THE operator behind the Jacobite steam train in the Highlands has had its licence suspended following a serious safety breach which put hundreds of lives at risk.

West Coast Railways (WCR) has been hit with a six-week ban by Network Rail and ordered to make a series of improvements after one of its trains ran through a red light.

It is understood to be the first UK-wide network ban since the railway was privatised more than 20 years ago.

The Lancashire-based firm has been given until May 15 to make the changes - four days after the Jacobite, which runs between Fort William and Mallaig, is due to start trips for the summer season.

A Network Rail spokesman said: "Network Rail has issued a suspension notice to West Coast Railway Company Limited (WCR) as a result of ongoing safety concerns.

"This decision has not been taken lightly, however safety will always be our number one priority.

"We have set out a number of actions to address the safety concerns raised and will continue to work with WCR to ensure their services can run safely in future."

The incident which led to the suspension involved a WCR steam train on the Great Western main line between London and Bristol.

The train ran through a red light at Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire on March 7, endangering those on board and others on the railway.

Rail industry sources are reported as saying the incident put hundreds of lives at risk.

The Department for Transport's rail accident investigation branch said the train had failed to stop and its crew had not contacted signallers.

Network Rail said it was the most serious incident this year involving a train passing a red light.

In a letter to WCR, Network Rail stated: "Network Rail has had concerns about WCR's performance of its safety obligations for some time and recent events led Network Rail to believe that the operations of WCR are a threat to the safe operation of the railway."

The recommendations to the firm include better train driver monitoring and the introduction of a system to ensure drivers receive and acknowledge safety information.

They have also been instructed to ensure better management of train protection systems.

No one from West Coast Railways was available for comment.