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Pilgrims' progress

Pilgrims arriving at Lourdes station: photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

Since the apparitions seen by Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, Lourdes in south-west France has developed into a world-renowned place of pilgrimage. A grotto, waters with curative powers, healing and reported miracles created local interest in pilgrimage in the 1860s. This widened to a national and international phenomenon in the 1870s. In 1878, the Orleans Railway in France ran special trains to Lourdes for over 12,000 pilgrims. By 1884 that figure had risen to 25,000. In 1892 thirteen special trains were run from Paris for pilgrims. A report from August 1895 talks of fourteen pilgrims’ trains arriving at Lourdes station within eight hours. In 1900, Lourdes received around 608,000 pilgrims in the months between March and October.

Lourdes pilgrims from Britain started to use special pilgrimage trains in 1901. In September that year, a train with over 100 pilgrims left the London, Chatham & Dover Railway's Holborn Viaduct station for Dover and the daytime ferry. Paris was reached by 7 p.m. that evening followed by an overnight stay and night train the following evening to Lourdes. Bear in mind that Lourdes is 700 miles from Calais and over 1,000 miles from some British points of departure. In the summer months, British pilgrims on trains in France found the heat hard to cope with, apart from discomfort in crowded and rough-riding vehicles.

The Great War interrupted British pilgrimage traffic but it resumed in the 1920s. In 1925, the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) laid on a special pilgrimage train from Carlisle, Preston and Liverpool to give pilgrims led by the Archbishop of Liverpool six days in Lourdes and one day in France’s second pilgrimage town of Lisieux for £10.15s. In 1928 the first LMS pilgrimage train from Leeds and Sheffield with 300 pilgrims aboard, including up to 50 stretcher cases and 20 priests, left the Yorkshire stations with large crowds singing hymns as the trains were loaded and moved away. By 1930, the numbers of pilgrims leaving London Victoria on one day required three trains, a special ferry and three trains from Calais. The three trains were identified by colour - the "white" train for those unable to walk; the "blue" train for an Archbishop, three bishops and the less helpless, and the "pink" auxiliary train. Nuns, nurses and doctors attended all trains along with volunteer carers. Male volunteers called "brancardiers" (stretcher bearers) and female helpers known as handmaids were always available. 1938 was reported as a record year for Lourdes which received a total of 800,000 pilgrims by train, representing about half of the total visitor numbers.

Pilgrimage traffic to Lourdes resumed after the 1939 - 45 war. In July 1949 a 14-coach train with almost 600 pilgrims led by the Archbishop of Edinburgh left the city’s Princes Street station. Three of the coaches for 64 sick pilgrims were marked with large red crosses. Seven carriages contained two stretcher cases each. Two doctors and two nurses with access to medical equipment travelled with the party. In the same month, two trains with a total of 800 pilgrims left Glasgow for Folkestone. A week later another train from Glasgow and Motherwell was seen off at the latter station by 700 people singing hymns. But by 1950, competing flights and coach journeys were being arranged. However, at the same time stretcher facilities were still being incorporated into newly-built British Railways (BR) coaching stock. Former boat train coaches were also converted for pilgrimage traffic by BR in 1959 to take eleven seated passengers and 24 cots.

The new four-car electric corridor buffet units (4-BEP) and four-car electric corridor units (4-CEP) were built by BR to Mark One coaching stock designs in the late 1950s. These units were numerous on BR Southern Region and served routes and Channel port stations with third rail access. Some units were fitted with the stretcher window in one second class compartment in one coach. This inward-opening window was secured by three aluminium handles, but the seals reportedly leaked causing damage to the compartment interiors. Many stretcher windows were subsequently replaced with a fixed window.

By the late 1960s, and in the face of intense competition from air and road transport, BR was still planning to handle a modest amount of pilgrimage traffic from across Great Britain to Channel ports for BR “Sealink” brand ferries to France and trains onwards to Lourdes. In 1968 season, between 6,000 and 7,000 train and ferry pilgrims were anticipated. “Sealink” cross-Channel ferries were in BR ownership until 1984 so pilgrimage traffic was a valuable part of BR's land and sea business. There were still a limited number of BR ambulance or ward cars running at the time and either one or two would be marshalled into a pilgrims’ train to take the most infirm passengers. But these specialist vehicles were nearing the end of their lives and rolling stock managers were calling for them to be scrapped on grounds of maintenance costs. Another factor in the diminishing railway pilgrimage traffic was the effect of the 1967 devaluation which hit passenger numbers and revenue hard. Eventually in Britain, special rail vehicles for pilgrims died out although there's no doubt that pilgrims who are able to use British trains, ferries and Eurostar continue to do so in preference to flying. While Lourdes continues to receive over four million visitors each year, for some pilgrims at least their way continues to be by rail.

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum.

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