Whenever I think of train travel, I think of the Orient Express, or those night sleeper cars often seen in old black and white movies. The elegance of it all! The gently rocking guest rooms, the sofas that are converted into beds at night by white gloved attendants, cocktails in the lounge while listening to Gershwin tunes played on the baby grand by a tuxedo clad pianist and the elegant dining room, its tables laid with china, cut glass and gleaming silverware. All things of the past.

Until I found out about the Cornish Riviera Express, which travels from London to Cornwall, leaving Paddington Station almost daily at 10:30 p.m. The train arrives next morning with stops in Plymouth, Truro and Penzance. There’s a wonderful site called The Man in Seat 61, from which I’ve swiped the photos below. Also on the site are all the details you’ll need to plan a trip onboard of your own.

 As the photos above illustrate, the Cornish Riviera Express is much less luxurious than the Orient Express, but the fact that one can still experience a night journey on a train is remarkable. I must fit this in to a future itinerary. The price is certainly right –

From £49 to £169 depending on single or double berth

You’ll find the official Great Western site here with more information and photos.

You can watch a short video of the train as it steams it’s way through Dawlish, hugging the magnificent shoreline here.

And you can learn more about the background history of the train from this posting on Wikipedia:

The Cornish Riviera Express is a British express passenger train that has run between London and Penzance in Cornwallsince 1904. Introduced by the Great Western Railway, the name Cornish Riviera Express has been applied to the late morning express train from London Paddington station to Penzance station continuously through nationalisation under British Rail and privatisation under First Great Western, only ceasing briefly during the two World Wars. The name is also applied to the late morning express train running in the opposite direction from Penzance to London. Through performance and publicity the Cornish Riviera Express has become one of the most famous named trains in the United Kingdom and is particularly renowned for the publicity employed by the GWR in the 1930s which elevated it to iconic status.
Through trains from Paddington to Penzance began running on 1 March 1867 and included fast services such as the 10:15 a.m. Cornishman and 11:45 a.m. Flying Dutchman, but these still took nine hours or more for the journey.
A new express service with limited stops was promoted by the Great Western Railway, commencing on 1 July 1904. It left London at 10:10 a.m. and was timed to reach Penzance at 5:10 p.m. It conveyed six carriages to Penzance, including a dining car, and one more carriage for Falmouth that was detached at Truro then added to a branch train to complete its journey. Other stops were made at Plymouth North Road (Devon), Gwinear Road (for the Helston branch), and St Erth (for the St Ives branch). The return train from Penzance started at 10:00 a.m. and called additionally at Devonport.
A public competition was announced in the August 1904 edition of the Railway Magazine to choose the name, the prize being three guineas (£3.15) . Among the 1,286 entries were two suggestions, The Cornish Riviera Limited and The Riviera Express, which were combined as The Cornish Riviera Express, although railwaymen tended to call it The Limited.
For the first two years, the new train ran only during the summer, but from the third year became a year-round feature of the timetable. With the opening of a 20¼ mile shorter route along the Langport and Castle Cary Railway in 1906, it was possible to start the train twenty minutes later from Paddington and still arrive in Penzance at the same time. New 68 foot (21  m) Concertina carriages were scheduled for the train at the same time. Additional slip coaches were added to be dropped from the train on the move at various stations to serve holiday destinations such as WeymouthMineheadIlfracombe, and Newquay, and the train began to run non-stop to Newton Abbot where a pilot engine was added for the climb over the Dainton and Rattery banks, the southern outliers of Dartmoor. By the middle of World War I the train had grown to 14 coaches, even running in two portions on summer Saturdays, but the train was suspended in January 1917 as a wartime economy measure.
Running of The Limited resumed in summer 1919 although a 60 mph blanket speed limit was still in force, and it wasn’t until autumn 1921 that pre-war timings were reinstated. In 1923 new steel-panelled coaches and, more importantly the introduction of the Castle Class locomotives, billed as the “most powerful locomotive in Britain”. This allowed the train to travel
to Plymouth without the need to stop to attach a pilot locomotive, use of slip coaches keeping the load below the 310 ton limit for the Castle Class. However the pre-eminence of the Castle class did not last long as the Southern Railway Lord Nelson class of 1926 topped them for tractive effort, and so the King class was developed, particularly with the heavy West-country holiday trains in mind. Their introduction from 1927 allowed arrival in Plymouth to reach the 4 hour mark, although the increased weight of these locos prevented their use in Cornwall. The King class were also permitted an increased maximum load of 360 tons between Newton Abbot and Plymouth; above this a stop was required to attach a pilot locomotive.
1935 saw new coaches in the shape of the 9 feet 7 inch (2.9 m) wide Centenary carriages , but there were few other significant changes until World War II. At the outbreak of war all trains to the West country were to travel via Bristol, and departure of the Cornish Riviera Limited was moved to 14:35, although this change only lasted until October when the departure time returned to 10:30 with Exeter as the first stop. By summer 1941 it seemed that everyone was taking their (brief) summer holidays in the West Country, and the Cornish Riviera Limited ran in five sections, to Penzance, Penzance, Paignton, Kingswear and Newton Abbot respectively. Ironically the Limited ran throughout the war, but was cancelled in the winter of 1946/47 due to a coal shortage, not being restored until the following summer although pre-war schedules were not regained until autumn 1955 by which time the railways had been nationalised and the 1955 Modernisation Plan had been published.
The service was dieselised in the late 1950s. D1000 Western diesel-hydraulics introduced in 1964 could keep the four-hour schedule to Plymouth even with a 500 ton train and an additional stop at Taunton. Further cuts in time saw Plymouth being scheduled in 3 hours 35 minutes before the Westerns were withdrawn in 1977 to be replaced by Class 50Diesel-electrics hauling Mk2d/e/f air-conditioned coaches. These were, in turn, replaced in autumn 1981 by HSTs.
After rail privatisation, the service is now operated by First Great Western, still using HSTs which are now undergoing refurbishment to see them past their quarter-century and within touching distance of the 31 years for which the King class were synonymous with the Cornish Riviera Limited.


  1. Having spent a great deal of my time on trains when I lived in England and Germany I do love railway travel. Here in the States I took the train from Montgomery, Alabama to Washington DC and it was a wonderful trip. Definitely putting the Cornish Riviera Express on my Bucket List!

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