Enshrined… or confined?
If we don’t do it now, in the years between now and 2025, everything’s going to be so full that such an opportunity won’t be there.” Those are the words of Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, when he spoke to Steam Railway around this time last year. The ‘everything’ he refers to is the modern railway, which is accelerating – literally – and whose trains are increasingly strangling the freedom of steam-hauled charter trains. And by ‘do it’, he’s referring to securing dedicated paths for steam. Those words weren’t hollow because NR, as you can read in Down Main (page 74), is now following through with a firm commitment in its next five-year planning cycle. It says that charters “bring a positive benefit to both the rail industry and UK plc”. Don’t underestimate the profound nature of those words. We are clearly in a very different world to that of 1971/2, when King George V and Clun Castle broke BR’s steam ban. Likewise, privatisation in the 1990s and the freedom that Open Access brought with it meant that our geriatric machines could effectively touch any railhead on the national network. But that was in an era when capacity for 60 and 75mph limited motive power was everywhere. The unrelenting march of higher speed inter-city trains (e.g. IEP units on the Great Western and East Coast Main Lines) – and more of them – mean that where it was once easy to find ‘white space’ in the national timetable, it is now evaporating in front of our eyes. So NR’s preemptive commitment to charters is something potentially very encouraging. Potentially, because we don’t yet know what form these enshrined routes will take. If it means that you can still get Flying Scotsman into and out of King’s Cross, a ‘Duchess’ to Glasgow Central, a ‘Castle’ through Box Tunnel and a ‘Merchant Navy’ over Honiton bank at sensible times (even if it’s on Saturdays only) after the impending national timetable upheaval, then that might
be more than we have dared wish for in recent times. But if it ultimately leads to steam being cocooned on a handful of already welltrodden paths, like the S&C and the Fort William-Mallaig line (after all, the document explores the option for limiting ‘go anywhere’ rights to bid), then we might end up in a more restricted place than we have been since BR’s ‘approved routes’ of the 1970s. In other words, so long as this exercise doesn’t become justification to purge steam from wide swathes of the network for future masters of the railway, then we will be in a much happier place. And isn’t it good that we’re in a position to have this debate now, rather than after the event, when it might be too late? Remember, NR doesn’t have to do this, because Open Access and available paths are two very different things. And for that, NR should be given credit. With the formal launch of a third steam train operating company in April and another in the pipeline, we could be on the cusp of a third post-1968 railtour age.
To accommodate Oliver Cromwell’s Great Eastern Main Line farewell on February 22, ordinary train operators magnanimously altered the schedules of some services to and from Liverpool Street. No. 70013 marches up Bethnal Green Bank, en route to Norwich...