A new age of steam is being lined up to make a comeback on Scotland’s railways, conjuring up the magic of the days when making a trip was accompanied by a sense of excitement, the chug of the engine, the sound of the whistle and smoke puffing out of the loco’s chimney.
New ScotRail operator Abellio is planning a steam renaissance which could see extra tourist trains on many rural routes to showcase Scotland’s dramatic scenery.
The Dutch firm, which will take over the franchise in April, is investigating running steam trains on up to eight routes, including over the Forth Bridge, The Scotsman has learned.
The move would be the first time Scotland’s main train operator has run steam trains for 20 years, but experts expect specialist firms will run the rolling stock on its behalf.
Abellio hopes to build on plans announced by First Minister Alex Salmond in August for steam locomotives on the Borders Railway after it opens next September.
Other routes being considered include between Edinburgh and Inverness, which runs through Highland Perthshire and the Cairngorms; and north to Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland. Steam-hauled services could also operate between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh, which Michael Palin featured in the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys of the World series. The 124-year-old Forth Bridge would feature in tours of Fife from Edinburgh.
British Rail’s last steam trains ran in Scotland in 1967, but it launched a tourist steam service between Fort William and Mallaig in 1984, which became the Jacobite after being handed over to a private operator in 1994.
The service still runs during the summer on the line popularised by the Harry Potter films.
Abellio will look at adding steam to the rest of the West Highland Lines – between Glasgow and Oban and Fort William – with services also from Edinburgh. The Edinburgh-Aberdeen route is another contender.
Abellio said it was at the early stages of planning the services, including their frequency, and it had to ensure they would fit in with other trains.
Network Rail, which is responsible for the track, has already warned that trains will have to be cancelled to fit steam trains on the Borders Railway because of the limited capacity of the mainly single-track route.
Abellio Group chief executive Jeff Hoogesteger 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.”
The plans are in addition to Abellio’s “scenic trains” on tourist routes, which involve upgrading the existing carriages.
Tourism groups agreed that steam trains were a big draw.
Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, which represents tourist businesses, said: “Our whole strategy is about authentic and memorable experiences. The Jacobite has proved to be hugely popular and the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway and the Strathspey Railway [from Aviemore] do exceptionally well.”
VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead said: “Rail travel is an inspirational way to see some truly breathtaking parts of Scotland. We are delighted that Abellio has a keen focus on tourism.”
Transport minister Keith Brown said: “The tourism potential in the railways that complement Scotland’s awesome scenery.”