How we let the train take the strain – by carrying us and our cars at the same time

If we put our minds to it, we can let the train take the strain even more. Not only passengers from A to B, also our worldly goods like parcels, raw materials and fuel oil. For carrying heavy loads at once, nothing beats the goods train’s ability at taking more cars off the roads.

At one time, we could take our cars off the road by letting the train take the strain. In mainland Europe, you can still do that today from Innsbruck to Dusseldorf. With motorways and faster trains, car-carrying train services are an endangered species. In the United Kingdom, the last such service operated in 2005.

Before 1995, British Rail used to have a sizeable network of car-carrying services. As British Railways, their first car-carrying service was Car-Sleeper Limited from London to Perth. This was joined by the Continental Car Sleeper train from Manchester to Boulogne in 1958. A driver and a car could travel from Manchester Central to Dover by train and continue to Boulogne on the ferry for £24 return. Other additions included the York to Inverness service – known as the Highland Car Sleeper – and the Western Country Car Sleeper, from Newcastle Central to Exeter.

By 1961, a leaflet entitled Let British Railways Do The Long Drive, gave the passenger a variety of car-sleeper services. These would sew the seeds for what became Motorail in 1966. That year’s car-sleeper services were as follows:

  • Newcastle Central and York to Dover and Boulogne: from £30 4s 0d and £27 4s 0d (driver and car) – £9 14s 0d and £9 4s 0d per passenger (£6 4s 0d and £5 14s 0d for children aged 3 to 14);
  • Manchester Central to Dover and Boulogne: £27 14s 0d (driver and car) – £9 14s 0d per passenger (£6 4s 0d or children aged 3 to 14);
  • London (King’s Cross) to Perth: £21 (driver and car) – £7 10s 0d per passenger (£4 10s 0d for children aged 3 to 14);
  • London (Marylebone) to Glasgow (St. Enoch): £21 (driver and car) – £7 10s 0d per passenger (£4 10s 0d for children aged 3 to 14);
  • York and Newcastle Central to Inverness: £19 10s 0d and £16 10s 0d (driver and car) – £6 and £5 10s 0d per passenger (£4 and £3 10s 0d for children aged 3 to 14);
  • Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield) to Stirling and Inverness: £19 10s 0d and £21 (driver and car) – £6 10s 0d and £7 10s 0d per passenger (£4 and £4 10s 0d for children aged 3 to 14);
  • Glasgow (St. Enoch) to Eastbourne: £21 (driver and car) – £7 10s 0d per passenger (£4 10s 0d for children aged 3 to 14);
  • Newcastle Central and Sheffield Midland to Exeter: £19 10s 0d and £15 10s (driver and car) – £6 and £4 10s 0d per passenger (£4 and £2 10s 0d for children aged 3 to 14).

Fares on Car-Sleeper Routes included sleeping-car accommodation.

In addition to the Car-Sleeper services, there was the Day Car-Carrier Service from London (King’s Cross) to Newcastle Central and Edinburgh Waverley. This had connections with the Bergen and Oslo ferries via Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There was also the London (Surbiton) to Okehampton daytime car carrier service. Seating was reserved and you also had access to the restaurant car.

The Car-Tourist Services offered car-carrying sleeper trains from London (Paddington) to St. Austell. There was a choice of 1st Class and 2nd Class seated accommodation and berths. The fares were as follows:

  • Car and Driver Single fares: £7 2s 6d (Second Class) and £8 7s 6d (First Class);
  • Additional Passenger Single fares: £2 10s 0d (Second Class) and £3 15s 0d (First Class) – £1 5s 0d and £1 17s 6d for children aged 3 to 14;
  • Car and Driver Return fares: £12 (Second Class) and £14 10s 6d (First Class);
  • Additional Passenger Return fares: £5 (Second Class) and £7 10s 0d (First Class) – £2 10s 0d and £3 15s 0d for children aged 3 to 14.

Both Day Car-Carrier Services and Car-Tourist Services (unlike the Car-Sleeper Services) offered single fares as well as return fares. Berths were an extra 30/- in First Class or 20/- in Second Class.

More cost-conscious passengers, taking a Car-Tourist Service, could go for cheaper midweek fares. These were only available for Second Class travel and priced £10 15s 0d for the car and its driver. Additional passengers could travel for £3 15s 0d (or £1 17s 6d for children aged 3 to 14).

Where the Car-Tourist Routes also differed was the fact your car didn’t have to travel with you to the same destination. You could take your car the day before you travel with the rest of your family or vice versa. As BR’s 1965 leaflet said, “Go the day before and spend the night in an hotel. Or go the same night by sleeper.”

As well as one of British Transport Hotels’ palatial hotels, you could take breakfast at London (Paddington), Newcastle Central, Perth, Plymouth, and Newhaven Harbour stations. You could do the same at Exeter St. Davids, St. Austell, Glasgow Central, York, and Inverness stations – though advance booking was required.

