“It is”, says a former Royal train manager, “effectively the court on the move.” Chris Hillyard, who worked on board the Royal Train from 1977 to 2010, and was manager of it for the last 14 of those years, knows better than most how greatly the Queen enjoyed her time on board.
“The train is used as downtime for the monarch a lot of the time. After they’ve done their engagements, their duties, they can come back, relax and then prepare for what’s next,” he says. “It gives a secure location.”
And so it has ever since its inception during the 19th century, when Queen Victoria became the first British monarch to travel by rail in 1842. Despite some misgivings about its high speed, Victoria embraced the train as a mode of transport, commissioning a set of train cars for herself in 1869.
During the First World War, King George V used the Royal Train to travel around the country, and his son George VI, the Queen’s father, used it during the Second World War to visit parts of Britain hit by German bombs.
Over the decades, the train has gone through various incarnations. But more recently, luxury has given way to functionality: according to those familiar with the current carriages, which were built in the 1970s, they are a world away from Queen Victoria’s plush mobile saloon, with its polished wood and regal blue textiles. “[The carriages now] are very modern, very good carriages, but anything but grand,” says Nigel Harris, editor of Rail magazine, who is among the privileged few members of the public to have stepped on board. “It’s anything but palaces on wheels. All the fixtures and fittings are beautifully made but very basic. In any Seventies furniture catalogue you’d see that kind of thing. It’s well-maintained, neat and tidy, but is not and never has been grand.”
Still, for all its modesty, the train is well kitted out to provide everything needed by a travelling Royal: lounge cars, office cars with small fitted desks, bathrooms, staff accommodation, sleeping accommodation, including a bed for the Queen, and a galley where food can be made.
“The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh absolutely loved it,” says Harris. “It’s the only place where they can get on, kick off their shoes and there’s no paparazzi; it’s private, it’s their own little world.”
Over the years it has carried not only members of the Royal family – including Prince Harry’s wife Meghan Markle, who joined the Queen on board in 2018 to travel to engagements in Cheshire with her – but also visiting heads of state. In December 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge carried out a three-day UK tour in it, travelling 1,250 miles to thank paramedics, teachers, carers, nurses and community volunteers for the sacrifices they had made during the first nine months of the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, there has been the odd hiccup on board in the course of the train’s many sorties. Hillyard, who made 794 journeys with various Royals and visiting heads of state, recalls an alarming incident in the mid-Nineties, when the Royal Train was carrying the Queen to Slough after a visit to Southampton for the launch of the P&O cruise liner Oriana.
“I was summoned through to the Queen’s lounge, which I was told was full of smoke,” he says. He quickly ascertained that a brake pad was dragging on a disc and overheating. But fixing the problem required him to “excuse myself and climb down the side of the train.”
He says: “Her Majesty followed me out [of her lounge], looked down and said, ‘I’ll look out for you,’ as I was effecting the repairs. Thankfully the remedial works I did [succeeded] and we got back on time to Slough.”
The Queen, he says, was “unfazed” by the incident, despite the fact her carriage was filling with smoke as she sat there. “But we were a bit concerned, obviously!” he adds.
A few years later, in June 2000, a royal bodyguard accidentally fired two shots from his 9mm Glock automatic pistol in the train’s staff dining room while the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh slept in another carriage. Slight damage was caused to the inside of the train, but fortunately there were no injuries when the gun belonging to a veteran firearms officer with the Royalty and Diplomatic Protection Squad went off.
The number of journeys the Queen took in the Royal train varied each year, depending on her schedule. But, says Hillyard: “She was always interested in what was going on, and when I met her Majesty away from the train side of things, the conversation was always about railways.”
When not in use, the Royal Train is kept at Wolverton in Buckinghamshire in a secure shed. Questions have been raised over the years about the cost of running transport that may only be used a handful of times a year. It was reported, for instance, that a one-way journey from Windsor to York made by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in 2012 cost £20,221. The Queen consequently took more trips on public trains in the following years, to cut costs.
But fans of the Royal Train argue it does provide value for money. “It’s a lot more cost-effective to use one base rather than several,” says Hillyard.
Harris agrees. “There is value far beyond [the headline cost], which it’s really important to appreciate. The police and Royal family love it because if they’ve got an engagement in, say, the middle of Birmingham, it provides a small, protected little world they can take easily into the heart of the city. You don’t have all that business of welding manhole covers down, searching a route by road. You can put [the Royals] on the train in the morning, take them in and get them out. If we were to lose [the Royal Train], the cost of security would increase and the ease of doing Royal visits would decline.”
The Queen’s journeys by Royal Train were not advertised in advance, says Christian Wolmar, author of British Rail, because “they wanted to avoid trainspotters waiting to watch it go by.”
But, he points out, ever since Queen Victoria first used the Royal Train, it has “brought the monarch to the people.” He is now among the many left disappointed it will not now bring Elizabeth II to the people one last time.