The end of the Line
Until motor vehicles and roadways became commonplace railways played an import role in end-if-life ceremonies.
In bygone times, several funeral train services operated around the world, but they stopped running as motor vehicles became popular.
Funeral trains are rare in the 21st Century, but are still sometimes operated for ceremonial purposes in the case of VIPs.
There have been two types of funeral train:
- A rail service designated to carry coffins from cities with limited burial space to larger suburban cemeteries, such as the London Necropolis Railway.
- A train that carries a specific person on a final journey to their burial site, such as Winston S. Churchill’s funeral train or, much more recently, George H.W. Bush’s funeral train.
The London Necropolis Railway (LNR) operated from November 1854 until hit by German bombers on the night of 16-17 April 1941, running 37 km carrying only about 2,000 “special” passengers and their families and friends a year.
The 2,000 “special” passengers carried each year were in coffins.
The LNR did not reopen after the damage it suffered during the blitz. Today, some of the key buildings still stand with passers-by oblivious to their somewhat macabre past.
The railway arose out of a need for a new place to bury bodies.
The population of London rose dramatically, from less than a million people in 1801 to 2.5 million in 1851. London itself had only allocated 300 acres (120 ha) to burial space. It got to the stage where newer graves were being reclaimed for more burials.
After a cholera epidemic in 1848-49 in which14,601 people died, an Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis (Burials Act) was passed in 1851, prohibiting new burials in built-up areas of London.
A site for a new cemetery was chosen at Brookwood, in Surrey. The Brookwood Cemetery (London Necropolis) opened in 1854 and to get the funeral corteges there, the railway was chosen.
Modern Brookwood station
The Act bound the London South West Railway to carry corpses and mourners to the cemetery in perpetuity and set a maximum tariff which could be levied on funeral traffic. The LNR was formed to carry the funeral traffic, mostly using the main line operated by the LSWR.
But a couple of problems needed to be addressed. The living weren’t comfortable travelling with the dead, so separate carriages were provided for the coffins.
Then there was the class divide. This was the Victorian era and the classes didn’t mix all that freely, even on a funeral train. So, there were carriages for various social classes and particular religions.
Return tickets for mourners cost two shillings to six shillings. The fares for dead passengers were considerably less with three different one-way fares.
The trains left from London Necropolis Railway Station at 11.40 (almost daily) and travelled through the countryside before arriving for a funeral ceremony (and tea) at Brookwood Cemetery. All but one of the funeral party would be back in London on the return trip by 5.30 pm.’
A funeral train heading for Brookwood.
The London Necropolis railway station incorporated many private waiting rooms which could also be used to hold funeral services, and a hydraulic lift to raise coffins to platform level. A private access road allowed mourners to arrive and leave discreetly. There were waiting rooms for upper- and lower-class mourners.
Most bodies were taken by hearse to the York Street station. There was a storeroom for up to 300 coffins.
Records show that during the period the trains operated, 203,041 people were buried in Brookwood Cemetery.
The last recorded funeral party carried on the LNR was that of Edward Irish, a Chelsea pensioner, who was buried in Brookwood Cemetery on 11 April 1941.
The original station for LNR in London was at Waterloo Bridge. It was demolished when the LNR moved to the other side of Westminster Bridge Road in 1902.
However, the “new” station took a severe hit during the blitz of 1941. There were separate entrances for each class of (living) passenger and first-class entrance and offices survived the air raids and stand today as Westminster Bridge House.
There were two temporary stations at the cemetery. The South Station was used for Anglican burials while the North Station catered for other religions. The stations no longer exist.
The Transport Trust records that at the end of the war the London Necropolis Company decided that re-opening the London Necropolis Railway was not financially worthwhile; by 1948 the tracks had been lifted from the private branches off the mainline. The two stations in the cemetery were converted into bars for use by funeral parties, but the North bar was demolished during the 1960s due to dry rot and the South bar became disused and eventually burnt down in 1972. The platforms and the associated chapels of both cemetery stations still survive. The surviving frontage of the London terminus building was sold as office space and remains intact and largely in its original form.
