The sombre and last duty of the Royal Train

67006 Royal Sovereign hauls British Royal Train Gareth James - Geograph

Having made many journeys and tours of the country, the late Queen Elizabeth will make her very last journey through Great Britain by the most recognisable means of transport, the dedicated Royal Train. However, with no rail head nearby, a meticulously laid out plan, codenamed Operation Unicorn, will convey Her Majesty by road procession in a five hour journey from her summer home at Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, to Edinburgh where she will lie in state in the Scottish capital.

In her final journey, from Edinburgh to London, Her Majesty will take to the rails from Waverley station to a London terminus, reported to be St Pancras, which has given rise to seem speculation over the route of the journey, which may well deviate from the most direct one, via the East Coast Main Line. It’s possible the plan may be for the train to visit as many communities as possible on the journey south from Edinburgh.

Bespoke formation

The crowns of both Scotland and England have been worn by one unifying monarch since 1603. By tradition, the official lying in state takes place in both capitals. Having been conveyed from Aberdeen, Elizabeth will rest at Edinburgh first, before her very last journey on the most famous train in British history.

The exact formation of the Royal Train has yet to be revealed. This is nothing out of the ordinary. What constitutes the Royal Train is marshalled on a bespoke basis, from a small fleet of rolling stock, and an identified but not dedicated pool of locomotives. All of the stock and some of the locomotives are painted in the claret livery of the royal household.

Royal approval withheld

Queen Elizabeth is not able to make the entirety of her last journey by rail from Balmoral. Her own family does have to take some of the responsibility for that. Her great, great grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose name is synonymous with an unequalled era of industrial vigour and advance, was not an unreserved fan of the railways. Victoria would not grant passage of the ‘noisy and disturbing railway engines’ across the Balmoral estate. So, the line along Royal Deeside terminated at Ballater, eight miles (almost 13 kilometres) short of its intended destination.

The Royal Train back then. Passing Harringay West in London in 1961, behind the locomotive, Gresley A4 Pacific No. 60028 ‘Walter K. Whigham’. The four-lamp headcode is reserved for the Royal Train

Despite much opposition and regret over the subsequent years, even that slightly truncated line has been closed. Her Majesty’s household will not be making arrangements to reach Aberdeen station. Although direct services from Aberdeen to London are the storied stuff of rival rail companies in the “Race to the North”, Her Majesty will do as many of her subjects do, and change at Edinburgh, where she will pause.

Faultless passage

My first hand experience of the Royal Train was as an invited guest, exactly seven years ago, 9 September 2015. Her Majesty was performing the Royal Opening of the Borders Railway, a line between Edinburgh and Tweedbank, which reintroduced services on the Waverley Route, closed since 1969. As chair of the Campaign for Borders Rail, I had played a part in the reopening, and continued lobby for reinstatement of the remained for the cross-border route.

The train was held up in its procession down the line. A single track section was occupied by an oncoming service. “Your Majesty”, it was reportedly said, “even the Royal Train must observe the safety of the railways.”

Like so much of the world, the shape of the railways has changed enormously during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. For almost everyone who declares themselves to any extent British, the passage of her reign between 6 February 1952 and 8 September 2022, has been as generally faultless as the passage of that famous train.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for and

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