One of the most significant contracts for West Coast Railways has been its association with the Belmond Royal Scotsman train. For the past decade, since it took over the contract from EWS in 2005, WCR has provided the haulage, operation and maintenance of the train.
The Royal Scotsman provides one of the most luxurious experiences of rail travel in Europe, guests receiving the highest levels of service as they are wined and dined around the beauty spots and distilleries of Scotland. The train has several itineraries, and runs weekly from April through to October around the western, central and northern Highlands.
The first week of the 2015 tour was scheduled to be the “classic itinerary”, starting from Edinburgh on April 20 and taking in visits to Keith, Kyle of Lochalsh, the Strathspey Railway, Perth and Dundee before returning to Edinburgh on Friday April 24.
The typical cost for a passenger taking the whole trip is around £4,460 per passenger. So the sudden removal of the licence to operate this train (and maybe the whole season) was a major issue not only for Belmond, but also luxury Scottish tourism as a whole - many companies rely upon the links with the train.
“We were contacted at very short notice to see if we could do anything to help the train to run and support the customer,” says GBRf Operating Manager John Watson.
“GBRf is rapidly expanding in Scotland, with the takeover of the Sleeper contract and new coal contracts, alongside existing work such as the Fort William alumina trains.”
One of the main challenges was to provide a locomotive that could work the Kyle of Lochalsh line - it has a route restriction that bars the use of Class 66s and ‘47s’ (the only locomotives within GBRf’s normal fleet that could be used to work the train).
However, for the past two years, GBRf has been using Deltic 55022 Royal Scots Grey for stock movements in the Glasgow area. Owned and maintained by Martin Walker, Royal Scots Grey fitted the bill perfectly - a Deltic with a route availability of RA5, which would be ideal for the Kyle line.
There were a significant number of obstacles to overcome. GBRf has no passenger guards on its books, and the rolling stock, which was at the Scottish Railway Preservation Society’s base at Bo’ness, needed a Fitness To Run (FTR) exam and certification. Although the paths existed in the system, these had to be checked to ensure they were within the capability of a Class 66 and Deltic for the Kyle route. There also needed to be significant changes to operation rosters to supply the staff, including lodging turns.
Says Walker: “We were first asked if we could cover the whole train on the morning of Friday April 17. GBRf would have preferred that 55022 could cover the whole train, but it is currently running on one engine (due to coolant leaks in the other), and I felt the risk was too high for working a heavy nine-coach train - for example, if we ‘sat down’ on the Highland Main Line, which has some major gradients. However, the Kyle line is ideal. Although there are some steep climbs, the pace is gentler and there is plenty of recovery time.”
GBRf therefore planned the rest of the trip with use of a Class 66, and then addressed the issue of the stock. Watson explains: “The stock was taken from Bo’ness to Craigentinny, East Coast’s depot in Edinburgh, where EC performed an FTR examination. We also agreed with West Coast to use a West Coast guard - in this case experienced Royal Scotsman guard Roly Parker - and a conductor for the Kyle line, West Coast driver Brian Reid.
“The train was actually driven by another experienced Scottish GBRf driver, Jim Small. Jim is based at Motherwell and is experienced in driving 55022 on a regular basis on the Glasgow stock movements. It’s taken a lot of co-operation by the railway industry to not let down the customer, but all of this has had to be done with the safe operation of the train as the first priority.”
Last-second planning meant Walker and his technical support colleague Andy Marra dashing up to Scotland on the Sunday (April 19), to ensure everything was shipshape with 55022 (currently running as classmate 55003 Meld in classic Finsbury Park BR blue white cabs livery), and that there was a suitable supply of consumables such as oil and coolants.
On Monday April 20, the locomotive left its base in Glasgow Springburn Works and moved light engine to Inverness, where it received yet another wash and brush-up of the recent new livery, ready for its starring role the next day. Watson had left his office for the week to accompany the train, to ensure that any operating issues were managed successfully and quickly.
The Royal Scotsman left Edinburgh on time, with passengers blissfully unaware of the challenges that had been overcome to make the trip happen.
