Heritage railways (or railroads) are railway operations that are not part of mainstream rail travel.
Oriented mostly towards historical railways, heritage train travel is usually short in length; many of these train operators are attached to museums, associated with heritage of a region or location. In many cases, heritage railways are the last bastion of working steam locomotives in their respective countries.
Railways spread across most continents in the 19th and early 20th century, as the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, and heritage railways are an integral part of industrial tourism.
Some countries and operators take their role seriously to the point of generous funding, facilities and operational concessions to heritage railways.
Always check in advance as to operating times and seasons, as smaller museums and steam travel in many countries are severely restricted seasonal operations. Many of these lines are run by volunteers or staffed by summer students, leading to annual, seasonal changes of their days of operation. Not all countries provide English as a language for tourist railway information.
In most countries, railways have been built by a mixture of private and public capital and have been subject to various amounts of government oversight and regulation. In the UK for instance, every new railway had to get parliamentary approval, even if it did not plan to spend a single shilling of public money. While state actors often took political or military considerations into account, leading to lines that were not designed either to minimize construction costs or to maximize revenue, private operators usually tried for one or both. Beginning in the 1830s, there were several "railway manias" in which lines were built that had no chance of ever meeting the ridership required to deliver the promised return on shares. While a great many fortunes were lost, the lines were - if built - still able to return an operating profit and thus mostly remained in service until the advent of the automobile.
However, once the railways got competition from cars and buses and later from aviation, the writing was on the wall for many of those marginal lines. Some had never carried all that many passengers or freight and private operators could not turn a profit on them let alone pay interest on investment. Some were taken over by state actors and starting in the 1960s and 1970s countries in the East Bloc actually maintained railways that would have been shut down in the West as a means to cut down on foreign oil consumption and save hard currency, but in almost all of the west, railways were shut down, services replaced with buses and lines converted to other uses - often bike paths, but sometimes - in an almost symbolic twist of fate - roads. A small few of those lines however, were taken over by enthusiasts - sometimes with active help, sometimes with tacit approval, sometimes in spite of outright hostility of former owners and state authorities - who started running steam engines (original to the line or brought in from elsewhere) for both their own enjoyment and for tourists.
While many countries in Latin America had sparse networks to begin with, shutdowns and economic woes have left some entirely without a modern railway network and even where tracks still exist, there is nothing approaching modern mainline passenger rail. Unfortunately, there was little interest and capital to preserve former mainline railways upon their shutdown and thus many lines - even some that represent engineering marvels on par with the great alpine crossings - have laid dormant or been abandoned and left to other uses for decades. Even some nominal "state railways" in these countries are more aptly called heritage railways or at least tourist railways. However, with a slow but steady resurgence of rail in many countries, some lines are actually being restored or converted from heritage to mainline service with even tenuous signs of ambitious new construction.
In some countries regulations were different for lines of the (local) standard gauge versus lines in narrow gauge and thus marginal lines were built in narrow gauge to cut costs. Narrow gauge lines were rarely modernized and even if they still functioned as "regular" lines after the advent of the automobile, investments like electrification or dieselization rarely occurred (Swiss narrow gauge railways are one big exception to this rule), preserving them in an outdated but often touristically attractive state. This often coincided with the first voices clamoring for preservation of lines that did not have a business case for them any more. In Britain a huge part of the network was shut down in one fell swoop in the 1960s (the "Beeching cuts" or "Beeching Axe"), but locomotives and cars were not immediately scrapped thus enabling many heritage lines to start out with decent equipment that has often been maintained in near original condition to this day.
- There are almost 2 dozen steam locomotives in daily use. While technically part of the national public transport network and can be used for normal commuting, they are mostly used for tourist purposes.
- The Orient Express sleeper train cars of the 1920s and 1930s era have been placed back into service as the "Venice Simplon Orient Express", a seasonal tourist train. Only one run annually (in each direction) makes the full Paris-Istanbul trip; others run from Paris (or London) to Venice. While luxurious, this train is expensive and slower than the multiple modern trains required to complete the same route.
- Germany has a number of historic railways some of them in scenic landscapes like Franconian Switzerland or the East Frisian islands.
- Historically Saxony was a bastion of narrow gauge railways and while most were shut down or regauged, some survive as heritage railways. Most of the surviving railways go through beautiful landscapes in the Saxon Ore Mountains and primarily serve touristic purposes nowadays. Another line goes from Radebeul to Moritzburg with a Schloss in the latter the main draw for tourists.
- The Harz contains Europe's largest steam railway. As a matter of fact it has expanded in the 21st century, acquiring and regauging disused tracks from Deutsche Bahn.
Most of Luxembourg's heritage railways can be found in the Land of the Red Rocks. Here you will find the following:
- Musée National des Mines de Fer Luxembourgeoises in Rumelange features a ride on a narrow-gauge railway into the mines, along with a tour of the mines.
- In Fond de Gras is a station that only services heritage trains to Pétange and Lasauvage, the latter of which is a town focused on telling its history to those that visit.
