that the government’s decision not to fund future royal yachts has led to the closure of the Britannia, some have wondered if the days of the royal train are numbered. However, the royal family has consistently insisted that the train be an integral part of royal life and the performance of their duties.

Lauren Hubbard is a freelance writer and contributor to Town & Country specializing in beauty, shopping, entertainment, travel, home decor, wine, and cocktails.

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