A resurgence of steam train travel is stoking huge interest, but it must be properly developed to maximise the potential benefit for Scotland.
The lure of steam engine-hauled trips has the power to attract both tourists and people otherwise wedded to their cars, adding further to the country’s impressive growth in rail travel.
The return of Flying Scotsman to its old stamping ground of the east coast main line yesterday brought thousands to the tracksides.
Tickets for the locomotive’s Scottish trips in May sold out in 90 minutes on Monday.
That follows ScotRail operator Abellio saying it had been taken by surprise that the “biggest story” about its plans for its franchise which started last year was that for steam.
The firm ran a series of sold-out trips on the newly-opened Borders Railway last September and October which sold out again when extra carriages were added.
The initiative has built on the success of the Jacobite steam service between Fort William and Mallaig, which originated under British Rail 32 years ago and has been a magnet for Harry Potter fans as the nearest thing to the fictional Hogwarts Express.
In addition, there are burgeoning steam railways across Scotland, including the Aviemore-based Strathspey Railway, which celebrated its most successful year in 2015 and plans to extend north to Grantown-on-Spey.
The Scottish Railway Preservation Society, which runs the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway and trips across Scotland, also announced record figures last month.
However, I’m told running steam trains on the rail network is a very tricky business, involving lengthy negotiations for space on the ever-busier tracks, and to ensure the latest stringent safety requirements are met.
According to independent regulators, Britain’s railways are the safest in Europe, with the last passenger to be killed on a train an unprecedented nine years ago this week.
It’s even more reason to ensure steam trains and their decades-old carriages operate safely on a network that has never carried so much traffic.
However, that has been threatened by Britain’s largest steam firm – and Jacobite operator – West Coast Railways (WCR) being served with what’s seen as the industry’s most damning-yet warning when it was banned from the network last week for a series of incidents in England.
All WCR trains were also halted last year following a previous incident, but the ban was subsequently lifted in time for the Jacobite to start on time. The episode caused major problems for ScotRail, which had planned to use WCR for its inaugural steam trips last summer in the Highlands.
However, two months later, even after ScotRail found another operator, The Scotsman revealed that tickets for the excursions were being sold on a discount website at half price to fill empty seats. That came amid industry concern at the lack of promotion of the trips, especially since the market had previously been dominated by tours from England.
ScotRail is still devising this year’s programme, but expect the Borders Railway to be included again. Observers believe trips during the Edinburgh Festival would be a winner.
Pretty much everyone will benefit if steam takes off, heightening Scotland’s rural appeal to tourists and natives alike. So it’s vital we get it right.