Steam trains sidelined for the summer

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The evocative sound of steam trains chugging through the countryside will not be heard on Britain's main lines this summer. Railtrack has declared them a fire hazard and banished them from the entire network until September.

The move received an unexpected welcome from Pete Waterman, the music producer and railway enthusiast whose company, Rail Charter Services, is the country's largest operator of steam trains.

Mr Waterman said yesterday that the trains were like "flame throwers" in the dry summer months, with the sparks they showered out igniting vegetation along the embankments. He warned that operators who opposed the ban were an "irresponsible lunatic fringe".

The trains will still be able to run on the 80 or so preserved short private lines, where extra precautions can be taken and there is no risk of disruption to ordinary services.

Dozens of vintage steam engines ply the British rail network, chartered mainly for day trips run by tour companies. Many of the companies are small and say they need the summer business to survive. Railtrack instituted a partial ban last summer after an incident in which a steam train set alight a 50-mile swathe of undergrowth on the Crewe to Carlisle line, causing five-hour delays to West coast rail services.

"It has been agreed with the operators that steam trains will no longer run during the months of June, July and August," a Railtrack spokesman said yesterday. "We can't risk throwing normal services into turmoil, as has happened the past two summers. The operators do have the option of attaching a diesel engine while going along a stretch of track on a main line, or they can convert to a different form of fuel."

Mr Waterman said the trains should be limited throughout the year to private lines and a few quiet mainline routes. "No-one loves steam trains more than I do, but they use 19th century technology and are extremely dangerous," he said.

He claimed there would be an outcry if Railtrack cut back the trackside undergrowth to eliminate the fire risk, as happened in the days of regular steam services.