Steam returns for commuters after 30 years

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The Independent Online
FOR THOUSANDS of school children - and grown men - it could 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 will share the roles of drivers, firemen and conductors. A spokesman for Northern Spirit, Gary Callighan, said: "There's been no shortage ofstaff 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. 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.

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 in 1836, when thousands turned out to cheer a horse pulling a coach at 10 miles an hour. The subsequent 30-mile rail line was 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. A fresh crackdown on the privatised rail industry is to be launched by the Government, which is setting up a national customer satisfaction survey to identify failing train companies.

The new system will ensure that regulators can make effective comparisons between all 25 passenger train companies.

Ministers are unhappy with the current system under which train firms are obliged to carry out customer surveys twice a year but are allowed to set the questions and decide how they are published.