Exclusive:‘Harry Potter’ Jacobite steam train firm accused of damaging West Highland economy by running empty trains amid safety dispute

West Coast Railways ‘blocking other firms from Fort William-Mallaig line’

West Coast Railways (WCR) has cancelled at least the first three weeks of the daily service, which attracts Harry Potter fans because of its similarities with the Hogwarts Express, after losing a court battle to run it with carriages that don’t have central door locking.

But another heritage train operator, which has started a West Highlander diesel-hauled service on the line, has accused WCR of blocking use of the railway by running empty trains.

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WCR, which had been scheduled to start the Jacobite’s annual summer season two weeks ago, said its trains which ran this week were for crew training. In March, it applied to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) safety regulator for a further exemption from a ban on using coaches without central locking.

One of the Jacobite's last 2023 season services crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in October. (Photo by Charlotte Graham)One of the Jacobite's last 2023 season services crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in October. (Photo by Charlotte Graham)
One of the Jacobite's last 2023 season services crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in October. (Photo by Charlotte Graham)

The WCR’s move happened weeks before the start of the season, despite losing its legal battle three months earlier. It has cancelled services until at least April 18, with passengers, who paid up to £105 return, being offered refunds.

Locomotive Services Group (LSG) said it would have liked to use the Jacobite’s time slots, or “paths”, on the 78-mile line while the services were suspended so its passengers could spend longer in Mallaig before returning to Fort William.

Managing director Tony Bush told The Scotsman: “The paths that WCR use are subject to ‘use it or lose it’ clauses in their track access agreement with Network Rail. Nominally, if a path isn’t used for 90 days, Network Rail can offer it to another user. The clock resets after every use.

“So, by using the path this week – I’m told they are only running on days that we do – even with empty stock and no passengers, they are preventing other operators from being offered their use.

"This in fact is a position entirely contrary to [WCR commercial manager] James Shuttleworth’s statements that they are trying to protect the local economy, as unless WCR resolve their issues with ORR, by using central door locking-fitted coaches, they will continue to damage the local area by behaving in this way.

“If the Jacobite paths were available, we would utilise some of them in order to offer a longer dwell time in Mallaig for our West Highlander customers. As it is, we can only work within the remaining timetable available. This would be the same for any other party wishing to operate services between Fort William and Mallaig.”

However, Mr Shuttleworth said: “We continue to appeal to the ORR to renew the exemption, which enables us to operate on the main rail line. We are currently using our paths for crew training to ensure we are ready to operate immediately after an exemption is granted.

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"We have spent 30 years developing and building a service which attracts visitors from across the world, and remain firmly committed to it, so ensuring, in the long term, local economies continue to benefit from this unique and much-loved tourist attraction.”

The ORR said it was assessing WCR’s application.



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