Parliamentary trains in the UK were passenger services required by an 1844 Act of Parliament, intended to afford cheap and basic rail travel for less-affluent travellers. The legislation required that at least one such service per day was run on every railway route in the United Kingdom.
Such services are no longer a legal requirement, and the term has come to be used instead to describe train services which continue to run to avoid the cost of formal closure of the route or station, but with services reduced sometimes to one train per week, and without specially-low prices. Such services are also often called "ghost trains".
Nineteenth century usage
In the earliest days of passenger railways in the United Kingdom, the poor were encouraged to travel in order to find employment in the growing industrial centres, but rail transport was generally unaffordable except in the most basic of open wagons, in many cases attached to goods trains.
Political pressure caused the Board of Trade to investigate, and Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government enacted the Railway Regulation Act, which took effect on 1 November 1844. It compelled "the provision of at least one train a day each way at a speed of not less than 12 miles an hour including stops, which were to be made at all stations, and of carriages protected from the weather and provided with seats; for all which luxuries not more than a penny a mile might be charged".
The legislation no longer applies, and "parliamentary trains" in this sense no longer run.
In popular culture
The basic comfort levels and slow progress of Victorian parliamentary trains led to the humorous reference in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado; the Mikado is explaining how he will match punishments to the crimes committed:
"The idiot who, in railway carriages
Scribbles on window-panes
We only suffer
To ride on a buffer
On Parliamentary trains."
Legacy of the Beeching closures
In 1963 the nationalised British Railways produced a report, The Reshaping of British Railways, designed to stem the huge losses made by the railway industry. The Chairman of British Railways was Dr Richard Beeching, and the report became known as the Beeching Report. It proposed very substantial cuts to the network and to the train services in Great Britain. The Transport Act 1962 included a formal closure process allowing for objections to closures on the basis of hardship to passengers if their service were closed. As the objections gained momentum this process became increasingly difficult to implement politically, and from about 1970 closures slowed to a trickle.
In certain cases where there was exceptionally low usage, the train service was reduced to a bare minimum but the service was not formally closed, avoiding the costs associated with closure. In some cases the service was reduced to one train a week, and in one case it remains in one direction only.
These minimal services had resonances of the 19th-century parliamentary services, and among rail enthusiasts they came to be referred to as "parliamentary trains", often called more colloquially "parly" trains (following the abbreviation used in Victorian timetables) or "ghost trains". However this terminology is not followed in official usage. So-called Parliamentary services will also typically be at inconvenient times, often very early in the morning, very late at night or in the middle of the day at the weekend.
When the closures brought about by the Beeching report had reached equilibrium, it was recognised that some incremental services or station reopenings were desirable. However if a service was started and proved unsuccessful, it could not be closed again without going through the formal process, with the possibility that it might not be able to be terminated. It was recognised that this discouraged possible desirable developments, and the Transport Act 1962 (Amendment) Act 1981 permitted the immediate closure of such experimental re-openings. The bill was sponsored by the pro-rail member of Parliament Antony Speller, and it is usually referred to as the Speller Act. The process is still in effect although the legislation has been subsumed into other enactments.
Examples of extant "parliamentary" trains
Some modern examples of lines served only by a Parliamentary train are:
- Chester to Runcorn has one service per week on Saturday mornings (0753 from Chester), in summer only, using the one-way Halton Curve, northbound only.
- The Stockport to Stalybridge Line has one one-way train per week (at 0922 on Fridays from Stockport) operated by Northern Rail.
- Lancaster to Windermere, via Morecambe (no return journey), using the Morecambe - Hest Bank line (0546 from Lancaster Monday to Saturday). Operated by First TransPennine Express.
- Sheffield to York via Pontefract Baghill on the Dearne Valley Line has two journeys per day each way. These are from Sheffield at 0929 and 1329 (Monday-Friday), 0931 and 1330 (Saturdays) and at 1636 and 1857 (Sundays). Return services from York are at 1106 and 1502 (Monday-Saturday) and 1810 and 2050 (Sundays). All operated by Northern Rail.
- South Ruislip at 10.57 to London Paddington (return from London Paddington at 1136 to West Ruislip), weekdays only. Operated by Chiltern Railways.
- Stratford-upon-Avon to Oxford: One train on Friday only, at 23:15 (no return journey).
- Wolverhampton to Walsall: One train on Saturdays only, the 06:38 from Wolverhampton (no return journey).†
- Sheffield to Cleethorpes via Retford and Brigg has three trains per week in each direction, all on Saturday. The services are operated by Northern Rail. Trains depart Sheffield at 0803, 1200 and 1600, returning from Cleethorpes at 1110, 1520 and 1836.
