Following the fires in the Doncaster area on September 2 caused by former Southern Railway ‘King Arthur’ No. 30777 Sir Lamiel, Network Rail (NR) has taken draconian action and banned all steam trains on the East Coast Main Line on weekdays with immediate effect.
Could NR be about to widen the routes banned to steam? Rail.co.uk spoke to the NR Press Office and their spokesman, P J. Taylor forcefully suggested there had been too many fires in recent years and action had to be taken.
The Sir Lamiel fires destroyed the evening rush hour on the last summer Friday of the summer, a busy time so he said NR had taken the decision to introduce “an indefinite ECML steam ban on weekdays”.
When questioned if the ban was legal and acceptable by the Rail Regulator’s Office (ORR) in so far as it could be construed to be a restraint of trade, the NR spokesman said that “We have to look after the interest of the majority of passengers so we have taken the view that it is in the best interest of the railway”.
The prime function of the ORR is to do just this, look after the best interests of the railway by ensuring an abuse of NR’s monopoly in allocating train paths is not abused. When questioned why the two East Coast Trains (ECT) failures which added 20% to the delays had been ignored, in the fire incident, NR declined to comment. Indeed, the 700 minutes delay that the class 91 trains caused was only taken out of the overall delay minutes a few days after the question was asked.
It was NR’s Press Office in York that confirmed that the end result was that 5605 minutes delay were allocated to the steam caused fire and 708 minutes been allocated to the ECT failures thus reducing the penalty payment by maybe over £100,000.
Mr. Taylor suggested talking to ORR about a restraint of trade as non franchised operators have to bid for a path and NR’s trainplanners then have to try and validate the bid. They can only reject the bid if no path can be found and NR is not allowed to reject a contractually compliant bid without attempting to validate it first.
The ORR said that their view was NR has to accept bids for train paths and must try to validate them. The NR York Office insisted that if a steam train was requested to operate for long distances on the ECML, the application would not be accepted as the route management team had decided to rejected all such bids.
This was on the grounds that the route management team’s view was that steam trains could be banned on potential performance grounds and the possible negative impact on other trains and any operator can appeal to ORR should they so wish to do.
The real story is that the ECML is a combination of a poor performing fleet run by ECT and the electrification carried out in the 1980s was done ‘on the cheap’ so is fragile and poor performing. Of course ECT and NR are in essence both Government run and all are embarrassed behind the scenes so the Politics behind the scenes are the reason behind the steam ban.
Cable theft is a huge cause of delays on the route but day to day train services, overhead wire problems and points failures create more delays than steam does. Political pressure is being exerted on NR to remedy their side of the problems and £20m is being spent by the train operator and NR in an improvement drive.
ECT, speaking about the ban said that “it was not their place to express a view on a steam ban but that their views on the subject had been made known to NR. These were to consider alternative routes to the core sections as the best alternative. It was up to NR to allocate paths and ECT said they respect railway heritage having just named a train ‘Flying Scotsman’.
West Coast Railways, the train operator in this incident said that all they wanted to avoid any repetition of the incident and deeply regretted the problems caused.
Norman Baker, the Transport Minister has travelled on a steam service and used to work on the railways and met NR shortly after the incident as he has responsibility for railway performance. He said that NR had told him that the old steam footplate skills were being lost and this may have been the cause and also years ago the lineside suffered frequent small fires which did not cause big delays so maybe now it was all unsafe. It was pointed out to him that it would be wrong to cite safety concerns as unsafe on weekdays when it suddenly became safe at weekends.
"On the basis of the information gleaned so far, Grand Central does not believe that a ban on steam traction is proportionate. The most important thing is to ensure that the unusual combination of circumstances that were at the root of the fire loss, do not happen again, irrespective of loco or operator. We have an expectation that any type of train on the network should be safe and reliable irrespective of who owns it or operates it; whether the train is steam, diesel or electric is irrelevant. Additionally we expect events of disruption to be managed by Network Rail as effectively and appropriately as possible."
Privatisation brought Open Access operators to the railways and so long as the operation was safe and the bills paid, the train ran if there was a path for it. The ORR would not agree a ban on commercial grounds as NR has done.
The ban means that the ‘A1’ built just three years ago, No. 60163 Tornado only operated by DB Shenker has been included in the ban and has pulled the Royal Train on a weekday from York so would a repeat service now be impossible?
A Class 90 electric loco No. 90042 caught fire near Wolverton on August 30 on freight train to Felixstowe train and closed the WCML for four hours causing thousands of minutes delay. One steam promoter asked “Why were all electric locomotives not banned on weekdays from running on the WCML after this incident?” NR imposed the ban because the ECML has the worst performing statistics of any major route in the UK.
ECT will collect the delay compensation from NR, maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds, but did they pass this on to their passengers? Their staff handed out letters to passengers at Kings Cross in the evening suggesting their services were disrupted due to a steam incident, but there was no mention of their two serious train failures.
The taxpayer owned LNER ‘A3’ No. 4472 Flying Scotsman returns to steam next Spring and now looks to be banned for five days a week on its old route. What the Covenanters who donated millions of pounds along with the Heritage Lottery Fund think about this can only be imagined.