LONDON — A safety dispute between British rail regulators and the operator of summer steam trains through the West Highlands of Scotland threatens to prevent the trains — now internationally famous — from running next year.
The trains in question gained their fame as the “Harry Potter Train,” as the route – and especially the curved Glenfinnan Viaduct featured in the Harry Potter movies — brings tourists from all over the world to see and ride the trains.
The train includes some of the actual equipment used for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies, but despite being known as the “Harry Potter Train” is not actually marketed as such, as the movie series and its merchandising is owned by Warner Bros. Instead, its official name is The Jacobite. [The Jacobites were supporters of 17th-century Catholic British King James II who was deposed and replaced by his Protestant daughter; decades of low-level civil warfare followed, especially in western Scotland where he remained popular.] The service on the 41 miles between Fort William and Mallaig is one of the most scenic anywhere, and was started by former state rail company British Rail, which began the steam tourist operation in 1984, long before the first Harry Potter book had been written.
Britain’ rail safety organization, the Office of Rail and Road, has been imposing more stringent rules on all charter train operators who use old British Rail equipment dating from the 1950s-70s. The operator of The Jacobite is West Coast Railways, launched in 1998 when Britain’s railways were being privatized, which obtained a license to take over the former BR-operated steam service. The locomotive used in the Harry Potter movies is owned by WCR but isn’t in use; since 2015, it has been on loan as a star exhibit at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London in Watford, just north of London. WCR uses other steam locomotives, most built in the 1940s and ’50s, for The Jacobite. WCR also provide cars and locomotives (steam and diesel) for other charter trains in Britain from locations in northern England and London.
Regulator requires update to door locks
The reason for the regulators’ concern is twofold. The Jacobite trains are running on the national rail system, not a museum line, and as result run reasonably fast, at speeds of 50 to 60 mph, not the 25 mph maximum mandated on the UK’s heritage lines. Secondly, the cars in use had a reputation in the 1980s and 1990s, before they were phased out, of having the doors occasionally open if the locking mechanism didn’t work and, for example, someone leaned against them. Add to that the fact modern-day visitors from around the world are used to train doors that are automatic and lock when the train moves, and the logic for the regulators’ concern is clear.
WCR says it can’t afford to change the locks, as it will cost £7 million ($8 million). It says this represents all the profit the company has made from running the train — although that argument seems to ignore the money it could make in the future. Crucially for the regulator, it also ignores the fact WCR has already had two multi-year exemptions when it agreed to make the change, and that most of its competitors in the charter-train market have already modified their cars or agreed a plan to do so. In the last decade, WCR and the rail regulator have had a number of previous disputes relating to charter services elsewhere in Britain, and these have briefly disrupted the operation of the Jacobite service.
In July 2023, following some unannounced inspections, the ORR banned WCR from operating the Jacobite trains, citing doors that were not locked and a lack of onboard crew to stop passengers leaning out of the windows or trying to operate the doors. When it permitted operations to start again in August, the regulator gave WCR until the end of November 2023 to modify its fleet, which was the end of the exemption period agreed to a decade before.
Instead of making the changes, WCR has begun legal action to overturn the regulators’ decision. As a result, WCR received a three-month extension in late November, but this only takes the exemption to the end of February, and the first Jacobite train of 2024 isn’t due to run until March 28. (Trains then run daily, with two trains most days, until Oct. 25.) Despite publicly saying it is unclear if the service can continue — unless the regulator changes its mind or loses in court — WCR has, however, begun selling tickets for those trains, emailing previous customers on Dec. 1.
If the legal dispute isn’t resolved and WCR decides not to fit the cars with central door locking it is unlikely the service will end for good. There are other charter train operators, who have either updated their cars or agreed to a timetable to do so, who could run trains on the Fort William-Mallaig line if they chose. Given the international appeal of the train, and the fact it mostly sells out weeks or months in advance, it is very likely another company will offer its own trains if WCR chooses not to or fails to agree to a deal with ORR.