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.