Mortuary Station, Sydney
Trains also were used in Sydney, Australia, for funeral services.
Regent Street railway station was formerly Mortuary Railway Station from which funeral trains departed on Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery railway line.
The ornate building with its rustic gates and gothic looking arches. still stands on the western side of Sydney Yard at Chippendale, between Central Railway Station and Railway Square.
The station opened as “Mortuary” on 29 June 1869.
Mourners would buy a ticket, there would be a small ceremony, the train would arrive, and the family would board for the ride to the cemetery.
The train wasn’t anything fancy – wooden carriages with chairs for the mourners. Coffins (up to 30 per trip) were carried in a purpose-built carriage.
The train arrived virtually in the middle of the cemetery at a station almost identical to the one from which it left. In the 1950s, Cemetery Station was dismantled stone-by-stone and reconstructed in Canberra, the national capital, as All Saint’s Church.
Usually, there were two trains a day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
There are more than a million graves at Rookwood, one of the largest cemeteries in the Southern Hemisphere. The name Rookwood was adopted in 1879 – it was previously known as Hallam’s Creek cemetery. The nearby suburb was renamed Lidcombe.
The station and train line were in use until early 1948.
Mortuary station was designed by architect James Barnet and opened in 1869. As well as the Necropolis (Rookwood), corpses were also transported from there to other cemeteries, including Sandgate near Newcastle.
Funeral train at Sandgate
Better roads brought an end to Mortuary station and other stations also set up for collecting coffins. Mortuary stayed open briefly for transport of animals and parcels and even briefly became a pancake shop, “Magic Mortuary”.
Mortuary Station was restored by the State Rail Authority in 1981 and classified as a heritage building by the National Trust of Australia and the Australian Heritage Commission. It reopened on the 21 April 1985 and has since been used to launch special train services and public displays of trains.
According to funeralguide.co.uk, one of the last funeral train lines in the world was the Friedhofsbahn (Cemetery Train) between Berlin and Wannsee.
The line was financed by the Prussian Railway Administration and the Church. It opened in 1913 and was electrified in 1928.
The coffins were checked in and loaded onto the cemetery trains at the freight depot in Halensee and taken by train to Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery.
The line continued to run until the bridge over the Teltowkanal was destroyed in WWII. The line re-opened in 1948, after the bridge was reconstructed. The cemetery train continued to run until 1952.
When Germany was partitioned, one of the stops on the line, Dreilinden, became Check-point Bravo.
The line was closed in the 1970s when it and the station at Stahnsdorf were demolished.
Which all goes to show that railways can be a matter of life and death.
For Lincoln’s Funeral Train, see:
A train of my own
Some world leaders prefer to travel by train, particularly through Europe and Asia. That’s not because of airsickness but in some cases the preference is down to a form of a fear of flying.
Security is the issue. They feel safer from attack while on board a train rather than in the air, unless they have to cross oceans, of course.
Why would they be worried? A lot of the leaders we are talking about here are not all that popular and won’t even trust their own people although they readily talk about threats from the West.
In some cases, travel by train is a tradition. Trains have been, and in some cases continue to be, important for Royal Tours and “whistle stop” electioneering.
Whether a complete train or a special carriage or two, they have also been used by railway officials and dignitaries as business cars, and wealthy people for travel and entertainment, especially in the United States.
Those are not these ones you might find on mainline commuter – or even long-distance – services. These are not for public use; they are private trains, with all the imaginable trimmings. And security.
The secretive North Korean leaders have always preferred train travel, it seems. But no ordinary commuter or even long-distance trains; none of that for the Kim family.
For domestic and even international travel, three generations of the Kims have had for their personal use (with appropriate entourage of course) a fairly lavish train.
Kim il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il and his grandson and current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have all used high-security trains.
Kim rarely leaves North Korea. And when he does, he rarely flies.
