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GB Railfreight’s charity champions

Four GB Railfreight staff have put their own time to fantastic use in recent years, raising more than £50,000 for charity by organising special passenger charter trains. 

Dale Williams, Richard Owen, Richard Pinker and Paul Taylor each bring their individual level of expertise to what can be a time-consuming business. Combining their knowledge of the railway with boundless enthusiasm, they are able to come up with simple ideas that appeal to the masses. And the results are impressive (see panels). 

As with so many good ideas, the origin of the charters was four friends chatting over a pint in a pub - in this case, The Brewery Tap in Peterborough. 

RAIL meets the four to discover just how much work goes into organising these trains, and what is being planned for next year. And it’s not as simple as you may think.

Williams explains that GBRf’s first charity train used Hastings Diesel Limited’s 201001. This was a UK Railtours’ charter in 2009, which ran on GBRf’s safety case. The freight company had recently acquired a safety case to operate its own passenger trains, but while GBRf staff were keen to operate charters, there was also caution about taking on too much too soon. 

The following year, on August 21 2010, GBRf was booked to operate a UK Railtours charter to London Marylebone, using a Class 66. All of GBRf’s passenger trains have a train officer, and in this instance Ian Grey was performing that role. He suggested that the empty coaching stock move to Eastleigh could operate as a passenger train, with part fares available. 

This idea was agreed, and GBRf ran its first tour. The Class 66 (66710) hauled the train from Marylebone to Neasden Signal ME536, from where GBRf 73204 took over for the run to Woking. That train got the ball rolling, says Williams.

By 2012, Williams was Acting Regional Manager West for the company. His role meant supervising Bristol and Cardiff. New flows had been secured, but the staff knew that GBRf had operated staff trains there in the past, taking people to seaside locations for a day out as a thank you for their efforts through the year. The western area staff wanted one of these, and so Williams approached GBRf Managing Director John Smith.

“I asked about it, and was told I had to control my costs. The idea grew from there,” he recalls.

The plan was to use the Class 50 Alliance’s main line-registered 50044 Exeter and a Class 66, and run from Cardiff Central to Paignton. 

“I approached Charles Paget at Riviera Trains. We wanted four coaches. I was told the costs and went back to John , who wasn’t sure. I said we would run a charity train to Plymouth from Paignton and it would get good publicity. He said: ‘mind your costs’.”

And so Williams went on the publicity offensive. The word went out over web forums, and soon Riviera Trains was warning that there could be excessive numbers, and that an extra carriage would be needed. Williams was charged at the cheapest rate possible. 

On the day (July 21 2012) the train was full, and Williams, a Devonian by birth, was able to organise a ‘50’ to operate over the famous Devon banks. His father was at Paignton to see it, but didn’t actually know that Williams was involved!

Tickets for the train, which was open to the public from Paignton to Plymouth, were priced at £15 single and £25 return. That tour made £5,051.32, with the money donated to Age UK. “That was me hooked,” says Williams. 

The next charter was the following year, on July 27 2013. This charter, which ran from Crewe using Class 20s, adopted the same advertising tactics, but was quieter than the previous year, because of clashes with other tours. It was a case of learning the market - who was using the trains, and how could they operate?

Undeterred, the next tour was pencilled in for July 27 2014. This was a simple one-way charter using 66719. It followed a staff train that had run the previous day for the naming of a Class 66 at Norwich, so the RT carriages were already in the area. This meant that the empty stock move would run as a passenger train, on a path that was already in place. 

A Class 66/7 that had not yet hauled a passenger train was chosen, to appeal to those who like to ride behind as many locomotives as they can. And the route chosen was Ipswich to Basingstoke, re-creating the former Anglia Railways ‘Crosslink’ train that ran from Colchester to the Hampshire town. “It was very busy,” says Williams. 

By this point Richard Owen had become involved, and this charter was his idea. Based at Peterborough as Planning Team Leader (South), Owen is an East Anglian and wanted Williams’ experience in organising these trains.

With everything in place, it was a simple and effective tour that raised £2,500 for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. This was the first train to run raising money for what is now GBRf’s chosen charity. 

Upon the train’s arrival at Basingstoke, such was the impression left on the organisers that the decision was made to organise another for four weeks later. This time Class 73s and ‘92s’ were the preferred motive power, having not previously been used on a GBRf charter.

Running one way from Crewe to Basingstoke, this train offered 92028 and 92038 as far as Wembley, where 73109 and 73207 took over. And it raised almost £10,000. Owen tells RAIL that by this time, Smith was supportive of the trains. 

At this point, Taylor arrived at Peterborough. He is Business Manager for National Delivery Service contracts, and also for the passenger operations. It was agreed that he leads the staff trains, having previously organised DC Charters’ trains. 

He explains that the four men would meet in the Peterborough pub to plan their next train, and discuss what they had learned from the previous operations. 

One example was the use of social media. Facebook has proven a very useful tool for GBRf’s team, with Williams revealing it is a good way of predicting how many passengers are likely to be travelling. 

