Steam trains take the strain for Britons stranded by national rail strikes

Heritage rail tours, steam trains, national rail strikes - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Heritage rail tours, steam trains, national rail strikes - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

A festive jaunt on a chartered steam train would normally be considered a rare treat for most.

However, as rail strikes bring dozens of routes to a standstill again on Saturday, and with a month of disruption over Christmas to come, steam operators are hoping passengers choose their vintage trains to get from A to B.

Rail tours will be the only trains departing from some stations as drivers from 12 operators walk out.

Those wishing to reach Kettering, Leicester, Alfreton or Chesterfield could take the York Yuletide Express, which is running a return journey from Ealing Broadway in west London to York.

The Railway Touring Company, which operates the charter, has put special arrangements in place so that passengers can board and alight the train at various stops.

Kelly Osborne, its managing director, told The Telegraph: “This weekend is good news for us because we can still operate normally as we’re not impacted by the Aslef strike.

“We are impacted, though, because some of the stations will have reduced access. But we have received notifications we will be granted access to the stations and our passengers will be able to continue as normal.”

Saphos Trains, steam trains, national rail strikes - Phil Metcalfe/Alamy Stock Photo
Saphos Trains, steam trains, national rail strikes - Phil Metcalfe/Alamy Stock Photo

The empty lines have allowed the promoter to divert the return leg so it travels via Wakefield Westgate and Leeds.

Other companies are taking advantage of the strike to persuade passengers to ride with them.

The Medway Valley Christmas Pullman, which costs £400-a-head for a five-course lunch and uses original Pullman carriages from the Twenties and Thirties, will be the only passenger train leaving London Victoria.

The train’s promoter was forced to email passengers earlier this week to clarify that “information from certain Train Operating Companies stating that London Victoria is closed is incorrect”.

Simon Farrow, the operations director at the family-owned business, told The Telegraph: “It isn’t every day that we get to be the only train running from a major London terminus.”

A third steam train, Saphos Trains’ Great Western Christmas Envoy charter from Crewe to Bristol Temple Meads and back again, will be the only train to call at Stafford, Tame Bridge Parkway, Coventry, Leamington Spa and Bath Spa stations.

Normal National Rail tickets are not valid on any of the three trains and pay-on-the-day bookings are not accepted.

Train drivers at 12 operators are set to walk out on Saturday, with members of the Aslef union at Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, Greater Anglia, LNER, London Overground, Northern, Southeastern, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Railway walking out over a long-running dispute over pay.

It came as Christmas is set to be disrupted, with the RMT union announcing two 48-hour strikes for Dec 13-14 and Dec 16-17.

Passengers will be further disrupted by engineering works, with warnings that as much as five per cent of the rail network will be closed for about 300 projects over the festive period.

Major hubs including London Liverpool Street will be closed, hitting Greater Anglia, Stansted Express and Great Northern trains.

Long-distance services to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Blackpool and Glasgow will also operate on a reduced timetable.

Aslef, RMT, national rail strikes, trains - Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Aslef, RMT, national rail strikes, trains - Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the same time, there will be no Southern or Gatwick Express trains to or from London Victoria, while LNER will operate a replacement bus service between York and Darlington.

The Government is under pressure to act, and it is understood that members of the Commons transport select committee are raising the matter with Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary.

Greg Smith MP, a member of the committee and Conservative MP for Buckingham, told The Telegraph: “I have written to the Transport Secretary urging him to work with Network Rail to cancel engineering works this December.”

While steam trains are free to roam an emptier national network during Aslef strikes, the charter train sector is heavily impacted when Network Rail signalling and maintenance staff walk out. Hundreds of rail tours have been cancelled since the RMT started industrial action in June.

Mr Farrow said: “The ongoing disputes between the unions, TOCs [train operating companies] and Network Rail is an existential threat to the charter train industry, particularly smaller independent promoters like UK Railtours, and we hope that an agreement can be reached soon to return the railways to normal.

Ms Osbourne added: “We have been impacted since the strikes began and have had to cancel numerous excursions.”

Unions accuse industry of ‘dodgy deal’

Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, said: “We have come to the table, as we always will, in good faith. But while the industry continues to make no offer – due to the dodgy deal they signed with the DfT [Department for Transport] – we have no choice but to take strike action again.”

A DfT spokesman said: “It’s very disappointing Aslef is choosing this unproductive strike action, which will ruin millions of people’s weekend plans such as long-awaited Black Friday shopping trips or meeting up with friends to watch the World Cup.

“This dispute has gone on far too long and is not only causing disarray in people’s lives, but is harming the economy too. We urge union leaders to reconsider this action and instead work with employers, not against them, to agree a new way forward. The future of our railway depends on it.”