For 9s, you could get a Compakt Supper Box or a Packed Meal starting from 3s 6d. Supper Boxes were available from Sutton Coldfield, Sheffield Midland, Newcastle Central, Leeds City, York, London (Marylebone) Exeter St. Davids, Stirling, and Glasgow Central stations. These included a small vacuum flask with a hot drink.

The non-car-free car-free way to get away

When Motorail was up and running in 1966, Britain had far fewer motorways than in 2021. The M1 and M6 were Britain’s most sizeable motorways; the M5 had yet to go beyond Worcestershire and a small section near Bristol. The M62 was only an urban bypass between Stretford and Worsley.

In 1966, coach travel meant changing at Cheltenham for southerly journeys and pub stops along A roads. Though inexpensive, journeys could be tedious and – if you were really unlucky – your Blackpool coach might have been on the Hurst Circular a few days earlier (if it was a hired-in duplicate vehicle). Or be more suited to the 4A instead of the X60.

Back then, the private car began to make inroads. British Rail’s Motorail service provided some respite from traffic-clogged A roads, especially with the motorway network in its nascent form. As with the Car-Sleeper Limited, BR focused on London for the centre of its operations – with a new car-rail terminal at Kensington Olympia.

Here’s the dulcet tones of Bob Danvers-Walker, courtesy of British Pathé.

By 1972, the same year when Spaghetti Junction opened, you could get a Motorail train from London to Inverness, Carmarthan, Fishguard, Newcastle Central, Newton Abbot, Penzance, Swansea, Totnes and Stirling. Also to St. Austell, Plymouth, Carlisle and Aberdeen.

The closest Motorail stations to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were some distance from their respective city centres. East of Newton-le-Willows’ Manchester platform was the Motorail terminal, serving Liverpudlian and Mancunian passengers. Birmingham’s Motorail station was the car-rail terminal at Sutton Coldfield station.

In addition to Kensington Olympia, other London stations with Motorail facilities were Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross.

How it worked

Motorail served two purposes: one was to get fewer cars on the road for long distance journeys. Another was to take some pressure off the mainline stations at busy times – especially as a regular train may require crossing London stations or a slight diversion into, say Birmingham New Street.

Typically, Motorail services had overnight journeys. Many of which made a refreshing change from driving to the Scottish Highlands or Devon and Cornwall. Others connected with ferry schedules, such as those to Dover and Fishguard. Some were seasonal or all-year-round.

By 1968, that year’s programme had the following Motorail services, all conveniently numbered by BR for ease of reference:

  1. London (Kensington Olympia) – Perth (overnight);
  2. London (Caledonian Road) – Perth (daytime);
  3. London (King’s Cross) – Perth (out of season);
  4. Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield) – Stirling;
  5. London (Caledonian Road) – Newcastle Central;
  6. London (King’s Cross) – Newcastle Central (out of season);
  7. London (King’s Cross) – Edinburgh Waverley/Aberdeen (out of season);
  8. Newton-le-Willows – Stirling;
  9. York – Newcastle Central – Inverness;
  10. Stirling – Newhaven Harbour – Dieppe;
  11. Newton Abbot – Bristol Temple Meads – Edinburgh Waverley;
  12. Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield) – Newton Abbot;
  13. Newcastle Central – Sheffield Midland – Newton Abbot;
  14. Cardiff General – Newton Abbot – St. Austell;
  15. London (Kensington Olympia) – Reading General – St. Austell;
  16. Newton-le-Willows – Newton Abbot;
  17. London (Kensington Olympia) – Totnes/Newton Abbot;
  18. London (Paddington) – Exeter St. David’s – Plymouth – Penzance;
  19. London (Paddington) – Swansea;
  20. London (Kensington Olympia) – Fishguard and Goodwick – Rosslare;
  21. London (Kensington Olympia) – Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire;

1970 saw the addition of four new services, adding an extra 10,000 car spaces. These were:

  • London (Kensington Olympia) – Stirling (numbered 3 in that year’s guide);
  • London (Kensington Olympia) – Carlisle Citadel (numbered 7 in that year’s guide);
  • Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield) – St. Austell (numbered 19 in that year’s guide with the Birmingham – Newton Abbot route added to that timetable);
  • Worcester Shrub Hill – Newton Abbot/Bristol Temple Meads (numbered 20 in that year’s guide).

1972 saw continued expansion, this time with the continent a train ride away from Stirling. Motorail’s then new Dover to Stirling service, to quote the leaflet “cuts out the frustrating hold-ups over (or under) the Thames”. Other notable services included:

  • Newton-le-Willows – St. Austell (an extension of the previous route to Newton Abbot);
  • Newton-le-Willows – Perth – Inverness (an extension of the previous route to Stirling);
  • London (Kensington) – Carmarthen;
  • Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield) – Inverness.

