Train companies have been told to stop using "heritage" diesel engines to cope with the growth in rail travel and make up for a shortage of rolling stock. The increasing number of preserved trains normally found on private railways or in museums being used for regular timetabled services has prompted Railtrack to impose a moratorium. It said operators were putting rail safety at risk by hiring museum pieces for regular use without getting the necessary approval.
It is understood that three companies have been hit by the ban, although other operators are using heritage diesels with Railtrack's agreement. In one case, passengers had to endure unheated carriages after the train company was stopped from using a heritage engine.
A company spokesman said: "Railtrack has become aware of an increasing trend in the use of heritage rail vehicles on regular scheduled passenger services. [It] is concerned about the impact that this growing trend may have on the overall risk on the network."
Railtrack said modern trains were safer than older ones, which were taken out of service to improve safety. "A trend in re-introducing de-registered vehicles on regular scheduled services would inhibit, and may even reverse, this incremental safety improvement." The company, the custodian of railway safety, has to approve each operator's operation - known as the "safety case".
The problem arises when firms use locomotives not mentioned in the safety case. Railtrack said it would not accept any requests to run heritage locos on scheduled services for six months while it consults with the industry.
But the train companies say Railtrack is behaving anti-competitively by forcing them to search for spare, often inferior, rolling stock and run shorter trains. They accuse Railtrack of inconsistency in banning the regular use of Class 50 engines, which were built in 1968 and only taken out of service in 1994, but allowing the use of 1957-built trains. Cardiff Railways said it had to hire trains without proper heating after Railtrack told it to stop using a 1968 locomotive. The ban has since been lifted. Anglia Railways has agreed not to use a Class 55 Deltic.
Alun Rees, general manager of the private Severn Valley Railway, which leased the Class 50 to Cardiff Valley, said he backed methods to maintain safety. "We have no intention whatsoever... to dilute safety but Railtrack's current stance is neither logical or helpful."
The preserved-railway community is angry with Railtrack and one member said it risked getting into "legal hot water" by implying some locos were unsafe. "What is heritage traction? If a 1968 Class 50 is banned but a 1957 diesel multiple unit is running around on daily service in the North, then the distinction is meaningless."