- Battersea Park at 0618 to Highbury & Islington (return at 2217 from Highbury & Islington to Battersea Park), Mondays to Saturdays and Battersea Park at 2309 to Clapham High Street (no return journey). Operated by London Overground.
- London Liverpool Street at 2035 and 2135 to Grays, weekdays only. Operated by c2c‡
- London Liverpool Street at 0531 to Enfield Town via South Tottenham (although not calling there), Saturdays only (no return journey). Operated by Abellio Greater Anglia.
- Streatham Hill at 1601 to London Bridge via Tulse Hill, Mondays to Fridays only (no return journey)
- Bedford at 0654 to Brighton via Gipsy Hill (although not calling there), Mondays to Fridays only (return at 0724 from Brighton to Bedford). Operated by Thameslink.
- London Cannon Street at 0903 to Beckenham Junction, Mondays to Fridays only (return at 1612 from Beckenham Junction to London Charing Cross). Operated by Southeastern.
- Gillingham at 0456 to Sheerness-on-Sea, Mondays to Fridays only (return at 2132), using the Sittingbourne West curve. Operated by Southeastern.
A station may have a parliamentary service because the operating company wishes it closed, but the line is in regular use (most trains pass straight through). Examples include:
- Tees-side Airport in County Durham — the airport (now Durham Tees Valley) is now better served by bus links. The current service is operated only on Sundays and comprises the 1029 from Darlington-Metrocentre via Hartlepool with a return at 1218. Operated by Northern Rail.
- Pilning in South Gloucestershire, near Bristol – only one train in either direction stops each week. These are on Saturdays Only at 0832 (0800 Cardiff Central-Bristol Temple Meads) and at 1541 (1521 Bristol Temple Meads-Cardiff Central). Operated by First Great Western. 
- Barry Links and Golf Street in Carnoustie, Scotland. These are served by the 1703 Glasgow Queen Street-Carnoustie service (1711 Saturday) and the 0600 Carnoustie-Dundee return. Operated by First ScotRail.
- Shippea Hill in Cambridgeshire and Lakenheath in Suffolk (between Ely and Brandon on the Breckland Line to Norwich). Shippea Hill is served at 0723 Mondays-Fridays (0725 Saturday) Eastbound and 0927 Saturdays Only Westbound. Lakenheath, however is served by 7 trains on a Sunday. There are no services Monday-Friday and just a single journey in each direction on Saturdays.
- Polesworth has one train per day Mondays-Saturdays, northbound only at 0723. After major works on the West Coast Main Line, contractors neglected to replace the footbridge which they had removed, leaving passengers unable to access southbound trains.
In the mid-1990s, British Rail was forced to serve Smethwick West in the West Midlands for an extra 12 months after a legal blunder meant that the station had not been closed properly. One train per week each way still called at Smethwick West, even though it was only a few hundred yards from the replacement Smethwick Galton Bridge.
A variant of the parliamentary train service was the 'permanent' replacement bus service, as employed between Watford and Croxley Green in Hertfordshire. This line was closed to trains in 1996, but to avoid the legal complications and costs of actual closure train services were replaced by buses, thus maintaining the legal fiction of an open railway. The branch was officially closed in 2001. In 2013 work began to absorb most of the route into a diversion of the Watford branch of the Metropolitan line into Watford Junction
The 'permanent replacement bus' tactic was used from December 2008 between Ealing Broadway and Wandsworth Road when CrossCountry withdrew its services from Brighton to the North West, which was the only passenger service between Factory Junction, north of Wandsworth Road, and Latchmere Junction, on the West London Line. This service was later replaced by a single daily return train between Kensington Olympia and Wandsworth Road operated by Southern until formal consultation commenced and closure was completed in 2013. 
†There are regular Walsall to Wolverhampton services, but these run via Birmingham New Street rather than over the direct line.
‡There are, however, more services in the opposite direction: Stanford-le-Hope at 0429 to London Liverpool Street; Grays at 1948, 2046, and 2333 to London Liverpool Street; and Barking at 2051 to London Liverpool Street.
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- Webster, Ben (7 January 2009). "Clean, on time and empty. 'Ghost bus' to spare ministers' blushes". The Times (London). Retrieved 16 September 2009.
- Rural Railways – Fifth Report of the Session 2004–05 (PDF), The Stationery Office, 9 March 2005, retrieved 16 September 2009
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- "All aboard for the ghost train". Western Daily Press. 10 August 2006.
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- BBC News