Tourism reliant businesses in the Scottish Highlands have slammed the operator of a "lucrative" steam train service for refusing to comply with safety requirements that would allow it to continue to operate.

West Coast Railways (WCR) has suspended the Jacobite service, which runs from Fort William to Mallaig in West Lochaber bringing hundreds of tourists each day in peak season.

All heritage operators were told several years ago that in order to operate after March 31 2023 they either needed to fit central door locking (CDL) or obtain an exemption from the rail regulator.

The Herald: Glenfinnan viaduct attracts scores of tourists after featuring in the Harry Potter movies Glenfinnan viaduct attracts scores of tourists after featuring in the Harry Potter movies (Image: freelancer)

WCR's last application for an exemption failed and they made a claim for judicial review, which was rejected.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) is considering a further temporary application but said it was "disappointed" that the company has not made "sensible contingency plans for the benefit of their customers.”

Businesses say the latest suspension came with little advance warning and has led to cancelled bookings. They fear Summer trade will be hard hit.

The service, which featured in 2002's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. takes around 100,000 visitors annually to Mallaig over the spectacular Glenfinnan viaduct.

Scotrail operate operates four services from Monday to Saturday and three on Sunday on the same route but has warned it doesn't have capacity to cover the suspension and additional passengers.

WCR claim the cost of fitting CDL to all its coaches would be £7million.

The Herald:

However, the rail regular estimates the cost at around £350,000 per train and said operators were only permitted to run a maximum of four per day, meaning a potential outlay of around £1,393,960. It said other operators had covered the cost with a "modest" rise in ticket prices. 

Businesses in Fort William and Mallaig say they have "little sympathy" for WCR, which takes up to 600 passengers a day who are charged £65 for a return ticket and £98 for first class.

The equivalent 30-mile journey on the Scotrail sprinter is around £10.

Joe Blower runs wildlife cruises from Mallaig in the Summer months taking visitors to the Knoydart peninsula that are timed to fit in with the steam train 

He said: “A lot of people come off the steam train, then do a wildlife cruise and grab a coffee or a sandwich then back on the steam train or the bus.

“So it’s massive for us in the Summer.

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"Over the Easter break we would normally be getting 45-65 people on the wildlife cruise. We are now getting low twenties."

“Accommodation is full all year round,” added Mr Blower, who also runs a five-star self-catering business.

“But that doesn’t substitute for 600-odd people coming off the train and going into the local cafes and restaurants.

Mr Blower, who also transports children from Muck, Eigg and Rum to school in Mallaig, said he had little sympathy for the operators of the steam train.

“I think it’s outrageous,” he said.

“As an operator involved in public transport we are governed by the maritime agency. We have inspections out of the water, in the water every year.


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"If they don't like something you have to put it right, otherwise they will just tie the boat up.

“How they have got away with this for 20 years, just getting a concession every year and now they have given us a week's notice of the trains not running.

He added: “They have made bucket-loads of money out of the Harry Potter train - they are not short of money. 

“They have brought us a lot of business and we are grateful.But on the same score, they need to comply with their regulations just like I do with my boats.

“Last month they stopped running for a month because there were a few issues and they had to put extra staff on the doors.

“They took bookings to fill the train all season and not said anything to the local businesses – they have still not. All we get to hear is from their website.”

Mr Blower said he has now scheduled extra cruises to fit in with the Scotrail trains.

The Herald: Scotrail's service follows the same route Scotrail's service follows the same route (Image: Scotrail)

He said: "It’s the same track, it’s the same viaduct, it’s the same scenery and everywhere in Mallaig is open.

“It’s a blow but the world isn’t going to come to an end. We will adapt."

Frazer Coupland, chief executive of Lochaber Chamber of Commerce said businesses were reporting "quite a lot" of cancellations.

"Mallaig is struggling," he said. "I think we will be okay this year. The beds will probably still fill because we know it's going to be a busy season and we've lost beds due to the short term let legislation.

"What I'm less confident about is whether we will fill them with the same demographic of visitors.

"The people who come on the steam train are not people who come in camper vans.

"They are a demographic of people who are coming, staying in accommodation, going out for meals and really contributing to the economy.

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"Even though we will fill the beds we might not fill them with the people who are spending the same amount of money. We are not going to fill them with American tourists."

Hayley Cant who runs Ashburn Guest House in Fort William said: "B&Bs were closing at Easter as there wasn't the demand."

"Now, with the problems with the Jacobite I do feel we are all going to struggle," she said.

The Herald:

"The [owners] of the Jacobite should have just completed the work that was required and has been dodging it for many years now with extension after extension.

"They make enough money from it and should have completed it."

Sine Davis, who owns the West Highland Hotel in Mallaig and chairs the Road to the Isles Marketing Group,  said businesses were keen to stress that the area is "still very much open for business".

She said: "It is devastating for some of the businesses, especially gift shops, cafes and restaurants in the village.

"The worst part of it is the dereliction of communication from WCR about this. They have behave absolutely atrociously and as the owner of a hotel that is over 100 years old we still have to do our health and safety for the sake of the business.

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"The buck stops at WCR as far as we are concerned. They have had years to sort this out and it's a solvable problem and the figures they are giving are a blatant lie.

"Even if it was £7million, I don't think that is a lot to spend on health and safety.

"Mallaig and this area is not a one-trick pony. It's not the end of someone's holiday because they can't get that train.

"It might be an opportunity for them to see more of the area. Get the early train, go to the beaches.

"We are a destination, not a passing place."

Scottish travel blogger and itinerary planner Kay Gillespie (The Chaotic Scot) said: "Of course, visitors will be disappointed not to travel on the iconic steam train, but there is so much more to this incredible area than its Harry Potter claims to fame.

"The stunning landscapes, the local businesses, and the scenic journey on the West Highland Line are all still there and shouldn’t be missed."

WCR said all passengers booked on the train would be offered a full refund.

The company has written to Rail Minister, Huw Merriman to ask for his support in security a permanent exemption, with the backing of eight MPs.

The letter states that the company is "asking no more than to be treated in the same way as its peers who are currently operating hinged-door rolling stock on the main line".

A spokeswoman for WCR said: "We understand that businesses were disrupted at short notice, however, this was unavoidable as West Coast Railways had submitted its application for exemption and was awaiting a response from the ORR as to whether it would be granted a temporary exemption, while the longer-term application was considered.

"The £7m estimated cost of fitting CDL was the product of a thorough business contingency planning process carried out by WCR. With over 100 Mark 1 and Mark 2 carriages to fit with CDL, the significant cost could wipe out our profits for close to a decade.

"On WCR trains, selective door locking (SDL) and hinged door locks are only operated by staff. They allocate at least one steward to monitor four doors per service, which they believe is sufficient to keep passengers safe. 

"They have also carried out a comprehensive risk assessment that found SDL was as safe as CDL."

In 2022 a passenger in Reading managed to jump off a moving WCR train having overcome the steward and opened the bolted door.  He was caught by platform staff before he injured himself or anyone else.

 It followed an incident two years earlier when a train left York station with an open door.

WCR said it reviewed and updated safety management systems following the incidents

A Scotrail spokesman said: "ScotRail does not have the additional trains or staff to operate to cover the suspension of West Coast Railways services. This would require the removal of services in other parts of Scotland. 

"We will continue to work with Transport Scotland to provide any support required."