‘Hogwarts Express’ Harry Potter Jacobite steam train services suspended pending new bid for exemption from safety regulation

West Coast Railways criticised by Office of Rail and Road regulator for lack of “sensible contingency plans”

The operator of the Hogwarts Express-style Jacobite steam train has announced it is suspending services a week before the Easter start of its summer season pending a fresh attempt to win exemption from long-standing safety regulations despite losing a court case over the issue three months ago.

West Coast Railways (WCR) was due to launch excursions on the Fort William to Mallaig line on Thursday March 28, when it was expected to comply with the ruling in December that required central door locking to be fitted to carriages.

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However, it emerged on Wednesday that the company had lodged an application for a further exemption from the regulation on March 8 with the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) regulator, which normally takes up to four months to assess, while continuing to sell tickets.

The Jacobite crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct. (Photo by Getty Images)The Jacobite crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct. (Photo by Getty Images)
The Jacobite crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct. (Photo by Getty Images)

The ORR criticised WCR for appearing “not to have made sensible contingency plans for the benefit of their customers”.

On Thursday morning, WCR’s website still stated: “Bookings for the Jacobite 2024 season are now open”.

Online booking appeared to have been suspended, but a phone number for reservations was listed on the Jacobite fares page.

The operator was told by the regulator a year ago it would not be granted any further exemptions and its licence to operate the service was revoked in January.

One rail source described WCR’s move as “disingenuous”, while Jeremy Hosking, chairman of another heritage operator, Locomotive Services Limited Group, said: “It looks like an attempt to legitimise a straightforward case of regulatory non-compliance.

“If granted this creates an unlevel playing field between operators who try to comply with safety rules and those that don’t.”

The Jacobite’s services were twice suspended last summer after spot checks by the ORR found found safety failings, believed to be doors not being guarded by stewards, which was a condition of a temporary exemption from the central locking regulation.

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WCR said it had requested a temporary exemption while the ORR assessed its longer-term submission. It said the application had followed “a period of thorough contingency planning. This included an in-depth look at the options open to the business to secure its long-term operations and a comprehensive risk assessment.”

The company said: “As the ORR has not yet granted an exemption, WCR has suspended The Jacobite service until further notice.”

It said passengers with bookings would be offered a full refund. The service carries up to 700 passengers a day.

WCR commercial manager James Shuttleworth said: "We again appeal to the ORR to reconsider our request for a temporary exemption.

“The Jacobite service is enjoyed by thousands of customers every year. It boosts the local economies of Mallaig and Fort William and brings an estimated £20 million into the tourism sector.

"If the ORR does not grant us a further exemption, we believe this could lead to up to £50m in lost value.”

An ORR spokesperson: “All heritage operators were told several years ago that to operate after March 2023, they either needed to fit central door locking or obtain an exemption from us.

“WCR’s application for an exemption failed and they made a claim for judicial review. A temporary exemption was granted to maintain the status quo, enabling WCR to operate whilst the litigation reached a conclusion.

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“Despite this, WCR chose to sell tickets when it was far from certain a new application for an exemption would be granted, either in time for the commencement of services or at all.

"It submitted an exemption application on March 8, which we are assessing. ORR is disappointed that WCR appears not to have made sensible contingency plans for the benefit of their customers.”



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