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Jacobite train suspension may cost up to £50m in lost value, operator warns

The suspension of a train service made famous by Harry Potter could cost up to £50 million in lost value, its operator has warned.

The Jacobite train service through the Highlands has been suspended with immediate effect as it awaits a verdict on allowing it to continue operating in its current state.

The train, sometimes known as the Hogwarts Express – a nod to the name of the school in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise – is operated by West Coast Railways (WCR).

WCR, which is the UK’s largest main line heritage rail operator, has had to suspend the service as it awaits a ruling from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) on whether it can continue to operate with hinged-door carriages.

The service has operated for more than 30 years under an exemption that allows it to run with hinged-door carriages on the main lines, which is typically not allowed.

WCR has submitted an application to renew the exemption, and made a request for a temporary exemption to operate while the ORR makes its decision.

Jacobite Express
The Jacobite Express has had to be halted (Jane Barlow/PA)

WCR lost a High Court challenge against the ORR over the safety of doors on its carriages in December.

The company had complained that the multimillion-pound cost of having to retrofit central locking could “destroy” its business and it argued its door systems were just as safe.

But a judge dismissed the operator’s case and concluded the ORR had taken a “justifiable” approach.

The service takes tourists from Fort William to Mallaig, including over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Speaking about the suspension, James Shuttleworth, commercial manager at WCR, said: “We are disappointed to have to suspend this service and we are sorry for the inconvenience caused to our customers who have booked trips.

“We again appeal to the ORR to reconsider our request for a temporary exemption.

“The Jacobite service is enjoyed by thousands of customers every year. It boosts the local economies of Mallaig and Fort William and brings an estimated £20 million into the UK’s tourism sector.

“If the ORR does not grant us a further exemption, we believe this could lead to up to £50 million in lost value to both local and national communities.

“We remain committed to working with the ORR to find a long-term solution which safeguards the future of heritage services on the main line.”

An ORR spokesperson said heritage operators, including WCR were told “several years ago” that in order to operate after March 31 2023, they must either have central door locking, as opposed to hinged-door carriages, or would need an exemption.

The spokesperson said: “WCR’s application for an exemption failed and they made a claim for judicial review.

“A temporary exemption was granted in order to maintain the status quo, enabling WCR to operate whilst the litigation reached a conclusion.

“Despite this, WCR chose to sell tickets when it was far from certain that a new application for an exemption would be granted, either in time for the commencement of services or at all.

“It submitted an exemption application on 8 March, which we are now assessing.

“ORR is disappointed that WCR appears not to have made sensible contingency plans for the benefit of their customers.”

Passengers with bookings for the Jacobite will be offered a full refund.

They can email WCR on enquiries@westcoastrailways.net for more details.