11 August 1968: the last steam passenger service in Britain

'Fifteen Guinea Special' steam train © RuthAS
The ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’ © RuthAS

After World War II, the low price of domestic coal meant steam trains continued to operate in the UK for two decades. But when the price of oil started to fall in the 1960s, and so-called ‘dieselisation’ began, it marked the beginning of the end for steam.

Diesel engines were faster, easier to maintain, and cleaner. And on 12 August 1968, British railways imposed a ban on all mainline steam traffic, though there were still some heritage services running, and some locomotives were used in industry until the 1980s.

The last mainline steam passenger train ran ahead of the ban on this day in 1968 from Liverpool via Manchester to Carlisle and back. It was named the Fifteen Guinea Special, because of the high prices charged for the trip – £15 15s 0d – the equivalent of £250 today.  As a comparison, an ‘anytime’ open return for the same journey today would cost £94. Despite the cost, 450 rail enthusiasts joined the tour to say their goodbyes to over 138 years of British history.

Four locomotives took turns to pull the final excursion – three nameless Class 5s, and the ‘Britannia’ class Oliver Cromwell, which was the last steam locomotive to be overhauled by British Railways. Three out of the four locomotives have been preserved, with Oliver Cromwell taking almost four years to restore to working condition.

The ban on steam was lifted in 1971, paving the way for the many heritage specials now operating on the railways.

Also on this day

11 August 1942: Screen goddess Hedy Lamarr invents Wi-Fi

Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr received a patent in 1942 for her ‘frequency hopping communication system’ – the basis of much of today’s wireless technology. Read more here.

  • Hoot_Gibson

    I used to be a fireman on the LMS out of the Willesden sheds when I joined in 1962
    Did first 3 months cleaning engines in the shed
    Just loved steam trains they were “Living Beings” and lovingly tended.
    Remember sitting in Wembley park ( after freighting carriages there) 6am on Cup Final day frying bacon and eggs and had the billy can full of hot tea, wonderful days. You as a fireman stayed your side never encroaching on the drivers territory.
    Cut my teeth firing the box on the City Coronation class or Britanniars the class 7 from Willesden to Stoke hauling steel girders that was a spread of a fire box to keep up speed. Back breaking work though aged just 17 then staying in the railway hostel for a night’s kip.
    Those days drivers and fireman lived in the terraced houses beside the yards owned by British Rail drank and slept in the hostels on overnight trips never setting foot outside of railway property.
    Drivers and fireman in bleached denims driving in the 1st division ( they were graded in 8 divisions I think) drove and fired the trains to Scotland working just 4 days a week.
    They were the true aristocrats of the railmen.
    They and all footplate drivers and fireman never joined the NUR that was for the peasants it was ASLEF only.
    I was 8th division when I started in my new blue denims ( you knew instantly I was a newbie trying to navigate the trains to their take off stands in the Willesden yards changing points very confusing but some drivers let us practice driving on point duty.
    The black 5 was my favourite the work horse of the LMS but also remember the waggons of squealing pigs shunting past us on a one way journey into the massive Walls Sausage Factory next door.
    Great days I left when we transferred to drive Diesels the magic of the steam train was gone, so I joined the Army!!