Memories : Carlisle Railway Station, 1988

It’s July 1988 and we’re standing on Platform 3 at Carlisle Railway Station. Alongside is the Kensington to Stirling InterCity service, which, as well as pulling the passenger carriages packed with happy holidaymakers heading for Scotland, is a Motorail service taking some of their cars up there too. In doing so, British Rail is letting the train take the strain for a number of lucky tourists…

Motorail, Carlisle 1988
Motorail, Carlisle 1988 (image: Wikipedia)

The Motorail service was introduced to great fanfare in 1955, and was put in place to meet the growing demand for big family holidays. With car usage ballooning, Motorail provided the perfect opportunity to combine the two by allowing drivers to enjoy the freedoms that their cars brought while on holiday without the grind of the tough drive north on the A1 or A6 – depending on your route to Scotland.

In its early years, Motorail was infinitely preferable to driving up north, and remained successful until the mid-1970s. However, as Ian Nicholls spells out in his excellent Roads versus Rail, the arrival of the motorways from 1958/59 and improvements in vehicle technology blunted the advantage of Motorail rapidly. By the 1980s, end-to-end drives were a lot more comfortable thanks to the near-universal adoption of five-speed gearboxes and more refined drivetrains.

Throughout its life, it’s been said that Motorail was never particularly profitable, and proved a costly way to ship your car from one end of the country to the other. However, it still managed to operate between 1955 and 2005, with services mainly clustered around the West and East Coast mainlines – in the end, the motorways and five-speed gearboxes killed it. I’d love to go on one today, though.

So, tell us about the cars

Pausing in Carlisle is a nice breather for weary travellers – not from any discomfort on the train, but through craning their necks enjoying the stunning Lake District scenery as the service wends its way through Cumbria. But it’s going to get better once it gets going again, as the train travels through the Borders on its way towards Glasgow and the mountains beyond.

It’s a shame we can’t see more of the cars on this service, but there are enough on view to get a good handle on what the family man of 1988 drove. Nearest the camera is a Ford Escort Mk3 with some once-fashionable stick-on chrome on a roll embellishing its wheelarch. Ahead of that is an Austin Maxi 2, which is wearing a mis-matched pair of plastic door protectors (again, they were once a popular accessory) to protect its beige flanks.

Other cars include an almost-new Toyota Carina, a Daihatsu Charade, a Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 hatchback, a Rover SD1 Series 2 and an Austin Maestro HLE, with its highly-recognisable aerodynamic strakes plunging down its tailgate. It’s a less-than interesting collection of cars in absolute terms but, equally, it’s great to get a snapshot of what we were all driving back in the late-1980s – it was a very different landscape to what we have today.

If you enjoyed this, let us know in the comments or drop me a line via any of the links below.

Keith Adams


  1. My grandfather was a great user of motorail, using it least once a year to see our relatives in Scotland. It is shame that it’s not around today as I would certinaley use it, as it would take the stress of the 7 hr + jaulnt up there and you wouldn’t feel knackered still the next day, let alone the mileage on the car.

  2. Living in Basingstoke there used to be a Brockenhurst to Scotland Motorrail service that connected two holiday centres,going even further back in time a car carrying train that ran from Surbiton to well. Only recently has SNCF abandoned it’s Motorail services to the Mediterranean coast but in the US Amtrak continues to run it’s Auto Train from DC to Florida.. Another factor in Motorail’s demise has been the rise of low cost airlines and cheaper car rental at airports which has removed the need for motorist’s to take their own car on holiday

  3. Carlisle is the neatest mainline station to me, and platform 2, just out of the photo, is where I arrive from Whitehaven when I use the train. Always liked it as a station as it resembles a castle and the buffet on platform 3 has kept most of its Victorian features. Do remember Motorail trains from the eighties and the southbound one used to go through Platform 4 every afternoon.
    Nowadays I doubt such a train would be economic to many motorists, considering a return fate woild prpbably be £ 150 with charges for transporting a car from London to the Highlands. My Skoda Fabia averages 58 mpg on a,long journey and a return trip from London to Fort William would cost £90.

  4. When I was living in Kensington (“naturally” – as Michael Flanders has it in his introduction to “the gnu song”), I had digs in a Victorian house owned by Michael Winner (more name dropping: it was divided into bedsits; one tenant was a Helen Ferguson, a Page Three girl!) that overlooked Kensington Olympia station. I well recall the Motorail services.

  5. As we face an Electric future, perhaps Motorail could be one way of dealing with range anxiety? Letting the train do the heavy lifting over long distances. The train heat supply could even be employed to make sure cars arrive at the terminal fully charged.

    • You were doing so well until the third sentence. The last time the rail industry had any “joined up thinking” was 1996 – a bold and good idea though.

  6. That Maxi was an amazing condition considering it would have been at least 7 years old and must have been well looked after.
    Carlisle always was quite an interesting station back then, as you still had the first generation DMUs on the Cumbrian Coast Line and services to Dumfries, the then new Pacers and Sprinters on Tyne Valley services, locomotive hauled services to Leeds with Mark 1 corridor stock, and Inter City services in the new livery hauled by Class 86 and 87 locomotives, which would last into the 21st century.

  7. I don’t think the photo shows an overnight service to Edinburgh or Fort William. The station appears to be in daylight and the clock shows approx. 15.35.
    I believe there was a daylight service from Kensington to Stirling which this might be.

  8. The only time I saw a motorail was while I was on a train going out of Euston.

    It was travelling in the opposite direction with a Class 8 shunter giving it a push at the rear.

    • Regular sight every afternoon at Carlisle in the eighties, I can remember using the old buffet next to platform 4 and watching the northbound Motorail arrive. Always an interesting station to visit for the huge variety of trains and also a station that connected with most of Britain, in 1987 it was still possible to catch a train to Harwich Patkeston Quay for the ferries to Europe from Carlisle.

      • The train I was thinking of was called The European and I used it twice in 1986 to 1987 to go to Sheffield. Quite a thrash of a journey to get to Harwich as it went through Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Peterborough, a later version used the WCML and the North London Line to get to Harwich before being axed in 1988.

  9. I vaguely remember Motorail in the 1970s and the press adverts for it. I think I saw some cars at Newcastle being driven onto the carriages and thought it looked novel – modern cars of the day taking the train! It would save stress on the car drivers though.

    Similar to the Passenger / Car Ferries from Hull taking motorists across to Holland or Belgium without driving to Dover etc

  10. Hatchback paradise!

    I assume there were strict height limits for which vehicles could use the Motorail service, I imagine a few SUVs would be borderline for height now!

    • I don’t know about that, but I do remember travelling on the SNCF version once and watching them load a Range Rover. They had a sort of plywood loading gauge on the upper deck of the train to check whether vehicles would (presumably) foul bridges and tunnels on the route. The RR struck the loading gauge. There was a pause. The shunter driving the RR got out and pushed the gauge out of the way. The RR was still on the train when we got to Paris the following morning.

  11. I remember chrome on a roll – had it put on my Cherry Coupe and it set the car off nicely (I think anyway!)

    Cars like some Cav MK1 & Cortina’s of the day had chrome wheel arch trims too. These days most SUVs and Crossovers seem to get black plastic trim wheel arches.

      • That’s a good reason! The factory fitted chrome arches were metal and i think that was a point of further corrosion as the cars got older. The ones on my car were plastic self adhesive and I didn’t encounter any such issues luckily…

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