Full steam ahead as Shakespeare Express gets green light

Rail regulator lifts safety stop on popular summer steam service

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The Shakespeare Express. Photo: Keith Thursfield.

THE Shakespeare Express will be back on track this summer after safety fears were allayed.

The company that provides the drivers for the popular summer steam train, West Coast Railway Company (WCRC), had its operating licence suspended in February after a number of incidents throughout 2015.

Although none had happened on the circular route between Stratford and Birmingham via Hatton, it had put this summer’s Shakespeare Express service in doubt.

But last week it was announced that the company has had its licence reinstated after bosses gave the necessary assurances that issues identified, including the introduction of clearer governance structures with proper accountability for safety, more robust risk assessments, and enhanced processes for managing staff, with a focus on safety culture, had been given.

The most serious, in March, involved a steam locomotive operated by WCRC passing a signal at danger at Wootton Bassett junction in Wiltshire.

The train came to a stop across the busy junction on the Great Western main line, avoiding collision with an express train by less than a minute.

The Office of Rail and Road’s (ORR) is prosecuting WCRC and a train driver over the incident. At the first hearing at Swindon Magistrates’ Court, no pleas were entered and the next hearing has been scheduled for later this month at Swindon Crown Court.

The Shakespeare Express runs on the circular Shakespeare Line on eight Sundays between July and September, carrying 500 people a day.

Ben Mason, spokesman for Vintage Trains, which runs the steam train, said none of the incidents had involved the Stratford service, but there were real concerns they would mean it would not run for the first time since launching 17 years ago.

“As a company we have used WCRC drivers for 20 years, and all 17 of the Shakespeare Express years, and we haven’t had any problems. The suspension of West Coast Railways resulted in the cancellation of all our rail tours planned for the beginning of the year.

“But they have addressed all the issues raised by the ORR, which is excellent news, and we were delighted when last Tuesday to have been able to negotiate to be able to use them again this year to operate our rail tour programme and the ever-popular summer steam Shakespeare Express.”

Ian Prosser, the Office of Rail and Road’s (ORR) Director of Railway Safety and HM Chief Inspector of Railways, said: “A decision to stop any train operator from running rail services is never taken lightly.

“I am satisfied that WCRC has now taken all the necessary steps to address the issues of concern on safety, such that I am now able to lift the prohibition.

“We shall continue to closely monitor WCRC over the coming period to ensure that their approach is embedded into the culture of the company and that they fully comply with all the commitments they have made. Fit and proper safety management is one of the reasons we now enjoy the safest railway in Europe.

“ORR will never compromise on safety.”