One of main line steam’s great char­ac­ters has left a re­mark­able legacy for the char­ter scene.

Steam Railway (UK) - - DOWNMAIN - By Tony Streeter


Nigel Dobbing must have known some­thing we didn’t. At least that’s how we felt, at Tegel Air­port one snowy De­cem­ber night, af­ter he’d failed to make the plane to Ber­lin.

‘We’ were a bunch of Steam Rail­way read­ers, plus Nick Brodrick – now the mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tor, but then not long out of school and on his first big over­seas trip. Our main tour leader was stuck, some­where in Europe, with the other group that had de­cided to travel by train. She – and they – ar­rived the next morn­ing. Nigel, mean­while, didn’t make it out of the UK.

It was the win­ter of 2010. An ex­tra­or­di­nary dump­ing of snow had just swept across much of the Con­ti­nent. It car­ried on too… bring­ing chaos to coun­try af­ter coun­try.

It wasn’t that Nigel wasn’t in­ter­ested. ‘How’s it go­ing?’, he would ask by phone – as our tour op­er­a­tor dealt with fallen trees, frozen points and failed en­gines.

Nigel Martin Dobbing, who died on Oc­to­ber 14 aged 66 af­ter com­pli­ca­tions fol­low­ing surgery, was one of a kind. Born in 1952, child­hood for him meant blag­ging a ride on the en­gines that shunted the yard in Mel­ton Mow­bray, where he grew up. An­other favourite, ac­cord­ing to plat­form-end friend John How­ell, was watch­ing the 7.39pm to Not­ting­ham – which would of­ten of­fer up a ‘Ju­bilee’. As for so many, the pas­sion that was started then stayed with him for life.

Pro­mot­ing rail­way trips came along, if not by chance, then as an add-on to a pre­vi­ous ca­reer. Man­ag­ing the Duke’s Head ho­tel in King’s Lynn, he re­alised he could fill rooms at quiet times of the year if he com­bined them with an or­gan­ised spin on a train.

Out of that came the Rail­way Tour­ing Com­pany. Although born in 1997, it would be a while be­fore RTC caught peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, be­fore grad­u­ally de­vel­op­ing per­haps the big­gest gricer of­fer­ing of any pro­moter. As well as its over­seas tours to ex­otic places, the East Anglian or­gan­i­sa­tion soon be­came a ma­jor name in the pro­mo­tion of UK main line steam.

‘Dobbo’ – an ir­rev­er­ent nick­name he ac­cepted – wasn’t scared of big things. RTC’s pal­ette would grow to in­clude tours to Mozam­bique, Peru, Sri Lanka and char­ters on al­most the en­tire Hed­jaz Rail­way. At home though, there was no doubt which was the largest: Nigel launched the ‘Great Bri­tain’ in 2007. With eight days of steam start­ing in Lon­don and cov­er­ing the miles be­tween Pen­zance and Thurso, that first trip still seems a bel­ter, even now.

The ‘GB’ has run al­most ev­ery year since then – some­times more suc­cess­fully, some­times less so – al­ways a sta­ple, and al­ways am­bi­tious, though per­haps never with quite the im­pact that first one had. It was al­most cer­tainly the most am­bi­tious tour ever run to that point.

If it were only the ‘GB’ we were thank­ful to Nigel for, it would be enough. But there is much more, for with its pro­gramme of around 70 trips a sea­son RTC has, over the years,

racked up many hun­dreds. Reg­u­lar ter­ri­tory in­cludes the Set­tle-Carlisle, East Coast, North Wales Coast, the Cotswolds, Scar­bor­ough, Swanage… and among the one-offs were a farewell to Folke­stone Har­bour, and the first train over Sher­ing­ham level cross­ing.

Through RTC, Nigel brought back reg­u­lar ‘Cum­brian Moun­tain Ex­presses’ in win­ter, gave gricers the chance of fre­quent steam over the South Devon Banks to Par, and brought in bank­ing on trips out of Wey­mouth. Of­ten, a sug­ges­tion for a train would be met by a pause… then: ‘I think we can do that’.

RTC didn’t es­chew sup­port­ing lo­co­mo­tives di­rectly ei­ther. As part of the first trip to put the first ‘Bri­tan­nia’ over Shap since 1967 – ‘The Roar­ing Mon­ster’ with Oliver Cromwell in March 2010 – RTC pre­sented 10,000 eu­ros to No. 70013’s part­ner ‘Pa­cific’, East Ger­man­based No. 03.1010.

Through all of it, he had a dry, wicked sense of hu­mour – as those lucky enough to have spent time with him in an out-of-the­way bar on one of his trips would con­firm. There was a sense of it too in the short­skirted hostesses – the ‘Dob­bi­nettes’ – who wel­comed pas­sen­gers to his trains.

Yes, some of the trips were hugely am­bi­tious. No, not ev­ery­thing al­ways went to plan – but then what does in this world? One thing is cer­tain – main line steam in Bri­tain would have been a tamer and smaller af­fair if Nigel Dobbing had never come along.

So, what now? Well, the good news is that RTC car­ries on, as Man­ag­ing Direc­tor Kelly Os­borne makes clear. So too will the ‘GB’.

In a trib­ute to her boss, penned for this col­umn, Kelly says that Nigel’s “un­timely and un­ex­pected pass­ing has shocked all who knew him, and none more than the team at the Rail­way Tour­ing Com­pany of­fice.

“Per­son­ally, I have known and worked with Nigel for over 23 years, I classed him as fam­ily and will miss him dearly – and from all the tele­phone calls, emails and mes­sages he will be missed by many within the in­dus­try, too.

“He paved the way for so many with his pas­sion for steam. His de­ter­mi­na­tion drove him to achieve what many said was im­pos­si­ble – for ex­am­ple our ‘Great Bri­tain’ tours which will now con­tinue as his legacy.

“Nigel’s wish was for RTC to con­tinue and I will en­sure that we re­main true to his vi­sion, with the full sup­port of his fam­ily and a very ded­i­cated team.”

Those sen­ti­ments, I’m sure, will res­onate with many whose lives RTC and its trains have touched.

Oh… and Nigel, that time you failed to make the plane to Ber­lin? You ac­tu­ally lost out on a great trip. You were missed then, and you’ll be missed now.

●● Nigel Dobbing’s fu­neral was to be held on Novem­ber 2 in King’s Lynn. Mar­ried twice, he leaves three sons.


Nigel Dobbing (right) with the No. 03.1010 team at Carlisle in 2010, in the com­pany of Oliver Cromwell, for­mer NRM direc­tor Steve Davies (sec­ond right), 5305LA Chair­man Tom Tighe (just vis­i­ble be­hind the ‘Dob­bi­nettes’) and Tony Streeter (third left).

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