Kim Jong-un chose train for his first trip abroad since he took over as Leader in 2011 for a meeting with his Chinese counterpart in March 2018.
He went to China in a slow-moving, forest-green train with yellow piping and tinted windows, a similar train to those used by his father and grandfather, possibly even the same one. He travelled by train to Russia in September 2023 for talks with Russian leaders.
According to South Korean reports, North Korea has 90 special train carriages and operates three trains in tandem when a leader is travelling; an advance train to check the rails, the train with the leader and his immediate entourage, and a third train behind for everyone and everything else.
Not much is known about the Kim family train, but previous reports and footage show it to be filled with imported French wine, flat screen TVs, and plush leather seats.
According to an account published in 2002 by Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim Jong-il on a three-week trip to Moscow in 2001, the train carried cases of bordeaux and beaujolais from Paris. Passengers could also feast on live lobster and barbecued pork.
Photos issued by North Korean news agency KCNA of the 2018 visit to China showed glimpses of the train’s interior, showing Kim Jong Un meeting with Chinese officials on the train.
In a video from 2015, Kim Jong-un was shown sitting in a stark white conference room on board with a laptop in the background.
Just how often Kim Jong-un has used the train to travel inside North Korea is not known.
But his father, who hated flying and had a taste for a playboy lifestyle, is said to have decked the train out for lavish parties, bouts of heavy drinking and karaoke on his many journeys by rail.
A life-size replica of one of the train’s carriages is on permanent display in the ornate mausoleum on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where national founder Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state.
According to official accounts, Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack while on a long distance train trip.
The display room features a map of the trips the leaders made on the train, with little lights to indicate each stop.
One of the many paintings on the wall shows Kim Jong-il standing beside the train.
Kim Il-sung also used the train extensively, taking it all the way to eastern Europe in 1984.
Guides at the mausoleum explain that the carriage was used as a mobile office — proof, they insist, the leaders worked tirelessly for the people.
Fit for Queen and King
Members of the British Royal Family and staff of the Royal Household travel around the railway network of Great Britain on the Royal Train, operated by the German rail haulage firm DB Cargo UK, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn.
It is the only private, non-commercial train service used by one family still operating in the UK.
The Queen regularly used trains — taking them between London and her residence on Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.
Queen Victoria was the first reigning British monarch to travel by train. The original journey took about 30 minutes and the then 23-year-old queen called it “delightful” and said the “motion was very slight, and much easier than a carriage — also no dust or great heat.”
That was on 13 June 1842, on the Great Western Railway (GWR) line between London and Windsor (for the Castle). The Queen travelled from Slough to Paddington on a train hauled by the locomotive Phlegethon. The driver was Daniel Gooch assisted by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, architect of the GWR and its network of lines, tunnels, bridges and viaducts.
The Queen used a Royal Saloon built by GWR in 1840. After her funeral in 1901, Queen Victoria’s coffin was taken to Paddington station and carried on the Royal Train back to Windsor where she was buried.
The first carriage for the exclusive use of a member of the British Royal Family was built in 1842 by the London and Birmingham Railway for Queen Dowager Adelaide. The carriage is displayed at the National Railway Museum in York.
Queen Dowager Adelaide was actually the first member of the British Royal Family to travel by train when she travelled from Nottingham to Leeds on 22 July 1840.
Various royal carriages were introduced through the years and after the formation of British Railways in 1948, the constituent railway companies maintained their Royal Train carriages.
A single Royal Train was formed in 1977 for the Silver Jubilee celebrations. The Royal Family have also travelled on ordinary service trains more frequently in recent times for cost minimisation.
The Royal Train remains a feature of travel by the Royal Family today.
King Charles III travelled on the royal train on January 2023 for the first time since becoming monarch. He journeyed overnight from Ayr in Scotland to Manchester for a series of engagements in the city.
The expense of running the Royal Train led to questions from Members of Parliament over its continuing use. It was indicated in 2013 that it would soon be scrapped.
The Telegraph newspaper reported in 2017 that the Queen made it known the train was her preferred mode of transport, and she believed it to be a cost-effective and convenient way for the Royal Family to travel.
