After a 123-day coronavirus-induced hibernation, steam trains have returned to the main line, with Crewe-based Saphos Trains being the first company to have a green signal to resume operations on the national network yesterday.
Its first trip was the ‘Fellsman’ rail tour, a 300-mile out-and-back journey from Crewe to the border city of Carlisle via the spectacular Settle and Carlisle Railway – one of the most scenic routes in the UK. As you would expect, things were slightly different on board – the staff wore PPE at all times, hand sanitiser stations were installed in the vestibules, clear Perspex screens could be found between the bays of seats, and the overall capacity has been cut by around 40 per cent per carriage to permit a seating plan that adheres to the Government’s social distancing regulations.
If the transformation makes the journey sound like a nightmare, don’t fret – the Perspex screens have been fitted in a way so that they are barely noticeable in the BR Mk1 carriages and (most importantly), passengers do not need to wear face coverings while on board. Within five minutes of being seated in my First Class seat, I felt at ease; it was obvious that Saphos had thought of a solution to every conceivable problem.
Overall capacity has been reduced by 40% in order to ensure social distancing is maintained, while LSL has installed plastic screens between each bay of seats. I’m onboard as part of @TelegraphTravel’s #greatescape series as the country begins to open up again. pic.twitter.com/q4JGeAyTPk— Daniel Puddicombe (@Thatcargeek) July 15, 2020
Crucially, the main reason to travel behind steam – the experience of being hauled by the closest thing man has created to a living and breathing object – remains as before, especially when we reached the S&C, which, with its challenging gradients and spectacular scenery, is easily the highlight of the trip.
In some ways, the service has improved compared with pre-Covid trips. I was in the Premier Class, where passengers are served a four-course breakfast and five-course dinner at a leisurely pace during both legs of the journey. Everything is cooked on board in a kitchen carriage and I quickly realised that because the stewards didn’t have to look after as many diners as normal it meant they weren’t as rushed off their feet. The food itself is as good as you would get at a high-end restaurant and is still silver-served, as before, so that experience of travelling back in time to the golden age of rail travel has not disappeared.
Going back to measures being put in place - there’s hand sanitiser placed in the vestibules. Each door is marked one or two, too - passengers seated in the lower numbers use door one; those in the higher numbered seats use door two. A well thought out approach. #greatescape pic.twitter.com/JKzUnUKIPn— Daniel Puddicombe (@Thatcargeek) July 15, 2020
The attention to detail is probably helped by everything being done in-house – the company, a subsidiary of Locomotive Services Limited – uses its own locomotives, rolling stock, and employs its own hospitality and engineering staff. I was told that the team spent three weeks preparing for the first trip to make sure everything ran smoothly.
At water stops, normally a scrum of people pushing and shoving to get the perfect shot of the locomotive as it pauses to replenish its tender, staff are on hand to ensure people stayed apart.
A regular traveller on steam-hauled rail tours, I was slightly apprehensive that the changes being put in place would have diminished the overall experience, but I needn’t have worried. Other passengers agreed.
I don’t like to take endless photos of food, I’ll tweet just one today. The main course is served. (Blame the poor presentation on me rather than Saphos since it was I who plonked the veg on the plate.) #greatescape pic.twitter.com/1ZVM1i9OcR— Daniel Puddicombe (@Thatcargeek) July 15, 2020
“The way the train has been laid out has been very efficient and I feel quite safe,” Rosalind Redwood told me, while her travelling companion, Robert, added: “I feel perfectly safe travelling at the moment and it is very well organised, the train has been well run and everyone has been co-operative and considerate to us to make it a very nice experience.”
One of the major appeals of travelling behind steam on the national network is the opportunity to leave the real world behind for a day and roll back the years to a period in which train travel was to be savoured and that remains even more so during the current climate, as you don’t have to worry (as much) about the outside world in the steam bubble.
Saphos Trains runs mainline steam charters throughout the country; the next trip is on July 26 from Bristol to Kingswear and back. Fares are from £95 per person.