In the 1972 BR Eastern Region timetable, the York to Inverness Motorail service left York at 2155, then Newcastle Central at 2355 before arriving at Inverness for 0705 the following day. The northbound journey ran on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In the opposite direction, 2145 from Inverness on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays before arriving in Newcastle Central at 0530 and York at 0710 the following morning. On Sundays, it arrived in York for 0745.

Sheffield’s Motorail service that year was clearly for passengers heading towards the English Riviera resorts. On Fridays and Sundays, it left Sheffield Midland station at 2350, arriving in Newton Abbot for 0705 the following day. Or 0550 on Monday mornings. In the opposite direction on Fridays, 1240 – reaching Sheffield by 1845. On Saturdays, another overnight journey: 2230 from Newton Abbot, arriving in Sheffield Midland for the following Sunday at 0500.

A Motorail train comprised of sleeper carriages, seated carriages, a restaurant car, and the all-important car-carrying flat wagons. As passengers’ cars became moving targets for some miscreants, the open flat wagons were replaced by GUV carriages. This silent film below gives you a flavour of how Motorail services worked in 1972.

If you really wanted to look the part, you could order The Motorail Shoulder Bag for the princely sum of £1.50 from your local Motorail Terminal. The equivalent of £21.45 in 2020 prices. If you wanted to stay in any of British Transport Hotels’ hotels at any point in your journey, you could get a 10% discount.

By 1973, Newton-le-Willows ceased to have a Motorail terminal. All its services were transferred to Crewe. The following year saw the addition of new routes from Stirling to Perth and Inverness, with a new southern route to Brockenhurst. This linked Scotland with the Isle of Wight. Also new to that year’s programme was a Motorail service from Cambridge to Edinburgh Waverley, and a new service to Dover from Newton Abbot and St. Austell.

As for the shoulder bag, down to £1.25 in 1974 then up in price to £1.43 the following year. By 1977, £2.16 (the joys of inflation).

“Take the car the easy way”

By 1981, the average Brit either couldn’t afford a day trip to Skegness or jetted off to Majorca. Some of us used Persil or Fairy liquid coupons to pay for part of our train travel. British Rail’s 1981 Motorail brochure ushered in a new era of carefree travel, with a blonde woman wearing a knitted BR jumper with the double arrow on the front. Her travelling partner on the cover is a version of Anton Rodgers.

Despite the success of its High Speed Train, British Rail had to make economies to keep its ultimate paymasters sweet, and one of the most attractive aspects of Motorail was axed. Its restaurant cars. Instead of cooked breakfasts, you could preorder “a tasty Tray Meal”. There was three salad trays and a Breakfast Tray. These were:

  • The Pullman Tray: smoked salmon, chicken and ham salad, roll and butter, gateau or cheesecake with cream, cheese and biscuits, and a quarter litre bottle of red or white wine (£5.65 – or £24.46 in 2020 prices);
  • The Picnic Tray: pork pie with a hard boiled egg and salad, roll and butter, with fruit pie and cream, and cheese and biscuits (£1.95 – or £8.44 in 2020 prices);
  • The Three Course Tray: pure orange juice with chicken and ham salad, roll and butter, fruit pie and cream, and cheese and biscuits (£2.75 – or £11.91 in 2020 prices);
  • Breakfast Tray: pure orange juice, cold ham, hard boiled egg, tomato, two rolls with butter and a miniature pot of marmalade (£1.80 – or £7.79 in 2020 prices).

£1.50 would have got you a flask of tea or coffee – £6.50 in 2020 prices (though I should imagine you could keep the flask for that!). A quarter litre bottle of wine would have set you back £1.40 (£6.06 in 2020 prices) with an 11.5 fluid ounce can of Pepsi going for 35p (£1.30 in 2020 prices).

Decline and fall

Two things played a part in the decline of Motorail services. Firstly, the British motorway network of 1986 was considerably greater in its length and breadth than in 1966. Secondly, the High Speed Train and improved cross-country services made the Motorail an expensive luxury. Drivers could park their vehicle at a mainline station and board an HST to Cornwall. From St. Austell or Penzance, they could hire a car to explore hard to get to places.

With the advancement of the British motorway network, any journeys that seemed impossible by road in 1966 were possible twenty years on. The deregulation of coach travel gave BR competition on some routes.

On the 09 May 1986, Kensington Olympia found a new use as an InterCity station. With Motorail not being the force it was in the 1960s and 1970s, it became an important axis for South East/North West InterCity routes. Upon its launch, Dr. John Prideaux said it was “only part of a package of improvements” which included new stations at Telford and Tiverton Parkway. Also a new Pullman train in The Lancashire Pullman from Blackpool North to London Euston.

