Adley was educated at Uppingham School and would become a company director. In the 1970s Adley was part-time Marketing Director for Holiday Inn (UK). He would brief his agency (Alexander James & Dexter) in the morning, before going to the House of Commons. Adley was born Jewish but converted to Anglicanism, and was married with two children.
He was a councillor on Slough Borough Council from 1965 and first stood for Parliament in 1966 for Birkenhead losing the strongly Labour seat. He became member of Parliament for Bristol North East after winning the seat by 462 votes in the 1970 election. Bristol North East was abolished before the next election in 1974 and Adley went on to become member of parliament for Christchurch and Lymington. He would safely hold this seat from 1974 to 1983, and then after further boundary changes the Christchurch seat from 1983 until his death with one of the largest Conservative majorities in the country.
Adley was well known as a railway enthusiast, after gaining a love of trains when he was given The Wonder Book of Trains at the age of three. Adley became leader of the Conservative backbench committee on transport and then the Chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee. He became a leading opponent of the plans being made by John Major's government for the privatisation of British Rail, describing it a "poll tax on wheels". Adley had previously opposed the poll tax and bus deregulation, while supporting Concorde and an integrated transport system. Adley also called for talks with the African National Congress and for the UK government to support the aspirations of the black majority in Apartheid South Africa.
Adley died in the Royal Brompton Hospital following a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 58. After his death the seat was won in a by-election by Liberal Democrat Diana Maddock, but was regained by the Conservatives in 1997.
Adley was the author of numerous books mainly on the subject of railways and in particular steam engines.
- British Steam in Cameracolour. Shepperton: Ian Allan. 1979. ISBN 0-7110-0987-2.
- In Search of Steam 1962-1968. Poole: Blandford Press. 1981. ISBN 0-7137-1091-8.
- The Call Of Steam. Poole: Blandford Press. 1982. ISBN 0-7137-1274-0.
- To China for Steam. Poole: Blandford Press. 1983. ISBN 0-7137-1344-5.
- All Change Hong Kong. Poole: Blandford Press. 1984. ISBN 0-7137-1468-9.
- In Praise of Steam. Poole: Blandford Press. 1985. ISBN 0-7137-1626-6.
- Wheels. Shepperton: Ian Allan. 1987. ISBN 0-7110-1700-X.
- Covering My Tracks. Wellingborough: Patrick Stephens Ltd. 1988. ISBN 0-85059-882-6.
- Out of Steam. Wellingborough: Patrick Stephens Ltd. 1990. ISBN 1-85260-202-3.
- Countdown to 1968 - The Decline And Fall of Steam. Poole: Oxford Publishing Co. 1993. ISBN 0-86093-492-6.
- White, Michael (1993-05-14). "Major faces new poll test in heartlands MP's death leaves seat vulnerable after Newbury loss". The Guardian.
- "Robert Adley; Obituary". The Times. 1993-05-14.
- "Rifkind Tries to Build a Model Railway". The Economist. 1991-03-30. p. 51.
- "After Railtrack, what next for PPP?". BBC Online. 2001-10-14. Retrieved 2009-04-15.
- "Robert Adley, Member of Parliament, 58". The New York Times. 15 May 1993.
- Smithers, Rebecca (1997-05-03). "Election Special: THE LIBDEM TRIUMPH: 'Constructive' Ashdown doubles seats". The Guardian. p. 3.
- Aitken, Ian (1993-05-14). "Robert the tank engine Obituary: Robert Adley MP". The Guardian.
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Robert Adley
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for Bristol North East
|New constituency||Member of Parliament for Christchurch and Lymington
|New constituency||Member of Parliament for Christchurch