It is also a good way of dispensing information. Ahead of this year’s tour planned for July 12, it was revealed that the planned use of 59003 and 86101 had to be curtailed, and this news was announced as soon as possible. “We had the reputation that we would give people what they wanted, so we needed to tell them,” says Williams. 

The decision to pull the ‘86’ was taken because of the reliability problems encountered with the GBRf electric fleet. The organisers didn’t want to lose face, and so replaced it with a ‘47’. 

That July 12 charter ran around Suffolk and Essex branches, taking 47812 and 66759 to destinations rarely visited by locomotives, before running to Peterborough. A second ‘66’ to make its passenger debut was 66758, which hauled the train to Acton, where 73128 and 73201 took over. Almost £10,000 was raised for charity. 

But the big plan was in place for August 9 - a simple run with a British Rail theme. With GBRf expanding north of the border because of the Caledonian Sleeper contract, it was decided that on August 8, a GBRf Class 47 would haul a charter from Glasgow to Scarborough. 

This meant that Riviera Trains had a rake of stock that needed returning to Crewe, and so an idea was born. A pair of Class 47s would leave Glasgow, giving way to a pair of Class 66s, before finally a pair of ‘20s’ would take the train to Crewe. 

Because the decision was made to operate via the East Coast Main Line, the ‘20s’ would run from Doncaster to Crewe via Birmingham. Also, to attract further attention (and custom), it was planned that BR large logo 47847 would be used, as well as BR blue 20096 and 20107. The latter had not hauled a passenger train on the main line since the late 1980s, and so would prove a popular attraction. However, the ‘47/8’ was at Barrow Hill with low wheelsets, which meant it could not be used.

Williams also considered using the first and last-built GBRf ‘66s’ in its fleet (in this instance, 66701 and 66772). The latter wasn’t available, but he was told that he could have 66736, which had never hauled a passenger train. There was concern that the ‘66s’ chosen (and advertised) were far apart, but Pinker had a plan. He works in control, and worked out how he could get them to Newcastle for the train. 

“We don’t do light locomotive moves for these trains,” he says. “It had always been planned that 47812 would come south for maintenance.” Thus 47812 filled the vacancy perfectly.

Williams says he knew that the train would be popular, and invited people to help spread the word. As the train (like all of them) was pay on the day fares, he had in mind a target of £15,000. But that plan would change. 

“On the day it was crazy,” he says. “We had £8,800 by the time we were leaving Glasgow.”

He credits the reason to the ‘20s’, and the use of Class 47s over the Tyne Valley between Carlisle and Newcastle. Taylor agrees: “There was a massive appeal for everyone. A lot of people decided to do it and stay over in Glasgow.”

Again, lessons were learned. “Ticketing. We always do wristbands. We find they are reasonably priced,” explains Williams. 

Taylor agrees that pricing levels must be reasonable, otherwise a tour will fail. But there are other ways to make money - for example, the charter raised a further £2,500 in the buffet through the sale of beer and merchandise. 

Taylor explains: “We sold GBRf mugs. You got free tea and coffee for the trip. The cost was negligible, and for passengers it was better to buy a £5 mug. We also did deals with pint glasses and beer.” (This wasn’t free for the entire trip, they laugh.)

All told, £21,710 was raised for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research charity on the August 9 tour. 

So, what’s next? The target, as always, is to beat last year’s total. Certainly, if numbers are to be properly managed, it has been suggested that a book in advance scheme needs to be introduced. However, a method of payment is required, although Owen has agreed to manage that. This gives security regarding how many will ride on the train, and that it is not oversold. 

But how many tours will run? Says Williams: “It is fair to say that if we do staff trains again, then there will be two simple out and back trains. Probably they will use Class 66s that haven’t hauled passenger trains before - back to basics. Even then, there is lots of planning.”

But basic is not the headline act for next year, and already the four GBRf men are plotting. They won’t reveal the details to RAIL just yet, as plans are still being hatched, but nothing has been ruled out. Ideas are pitched, and people nod or ‘park’ the idea for further consideration. 

Says Taylor: “Probably we will go with something with the most mileage available. And maybe, for the first time ever, something over more than one day.” 

This would drive up costs, and Taylor acknowledges: “We have to think, how many days and where. There is a jigsaw to work out.”

Williams adds: “I am conscious that we have done these for three or four years, and we don’t want them to be exclusively ours. We may put together the general plan, but we’re keen to get more of our staff involved.

“Those involved won’t be paid and you need to work hard. But it is good fun. It is also rewarding.” 

There is also a concern regarding crews. Can people give their time, while that also dictates the traction. Not all GBRf drivers are passed on certain traction, so there could be hire costs not only for the train, but also for the crews. And rising costs are never good. 

But the four of them are determined that next year’s plans will beat this year’s. £21,710 is a tough target, but you fancy them to do it. 

  • This feature was pubilshed in RAIL 787 (November 11 2015)

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