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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Vintage trains take strain as UK driver shortage bites

West Coast Railways, which normally operates so-called “steam specials”, will carry passengers for free along the Lakes Line in northern England

1960s diesel trains have been drafted in to help ease chronic UK passenger chaos following timetable changes. AFP
1960s diesel trains have been drafted in to help ease chronic UK passenger chaos following timetable changes. AFP

Britain has drafted in a fleet of vintage locomotives to revive train services on a route controversially closed last week after timetable changes led to a chronic driver shortage across much of the country.

West Coast Railways, which normally 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 (Dh26,600) daily payment from the Department for Transport (DfT).

Services on the 15km route, which takes travellers from Oxenholme on the main line from London to Windermere in the heart of Britain’s Lake District national park, will operate six times daily each way for the next two weeks at least. The diesel engines involved all date from the early 1960s.

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 in May. 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 William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and hill-walking 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 - became involved after she tried to take the train to Windermere, only to be met by “absolute chaos” as visitors, many of them foreign, struggled to make sense of the new arrangements.

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

Test trains were due to run on Sunday 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 said, adding that while she has some sympathy with Northern as “drivers are hard to come by”, the Deutsche Bahn unit hadn’t 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, GTR 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.