Parliamentary train

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A parliamentary train is a passenger service operated in the United Kingdom to comply with the Railway Regulation Act 1844 that required train companies to provide inexpensive and basic rail transport for less affluent passengers. The act required that at least one such service per day be run on every railway route in the UK. Now no longer a legal requirement (although most franchise agreements require such trains), the term describes train services that continue to be run to avoid the cost of formal closure of a route or station but with reduced services often to just one train per week and without specially low prices. Such services are often called "ghost trains".[1]

Nineteenth-century usage[edit]

Great Western Railway open passenger car

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 trains were generally unaffordable to them except in the most basic of open wagons, in many cases attached to goods trains.[2] Political pressure caused the Board of Trade to investigate, and Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government enacted the Railway Regulation Act 1844, 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".[3]

Railway companies reluctantly complied with the law. They scheduled parliamentary trains at inconvenient times and used uncomfortable carriages. One account stated that when passengers complained about a delay, they were told "ye are only the nigger train". James Allport of Midland Railway was proud of providing comfortable third-class service passenger service, but stated that his company needed 25 years to do so.[4]

In popular culture[edit]

Parliamentary Train: Interior of a third class carriage (1859)

The basic comfort and slow progress of Victorian parliamentary trains led to a 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
Will only suffer
To ride on a buffer
In Parliamentary trains.

Legacy of the Beeching cuts[edit]

The Stockport to Stalybridge shuttle approaches Reddish South. This is one of the most well-known parliamentary services throughout the country.

In 1963 under its chairman Richard Beeching, British Railways produced The Reshaping of British Railways report, designed to stem the huge losses being incurred as patronage declined.[5] It proposed very substantial cuts to the network and to train services, with many lines closed under a programme that came to be known as the Beeching cuts. The Transport Act 1962 included a formal closure process allowing for objections to closures on the basis of hardship to passengers if their service was closed. As the objections gained momentum, this process became increasingly difficult to implement, and from about 1970 closures slowed to a trickle.[citation needed]

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 direction only.[citation needed]

London Overground Class 378 at Battersea Park operating a Parliamentary service. It is also used when the line to Clapham Junction is blocked.

These minimal services had resonances of the 19th-century parliamentary services and, among rail enthusiasts, they came to be referred to as "parliamentary trains" or, more colloquially, "parly" trains (following the abbreviation used in Victorian timetables) or "ghost trains". However, this terminology has no official standing. So-called parliamentary services are also typically run at inconvenient times, often very early in the morning, very late at night or in the middle of the day at the weekend. In extreme instances, rail services have actually been "temporarily" withdrawn and replaced by substitute bus services, to maintain the pretence that the service has not been withdrawn.[citation needed]

Speller Act[edit]

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 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 reopenings. The Bill that led to the Act of 1981 was sponsored by a pro-railways Member of Parliament, Tony 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.[citation needed]



Examples of lines in the December 2019 – May 2020 timetable served only by a parliamentary train are:

