British vintage trains on track to address driver shortage

LONDON • Diesel engines dating from the early 1960s have rolled into action again to ensure that the holiday plans of tourists in the Lake District in Britain stay on track.

A fleet of vintage locomotives have been drafted to revive train services on a route controversially closed recently after timetable changes led to a chronic driver shortage across much of the country.

West Coast Railways, which usually operates so-called "steam specials" aimed at train enthusiasts, will carry passengers for free along the Lakes Line in northern England, bankrolled by a £5,500 (S$9,900) daily payment from the Department for Transport (DFT).

Services on the 16km route, which takes travellers from Oxenholme (on the main line from London) to Windermere in the heart of the Lake District national park, will operate six times daily each way for a period of two weeks at least.

Passengers have faced thousands of cancellations and delays on services run by Northern, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn's Arriva arm, since a new timetable was introduced last month.

On the Lakes route, the company responded by halting trains until July 2 at least, replacing them with a slower bus service just as the area famous for poet William Wordsworth, Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter and hillwalking heads into the peak tourist season.

West Coast Rail managing director Patricia Marshall said her company - best known for running steam services along a route in Scotland made famous by the Harry Potter films - stepped in to intervene after visitors, many of them foreign, struggled to make sense of the new arrangements.

She telephoned former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who represents the area in parliament, offering to provide a service, and he took up the issue with the transport ministry and track operator Network Rail.

Test trains were due to run, but such was the number of people on the platform that they entered service almost immediately, Ms Marshall said.

West Coast would be prepared to maintain the operation for longer if required and could even run a steam train on the route, she added.

While she has some sympathy for Northern as "drivers are hard to come by", the Deutsche Bahn unit had not sought out assistance.

The DFT agreed to the plan as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling faced a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons called by the opposition Labour Party over the disruption at Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway, which operates commuter trains into London.

While Mr Grayling survived by 20 votes, Govia Thameslink Railway chief executive Charles Horton resigned over the disruption, saying he understood that passengers had become "hugely frustrated" at the travel turmoil caused by the timetable changes.

The DFT said that in allowing West Coast Rail to step in on the Lakes route, it has also made clear to Northern that there must be "a full resumption of services" as soon as possible.

Before West Coast provided a lifeline, local businessmen had feared the service cancellations would derail their operations.

Mr Nigel Wilkinson, managing director of Windermere Lake Cruises, said: "This could not have happened at a worse time for the visitor economy. We are at the start of the busiest four months of the year."

Now, foreigner and local visitors can get back on track to enjoying the charms of the Lake District.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'British vintage trains on track to address driver shortage'. Print Edition | Subscribe