There can't be many travel experiences that were more comfortable 65 years ago than they are today. Train travel – at least in the UK – is one of them.
Our journey on a modern commuter train from the south coast of England to London's Waterloo is a cramped, crowded endurance test. On the other hand, our journey from Waterloo to Windsor (this summer the service runs from Victoria, see details below) is a delightful reminder of how splendidly agreeable train travel once was.
This is because we're aboard the Royal Windsor Steam Express, a weekly summer sightseeing service that runs between the capital and the home of Windsor Castle. We're also in Pullman class, the most lavish of the three classes on offer, so are seated in capacious armchair-style seats around a dining table draped in white linen.
This mid-morning brunch service should have departed at 11:15am but has been delayed by 50 minutes because of a problem with the diesel engine that was returning it to Waterloo. Thankfully, there are no such issues for the Mayflower B1 Class steam locomotive that will haul us to Windsor. Built in 1948 and resplendent in its original British Railways apple green livery, it's one of only two B1s still in operation. A sharp whistle heralds our departure and we set off in a nostalgic cloud of steam and smoke.
Passengers in standard class sit at four-person tables in an open-plan carriage with large picture windows. Upgrade to first class and there's a choice of tables for two, four or six. Most people bring a picnic but there's also a trolley service with snacks and drinks.
Splash out on Pullman class and you'll be whisked back in time to a long-forgotten era of opulence. The beautifully restored 1950s dining carriages are sumptuous havens of wood panelling, vintage light fittings and embroidered curtains. Passengers can opt to sit at a table for four (and be paired up with other guests if necessary) or pay a supplement for a table for two.
Joining me today is my mum and, after being welcomed onboard with a flute of Louis Delaunay champagne, we say cheers and settle back to admire the view. As the train chugs its way past Battersea Power Station and over the River Thames, an army of elegantly-attired waitstaff serve brunch. Preparing dozens of eggs benedict in the cramped confines of a train galley must be challenging to say the least, but the result is delicious – perfectly cooked poached eggs with shredded ham hock on an English muffin smothered in a rich hollandaise sauce. Equally impressive is the piping hot tea and coffee that accompanies it. It's no surprise to discover the chef cut his teeth working on submarines in the Royal Navy.
A lavish setting deserves an equally beguiling outlook, but apart from the occasional sheep-dotted field, the bulk of the 80-minute journey is spent passing through commuter towns and industrial estates. As we near Windsor, passengers on the left-hand-side of the train are treated to teasing glimpses of Windsor Castle, but, overall, I'd suggest coming for the experience rather than the scenery.
Of course, one modern convenience that wasn't around 65 years ago is air conditioning, which is unfortunate as today is an unusually sultry 33 degrees. With the windows open, it's bearable, but it must be hell for the engine drivers who've been shovelling coal into the Mayflower's firebox for the last hour. When we reach Windsor, I hop up into the cab to find two grinning, soot-smeared steam enthusiasts, who are clearly having the time of their lives.
"Yeah, it got a bit warm today," says one, wiping the sweat from his forehead, "but we love it."
Operating on Tuesdays from May 26 until September 8, 2020, the service will offer three one-way trips per day from London's Victoria Station to Windsor. Standard class tickets start at £39; Pullman class starts at £89 and includes a champagne brunch. See royalwindsorsteamexpress.co.uk
Rob McFarland was a guest of Steam Dreams and Visit Britain.