Old steam creates new image for rail

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The Independent Online

Once upon a time there was a little boy who had what anyone might reckon was a perfect childhood. Not only did he have a famous mother, Elizabeth Beresford, who wrote books about the Wombles, he also lived in what should have have been paradise: down the road from Wimbledon Common.

But the young Marcus Robertson (whose father was the BBC sports presenter Max Robertson) was not so interested in furry animals or Roy of the Rovers. There was nothing that thrilled him more than the sleek green steam trains charging down to the West Country that he could see from his bedroom window. So thrilled was he, in fact, that this summer he will achieve an ambition that few boys of his generation could have dreamt of: to run the most comprehensive timetable of steam services on Britain's main lines since the 1960s, when steam officially ended on British Railways.

Appropriately, Mr Robertson calls his company Steam Dreams, and it was a big moment last Wednesday morning when the former Southern Railway Pacific engine 34016 Bodmin snaked in wreaths of steam out of Waterloo, bound for Salisbury on the first of nearly 40 timetabled trains to Bath, Canterbury, Chichester, Winchester and Ely. Orange-coated Railtrack workers scratched their heads, and noses were pressed against windows of an incoming Eurostar. Commuters from Woking and Surbiton woke with a start from behind their newspapers.

Special-interest trains of the sort run by Mr Robertson will be an increasingly common sight this summer, as individual entrepreneurs seize one of the better opportunities provided by privatisation: no matter how small you are, the law allows you to run your own trains. Indeed, almost every day between now and October, steam trains will be running on the Railtrack network to almost all corners of the country, from the Scottish Highlands to the far west of England.

Railtrack's legal obligation to provide open-access tracks is in contrast to the "Stalinist" view of British Rail that older trains were a danger and should be kept out at all costs. In the new liberal world, it's modern trains that crash and 40-year-old steam engines are allowed to run at 70mph on the same tracks as Eurostars.

But it's not all dewy eyes and nostalgia. There is a growing market for specialist trains of all kinds and for all pockets. James Sherwood (whose Sea Containers firm owns GNER) charges up to hundreds of pounds for a luxury trip on Railtrack in his Venice-Simplon Orient Express Pullman train. At the other end of the market, it was possible last month to travel from London to York and back for just £15 with Hertfordshire Rail Tours, vastly undercutting even the cheapest of normal fares.

The market is diverse, ranging from steam fans and sports enthusiasts to wealthy tourists seeking a luxury excursion or families a cheap day out. The engineering millionaire Sir William McAlpine runs a lucrative business hiring out a fleet of carriages for special excursion trains, and the national freight company, English, Welsh and Scottish Railway, has a business worth £2m a year supplying locomotives and crew.

Nor is Mr Robertson a sentimental heritage freak. Founder (with the late "Voice of Cricket", John Arlott) of Craigie Taylor, one of Britain's biggest sports PR businesses, he ran his first trains last year aiming primarily at tourists. But by offering a regular timetable he could appeal to normal travellers simply wanting something different. A measure of his confidence is his recent purchase of Canadian Pacific, one of the most powerful vintage engines permitted to run on Railtrack ("for around half a million plus VAT"), although it is still laid up needing repairs.

"What we're actually doing is boosting the image of the railway at a time when it is desperately needed," he says. "People think steam is old-fashioned. But they're also tired of the modern egalitarian image of the railway with standardised plastic carriages."

He sees steam as heralding a new kind of passenger choice. "Call them bespoke trains if you like, but commuters who work long hours are willing to pay for a bit of comfort. After all, the old Metropolitan Railway used to run Pullman cars on what is now the London Underground."

The dozen or so operators of special trains still have to face the byzantine rules of today's railway. "You can't just turn up with your own train set," says Stephen Cornish, Railtrack's executive in charge of special trains. "First you have to make a 'safety case' ­ which is not as easy as it seems." It involves a presentation to Railtrack of your competence, which can run to the size of a thick book. Only one company has had a safety case accepted ­ which is why most operators, including Mr Robertson, employ English Welsh and Scottish Railway, whose drivers and guards have national route knowledge.

There is also the hurdle of the "moderation of competition" rules under which, bizarrely, the rail regulator does not allow direct competition against the main train-operating companies. But they are hitting back by offering old-style restaurant-car meals cooked on the train, and better service. Almost any seat on a private charter train is more comfortable than the airline-style seating of Richard Branson's much-vaunted new Virgin Voyagers.

Now even the mainstream companies are getting the idea. In October, Scotrail will turn over all its timetabled services north of Fort William to steam haulage for a day's experiment. Already the private West Coast Railway Company is running specials on five days each week. The idea is copied from the Germans, who call it Plandampf (literally "steam scheme"). German State Railways regularly schedule timetabled services in this way because of the good PR. It is the same for National Express, which owns Scotrail. The company believes that, post-Hatfield, it is time for the big railway to show itself as sensitive and community friendly.

With the collapse in Railtrack's share price and an inevitable reorganisation at the top of Tony Blair's in-tray, the private railway needs all the friends it can get.

Steam Dreams: 01483 209888; Hertfordshire Railtours: 01438 812125; West Coast Railway Company: 01463 239026