The biggest part of its plan was enhancing European links with connections to cross-channel ferries, hovercrafts and jetfoil services. Everything Motorail did, albeit as part of the InterCity network. Manchester Piccadilly station gained a direct link with Dover, in addition to its existing Brighton service.

The food offer on the cross-London trains meant a welcome return to hot food. Breakfast in the morning (scrambled egg, hash brown, sausages, and tomatoes at £1.95 – or £5.97 in 2020 prices). Also hot snacks, lasagne, chilli-con-carne and chicken supreme, lovingly microwaved for your journey.

In the longer term, Motorail’s future was affected by the Channel Tunnel. The same drive-your-car-on-to-the-train unique selling point would be offered by Le Shuttle trains from the outskirts of Folkestone. Instead of driving your car onto a train at Crewe or Inverness, this meant driving down to Cheriton Terminal.

By 1989, Motorail started to make losses. The London to Stirling service ceased operation that year. Six years later, with privatisation on the horizon, Motorail was no more.


In September 1999, Motorail made a comeback on the Cornish Riviera sleeper service. First Great Western revived the route from London Paddington station to Penzance. This used eight converted General Utility Vans and operated till the end of summer 2006. Its maiden voyage was a success.

First Great Western’s service was available on the Friday night sleeper train in both directions. In 2004, the fares were as follows:

  • First Class Car and Driver sleeper fares: £132.00 single, £205.00 return;
  • Standard Class Car and Driver sleeper fares: £98.00 single, £131.00 return;
  • Standard Class Car and Driver seat fares: £76.00 single, £99.00 return.

Additional passengers travelled at 50% of the most suitable fare for the journey. Where necessary, another £22 for the sleeper supplement.

Rolling Stock

Motorail services used British Rail Mark I, Mark II and Mark III First Class and Standard Class carriages for its seated passengers. Before 1980, the Mark I Restaurant Car (RBR) was a common addition. Mark I Sleeper carriages and, in later years (after a fire on a sleeper train near Taunton on the 06 July 1978), Mark III Sleeper carriages.

From the late 1960s, cars were carried on flat wagons known as Motorail Carflats. These carried four cars, replacing British Railways CCT (Covered Carriage Trucks) which only had space for two cars and four wheels. The carflats were also augmented with Cartic Four transporters. These were double decker car transporters with space for eight cars.

Is there any room for Motorail in the 21st Century?

When the last Motorail services ceased operation in 1995, it was envisaged that Eurostar’s main route – and Regional Eurostars – would provide a replacement service. Instead, only the London Eurostar services commenced. As for Regional Eurostar services, they never came to fruition. Today’s potential passengers, especially those north of Sutton Coldfield, have no choice but to drive to Holyhead or Hull. Or down to Dover or Folkestone. To a point, this explains why in pre-COVID-19 times, domestic air travel was popular.

There is potential for regional Motorail services with Folkestone as its main south-eastern hub. In addition to some principal railway stations, today’s Motorail terminals (new build or existing) could be chosen for their proximity to motorway junctions and ‘A’ roads. Also through-ticketing with Le Shuttle services and seamless transfer from regional services to the Continent.

If any areas need to be a priority for a Motorail revival, it needs to be the South West of England to alleviate congestion in Devon and Cornwall. Ideally with a Penzance – Folkestone service via Kensington Olympia. Anglo-Scottish services should be back on the agenda, presumably starting from Bristol Parkway instead of – or as well as – Bristol Temple Meads. As for the Midlands, Daventry has been trumpeted as a possible Motorail terminal. Could Warrington Bank Quay be a suitable terminal for the North West of England?

Before I go…

What memories do you have of British Rail’s Motorail services? Did you use any of the car-carrying or car-sleeper services that predated BR’s rebranding? Did you take up British Transport Hotels’ 10% discount, or were you the proud owner of a Motorail shoulder bag? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 13 June 2021.

Motorail image by Phil Scott, 2005 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

4 thoughts on “Cars on Trains: The Wonders of Motorail

  1. No there isn’t any chance of a 21st Century Motorail. Nice article but you miss quite a lot out, especially on the hopeless viability of Motorail. If a family of four take a car with them, the space they plus the car take up on the train is tripled or quadrupled compared with them taking a normal train and sitting round a table for four. Ergo, they need to pay a ticket price 4x higher than on a normal train for the Motorail to have the same viability. Obviously that is never going to fly. In BR days loads of hideously unprofitable services could be hidden within the whole, as sectorisation began and businesses started to be looked at individually, all that began to change. Without a gigantic subsidy there’s no way such an operation could work today. In any case it’s more environmentally friendly and efficient for the family to hire a car at the end of a normal train journey.


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