ScotRail’s attempt to run steam trains is in danger of fizzling out because of heavy losses, just two years after they were triumphantly launched by new operator Abellio.
Industry sources said ScotRail had “no specific plans” to run more services, despite another company putting on extra steam trains this year and the Flying Scotsman locomotive returning for more sold-out runs.
Abellio had said the “biggest story” when it won the ten-year franchise to run ScotRail in 2014 had been its plans for steam.
It said: “From the reactions we’ve seen, you are as excited as we are about these plans.”
Jeff Hoogesteger, the then Abellio Group chief executive, said: “We are aware the opportunity to experience rail travel by steam train is popular with people in Scotland and with tourists. With effective marketing we believe the steam train experience will increase visitor opportunities.”
ScotRail operated sold-out steam excursions on the newly-opened Borders Railway in 2015, with a handful on other lines.
Last year, the firm announced the “much-anticipated return” of steam on the Borders route, along with two trips to Fife.
However, these were less popular, with tickets being sold on a discount website because of lack of demand.
One source said: “They lost a hatful. Steam needs careful handling and marketing.”
Another said: “Steam is a very good public relations tool for the railways in Scotland, but there is a need for smarter thinking. Last year, ScotRail dropped the free train travel offer to get to its steam services, which is why the trains ran half full.”
The threatened end of ScotRail steam comes weeks after two Flying Scotsman trips over the Forth Bridge in May sold out within days.
The Jacobite service, which runs summer steam-hauled trains between Fort William and Mallaig, is also extending its season into October, and over Christmas.
ScotRail said it had only been required to run steam for two years under its franchise agreement with ministers.
It declined to comment on future plans, but a source said: “At this time, ScotRail has no specific plans to operate any steam programme beyond 2016.
“Based on the evidence to date, and under current ScotRail operational procedures, it’s evident that any future steam train experience will need significant funding.”
It is understood ScotRail is exploring options for further steam on the Borders line with the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency and Scottish Borders Council, but talks are “at a very early stage”.
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said: “Abellio ScotRail committed to deliver a two-year pilot for steam services on Scotland’s railways, as outlined in the franchise agreement.
“It will be for the franchisee or other operators to set the steam service timetable in future years, following the end of the pilot period.”
However, Scottish Borders Council was more optimistic that steam services could continue.
A spokesman said: “The council has been working with partners in the Borders Railway Blueprint programme to explore options for developing a new steam train programme in the future and is positive that the popular tourism experience will return.”