BUSINESSES in the Highlands say they have been “left in the lurch” following the suspension of the famous Jacobite steam train.

West Coast Railways (WCR) announced a fortnight ago that the train – made famous by the Harry Potter movies – would be suspended until further notice while it sought an exemption to safety rules from rail regulator the Office for Rail and Road (ORR).

But while it waits for a decision to be made, WCR has only been cancelling tickets on a staggered, short-term basis.

The latest news article on the WCR website states tickets have been cancelled for trips up to April 15, but beyond that date it remains unknown whether the service can run.

Meanwhile, the ORR has said it could take around four months for it to reach a decision on the latest application.

This has meant guest houses and BnBs have been left in the dark, with customers either cancelling their stays in case the train doesn’t run or asking confused staff whether they should pull out of their booking because of the uncertainty.

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WCR has also been criticised for selling tickets for months in advance when it was well aware it may not be given a fresh exemption from the requirement for a central locking system on its carriage doors.

The steam train runs between Mallaig and Fort William crossing the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, a route also operated by ScotRail.

John Jarvis, who owns the Treetops BnB in Banavie close to Fort William, said he has lost around £2500 worth of bookings since the announcement and fears for more to come.

He told The National: “We have lost about £2500 worth of bookings. Some of that is actually forward bookings into the rest of the year from people who can’t be bothered with the hassle.

The National:

“That’s mostly from UK-based tourists who they can change their plans easily. It’s our incoming guests from further afield that I’m concerned about because they are going to arrive here with potentially cancellations still going ahead and [I’m worried about] how bad that looks for Scotland as a tourist destination.

“It's not just us in this area but it has an effect on Mallaig which relies quite heavily on hundreds of people getting off the train. It’s the knock-on effect on the whole economy for Fort William, Lochaber and Mallaig.”

WCR has been challenging demands for central locking systems to be fitted to carriage doors.

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Its last application for an exemption to these rules failed last year but it was given a temporary exemption by ORR while it made a claim for a judicial review, which ended up unsuccessful.

The ORR has said it now looking at the latest application from WCR made on March 8 but has said it could take around four months for this to be assessed.

The train was also suspended last summer amid similar safety concerns.

Jarvis insisted ORR and WCR should get round the table to make sure a decision can be made as quick as possible.

He said: “I think from my personal point of view, the ORR has said ‘we’ll look at the exemption request at our leisure’.

“This is a £30m or £40m knock to our local economy. Let’s have a bit of common sense here and get this sorted.

“Lochaber will suffer quite badly. I think we need a full answer by the end of April so people know what’s going on.”

Cathy Day, who owns the Ben Nevis Guest House in Mallaig, said she has had cancellations over the last few weeks.

“It’s a blow to Mallaig because it’s two trains a day with hundreds of passengers," she said. "There’s a wildlife tour that coincides with The Jacobite at Mallaig and he is going to be really suffering.

“We’ve had a few cancellations but there’s a guest house next door that have had 21 in the last couple of weeks. That’s in excess of £5000 of revenue.”

Asked if she felt the situation could have been avoided by WCR, Day said the firm shouldn't have sold the tickets in advance.

“People are ringing up because they’ve got bookings in May and the Jacobite aren’t making it clear [about the suspension], they’re just cancelling it week by week," she said.

“People are asking me whether I think it’s going to run and I can’t say, so we’ve been left in the lurch.”

WCR has said customers who have their trip cancelled will receive a full refund.

A WCR spokesperson said: "The business was hopeful the ORR would grant it a temporary exemption certificate so that it could operate its 2024 season in full, this is common industry practice. However, the ORR has not yet granted it a temporary exemption so has had to suspend The Jacobite services for the time being.

"Other services will continue to run as normal.

"WCR takes all customer complaints seriously and is currently reviewing the cancellation period for booked Jacobite tickets while it continues to appeal to the ORR for a temporary exemption.  All actions taken by WCR are in line with the terms and conditions agreed to at the time of purchase."

The ORR has said it will not be making further comment at this time.