- See also: Rail travel in the Netherlands
- The S·T·A·R museum railway between Stadskanaal and Veendam in the Veenkoloniën region of Groningen province.
- The Stoomtram Hoorn-Medemblik is a steam tram route that can be combined with a steam boat taking you to Enkhuizen.
- The Veluwsche Stoomtrein Maatschappij runs a 22 km-long track between Apeldoorn and Dieren.
- The former GOLS-line between Enschede and Doetinchem is still served once or twice per week by the Museum Buurtspoorweg. Only the section of track between Haaksbergen and Boekelo remains.
A publication called Railways Restored, published by Ian Allen, contains detailed listings for a number of heritage railways in the UK, some of the more prominent lines are listed below:
All standard gauge unless otherwise stated.
- Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park, Sussex.
- Severn Valley Railway
- West Somerset Railway
- Keighley & Worth Valley Railway
- North Norfolk Railway or Poppy Line
- Churnet Valley Railway
- Kent & East Sussex
- South Devon Railway, runs from Totnes to Buckfastleigh.
- Dartmouth Steam Railway
- Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, Cheltenham, England
All standard gauge unless stated.
- Steam service are operated seasonaly on the West Highland Railway
- Caledonian Ralilway, Brechin
- Strathspey Railway, Aviemore
- Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, Bo'ness
- Keith and Dufftown Railway
All narrow gauge unless stated.
- Bala Lake Railway.
- Brecon Mountain Railway.
- Ffestiniog Railway. Built to use gravity and horse power.
- Gwili Railway. Unusual in that it is a standard gauge where the others listed here are all narrow gauge railways.
- Llanberis Lake Railway.
- Snowdon Mountain Railway. Perhaps the best known of all.
- Talyllyn Railway. The world's first heritage railway.
- Vale of Rheidol Railway. Runs from Aberystwyth to Devil's Bridge.
- Welsh Highland Railway.
- Welshpool and Llanfair Railway.
- See also Tourist trains#Historic and museum trains, Rail travel in Canada and Rail travel in the United States.
- Fraser Valley Heritage Railway, Surrey. Operates an interurban car of the British Columbia Electric Railway, plus speeders and velocipedes.
- Nelson Electric Tramway, Nelson. Restored streetcar #23 operates along a 1.2-kilometre (0.75 mi) waterfront line.
- Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton/South. Fort Edmonton Park is a historical theme park that operates a steam train line and a streetcar line. The streetcar line goes through the middle of two streets in the park. Both lines use vintage equipment.
- High Level Bridge Streetcar, Edmonton. Summer service mostly in the afternoon. Vintage streetcars operate over the pictoresque North Saskatchewan River valley via the High Level Bridge. The line provides tourists with a direct link between the Alberta Legislature and Old Strathcona. Inexpensive fare.
- Heritage Park Historical Village, Calgary. Heritage Park is a historical theme park that operates a steam train line within the park. There is also a streetcar line to act as a shuttle between parking lots and the park entrance. The steam line uses vintage equipment and operates whenever the park is open. The streetcar line uses replica trams and might not operate every day.
- Halton County Radial Railway, Rockwood, Ontario (16 km (10 mi) east of Guelph (Ontario)). A museum with 1.5 km (0.93 mi) rail line to operate various old urban and interurban trams.
- Port Stanley Terminal Rail, Port Stanley (Ontario) (south of London (Ontario)). The railway operates with four historic diesel electric locomotives from the 1940s and 1950s and nine passenger cars.
- South Simcoe Railway, Tottenham, Ontario (NW of Toronto). Steam train running through Beeton Creek Valley.
- Waterloo Central Railway, St. Jacobs (Ontario) (north of Waterloo (Ontario)). A historic steam or diesel locomotive draws a train of historic passenger cars between St. Jacobs Market and Elmira (Ontario).
- York–Durham Heritage Railway, 19 Railway St, Uxbridge (Ontario) (NE of Toronto). The railway operates diesel-operated, excursion trains over a 20 km (12 mi) route between Stouffville and Uxbridge. The round trip takes approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes.
United States of America
- Chehalis-Centralia Railroad, Washington state — steam train
- Little River Railroad, Coldwater, Michigan — steam train
- The Texas State Railroad is a historic (1881-1921) twenty-five mile railway between Rusk and Palestine (Texas) USA with a mix of steam and diesel trains.
- In the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake; there's also a train in Old Forge.
- Maria Fumaça - steam locomotive between Ouro Preto and Mariana, in central Minas Gerais.
- Serra Verde Express - single-car tourist train descending from Curitiba to Morretes (low season) or Paranaguá (high season), in Paraná.
- Tourist trains have some overlap, though they are often distinct in being for profit and offer even less transportation value. Their historical accuracy may be even more lacking.
- Enthusiast rail travel#Museums. In some countries heritage railways are limited in function due to seasonal/weather constraints - however many heritage railways have static museum displays incorporated to compensate for out of season visitors.