Like the steamboats before them, railways first looked to cater for well-heeled passengers and quickly saw that there was money to be made from pleasure excursions. The Liverpool and Manchester were running excursion trains less than two weeks after the line opened. For most ordinary folk, the excursion train provided the earliest opportunity for railway travel. In 1836 a special train took sightseers to enjoy a public execution in Bodmin and in 1840, 24 thousand people went by excursion train for Glasgow to Paisley for a race meeting. Rail excursion to prize fights became a minor industry.
In 1841 Thomas Cook took 500 people from Leicester to attend a temperance fete in Loughborough. He charged just one shilling (5p) and included food in the price. Excursion trains were often astonishingly long. On an August Sunday in 1844, 1,710 excursionists went from London to Brighton in 240 carriages. Looking back on those days Thomas Hardy wrote:
"Crowds of people had flocked to all the stations on the way up to witness the unwonted sight of so long a train's passage, even where they did not take advantage of the opportunity it offered. The seats for the humbler class of travellers in these early experiments in steam-locomotion, were open trucks, without any protection whatever from the wind and rain; and damp weather having set in with the afternoon, the unfortunate occupants of these vehicles were, on the train drawing up at the London terminus, found to be in a pitiable condition from their long journey; blue-faced, stiff-necked, sneezing, rain-beaten, chilled to the marrow, many of the men being hatless; in fact, they resembled people who had been out all night in an open boat on a rough sea, rather than inland excursionists for pleasure. The women had in some degree protected themselves by turning up the skirts of their gowns over their heads, but as by this arrangement they were additionally exposed about the hips, they were all more or less in a sorry plight." [Life's Little Ironies, pub 1893]
Passengers travelling in open wagons were in real danger of exposure. Outside passengers on stage coaches sometimes died of exposure but railway speed increased wind-chill. John Jonathan travelled from Bristol in March 1845 and when the train reached Bath he was almost dead. He was carried form station premises and left outside to die.
Some excursions travelled agonisingly slowly. The first excursion from Oxford to London did not reach London until 4pm and had to return immediately. Despite the discomfort people thronged to take the opportunity of travelling. By 1850 Fleetwood, Blackpool, Scarborough, Weston-Super-Mare, Torquay and Eastbourne had all been linked to the rail network and a long period began during which railways and steamboats were dominant features in the growing holiday trade.