Tests were carried out on the carriages, which revealed the train’s deterioration had been greatly exaggerated. Instead of being ready for the scrap yard, Palace sources said the Royal Train was found to be in far better condition than previously thought. “The source added there was now no end in sight to its use,” the newspaper said.
Penny Junor, Prince Charles and Prince Harry’s biographer, told the Telegraph: “The train is very dear to them. It’s fine for them to travel on public transport, but on the Royal Train they can sleep and, as the Royal Yacht was, its somewhere completely private, with everything they need on board.
“Everybody knows what it means to them. Yes, there’s a cost attached to it, but there’s a cost attached to having a Monarchy and it is what we want as a country.”
The train was the most practical and secure mode of travel to fit the Queen’s itinerary and avoid disruption to the day-to-day activity of the public.
To commemorate the 175th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s trip, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took the same journey from Slough, close to her Windsor Castle home, to Paddington in west London.
On the journey with them was Gillian White, great-great granddaughter of Daniel Gooch, who drove the original locomotive, and Isambard Thomas, great-great-great grandson of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Current Royal Train rolling stock dates from 1977-1987. They are arranged according to requirements, and stored when not in use.
The Royal Train is formed from a dedicated set of claret liveried sleeper, dining and lounge carriages.
It usually comprises nine carriages, seven of these being of the British Rail Mark 3 design. Five or seven carriages are used when sleeping facilities are not required. Two locomotives are designated for use on the train and painted in the claret livery of the royal household, but are used for other traffic when not hauling the royal train. The carriages may be used for other Heads of State, but they cannot be hired by private users.
Train drivers are selected based on their skills, including the ability to make a station stop within six inches of the designated position.
The Royal Train costs about t 800,000 to 900,000 pounds a year in running and maintenance. It makes between around 15 trips annually. Each journey is said to cost from 25,000 to 30,000 pounds, including staffing costs and fuel and other supplies.
The present version of the Royal Train began service in 1977.
Commonwealth countries, including Australia, have also operated special trains for royal visits.
Most monarchies also have used royal trains to transport their heads of state. For her 60th birthday in 2000, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark received a new royal coach with a drawing room, sleeping compartments and kitchen; in Japan imperial trains are used less and less, as Emperor Akihito generally travels by air, or on regular scheduled trains with a reserved carriage; the Dutch State Railways (NS) uses up to three royal carriages to transport the king and his family; Norway and Romania are among other countries that maintain a royal train.
Lincoln’s Phantom Train
President Abraham Lincoln never enjoyed the executive coach “United States” built in 1865 exclusively for his use; he refused the opulence.
But when he did ride it, he was unable to enjoy the deluxe accommodations, as it was his funeral journey, a slow circuitous trip from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, with the exhumed body of his son Willie also aboard the “Lincoln Special” funeral train.
The 2,736 km trip took two weeks, travelling through major US cities including Baltimore, Maryland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, Indianapolis and Indiana.
Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the US, in 1861, his notable act being to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863.
He won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the civil war.
Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and a Confederate spy from Maryland, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre as the American Civil War was drawing to a close. The assassination occurred five days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Lincoln was shot in the back of the head at close range and died on Saturday morning, April 15, 1865.
Instead of a state funeral that now might be the norm, it was decided to take Lincoln’s body “on tour”. During the two weeks there was much speculation in the press on the status of the corpse.
The macabre episode apparently didn’t end at Springfield where Lincoln was laid to rest on May 4, 1865, after what has been described as the greatest funeral in the history of the US.
But as reports have it, the Lincoln funeral train rolls on each April in a ghostly anniversary of the President’s death.
It was against his wife’s wishes that officials decided that Lincoln’s body would be displayed on a funeral train stopping at various towns through the northern part of the US on its way to Springfield.
Along the route from Washington to Illinois people lined the tracks to bid farewell to the President who fought and won the Civil War.