Origin Destination Days operated Outbound
Operator Comments
West Ealing West Ruislip Wednesdays 11:17[6] N/A Chiltern Railways Via the Greenford line, commenced 10 December 2018 replacing previous service to London Paddington via the Acton–Northolt line.
Battersea Park Dalston Junction Monday – Friday
  • 06:33
  • 23:03
22:04 London Overground Commenced 9 December 2012 after Southern service between London Victoria and London Bridge via the South London line ceased. Common diversionary route when the line to Clapham Junction is closed.
  • 07:30
  • 07:45
  • 08:00
  • 08:15
  • 08:33
  • 06:34
  • 06:49
  • 07:04
  • 07:19
  • 07:34
Highbury & Islington Sunday 07:26 N/A
Liverpool Street Enfield Town Saturday 05:30 Runs via South Tottenham but does not call. Unreliable and is often diverted via Stoke Newington.[7]
Wolverhampton Rugeley Trent Valley 05:43 West Midlands Railway Only service to go directly between Wolverhampton and Walsall, between Darlaston Jn and Pleck Jn. Other services use the line between Crane Street Jn and Portobello Jn.
Stalybridge Stockport 08:46 09:44 Northern Trains Via Stockport to Stalybridge Line.
Sheffield Cleethorpes
  • 07:54
  • 11:54
  • 15:54
  • 11:14
  • 15:11
  • 19:17
Via Kirton Lindsey & Brigg. Became a parliamentary service when weekday services were withdrawn in 1993.[8] Regular trains now operate between Gainsborough and Sheffield.
Lancaster Morecambe (via Carnforth) Monday – Saturday
  • 05:17
  • 05:30
N/A Via the Hest Bank curve.
Heysham Port 12:49 13:20 One train a day to Heysham.
Goole Leeds
  • 07:42
  • 19:43
17:58 Via the Pontefract line.
Swansea Fishguard Harbour
  • 11:01
  • 10:59
N/A Transport for Wales This train uses the line between Carmarthen Jn and Carmarthen Bridge Jn, so avoids Carmarthen station.
Charing Cross Tunbridge Wells Sunday / Monday – Friday 00:15 (Sunday) 04:45 (from Tonbridge; Monday – Friday) Southeastern These journeys use the curve between Beckenham Junction and New Beckenham (previously used by a weekday morning Cannon Street to Beckenham Junction via New Beckenham train, returning in the afternoon to Charing Cross). This is a common diversionary route for trains from Charing Cross to Hastings when the route through Hither Green is closed.
Gillingham London Victoria Monday – Friday 05:00 N/A Via Stewarts Lane Jn. In previous years, an 05:50 train to Ashford International used the same route, but also called at Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street.[9]
Glasgow Central Edinburgh 21:05 CrossCountry The only train to regularly use the Edinburgh Suburban line, which runs to the south of the main lines through Edinburgh. The line in the other direction has not seen regular use for some time.
Reading Shalford 07:17 Great Western Railway Via the Reading Spur line. Another line from the mainline platforms at Reading is only accessible from the higher numbered platforms, which is mostly used when trains are going towards the North Downs Line from Reading TMD.
Filton Abbey Wood Bath Spa 15:59 Via Bristol East Curve. Only public service to use the curve. The curve in the other direction towards Filton has not seen use in a considerable number of years.
Worksop Nottingham 23:43 East Midlands Railway Via Ironville Jn. Since its inception it has suffered erratic performance, with its prior journey from Nottingham frequently terminating short at Mansfield Woodhouse.[7]
Peterborough Lincoln 23:10 Runs via the Sleaford Avoiding line.[7]
Doncaster Saturday 18:29 20:46 (to Sleaford)[7] Only trains to use the "Up (East) Slow Line" between Bessacarr Jn and Doncaster Black Carr Jn.
Norwich Manchester Piccadilly Sunday 15:54 N/A Only public service to use the Queen Adelaide loop, north of Ely.
London Kings Cross Hull 10:49 Hull Trains This uses the line between Loversall Carr Jn and Doncaster Flyover East Jn, to the south of Doncaster.
Leeds Plymouth 08:11 CrossCountry This train uses the line between Lichfield Trent Valley (High Level) and Wichnor Jn. Only West Midlands Trains operate services along this line, as far as Lichfield.
Carlisle Nunthorpe 14:49 Northern Trains Only services to use the single-line curve at the southern end of King Edward VII Bridge. Northern service started in late 2019, LNER service started running in December 2021.
London Kings Cross Sunderland Monday – Friday 20:00 London North Eastern Railway
Skipton London Kings Cross Saturday 06:56 This train uses the curve between Hambleton West Jn and Hambleton South Jn.
York Monday 04:40 These trains use the spur between Doncaster Flyover East Jn and Loversall Carr Jn, to the south of Doncaster.
Leeds Sunday 10:45
Plymouth Leeds 18:27 CrossCountry These trains use the curve between Calder Bridge Jn and Turners Lane Jn, which avoids Wakefield Kirkgate.

These trains also use the line between Hare Park Jn and Crofton West Jn, also used by some Grand Central services between London Kings Cross and Bradford Interchange.[7]

Sheffield Friday 23:15 Northern Trains
New Addington Wimbledon Monday – Saturday
  • 04:56
  • 05:11
Tramlink Regular services between New Addington and Wimbledon were withdrawn in February 2018 - these services seem to exist purely so Transport for London can claim there is still a direct service.
  • 06:41
  • 06:56


Examples of lines formerly served only by a Parliamentary train are:

Origin Destination Days operated Outbound
Operator Ceased Comments
Chester Runcorn Summer Saturdays 07:53 N/A Arriva Rail North 8 September 2018 Via the one-way Halton Curve, northbound only.[10][11] Last ran 2018, full-time services resumed in May 2019, operated by Transport for Wales.[12]
Woodgrange Park Willesden Junction Monday –Friday 07:59 London Overground Some time in 2018 This service travelled via but did not call at Gospel Oak. Last operated mid to late 2018.
South Ruislip or Gerrards Cross London Paddington or West Ealing 10:57 / 11:02 from South Ruislip

10:01 / 10:44 from Gerrards Cross[13][14]

11:11 / 11:35 / 11:36 to High Wycombe / Princes Risborough / West Ruislip[14][15] from Paddington

11:47 to High Wycombe from West Ealing

Chiltern Railways 7 December 2018 Maintained route knowledge for drivers enabling services to divert to Paddington when Marylebone was closed. Service diverted to West Ealing, via the Greenford Branch Line, from 7 December 2018 with the closure of the Acton-Northolt line services to enable High Speed 2 works.
Kensington Olympia Wandsworth Road 10:02 16:11 (from Clapham High Street) Southern 17 June 2013 Ceased when London Overground began operations to Clapham Junction. The main route between Latchmere No. 1 Jn and Longhedge Jn never regained passenger use, except for use by excursions on occasion.
Streatham Hill London Bridge 16:17 N/A Southern March 2020 Only service for a number of years to use the Leigham Spur between Streatham Hill and Tulse Hill. The line in the other direction has not seen regular use for a number of years.
Reading Birmingham New Street 22:02 N/A CrossCountry Used the Soho South Jn - Perry Bar South Jn. Occasionally used on football match days.[7]

Stations with minimal services[edit]

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:

One service stops at Teesside Airport every week on a Sunday, at 14:54, even though it is only a 15-minute walk to the airport.

