RAIL 821: The lessons of ‘Plandampf’

Occasionally you’re lucky enough to be involved in something that is not only intensely enjoyable and successful, but also significant. Something you never forget - and for me that certainly applied to the Settle-Carlisle (S&C) ‘Plandampf’ of February 14-16.

Three days of scheduled steam at ordinary fares succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. We always expected crowds. We did not expect 5,500 passengers – a 20-fold increase on normal numbers. We had hoped for good media coverage. We did not expect the mass turnout of broadcast and print media who descended on the route. 

The BBC in particular did us proud - I was amazed to find a film crew from BBC Breakfast staying in our hotel in Appleby. They did several live inserts into that morning’s programme and I did a very windswept live interview from Appleby’s Down platform immediately before the 0800 News. Reporter Danny Savage’s excellent package was used repeatedly throughout the first day. Radio 5 Live was there too, as were ITV, BBC Radio Cumbria and a host of print media. The following day’s front pages were liberally sprinkled with excellent pictures of Tornado. You simply cannot buy goodwill, support and warmth on the scale this initiative generated.

This S&C ‘Plandampf’ was a bold venture on a scale never before attempted in the UK. It’s a German concept and literally translates as ‘Scheduled steam’. The concept dates from 1990, in the early days following the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Steam locomotives were rostered onto ordinary trains of the former Deutsche Reichsbahn, with extra costs beyond normal services crowd-funded by enthusiasts. This ‘Plandampf’ was different: it was staged by the railway alone, for anyone to enjoy travelling or watching. And in addition to the 5,500 who travelled - and very few seemed to be enthusiasts, by the way - thousands turned out at the linesides to enjoy the sheer spectacle.

Our industry structure previously made this concept impossible. Former Steam Railway Editor Tony Streeter and I first suggested an S&C ‘Plandampf’ to Northern MD Alex Hynes a good couple of years ago. But every idea has its time and that wasn’t it. Two years later, however, and a new Northern franchise owned by Arriva, with links to DB’s steam operation, set a whole new context. Closure of the S&C as a through route meant the availability of a double-track dead-end railway from Skipton to Appleby with virtually nothing on it - in other words, a low-risk opportunity.

The modern railway gave it a go - and well done them. There were inevitably dissenting voices from an an earlier generation of railway managers who raised a barrage of negative arguments - some about safety - which was sad to see. ORR and Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate had been fully consulted, however.

Sure, it wasn’t perfect. There was always the risk that not everyone would be able to board their chosen train, and to our regret this did happen. But that is a problem of success and Northern handled it pretty well. And in any case, are we so afraid of falling short of perfection that we are afraid to try something new?

More than 5,500 people travelled - that’s 20 times the average 240 or so passengers surveyed over the Tuesday-Thursday period in preceding weeks. Northern was seeking not to lose money, and as figures were being finalised as this issue of RAIL went to press there was a real prospect of a modest profit.

Sitting in a pub and having an outlandish idea - as Tony and I did -  is one thing. Actually making it happen on today’s railway is quite another. The ‘I LOVE S&C’ Alliance which actually made it work were Northern, Network Rail and DB Cargo, together with the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line. That the trains ran faultlessly for three days was a tribute to very hard work by Northern’s Alex Hynes and Paul Barnfield, NR Route Managing Director Rob McIntosh and DB’s Richard Corser. A top-class stewarding and on-train guide operation was led by Mark Rand, of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line.

There are those who will believe that this is no way to promote the modern railway. I disagree. The ‘Plandampf’ was a perfect illustration of former BR Board Chairman Sir Peter Parker’s famous observation that “steam warms the market for railways”. How right he was. Mingling with happy crowds at Skipton, watching energised teams of railwaymen and women hitting their stride, seeing BTP officers making the most of an opportunity to engage - you couldn’t fail to conclude that this was good for the railway. And when was the last time you saw such positive, extensive good-news media coverage for railways? 

So, should it be regarded as a glorified one-off? Is it ‘playing trains’? No. And no. This was good news. Give people a chance to love railways - and my goodness, did they respond. But like all treats it needs to be rationed to be kept special. I could envisage an annual S&C  ‘Plandampf’. And there are plenty of other potential routes - not just York-Scarborough (where there’s even a turntable to eliminate reverse running by locomotives), there is plenty of potential in all corners of the country. 

And there’s one big ‘plus’ from the ‘Plandampf’ which hasn’t been mentioned yet. At our first meetings to discuss whether this was even possible, I looked and listened as the conversation ebbed and flowed - and I just knew it would happen. Why? Because in Alex Hynes and Paul Barnfield (Northern), Rob McIntosh (NR) Richard Corser (DB) and their colleagues, I was watching a group of devolved railway managers looking at a tricky project in a half-full way and not saying ‘Why?’. They were saying ‘Why not?’ 

They managed across the interfaces, took decisions which were considerate of each other and worked towards a shared objective of delighting customers and showing the railway in a great light. They did all that - and didn’t lose money. Sorry - but isn’t there a bigger lesson, right there?! This sort of working and outcome is precisely what the railway needs. 

Northern MD Hynes has now left that role and is waiting to take up his new job in charge at ScotRail, whose franchise, don’t forget, includes terms about developing tourism by rail. Ask the landlord of the Midland Hotel in Appleby about that. He doesn’t normally open on Tuesdays in winter. He had 50 people in for lunch, queued three deep at the bar. It was the same on all three days.

Devolved, successful, integrated management. Packed trains full of happy passengers. A trickle down of wealth into regional economies. Great PR. 

What’s not to like?

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