The glorious return of steam to the UK mainline is being driven from Birmingham by the UK’s first publicly-owned, charitably-controlled Train Operating Company – and it’s already causing quite a stir in the business community
There’s something awe-inspiring about a steam train. Maybe it’s the sight of the most glorious piece of engineering fully on show for all to see, not hidden away behind plastic covers like so much modern, hi-tech machinery. Or maybe it’s the sound, resounding metallic clanking, steam hissing, whistle blowing. Or the smell from coal blazing in the firebox, assaulting the nostrils with the pungent aroma of history and nostalgia.
Whatever it is – and it’s probably all these things put together – we all love steam. Oh, for the return of the great locos to our mainlines to put those soulless Pendolinos in their place. Vintage Trains Limited (VTL) is doing just that after winning the right to operate services all over the country on the UK mainlines. After officially becoming a Train Operating Company at the end of 2018, VTL now joins the likes of Virgin Trains, Great Western Railway and Chiltern Railways on the Network Rail tracks. The award of TOC status by the Office of Rail and Road came after VTL passed the same stringent operating and safety criteria as required by the ‘big boys’ like Virgin.
It also marked the first TOC to run on the mainline as a publicly owned and charitably controlled business – shares in the company closed at the end of April, raising more than £1.1million to invest in development projects. Moreover, VTL is one of only four mainline heritage operators in the UK. Of the other three, two are run privately by billionaires and the other by the German government.
The Vintage Trains Charitable Trust operates out of the original 100-year-old Great Western Railway depot at Tyseley and preserves important express steam locomotives, Pullman cars and other items. It also manages the Tyseley Collection of heritage locomotives, carriages and workshop machinery at the Tyseley Locomotive Works on behalf of 7029 Clun Castle Limited (also a registered charity).
This year, VTL – best known for its hugely popular Shakespeare Express – is expanding its service to 58 charter trains, rising to 82 in 2020. While any member of the public can book to travel on its mainline services, the company is particularly looking to grow its highly lucrative events and corporate offering.
Driving the business forward is managing director Cath Bellamy, a senior figure in the UK rail industry for the last 25 years and previously the boss of Chiltern Railways and Hull Trains as well as having various senior roles at the Department of Transport. She heads a small management team of half-a-dozen full-time staff, plus a pool of mostly part-time drivers and guards who work full-time on mainline railways, 25 full-time staff at the Tyseley Works and a highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of volunteers who are united by their love of steam.
Cath said: “We are the youngest Train Operating Company in the country having only received our licence last year. Since then we have been and continue to be very busy recruiting staff from Birmingham and developing their expertise. Our objectives are to keep steam on the UK’s mainline, to be successful as a company and to raise awareness so more people want to, and can, travel by steam.”
The market potential for VTL can be seen by the rush to book its services ¬– for example, more than 23,500 people travelled on its Polar Express service from Moor Street in the four-week run-up to last Christmas after the company was granted the franchise to use the name by film giant Warner Brothers.
“Our services for 2109 feature longer distance return charter services, such as from Birmingham to Chester which feature standard class travel but also the most popular premium silver service fine dining.” The dining trains, featuring luncheon or ‘posh’ evening dinner, are especially popular with business professionals and these have been identified as major areas of growth for the business.
As an official Train Operating Company, VTL has to act like any other mainline operator and apply and pay Network Rail to gain and approve paths and its timetable. “We have to meet all the operational requirements just like the other train companies,” explained Cath. “We have had to show that our locos and rolling stock are safe to operate on the mainline, and we have to negotiate our services and timings with Network Rail. “You have to remember, our trains run at a maximum of 75mph, while non-steam operators services using the track such as Chiltern and Virgin will be travelling at considerably higher speeds.”
There is huge support for VTL within the rail industry and government. Supporters include the chief inspector of railways Ian Prosser and chairman of Network Rail Sir Peter Hendy, as well as senior figures at the Department of Transport. “And most importantly, the city of Birmingham is behind us,” said Cath. “Steam not only represents an era of the city’s past to be proud of, it is also a great tourist attraction of the present and the future.”