Bordesley is served by a single train on Saturdays only, however the station remains open for use when Birmingham City Football Club are playing at home when additional services call there. Operated by West Midlands 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.[19]

Many least used stations are also served infrequently or irregularly.


Norton Bridge was served by a replacement bus until March 2019.
Norton Bridge was served by a replacement bus until March 2019.

A variant of the parliamentary train service was the temporary replacement bus service, as employed between Watford and Croxley Green in Hertfordshire. The railway 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.[20] The branch was officially closed in 2003. Work in track clearance commenced, beginning the work to absorb most of the route into a diversion of the Watford branch of the Metropolitan line into Watford Junction, but work was stopped in 2016 after a reassessment of likely costs and lack of agreement on funding.

The temporary replacement bus tactic was used from December 2008 between Ealing Broadway and Wandsworth Road[21] when Arriva CrossCountry withdrew its services from Brighton to Manchester, 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 (as above) operated by Southern until formal consultation commenced and closure was completed in 2013.[22]

The replacement bus tactic was used to service Norton Bridge, Barlaston and Wedgwood stations on the Stafford–Manchester line, which had its passenger services withdrawn in 2004 to allow more Virgin CrossCountry and Virgin Trains West Coast services to be operated. Norton Bridge station was closed in December 2017 coinciding with the transfer of the West Midlands franchise from London Midland to West Midlands Trains, with funding for the bus service to Norton Bridge continuing until March 2019.[23][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "On Board a Real-Life "Ghost Train"". BBC News. 1 July 2012. Retrieved 9 December 2012.
  2. ^ D.N. Smith (1988) The Railway and Its Passengers: A Social History, Newton Abbott: David & Charles
  3. ^ MacDermott, E.T., History of the Great Western Railway, London: Great Western Railway, 1927, Vol. 1, part 2, page 640
  4. ^ Pike, Richard, ed. (1888). Railway Adventures and Anecdotes (Third ed.). Hamilton, Adams, and Co. pp. 143–144.
  5. ^ "The Reshaping of British Railways" (PDF). Her Majesty's Stationery Office. 1963.
  6. ^ "Chiltern Railways Timetable from 12 December 2021". Retrieved 19 December 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "PSUL 2022" (PDF). Retrieved 28 December 2021.
  8. ^ The ghost trains of northern England that refuse to die The Independent 31 October 2017
  9. ^ "2Y06 0550 London Victoria to Ashford International". Realtime Trains. 14 February 2019. Archived from the original on 14 February 2019.
  10. ^ Rural Railways – Fifth Report of the Session 2004–05 (PDF), The Stationery Office, 9 March 2005, retrieved 16 September 2009
  11. ^ Hearfield, Samuel (15 October 2016). "Chester to Liverpool South Parkway (Parliamentary Train) Via the Halton Curve (Final Trip, 16th of July 2016)". Samuel Hearfield (YouTube). Retrieved 17 November 2016.[dead YouTube link]
  12. ^ New Chester to Liverpool rail service delayed due to shortage of trains Cheshire Live 21 September 2018
  13. ^ 2V27 1057 South Ruislip to London Paddington Realtime Trains 7 December 2018
  14. ^ a b "BLS - PSUL Document Archive". Retrieved 9 February 2020.
  15. ^ 2M29 1135 London Paddington to High Wycombe Realtime Trains 7 December 2018
  16. ^ "Rail buffs to highlight Teesside Airport 'ghost station'". The Journal. Trinity Mirror. 14 October 2009. Archived from the original on 7 March 2012.
  17. ^ "All aboard for the ghost train". Western Daily Press. 10 August 2006.
  18. ^ Pilning Station Footbridge Removed for Wiring Modern Railways issue 819 December 2016 page 11
  19. ^ "Smethwick West Station 1867–1996". Retrieved 16 September 2009.
  20. ^ "Croxley Green LNWR branch – passenger closure". Rail Chronology. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  21. ^ "'Ghost bus' makes final journey" news article 11 June 2013; Retrieved 20 May 2013
  22. ^ "Consultation: Withdrawal of scheduled passenger services between Wandsworth Road, Kensington (Olympia) and Ealing Broadway". Department for Transport. 10 May 2012. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  23. ^ Norton Bridge rail station: proposed closure Department for Transport 6 November 2017
  24. ^ Closure Ratification Notice – Norton Bridge Station Office of Rail & Road 26 October 2017


  • Billson, P. (1996). Derby and the Midland Railway. Derby: Breedon Books.
  • Jordana, Jacint; Levi-Faur, David (2004). The politics of regulation: institutions and regulatory reforms for the age of governance. Edward Elgar Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84376-464-9.
  • Ransom, P. J. G. (1990). The Victorian Railway and How It Evolved. London: Heinemann.
  • Calder, Simon (2 April 2011). "Missed the bus? The route that runs only four times year". BBC.

External links[edit]