On April 21, it arrived on time into Inverness, where 55022 was waiting to take the train onto the Kyle line. Perhaps not surprisingly there were some operational issues in the locomotive handover - the train had to be propelled back out of the station before 55022 could be attached, to take the line to Dingwall and onto Kyle. This line is mostly single-track and so if a slot is lost, it can take time to get back onto schedule.
Says Watson: “We have had some minor operational issues to learn, Inverness being at its busiest at that time of the day with three departures and arrivals, the Sleeper train being taken onto the depot, and the Mossend-Inverness goods being shunted at the freight terminal. So we lost our path, but we made up for an on-time arrival at Kyle.”
That’s an understatement, with 55022 performing flawlessly on some of the major climbs as the train left the rural hills around Inverness before running out onto the wild plains around Achanalt and Achnasheen.
Several passengers could be seen on the open balcony of the observation car that was directly behind the locomotive, enjoying a close-up Deltic experience, although one passenger later commented: “It was great fun to be behind such a loud lovely loco, but I didn’t realise we were all being covered in specks of oil!”
One of the highlights of the trip is the section between Strathcarron and Plockton, where the railway and road skirt the edge of the loch with stunning views across the sea loch.
After enjoying this view, the passengers disembarked at Plockton for an afternoon tea or a boat trip to see the many seals in the area, while the train carried onto Kyle.
There were plenty of smiles as evidence that what had been a major short-term planning exercise had been successfully accomplished.
During the evening layover I caught up with Walker and Watson, to determine the future plans for the train.
Watson said: “For now we are just managing the train on a week to week basis while the WCR situation is ongoing, and it is quite likely we will cover the train as required in the coming weeks.”
This has proved to be the case, with 55022 again working the train to Kyle and back on April 28/29, and going to Fort William to work the train to Mallaig on May 2.
Watson adds: “GBRf is going through a great period at the moment, seeing solid expansion and new contracts. We have an excellent flexible workforce in Scotland and will be looking at future possibilities, so we will just have to see what happens in the medium term.”
Small had a beaming smile on his face all evening after driving 55022: “She got a bit warm climbing Ravens rock, but she didn’t put a foot wrong.”
Walker added: “It’s been a great day; this is the ideal kind of work for 55022. We’ve been working for GBRf for a number of years and it’s a very solid relationship. It’s great to be able to do this on a regular basis and support the locomotive.
“We only have a small number of people who can spend the many hours on the road to get to (and stay with) the locomotive and whom I can trust. It can be a very expensive issue if something goes wrong, but it’s doing something we love.
“For example, if I take all of the revenue from the last two years of the work in Scotland it still barely covers the cost of the engine repairs when we had the major failure back in 2006.”
So how about getting back onto two engines again, to ease the strain?
“The problem we have is time and the workshop space we need to swap the engines over. It’s complicated as it is a marine engine base that we will be putting back into 55022, so we have to strip various rail engine-only components from the engine currently in the locomotive and then put the new engine back. It all takes time, and it means the locomotive is not available to cover commercial work so while we are running with one engine and in weekly demand, we will just have to keep waiting for a slot.”
Of course, Walker owns a second Deltic - D9016 Gordon Highlander, which is currently receiving much needed bodywork repairs at Washwood Heath. Could that come onto the main line to help out?
“I don’t see any possibility of that happening. The cost overhead is huge, and it would stretch me and my support team beyond a breaking point.
“Even before the major disruption of the WCR issues on the charter market, there is just no demand for another Deltic on the main line from the charter market. Gordon will be a preserved line locomotive only for the foreseeable future once the bodywork repairs are complete.”
So it does look as if 55022 will be Walker’s only main line locomotive, although he does have plans for its appearance: “I’ve been really pleased with the reaction to the change of identity to Meld, and it certainly won’t be the last change. I have a number of plans for the future.”
Perhaps Pinza or The Black Watch will be back on the main line again, quite possibly at the head of perhaps the most prestigious train in the UK.
- This feature was published in RAIL 774 on May 13 2015