James Helslin and Michael Andrews
Founded in 1985 by Michael Ryan and Fergus Hobbs of L & R Leisure, The Royal Scotsman set out to offer a "remember forever" experience that would emulate the atmosphere of the 1920s, when charabancs met luxury trains at country stations to convey guests to great estates. Use was made initially of the Queen of Scots carriages until in 1990 its owner stopped chartering them, so a nine-month search was needed to find another fleet.
Operation continued under independent ownership, winning the Queen's Award for Exports, until the combined impact of world events including 9/11 and the Foot & Mouth outbreak collapsed the American market so in 2005 it was purchased by Orient Express to become part of a worldwide network of fifty luxury train and cruise operations.
The Royal Scotsman aims to offer a quintessential Scottish welcome, taking its guests through the heart of Europe's last wilderness and seeing places that only the train can reach. There is no television or radio on board, so the emphasis is on people talking and thus being able to share their experiences.
With its observation car and two dining carriages, it can accommodate no more than 36 guests who are looked after by 12 members of on-board crew. All cabins have private showers, and the carriages are finished in mahogany and walnut. The hospitality is to the standard of a five-star travelling hotel, with all food cooked on board using local produce. The verandah viewing platform is the only one of its kind in the UK.
Michael Andrews came from a hotelier background, and James Heslin is the train's engineer. Station operations require military precision, with just ten minutes allowed for embarkations at Edinburgh Waverley. Off-train visits take guests at a deliberately relaxed pace to destinations such as the Glen Grant Distillery, Ballindalloch and Eilean Donan Castles, seal-spotting at Plockton and the silver sands at Morar, but because guests are buying a train experience the duration of coach journeys is not more than thirty minutes.
Activities on offer include golf, fishing and shooting. Dinners on board can be formally attired, served to the gentle music of the harp. Two thousand guests are conveyed in the six-month season. Itineraries range from short tours of the West or North Highlands to a seven-night Grand Tour of Britain, and can incorporate variants at a customer's request - so that truly the experience is limited only by the track and by the imagination.
Challenges include the finding of paths on a network that has become ever busier with passenger and freight operations, and the inflexibility of the infrastructure on mainly single-track routes - Victory, the train's oldest carriage is limited to 70 mph. The train always stables overnight at a station so that guests may enjoy a relaxed sleep in the peaceful surroundings of places like Kyle of Lochalsh, and a platform ceilidh has puzzled other rail-users unaccustomed to the sight of a strip the willow on Dundee Station!
Last year its home depot had to be changed at short notice from Craigentinny, which was being refurbished, to Millerhill. Haulage was transferred seven years ago from the then EWS to the West Coast Railway Company who give a much more proactive service, there having been only one breakdown in that time.
After spending the winter at WCRC's Carnforth base, the nine carriages arrive each spring at Bo'ness for painting prior to entering service. Because the vehicles have a slightly larger envelope than modern trains, they are more prone to being scratched by lineside foliage, so unfortunately their exterior appearance soon deteriorates - the issue has been raised with the Office of Rail Regulation, but it has proved easier for Network Rail to pay compensation than to cut the trees.
Other concerns include the need to protect guests' security, to minimise overnight noise and to have access to a water supply for tanking - steam operation has proved impracticable due to the difficulty of getting water to stations. A tie-up was considered with the Hebridean Princess, but it did not prove possible to conclude the necessary contractual arrangements.
Crews have traditionally changed with other luxury trains, and in some years up to half have come from Australia. Now however all the recruits for this year are Scottish.
Research has shown that three-quarters of the guests are using the train as part of a wider itinerary, while one quarter are there to enjoy the trip of a lifetime. On The Royal Scotsman you can be who you want to be, and the benefits to the Scottish economy include the five hundred associated bed-nights annually at Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel. Marketeers don't always understand the geography, so the operators have to explain that for example Fort William is far from adjacent by rail to Inverness.
Repeat business accounts for only 5-10% of custom, but last year was the most successful ever, with 45% of guests coming from North America and 25% from mainland Europe but only 5% from Asia or Russia. There is not enough business to justify a second Scottish train (Ireland may be a better prospect), but the addition of a tenth vehicle might be a possibility perhaps to offer an on-board spa, which could however make it more difficult to fit into loops or stabling accommodation and might make Wemyss Bay no longer suitable.
Destinations in the south of Scotland have hitherto been excluded because of the need for a barrier vehicle on Mark 1 stock for operations south of Glasgow or Edinburgh, but it is hoped that the advent of Automatic Train Protection may allow the lifting of that requirement this year - new ideas are continually being sought, and the Borders railway could add Tweedbank to Stranraer as possible destinations.
A four-day itinerary can set a couple back by £9000. However all the evidence is that the experience far surpasses expectations.
The Scottish Region would like to thank Edinburgh City Council for hosting the event and for generously providing the free buffet.
Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.
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