Alastair Dalton: Plans for steam services have hit the buffers

The Flying Scotsman's return to Scotland earlier this year was a truimph. Picture: Neil Hanna
The Flying Scotsman's return to Scotland earlier this year was a truimph. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Steam was the exciting new plan for the latest ScotRail franchise.

Grand proposals were announced last year to restore the romance to rail travel with trips in vintage carriages over some of the country’s most spectacular routes.

Demand for those excursions running on the newly-reopened Borders Railway was such that extra coaches had to be added – and they still sold out.

Then in May, the triumphant return of the restored locomotive Flying Scotsman to Scotland after an absence of 16 years seemed a good omen for ScotRail’s second steam season.

But there was an ominous silence from the train operator about its plans, just as an estimated 50,000 people turned out to greet the engine as it steamed through the Borders and Fife on that sunny Sunday.

It was not for another month until ScotRail confirmed it would be running steam only on the Borders line this year, unlike the three other routes it ran trains on last year.

This was also fewer than its franchise commitment to operate steam on four routes in all.

ScotRail later added a second route – through Fife and along a largely-disused line past Longannet power station to Alloa and Stirling.

However, there seems to have been little additional or separate publicity for those.

So far as the Borders trips were concerned, some have been running so empty that tickets are now being sold on a discount website.

The fact they were this week also still on sale at full price via the ScotRail website will not endear the company to passengers who find out they’ve paid one third more than they needed to.

Those who went on the trips seem to have had a great time, with a three-course meal served to “fine dining” passengers, whose main course was described as being as substantial as a Christmas lunch on the train I was lucky enough to be on last weekend as a guest of ScotRail.

In fact, it has been these top-end seats, even at £175 each, which have sold first, and it’s not hard to see why, if you have the money.

Dining on the railway in what’s effectively a restaurant car, while enjoying the view, is a pleasure becoming rarer on regular trains.

The sound of the locomotive and the smoke trailing past your window only adds to the experience of sitting on some of the most comfortable train seats I’ve encountered, all amid gently jingling cutlery and pristine linen tablecloths.

Specialist operators may continue to offer such services, but ScotRail’s attempts to bring back steam in a bigger way now face an uncertain future after this faltering start.

The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency, which controls the franchise, included steam in what the operator was required to provide, but only for two years.

It also agreed to relax the requirement for steam on four routes so ScotRail could focus on the Borders.

So Fort William, Dumfries, Wick and Kyle of Lochalsh have missed out and with it the potentially significant tourist spend when passengers are given time to explore the destination before their return journey.

I hear ScotRail blames the poor update on the Borders trips this year on the conductors’ strikes, with that line among those affected.

However, I understand that even if the strikes had continued, they would not have affected the steam trips, and ScotRail should perhaps have done more to highlight that.

Let’s hope the operator will give steam another go next year and finally make it a success.