The funeral train comprised nine cars. The ninth car, built to take the living president and his family on rail trips, was the one in which the caskets of Lincoln and Willie were carried.
The train’s route passed through Albany, New York.
For a number of years, around the anniversary of Lincoln’s final journey, Albany-area railway workers reported seeing a phantom version of the funeral train travelling along the rails. On the evening of each 27 April, people began making their way to the line in hopes of seeing the ghost train passing.
Some paranormal enthusiasts believe Lincoln’s ghost train still rolls through Albany, perhaps even making the entire journey from Washington to Illinois, replicating the procession of the actual funeral train. But it never turns up in Springfield, Illinois.
While the President himself is not seen (there’s a coffin covered by an American flag), his ghostly remains are guarded by the spirits of soldiers dressed in Union uniforms.
The train is said to emerge from a cloud of thick, black fog, towing its dark cars. Its arrival makes the air noticeably heavier and colder.
Folklore has it that as the ghost train passes, nearby clocks and watches stop.
According to “witnesses” a blinding light coming from the unmanned train engine – known as “Nashville”- helps to guide the haunted steam engine through the thick black fog.
Adolph Hitler’s Führersonderzug
Historical German train records that have come to light seem to show that Nazi Germany’s fanatical dictator Adolph Hitler was really a train enthusiast, with a desire to revitalise German railways with high-speed (for the time) trains.
Hitler remarkably hand-picked a team to support his aims. They included Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Albert Speer and Herman Goering.
Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, was reputedly a keen model railway enthusiast and kept a large layout in his Berlin residence.
Hitler – and Goering, too – had his own train throughout the war years.
Hitler’s train – first known as the named Führersonderzug “Amerika” – featured a luxurious teak-panelled interior with a shower, dining and sleeping car facilities, conference room and communications centre.
The trains used by Hitler and Goering were used for visiting frontline troops.
They were protected by armour plating, machine guns and anti-aircraft weaponry.
Hitler used his train as a mobile headquarters until after the Balkans Campaign that began with the Italian invasion of Greece on 28 October 1940. Afterwards, the train was not used as Führer Headquarters, but Hitler continued to travel on it between Berlin, Berchtesgaden, Munich and other headquarters.
For safety, other trains ran at the front and to the rear of Hitler’s train to ward off any possible attack. Hitler’s train itself usually was hauled by two locomotives.
According to documents, Hitler most likely used his train for the last time when he travelled from the headquarters at Adlerhorst to Berlin on 15 January 1945. It was moved eventually to Bruck, south of Zell am See in Austria. In May 1945, the Führerwagen (locomotive no. 10206) was blown up on the orders of Hitler. The rest of the cars joined Heinrich Himmler’s train. The combination was called Brandenburg I and II. The train was captured by the US Army in Munich. After the war, what remained of it was converted to commercial use.
Hitler’s private two cars survived the war.
In the 1950’s the US Army took control of the cars and moved them on to an Army base near Berlin.
Souvenir hunters virtually took them apart in following years.
The plaque on one of the cars that said in German “Gemeinnutz Vor Eigennutz.” (the German interest before self). was taken to the US and sold to a private collector,
Trains also played a part in the most horrific acts perpetrated by Hitler’s regime – the “final solution”.
Holocaust trains run by the Deutsche Reichsbahn national railway system were used to forcibly deport Jews, as well as other victims of the Holocaust, to Nazi concentration, forced labour, and extermination camps.
More than 1,600 trains were organised by the German Transport Ministry. The now infamous Auschwitz was the destination for many.
According to Hedi Enghelberg in The trains of the Holocaust (2013), between 1941 and December 1944, the official date of closing of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, the transport/arrival timetable was of 1.5 trains per day: 50 freight cars × 50 prisoners per freight car × 1,066 days = 4,000,000 prisoners in total.
No document created by Nazi officials recorded how many people were killed in the Holocaust or World War II, but historians have calculated that up to 6 million Jews died.
