Scottish Rail Preservation Society forced to halt most heritage train tours pending £500,000 safety upgrade
and live on Freeview channel 276
Britain's oldest operator of historic train tours on the rail network has lost hundreds of thousands of pounds after having to cancel most of its trips pending upgrades to its fleet to meet safety requirements.
The Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) shelved all but one of this year’s excursions and will be able to run only a limited number next year while work is completed to improve the structural integrity of the carriages, some of which date back nearly 70 years, and install central door locking.
The largely volunteer-run SRPS Railtours, which has operated for 53 years, has launched a fundraising appeal to help pay for the work, which is expected to cost up to £500,000.
The Bo’ness-based SRPS, which also runs the five-mile Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway to Manuel, west of Linlithgow, is also Britain’s only heritage railway to have carriages permitted to run across the network. Services on the Bo’ness line are not affected by the changes.
However, the organisation is confident of winning a further extension from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) safety regulator to the deadline for completion of the improvements until 2028 so it can run some main line services in the interim.
Its last exemption, or derogation, from the regulations ran out in the spring. Central door locking is expected to take up to three years to install. Restrictions during the Covid pandemic have also delayed the overhauls and contributed to SRPS losing some £400,000 in lost tour revenue, with losses expected to continue next year.
SRPS finance director Andrew Wells said: “At this stage, we are not expecting to run a full rail tour programme in 2024 given that we are seeking to comply in full to the latest and highest standards of safety, although we hope to run a limited rail tour programme, followed by a fuller programme in 2025.
"We ran one tour in March before the expiry of our derogations to operate on the national network. This followed the challenging years through Covid, which delayed our planned overhauls and affected our income. Then rail strikes wiped out our 2022 autumn programme and associated income.”
Mr Wells said income from the rail tours was normally around £150,000 a year.
The SRPS ran 13 tours, which carried more than 6500 passengers in 2019, the last year it was able to operate a full schedule, with up to nearly 500 people per day trip. The total has since plummeted to some 1,000 passengers a year.
Mr Wells said: “The fleet is currently undergoing a programme of comprehensive structural inspections to ensure full compliance with regulation four of the Railway Safety Regulations 1999 [on structural integrity] and we are planning to spend over £350,000 on inspections and overhauls in the next two years.
“Regulation five requires passenger-carrying vehicles to be fitted with central door locking. The SRPS are committed to fitting this and we need to agree the timeline for this fitment with the ORR to obtain a further derogation to operate on the main line, but the work will cost up to £130,000, not including any volunteer labour."
Mr Wells said all other main line operators of the type of carriages involved, which are known as “Mark 1s”, had been given exemptions until 2028 for the structural integrity measures, “which we'd be confident of achieving”.
He said most other operators had been granted exemptions for central door locking until between November 2024 and March 2028, and “we’d be confident of achieving an exemption of a duration in this period”.
However, Mr Wells said SRPS had been forced to dip into its reserves to help fund the work. He said: "As a charity, we face the challenge of finding significant funds required to keep a fleet of historic carriages in a suitable condition for main line running.
"The challenge is exacerbated by increasingly onerous standards and we are currently exploring all options to raise funds to do the remaining work, which will cost up to £500,000 in total, as we are utilising reserves to keep the work progressing. This work is providing employment and developing engineering skills in our small team.
"SRPS Railtours is Britain's longest-established operator of scenic railway excursions, having operated around the network since 1970, organised almost entirely by volunteers. Customers can still enjoy steam haulage and railway heritage on our railway at Bo'ness. As well as normal service trains, we run themed event trains and offer full dining on certain services.”
The ORR spokesperson said: “There has been a regulation in place since 2005, which prohibits the operation on the main line of carriages with hinged doors for use by passengers.
“The majority of charter heritage operators have either complied with the regulation by installing central door locking or have a plan in place to do so. Services can operate with compliant carriages.”