The Jellicoe Express, the dedicated railway service established during World War One to transport navy personnel throughout the country, is being commemorated with a programme of plaque-unveilings to coincide with the visit of a steam-hauled train to Scotland.
From the beginning of World War One, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet was based at Scapa Flow, Orkney, one of several naval bases in Scotland, which made it imperative that personnel could be readily transported between there, London and other destinations. Rail was the only transport at that time capable of moving large numbers around the country; air and road transport were simply not advanced enough, nor could roads cope with such heavy and sustained movement. The only other option, by sea, was slower, not as direct and also risky given the U-boat menace.
With the civilian operated railways unable to cope with the strain of so many extra wartime travelers, a dedicated railway service for the Navy was set up to run daily direct from Euston Station, London to Thurso, stopping at several main stations and linking up with services from other parts of the country.
The route ran over 717 miles, making it Britain’s longest ever train journey. The only other time it operated was in World War Two. It became known as the Jellicoe Express after Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the Commander of the Grand Fleet at the outbreak of World War One. It was from Scapa Flow that he led his ships out to fight the German High Sea Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in June 1916. By the time the naval train service began he had been appointed First Sea Lord, a post he held from November 1916 until January 1918.
Initially run by the London and North Western Railway, the Caledonian Railway and the Highland Railway, the Jellicoe Express began service on 15th February 1917. A major flaw soon emerged for Rosyth bound personnel, as the ‘Caley’s’ route was non-stop from Carlisle to Perth. From 21st May 1917 the Carlisle – Perth section was run by the North British Company, along the Waverley Line into Edinburgh, stopping at Inverkeithing near Rosyth, before continuing on to Perth.
The route was established as: Euston, Crewe, Preston, Carlisle, Hawick (northbound), Galashiels (southbound), Edinburgh, Inverkeithing, Perth, Inverness, Dingwall, Invergordon, Alness, Helmsdale, Forsinard, Thurso. The journey time north was 21 hours 30 minutes and the journey time south was 22 hours 20 minutes. It left Euston in summer at 6.00pm (winter 3.00pm) and arrived in Thurso the following day at 3.30pm., 717 miles later! It is credited with carrying 475,000 persons between 15th February 1917 and 30th April 1919 as well as carrying the fleet’s mail.
At many of the stops refreshments were provided on the platform by volunteers and at Perth the Patriot Barrow operated 24 hours a day. At Dingwall, the Red Cross is reported to have served more than 134,864 cups of tea on the platform during World War One.
During the whole period the Jellicoe Express ran, the Admiralty kept exact records for each and every train, including the number of passengers picked up and the number of minutes by which each train was late or early. These returns were laid before the railway companies to maintain punctuality. Apart from delays due to weather and accidents, or causes outwith the companies’ control, it was very rarely late.
The first plaque unveiling ceremony will take place at Edinburgh Waverley on Sunday 30th April, before the steam train departs at 9.37am. The plaque will be erected next to the railway memorial boards in the station at the bottom of the stairs opposite platform 11.
A second ceremony will take place at Inverkeithing, after the train passes through the station without stopping. It will continue on via Dundee and Perth to Inverness, where it will stop overnight.
On Monday 1st May, a ceremony will take place at Inverness ahead of the train’s departure at 11.10 am for an excursion to the Kyle of Lochalsh. The next ceremony will take place at Dingwall after the train stops there at 11.48 am for nine minutes. On 2nd May the train leaves Inverness at around 11.30 for Perth. It is due there at 3.30pm where it changes engines before departing again at 4.40pm, between which the Perth plaque unveiling and ceremony will take place.