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A trial run by a vintage heritage train which involved an overnight halt atop the world-famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, has sparked a furious reaction from local residents and constituency MSP Kate Forbes.
Christened the West Highlander, the train, hauled by two Class 37 diesel-electric engine locomotives – which first entered service in 1960 – is operated by Crewe-based Locomotive Services Ltd.
Owned by multi-millionaire investment tycoon and one of Britain’s biggest classic steam and diesel train owners, Jeremy Hosking, the company has plans to start running the Class 37-hauled trains on the West Highland Line in the summer.
Mr Hosking was aboard the West Highlander at the weekend and his managing director, Tony Bush, said the reason for the trip was to carry out driver training and test new equipment.
Asked about the reasons behind the controversial overnight halt, Mr Bush explained: ‘We stopped overnight on the viaduct as some of our customers have expressed an interest in travelling from London on a sleeper service, staying on the train and perhaps spending one night on the train on the viaduct.
‘Network Rail has been very helpful. There were some operational challenges we needed to test out and it all went very well. I was very pleased with the staff, we got a lot done.’
Mr Bush said all the staff had undergone Covid tests before boarding the train: ‘We left it as late as we could to do this and staff were, in effect, in a bubble, sleeping on train, with no passengers.’
Asked about the plans for a possible overnight stop on the viaduct in terms of potential noise disturbance, Mr Bush said: ‘We have a sound insulated generator car in the train formation which can provide power to the train, whilst keeping noise to an absolute minimum.
‘We are also developing an engineering solution to allow the generator car to provide umbilical power to the locomotive, so that it keeps the engine warm, this will avoid unnecessary noise at restart.’
Given the times of the last scheduled train service through Glenfinnan Station being shortly before 11pm and the first being just after 6am, there is also concerns about the noise issue at these times.
Mr Bush responded: ‘Yes, this is a factor we must consider as part of determining if such an operation is really viable to offer our customers. So we have much food for thought.’
On the issue of safety in case of an emergency while the train was halted on the viaduct, Mr Bush said the weekend’s test run had seen an agreed risk assessment with Network Rail that took into account various issues, including ensuring emergency services would be able to reach the train from Glenfinnan Station in a straightforward manner.
But after canvassing residents’ views, Glenfinnan Community Council chairperson Willina Colman said many residents reported hearing or feeling the noise and vibrations, and said these were beyond acceptable levels for both wildlife and people.
‘How on earth is this acceptable at any time, but during a pandemic when it is necessary travel only? It would seem that the rules don’t apply to you if you have plenty money – a point which has been made by several pandemic-weary locals who have not seen family for months. It does feel like we are becoming a rich people’s playground,’ she added.
‘This is going to stretch an already overburdened tourist area, with little thought given to the impact on local communities. Quite frankly, parking on the viaduct is a ridiculous suggestion.’
Constituency MSP Kate Forbes, who has written to Network Rail seeking an explanation, told us she was not surprised more train companies were showing an interest in providing a service on the line made famous in the Harry Potter movies.
‘But at a time when everyone else is trying to follow the advice and remain at home, it is difficult to see how transporting a train and crew from the south of England to the Highlands can be deemed as ‘essential’, she added.
‘To have a multi-millionaire travelling hundreds of miles to take in the stars from the viaduct sends out the completely wrong signal, and undermines efforts north and south of the Border to stay home and stay safe.’
A Network Rail spokesperson said: ‘Rail is an important contributor to the tourism sector and we regularly work with train operators to help them assess the viability of potential new services.’