The Ultimate in Railway Luxury: The Pullman Boat Train

For those of you out there who do those brilliant weekend breaks in Paris and travel on our wonderful Eurostar, this post is going to make you want to upgrade from standard to first class for your journey from London to Paris. You know what I mean, the lure of a little more leg room, better food, hopefully better service, maybe some complimentary champagne on boarding -just to smooth the journey ahead. That said, what this post will also make you realise is that no matter how many upgrades you pay for, the level of luxury you experience will not be what it used to be. 

Before the Eurostar, jet-aeroplanes and car-ferries, if you have money, you would have undertaken this journey aboard a train, the train service that got you to your channel ferry from London without stopping was called the Boat Train Express. Amongst the carriage that made up this train you would find ordinary third, second and first class carriages. First class was exclusive and expensive enough and a one way ticket would cost the average yearly wage of a farm labourer at the turn of the last century. But if you had serious money, and you enjoyed the very finest things in life, up at the front of the train you would find a collection of eye catching umber and cream coloured carriages, each with their own name with the word Pullman written in  gilded gold lettering across the roof. 


George Pullman
Named after its American pioneer, George Pullman, Pullman's were a hyper luxurious form of railway travel, offering a higher standard of comfort and service than even the First Class product offered by the railway companies at the time. For the people who could afford them, Pullman trains were like travelling hotel suites.  When international journeys took days, not hours, Pullman passengers could enjoy comfortable single armchairs, luxurious sleeping compartments, all of the compartments were of beautiful inlaid wood, individual reading lamps stood on highly polished tables, and each compartment had its own unique artwork on the walls.

If the passengers wanted a meal they did not have get up and go to a buffet car, there wasn’t one, each meal was served at the passenger’s own tables by white-coated stewards. The tables were set with starched white cloth, shining silverware and glittering crystal. Each meal was accompanied by fine wines and champagnes. When travelling to and from Dover in the evening a seven course dinner would be served typically consisting of: melon, hors d’oeuvres, fish, joint, sweet, dessert, coffee. A dinner such as this cost a supplement of five shillings, lunch was three and six and on early runs a full English breakfast for half a crown.

Passengers headed toward London from the Channel usually boarded in time for afternoon tea and champagne. A typical afternoon tea menu of a 1920s Pullman would include the obligatory selection of finger sandwiches, warm scones served with Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry jam; afternoon tea pastries; Crumpets (when they were in ‘season’) a choice of Indian, Chinese or Russian Tea or Columbian coffee.

The Dover Pullman leaving Victoria in 1925
During peak periods such as the Continental “seasons,” a full train of Pullmans may be required to facilitate the increased demand. Such trains would usually consist of nine to ten Pullman cars plus two 4-wheeled vans and two 6-wheeled trucks carrying the luggage. Each truck carries four sealed “boxes,” or containers, with the luggage registered through to destinations abroad, and at Dover these containers were hoisted off the trucks direct into the hold of the steamer and at Calais out on to corresponding trucks on the French Railway, thereby saving a great deal of handling time. Pullman passengers would not have to pass through the “customs,” but have their hand luggage examined on the train after leaving Calais.

In 1935 the cost of travelling from London to Calais aboard a Pullman was four pounds thirteen shillings and two pence (Roughly £300 in today’s money) this price did not include food. If passengers already held a first class ticket for another train doing the same journey they could pay a supplement (3 shillings and 6d in 1927) to upgrade to a Pullman carriage.

The service was simply known as the ‘Continental Boat Express’, until 1929 when the Southern Railway decided to introduce their first ever ‘all-fist-class’ Pullman train called ‘The Golden Arrow’. This train usually consisted of 10 first class Pullman cars and purpose-built all-fist-class ferry called the ‘Canterbury’ was constructed to carry Golden Arrow passengers across the channel. Because of the impact of air travel and 'market forces' on the underlying economy, ordinary first- and third-class carriages were added in 1931. Similarly the first-class-only ferry, Canterbury, was modified to allow other classes of passenger.

The rapid expansion during the 1960’s of private motoring and the introduction of new car ferry ships and hovercraft across the Channel, plus the expansion of air services between London and Paris, led to a decline in use. The final service of the ‘Golden Arrow’ ran on 30th September 1972. Some of the Pullman cars that once ran on the ‘Golden Arrow’ have been restored and are now in use in the English portion of the "Venice-Simplon Orient Express", running over much the same route as they did in the past.