Steam trains face end of the line in Britain after row over slamming doors (2024)

Some of Britain’s last steam trains are in danger of disappearing from the railways following a row over the door locks on 60-year-old carriages.

West Coast Railways, the biggest operator of steam and classic diesel trains on the national network, said its business was in the balance following the move by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to scrap an exemption that allowed it to use traditional hinged-door carriages.

The safety watchdog banned the popular steam-hauled Jacobite train service – dubbed the “Hogwarts Express” for its appearance in the Harry Potter franchise – in January because the doors on its 60-year-old carriages don’t have central locking. The ORR was concerned that passengers could open the doors themselves while the train was moving, risking injury.

The ban threatens not just the Hogwarts Express, which has run every summer for 30 years along the West Highland line, but also many of West Coast Railways’s other historic trains.

The company operates 60pc of all main line heritage rolling stock in the UK, comprising 125 coaches. Fitting new locks across the fleet would cost an estimated £7m, a bill that commercial manager James Shuttleworth said was both unjustified and beyond its resources.

A cross-party group of MPs backing West Coast have written to Rail Minister Huw Merriman urging him to engage with the ORR on the matter and warning that regulators operating unchecked “have the capacity to bring business they regulate to a quick end”.

Mr Shuttleworth said: “Nobody is saying they want to compromise on safety, but we’ve got to keep the historic ambience of the old carriages. Otherwise nobody will want to travel in the first place.’’

Mr Shuttleworth added that the Hogwarts Express had “become a key part of the Highland economy.”

The Jacobite train runs 300 services a year along the 41-mile route between Fort William and Mallaig, carrying a total of 110,000 passengers.

Most are drawn by the association with the Harry Potter films: a lunchtime Scotrail service deposited 70 people in Mallaig last week, according to Mr Shuttleworth, whereas West Coast’s two daily trips typically bring in 700.

A petition to save the Jacobite begun by a business woman who runs the Harry Potter merchandise outlet Haggard Alley in Mallaig has attracted more than 3,000 signatures in a week.

The loss of the Hogwarts Express would cost an estimated £25m a year in lost tourism revenue, depriving the Highlands not only of rail passengers but thousands of other visitors who flock to Glenfinnan to watch the steam engine and its rake of vintage coaches traverse the famous viaduct. A three-coach Scotrail diesel unit is unlikely to have the same allure.

West Coast lost a High Court appeal over the ORR’s ruling last December and the regulator is now considering a revised application from the rail company to resume operations.

The company has also requested a temporary licence to permit Jacobite operations over the summer, but with the regulator not expected to respond for several months at least half the season has already been lost.

In the meantime, West Coast has been forced to fully refund passengers who bought tickets for the Hogwarts Express. Some 77,000 tickets costing between £55 and £98 apiece were already sold for a season that should have started last month, meaning more than £4m must be returned to customers.

West Coast said it has been singled out by the ORR as other main line operators have an exemption to use the same carriages affected by the ban.

In their letter to Mr Merriman, the MPs claimed there was no safety reason to justify the refusal to grant the temporary exemption.

West Coast itself has operated with an exemption for the past two decades, while similar rolling stock is also in everyday use on dozens of private heritage railways across Britain, where running speeds limited to 25 mph mean the central locking rule doesn’t apply. The Jacobite operates at up to 40 mph on parts of the West Highland route.

As well as the Hogwarts Express, West Coast also provides locomotives and coaches for the Cumbrian Mountain Express and Dalesman services over the Settle and Carlisle line. It also operates the Great Britain, which takes nine days to tour the country and costs almost £4,000 for a premier berth.

At the December court ruling, the judge upheld evidence presented by the ORR that the cost of installing the door locks could actually be as low as £700,000 and could be covered by a £10 increase in the ticket price of the Jacobite service.

An ORR spokesman said: “The law states companies cannot operate rolling stock with hinged doors for use by fare-paying passengers on the mainline, without the means of centrally locking them in a closed position.

“Other charter heritage operators, which use the mainline railway, have made the necessary investment to install central door locking on ‘hinged door’ rolling stock (or have committed to do so over a transition period) and it remains open to WCRC to do the same.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The ORR is the independent rail safety regulator, and it would therefore be inappropriate for the department or ministers to intervene in their decision to refuse a further exemption to West Coast Railways, which was upheld by the High Court.”

Steam trains face end of the line in Britain after row over slamming doors (2024)
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