When it comes to travel, the royal family are hardly lacking in options. Though the royal yacht, Britannia, was decommissioned in 1997, they still count amongst their collection another equally historic mode of transport—the Royal Train.
Inspired by the documentary Secrets of Royal Travel, which premieres November 15 on PBS at 10 p.m. ET (catch a sneak peek above) we’re taking a look at the storied and often secretive history of this regal locomotive.
Queen Victoria became the first royal to take a train in 1842.
Though her husband Prince Albert was a great fan of locomotives, Victoria was initially a little more reticent about the idea of a royal train. It was only at Albert’s urging that, at the age of 23, she finally agreed to try it out, becoming the first royal ever to travel by rail when she took a train from Slough to Paddington.
“[The Royal Train] was vitally important to Victoria’s reign,” explains royal historian Kate Williams. “She saw traveling the country as her duty, whereas monarchs didn’t necessarily think that before. They were quite happy to sit in their palaces and not really go touring. Victoria has a completely different attitude, in which she feels very strongly that it’s her job to go traveling around as much of Britain as she can, so the Royal Train makes it easier for her.”
The queen clearly took to the convenience, commissioning a private set of train cars for herself in 1869. Costing £700 of her own money (approximately $60,000 today), the cars were painted in 23-carat gold paint and decked out in silks and satins. Over the years, it was also upgraded with then-cutting edge modern technology like electric lighting in the 1890s, and an onboard toilet,which Victoria refused to use, preferring to have the train stop for her to take bathroom breaks every few hours.
In fact, Williams says, in 1866 a train station was even built in the village of Ballater so that the Queen could use the train to travel more easily to Balmoral, a longtime favorite royal getaway.
The Royal Train was a state secret until 1946.
Understandably, information about royals travels has historically been carefully guarded, and the Royal Train was no exception for much of its life. During WWI, King George V, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, used it not only to travel around the country but also as lodgings, as he felt it was inappropriate to ask his subjects to arrange accommodations for him during those resource-strapped times, according to Williams.
Likewise, his son, King George VI, used it to visit areas of the country that were being bombed by the Germans during WWII. That decision led to a major refurbishment of the train for security reasons, replacing the white-roofed wooden cars with a 56-ton armor plated version filled with security measures,…
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