Brian Gleeson climbed abroad the Staycation Express for a new way to experience a day out in the Yorkshire Dales

THE UK’s buzzword of 2021 so far has been "staycation", as foreign travel restrictions have made holidaying abroad complex and unpredictable. Most people are sticking to holidays on home soil this year, and the main benefactors have been seaside resorts such as Whitby and Scarborough, which have experienced exponential growth in visitor numbers.

But many staycationers are now looking for something different, and scores have turned to the North East and North Yorkshire countryside for breaks involving walking, cycling, climbing – and now rail travel.

The Staycation Express is a charter train with a difference. No longer just the push-pull Pacer/Sprinter trains that we have seen on the Northern Rail branch lines, but luxuriously appointed carriages with padded leather seats, air conditioning, waiter service and bags of room. I decided that the service would offer a chance to view the spectacular Yorkshire Dales scenery in a relaxed mode of travel, and booked my tickets.

The train runs on the 72-mile Settle to Carlisle line and provides views of the three Yorkshire peaks of Whernside, Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough, and even glimpses of the Lake District. The former Intercity 125 charter train with its repurposed 1980s carriages starts at Skipton railway station and stands out in its shining British Racing Green livery, powered by front and aft diesel locomotives. There are five carriages, all first class, with padded reclining leather seats and stylish fixtures and fittings. Each set of seats has its own USB port and power plug with a Perspex screen between each seat set for privacy and social distancing. There is a buffet car for dining or purchasing drinks and snacks, served by the energetic assistants, Roberto and Issy.

Catering staff Roberto and Issy

Catering staff Roberto and Issy

Initially the train passes through verdant farming countryside to Settle, pausing to pick up more passengers, before climbing through fell country to Ribblehead, the last station on the line in Yorkshire. Settle is also the junction of the Leeds to Morecambe line.

The highlight of the journey is crossing the famous Grade II listed Ribblehead viaduct with its 24 arches, 1,312 feet above sea level. Construction of the viaduct began in 1870 when the Midland Railway Company decided to build a line for services to Scotland through some of the harshest terrain in England.

The project necessitated a large workforce of navvies, up to 2,300 men, most of whom lived in a shanty towns, reminiscent of America's Wild West, set up near its base. The remains of the construction camp and navvy settlements, with names such as Batty Wife Hole, Sebastopol, and Belgravia, are located there. More than 100 men lost their lives during its construction and there are about 200 graves of men, women, and children at nearby Chapel-le-Dale, where the church has a memorial to the railway workers. The viaduct recently underwent £2.1m worth of repairs to ensure that it will remain open for years to come.

A second viaduct at Arten Gill follows, although not as impressive as Ribblehead, with sweeping views of the valleys on both sides. The highest main railway station in England on this line is at Dent at 1,150 feet, although the station is one and a half miles away from the village itself and requires a muscle-testing climb to reach it.

The statue of Ruswarp the dog can be seen at the next station, Garsdale, once the junction with the old Wensleydale railway with connections to Hawes, Askrigg and beyond. The train now descends into the lush Eden Valley and passes through the stations of Kirkby Stephen and Appleby-in-Westmoreland.

Staycation Express on the Settle Carlisle line

Staycation Express on the Settle Carlisle line

The Staycation Express was the idea of director, Adrian Quine. In between helping out with the catering, he tells me: “We started last year to provide some additional capacity on the line and a new service for tourists, on the grounds that a regular train is fine if you’re travelling a short distance or for locals, but it’s not really designed for tourists.

"This is a tourist experience with all first-class coaches, big wide windows, and air conditioning. It was such a success last year, that we’ve repeated it this year. Reaction’s been very good (this year). There were a couple of teething problems at the beginning with the ‘pingdemic’ resulting in supply issues. Apart from that, a few minor hiccups, it’s been largely very successful.”

Passengers on board tend to agree with him. Travellers Rita and William from Bradford enjoyed brunch on the outward journey and afternoon tea on the return, with waiter service at their table, all of which was in a package purchased by their son for their 50th wedding anniversary. Passengers Johnny and Kathy from Hampshire, with friend Martin from Leeds, thought the journey was "really relaxing, very comfortable, interesting and atmospheric".

Arrival was at Carlisle after a journey of just under two hours and there was an interval of a couple of hours to explore the city before the return journey. I chose to travel home via the Northern Rail line from Carlisle to Middlesbrough, which itself includes a delightful trip along the Tyne Valley to Newcastle and a scenic run down the coast to Teesside. The single journey from Carlisle to Middlesbrough on Northern Rail cost me an amazing £7.55 by booking ahead and using my senior railcard.

The reaction to the Staycation Express has been so good that plans are being worked on for the service to return during the school half-term between October 23 and 30.

“It’s really about providing a visitor experience," adds Adrian. "This is very different from a normal day-to-day service. This is a visitor attraction similar to a day out for people as opposed to going to a National Trust house, a zoo or a theme park. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

  • The Staycation Express is operated by Rail Charter Services, telephone 01768 353200 or
  • Brian Gleeson travelled from Middlesbrough on the Trans-Pennine express to Leeds where he joined the Northern Rail service from Leeds to Skipton (total £35 with railcard). He alighted the Staycation Express at Skipton. From Carlisle he returned to Middlesbrough via the Northern Rail services to Newcastle and Middlesbrough (£7.55 advance booking with railcard).