At some point during British Rail's history a decision was taken to add colour to staff uniforms. But there is something reassuring about plain old black and white. The stewards on board the Ocean Liner Express, a luscious new service based on train travel from its glory days, boast whiter-than-white uniforms, gleaming brass buttons and serve their passengers in a manner worthy of a P G Wodehouse novel.
The Fifties marked a high-point for the cruise liners, with around 150 boat-trains a month running between Waterloo and Southampton during the summer. By the late Sixties, however, the ocean liners had lost out to the aeroplane, and the boat trains were forced into early retirement.
'The once glorious carriages found themselves deserted and derelict,' Jane Lee remarks, a spokeswoman for South West Trains. 'Unloved and neglected, the carriages began to fall apart, metalwork tarnished and the upholstery started to rot.' Thankfully, a lifeline was thrown in by S W T before modernism was allowed to derail romanticism altogether.
The sole survivor, which offers a series of one-off excursions from London to the South Coast, is made up of three first-class passenger compartments all lined with the original timber panels of weathered English sycamore and West African bubinga wood. The seats have been re-upholstered using the original patterns based on designs for the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibition. In addition the chrome light fittings have been renovated along with the brass door knobs and wooden loo seats. Each carriage took three months to convert.
'A lot of elbow grease went into it and it needs a lot of TLC to keep it shining,' Andrew White, Chartered Trains Manager for S W T, admits. 'It's become the pet of the depot.'
The staff on board the Ocean Liner Express - two chefs and six stewards - has been working together on chartered trains for the past seven years. 'This is totally different to working on mainline railways,' Allen Holland, a chef, notes. 'There are a lot of people out there who would like to have our jobs.'
There is no prepared food served; all the dishes on the three-course carte du jour are cooked in the train's own restaurant car. Menus include terrine de campagne with calvados, baked fillet of Scottish salmon with Italian wild mushrooms, roast duckling with apple sauce, lemon bavarois with vanilla cream . . . As Andrew White bluntly puts it: 'It's not a B R curly sandwich job.'
Passengers are given ample time to enjoy their meal. 'The train is cleared to do 90mph but we tend to travel at a more leisurely 60mph,' one of the stewards interjects. 'The last thing we want to do is spill the soup.'
It would be unfair to compare the Ocean Liner with the Orient Express: it falls well short on swankiness but then so does the price. For between pounds 50 and pounds 70 passengers can partake of a well-polished silver service, and arrive in style at destinations such as Weymouth, to coincide with the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race, and Cranmore in Somerset, where visitors can enjoy a steam trip on the East Somerset Railway.
BR's award-winning advert last year showing an epidemic of relaxation breaking out among passengers may not always hold true. It would, however, seem quite possible on their Ocean Liner Express. Maybe a back-track on the image front wouldn't be a bad thing. But, then again, the most smartly dressed stewards would find it hard to get passengers excited about today's trolley selection.
The phone number listed in Saturday's Ocean Liner Express article should have read 071-620 5608
Next trip is on 21 June: details 071-620 5808
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