Around 200,000 railway employees were involved in the rail deportations and 10,000 to 20,000 were believed responsible for mass murders. The railwaymen were never prosecuted.
The town of Stepina in the south-east of Poland has one of the biggest railway shelters in the country; it was built to house Hitler’s train and other Nazi trains.
The complex consists of seven reinforced concrete structures and when in use there were many buildings, including guard towers, and bunkers.
It was self-sufficient in fuel, water supply, heating, electricity generation and air filtering.
The shelter, now a tourist attraction, is 386 m long, 14.5 m wide at the base and over 7 m high. Its walls are three to 4 m thick.
In 1941 the complex served as a meeting place of the Führer and the Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
In June 1944 as Soviet troops approached, the Germans ordered evacuation of the complex. The tunnel then served as a Soviet field hospital, an evacuation shelter, and even a mushroom production facility.
Tito’s Blue train
Josip Broz Tito, former president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was enthusiastic about train travel.
He had his own private luxury train built in 1959 and used it extensively until his death in 1980.
The train – known as the Blue Train – was used to entertain many famous guests when they visited Yugoslavia,
Guests at various times included India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, President Gaddafi of Libya, the Shah of Iran, President Ceausescu of Romania, President Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union to Queen Elizabeth.
They would have sat in the plush 28 red leather chairs around the long conference table in the state carriage.
Security was at a premium on Marshal Tito’s train trips. The railway line was usually heavily guarded. On a trip from Belgrade to Poland in 1646 soldiers were stationed along the line for 320 km. A train carrying his bodyguards travelled 20 minutes ahead. Another train followed behind, carrying Tito’s specially fitted out limousine, several other vehicles and food and drinks.
The train was made up of 10 “main train” carriages and eight wagons of the so called “the first train”.
“Main train” consisted of president’s lounge, ceremonial dining room, main kitchen, guest lounge, wagon restaurant, closed car carrier wagons, sleeping cars and energy distribution- cars. There were bathrooms, suites, and lots of leather and wood panelling.
Tito built railways, too.
He had the 476 km Belgrade-to-Bar railway completed in 1976. Work crews blasted through mountains from the former Yugoslav capital to the Adriatic coast in Montenegro.
The line took 23 years to build and included 254 tunnels and 435 bridges at a cost of 104 lives. The line passes over the Mala Rijeka viaduct, the tallest in Europe.
Belgrade, now the capital of Serbia, remains the home of Tito’s Blue Train, now operated on tourism services to Bar.
Tito has been described variously as a Yugoslav communist revolutionary and political leader, a benevolent dictator and an authoritarian style of president for life. He served in various roles from 1943 until his death in 1980.
President Tito, creator of modern Yugoslavia, was the first communist leader to break away from the Soviet Bloc and was nominal head of the non-aligned bloc.
Tito died in Ljubljana and his body was carried to Belgrade by his Blue Train. After his death, the carriages remained in a hanger in Belgrade for more than 20 years.
Eventually they were restored to their original splendour for scenic tours between the Serbian capital and the Montenegro coast.
Today, the travel firm Explore Montenegro offers a holiday package that includes a day-long trip on the so-called Blue Train. Maximum capacity is 110 passengers. The train is air conditioned, has steam heating and an on-board sound system.
Tito the dictator is sometimes referred to as a “benevolent” dictator. But he was ruthless and many would not remember him with fondness at all.
In addition to privately owned railway services that carry fare-paying travellers, several individual railway enthusiasts around the world own trains or carriages.
According to Bloomberg, about 80 people in the US. own their own railcars and are certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country.
Many trains, particularly locomotives, are in private ownership for preservation.
British music producer Pete Waterman was a trainspotter at Leamington Spa station as a lad. As an adult his passion for things railway continued. He has a collection of full-size steam and diesel locomotives through the Waterman Railway Heritage Trust. Some of the locomotives owned by the trust include: GWR 4575 class number 5553; GWR 5205 class number 5224; and GWR 5600 class number 6634.
Warterman also was involved in the restoration of the legendary Flying Scotsman.