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Scottish Railway Preservation Society Railtours by Stuart Sellar and Neil McDonald, SRPS: Edinburgh meeting of 17 March 2020

The Scottish Railway Preservation Society is Scotland's national railway heritage operator, and operates three facilities from its base since 1981 at Bo'ness:

- a four-mile heritage railway with historic uildings repurposed from other locations providing steam and diesel hauled trains linking Bo'ness with Manuel
- the Scottish Railway Collection, which is Britain's largest display of rolling stock and other items outwith the National Railway Museum ; and
- SRPS Railtours, providing the UK's only example of a heritage railway that also operates on the main line.

Founded in 1961 as the hopes of the Modernisation Plan were descending towards the fears of Beeching, SRPS was inspired by then Scottish Region General Manager, James Ness, who had not only restored locos representative of the pre-grouping companies to working order but had also rescued the last two Caledonian Railway carriages from the scrapheap.

North British Railway Saloon at Bridge of Orchy - 5 August 1972d

North British Railway Saloon at Bridge of Orchy - 5 August 1972

© Stuart Sellar, 2020

When the Society outgrew its original home in the closed station at Murrayfield, Ness inspired it to relocate to a fire-damaged goods shed at Falkirk Grahamston which enabled new acquisition Caedonian tank no 419 to be found a home. In his time a tentative approach was made also for SRPS to take over the branch line from Gleneagles to Crieff which, had it been affordable, would have been a marvellous opportunity.

With Ness's retirement, BR was turning away from any heritage sympathies, and when the two carriages were put up for sale the Society succeeded in acquiring only one. However at this time BR was also disposing of Mk1 coaches, and it was thought worthwhile to approach BR for authority to have these registered to run in SRPS ownership onto the main line. Thus it was that to some people's disbelief on 23 May 1970 the first train ran with four such vehicles from the Falkirk depot.

Thereby relieved from the costs and risk of hiring in coaches from BR, the Railtour programme expanded to destinations further afield and funds were invested in acquisition of further vehicles. These were vacuum-braked and steam-heated, and it was not long before further acquisitions were made of stock that was dual-heated. Subsequently the fleet has comprised Mk1 vehicles that are dual-heated and dual-braked.

What was even more remarkable about SRPS Railtours was that initially the trains were composed entirely of pre-nationalisation design coaches (indeed in some cases pre-grouping design coaches), the only exception being the annual outing to London introduced when electrification was completed from Crewe to Glasgow in 1974 as that had to run at full line speed. Later on individual Mark 1 coaches were hired in on ad hoc basis from BR to supplement the Society's own rolling stock. Eventually the ban on wooden bodied coaches led to the Society acquiring its own fleet of Mark 1 coaches and retiring the old vehicles from main line use.

National Coal Board Lady Victoria - 23 May 1970.d

National Coal Board Lady Victoria - 23 May 1970

© Stuart Sellar, 2020

Catering was a natural development to appeal to families, and when a restaurant car came up for sale by BR in 1988 it was acquired for just £100 but with a £12,000 liability for removal of asbestos.

The depot at Falkirk had had to he vacated as BR were anxious to sell the whole site now that its role as a goods yard was over. Luckily a base at Perth was developed as a temporary staging-point, and in 1981 the Society was able to commence operations at Bo'ness where it could develop a typical railway station and yard as well as the branch line which at this point had lost its mainline connection.

Luckily BR spotted an opportunity to reinstate that link, now in the form of a trailing connection rather than the old facing junction, and in 1988 the mainline set moved from Perth to Bo'ness.

With tours earlier in the year behind celebrated LNER Pacifics Flying Scotsman and Union of South Africa, the summer/autumn 2019 programme was typical of recent years - except that in August and September the Society provided the stock for four Edinburgh-Aberdeen railtours worked throughout by A1 60163 Tornado using the newly-restored Ferryhill turntable. On the four August Sundays steam specials worked by Black Five 44871 from Linlithgow took passengers four times across the Forth Bridge, picking up at Dunfermline Town, Kirkcaldy and Dalgety Bay as well as Edinburgh Waverley en route to the Borders Railway to Tweedbank where there were excursions to Melrose & St Boswells, Abbotsford House and Seasons Restaurant.

Great North of Scotland Railway Saloon at Polmont Junction - 20 August 1978d

Great North of Scotland Railway Saloon at Polmont Junction - 20 August 1978

© Stuart Sellar, 2020

These trains had diesel 37685 on the rear to haul them back up the hill to Niddrie, where they reversed so that steam was again on the front. On 21 September 47832 on the front and 37685 again at the rear took seven coaches from North Berwick via Fife to Inverness with the option of a coach trip from Aviemore to the Glefiddich distillery, rejoining the train at Elgin. 28 September saw 37685 and 47851 top and tail the seven coaches from Paisley to Fort William. Finally on 19 October it was a ten-coach load topped and tailed by 37516 and 37518 from Newcastle via Edinburgh to Stranraer, with the option of a coach trip from Ayr to Culzean Castle.

The steam excursions were the highlight of the season. Bookings for the Borders specials and the September tours were significantly down on the previous two years, perhaps because of the entry into the market of Tornado Railtours, but despite this the revenue for SRPS Railtours 50th season was the highest ever. That achievement was due to the efforts of the many volunteers who maintained the coaches, planned and organised the tours and stewarded the trains.

Tours are run in partnership with a train operator, nowadays usually West Coast Railways, and entail dealing with the rest of the railway community through timetabling conferences. The programme has to take account of planned engineering works - this spring the West Coast Main Line is due to be blockaded on no less than eight weekends - and of pathing for regular services, which in recent years have left few opportunities to run on the congested single line north of Inverness. Now the task forces for the Far North and West Highland Lines are recommending a couple of extra trains each way which will make life even more difficult!

The Mk1 carriages are of inferior crashworthiness and will have to be fitted by 2023 with central door-locking and toilet retention-tanks if they are to remain in mainline service. Another concern is that a couple of fatalities involving people leaning out of mainline train windows have caused the Railway Inspectorate to become understandably hawkish about safety signage and about how much droplight windows can be opened.

As the programme approaches its 50th anniversary, the Society is having to address the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic which has already cost it the opportunity to host a mainline farewell for 60009 Union of South Africa. The coming weeks and months will tell in what form its mainline activities can survive.

Report by Stuart Sellar and Neil McDonald. Photographs by Stuart Sellar.

 

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