Steam returns for commuters after 30 years

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FOR THOUSANDS of school children - and grown men - it would be a dream come true. Six train drivers who usually operate humble diesel commuter services are to bring steam back to a scenic North Yorkshire line this summer.

In a unique partnership between a privatised train firm and a heritage railway, steam trains will return to Whitby, the historic port town, for the first time in 30 years.

Northern Spirit, which runs commuter trains across north-east England, is working with the North Yorkshire Moors Railway to run the trains from Pickering to Whitby.

The rail companies are working with the North Yorkshire Moors National Park and local authorities to seal a deal with Railtrack to upgrade signalling at Grosmont, where the heritage line from Pickering meets the main line from Middlesbrough that runs along the Esk valley to Whitby.

Six Northern Spirit drivers volunteered to be trained to operate the steam trains. They completed a three-week course on firemen's duties, driving mainline steam trains, safety rules and mechanics. They will share the roles of drivers, firemen and conductors.

A spokesman for Northern Spirit, Gary Callighan, said: "There has been no shortage of our staff wanting to drive the new service. It is certainly bringing out the boy in some of our drivers."

A successful trial run - sold out weeks in advance - between Pickering and Whitby in November last year carried 309 enthusiasts on the Captain Cook Pullman, staffed by three of the newly trained crew, Chris Cubitt, Ginner Beavers and Roy Lingham. Mr Callighan said: "We had sold out of tickets within three hours. The demand was amazing."

The two rail organisations now hope to run a programme of Sunday evening trains this summer that may tie in with North Yorkshire Moor Railway's dining services. It should go some way to meet the nostalgic demand for steam captured in films such as The Railway Children and Brief Encounter.

David Bishop, Northern Spirit's general manager, said: "The Esk valley route is one of the most scenic railways in Britain. This link-up with the North Yorkshire Valley Railway will allow us to run additional services to meet the increasing demand for leisure travel to this lovely part of Yorkshire."

Chris Hudson, of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, said: "There is nothing better than to see a steam engine winding its way through the North Yorkshire countryside. There is a lot more life in a steam train than in a smelly old diesel."

A service between Pickering and Whitby first ran on 26 May 1836, when thousands of people turned out to cheer a horse pulling a coach at about 10 miles an hour. The subsequent 30-mile rail line immediately became a popular success, but it was closed in the Sixties under the Beeching cutbacks.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway was reopened in 1973, catering for a large tourist trade.