by Phil Marsh

Preserved railway heritage diesel gala season is here

Published: 22nd April 2015

We look at the preserved railway events with a difference

So far as passenger trains are concerned, diesel locomotive haulage on the main line is virtually a thing of the past and can now best be experienced on a heritage railway. Therefore, many such railways feature at least one weekend each year devoted to trains hauled by diesels.

Galas big and small

Such events are often referred to as diesel galas, but the size and scope of these occasions varies considerably from railway to railway, showing as much variety as do the railways themselves.

In some cases, advertised diesel events are very low-key affairs, comprising a few resident diesel shunters running in place of the usual steam loco, but nevertheless providing something different for the traveller and photographer.

The next example of this is at The Chinnor & Princes Railway where a diesel gala is being held on April 26. There is a free connecting vintage bus service from Princes Risborough station to Chinnor for this event.

On other lines, a good example of which is the Swanage Railway, the annual event is a major occasion spread over several days. Each year in May, Swanage features a wide and interesting selection of locos from other railways all over the country which come to the railway for the weekend. Many of these arrive together by rail in convoy hauled by a loco that is passed for main line operation. They enter the Swanage Railway via its connection with the national network near Wareham.

Most years, the visiting locos include at least one making its debut heading trains on a heritage railway following acquisition and/or restoration. This year’s event is on May 8-10 and as ever, is a top priority for diesel enthusiasts to attend.

Visiting locos

Most of the other bigger railways with main line connections, which enable them to stage events with visiting locos, have diesel galas at least one weekend each season. These include the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, East Lancashire Railway, Great Central Railway, Midland Railway-Butterley, Mid-Norfolk Railway, Nene Valley Railway, North Norfolk Railway, North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Severn Valley Railway, Spa Valley Railway and the West Somerset Railway.

On the other hand, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, one of the first heritage lines to introduce such an event every year and which became a premier occasion every summer, no longer hosts a diesel weekend.

Another big classic traction event added to the calendar in recent years is at the Didcot Railway Centre. This is held two weeks after the Swanage Railway’s gala on May 25. There is also a 1940s heritage diesel unit weekend on April 25 and 26.

Although only a short demonstration line is available on which the locos take it in turns to perform, an interesting photogenic opportunity is provided throughout the day with the locos posed in front to the traditional GWR steam shed. This takes place on May 23-25.

Main line locos included

It is not only historic classes from the past that appear at diesel galas. Today’s freight companies often send along examples from their current fleet giving the public the chance to examine at close quarters (and ride behind) locos not so easily observed on the network. These can include the very latest examples, such as the brand-new DRS Class 68.

Goods trains

Diesels also operate demonstration goods trains offering interesting scenarios for photographers and sometimes also offer an unusual ride for passengers paying a little extra to travel in the brake van. The Avon Valley is able to timetable such a train to run back and forth throughout the day, while the West Somerset Railway, for instance, confines this to very early in the day only, to avoid delaying the all-important passenger services.

Mixed traction events

Some railways advertise their galas as ‘mixed traction’. This means both steam and diesel power is used. A thought is that members of the public turning up unaware of the operation of diesels that day may be disappointed if there is not a steam loco available to haul their train.

DMU galas

This is a more recent development by some railways, most notably the Llangollen Railway, East Lancs Railway, and Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, in which heritage DMUs (diesel multiple units) take centre stage. There are many people interested in this type of vehicle, which is no longer available on the main line, where passengers can view the scenery through the front and rear cabs.

Beer festivals and other events

Even the most enthusiastic of railways like to ensure maximum patronage for diesel galas and these can be held in conjunction with another event to attract visitors. The Swanage Railway for example, holds its annual beer festival the same weekend as the diesel event, while others may have a vintage car weekend perhaps. The Avon Valley Railway is holding its 12th annual Bitton Beer festival on June 5 and 6.

‘Out-of-season’ events

Most major diesel events are held in the early or later part of the season, and not in the high season summer months when steam is very much to the fore and the railways are well patronised by family visitors. The diesel gala is seen as attracting additional enthusiasts during the quieter periods of the spring and autumn.

Visiting public

It is generally accepted that the majority of people visiting heritage railways are the general public with families, and not railway enthusiasts as such. This market is thought to be mainly interested in steam traction and don’t expect to find ‘modern traction’ on a preserved railway.

The percentage of enthusiast visitors to diesel galas is invariably greater than for the railway’s other events. However, the diesel fan is usually keen to travel on the railway to get ‘haulage’ by the various locos and therefore buys an all-day rover ticket providing the railway with good income that day. This contrasts with the image that some railway managers appear to have of steam enthusiasts, believing they only wish to stand lineside and take photographs.

However, if a diesel event has not been visited before it is well worth considering as there is so much variety to be found in these locos. Despite what many might say, they are not ‘lifeless boxes on wheels’. Locos such as ‘Deltics’, Class 40s, 37 and 20s in particular, sound really good, even when just standing still in the station as their engines tick over demonstrating latent power. When they started up and pull away they can be as exciting as any sizzling steam loco, whether you are on board, or observing from the lineside.

Checking details

Those travelling to heritage railways should always check beforehand as to what might be running the day of their intended visit. Either to ensure diesels are running if such an event appeals, or not, if they are to be avoided. Such information is available on the railway’s timetable leaflet, its website or Facebook account.

External Links

Liverpool street station in the UK at rush hour

Help and advice with train travel in the UK

Train travel in the UK should be a pleasure, not a headache. So if you’re taking a train on the UK railway, start your journey here. We’ve lots of hints, tips and advice to help you find your way around, travel smoothly and arrive in style by train.

Read more

eurostars passing at 375mph from the drivers seat in france


Welcome to our #railchat page. Our #railchat discussions take place over on Twitter, with our resident expert Phil Marsh. If you would like to get involved, please do join us, and use the dedicated hashtag #railchat. See our previous discussions below:

Read more

Old steam train in Shanty Town Museum

Locomotives & Engines

Our rail network would be nothing without them. From Stephenson's Rocket to British Rail Class 92 and beyond, explore the facts, information and anecdotes behind the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that built the age of the train.

Read more


Latest Tweets


Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh to London Kings Cross by Train

Book in advance with and save 85% advanced bookings.

From £21.00

Buy now

Millenium Dome, London

Birmingham New Street to London Euston by Train

Book in advance with and save 92% on advance bookings.

From £6

Buy now

You may also like...



Follow us on Twitter and become part of our rail community! is the easy way to buy cheap train tickets online.



Control your business fuel costs with a supermarket fuel card – free to apply, no ongoing account charges and no monthly minimum spend.