KATE Forbes has called upon West Coast Railways and the rail regulator to find a solution to the ongoing dispute over the safety of The Jacobite steam engine as businesses feel “enormous pressure” from its suspension.

West Coast Railways (WCR) announced last month 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 the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

WCR has been challenging demands for central locking systems to be fitted to carriage doors. Its last application for an exemption to these rules – which has been granted several times before – 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 up to four months for this to be assessed.

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Given that WCR is only fully cancelling tickets on a staggered, short-term basis, BnB owners in Mallaig – at the end of the railway line – have told The National they feel “left in the lurch” with confused guests ringing up asking if the train is going to run in the coming months and whether they should pull out of their booking.

Hospitality businesses have been losing thousands of pounds of revenue as a consequence and there are fears for how Mallaig will suffer in the summer if the matter is not resolved.

The Jacobite was also suspended at the height of the tourist season last July amid similar concerns about its carriage doors. 

The National:

Forbes, who represents the Lochaber region, told The National it is “incumbent” upon WCR and ORR to get around the table and work out a solution going forward.

She said: “This is an exemption that has been granted on an extraordinary basis for the last few years and businesses are very conflicted because they think that, ultimately, we shouldn’t be dependent on one major business that may or may not receive an exemption at the last minute. 

"That makes it a very uncertain environment in which to operate. 

"They would far rather have that guarantee and so it is incumbent on WCR and the ORR to recognise just how impactful this is and to figure out a solution for next year that doesn’t depend on last minute changes which is no way to run a business, let alone manage a small town."

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

Cathy Day, who owns Ben Nevis Guest House in Mallaig, said she had also started to see cancellations coming in, adding that another BnB next door had had more than 20 customers pull out of bookings since the announcement.

Forbes said businesses feel under “enormous pressure” after the train did not run last summer and insists if the saga continues it will have a “huge impact” on the local economy.

She added: “This will have a huge impact unless we get the message out that Mallaig is still open.

“Most businesses will tell you their busiest points are when the steam engine comes in. The timetable used to allow for hospitality businesses to serve lunch and dinner and the whole village was just chock-a-block with people.

“So this will have a huge impact [the steam train not running]. One business told me that their business over Easter was down about 30%.

“The big challenge is that this comes at the same time as ferry disruption and many people see Mallaig as a thoroughfare – people come on the train and go on the ferry. So when one of those routes is disrupted it’s tough, when both are, Mallaig feels very quiet.

“The key message that businesses want to put out there is that Mallaig is still open for business. Scotrail trains run to and from Mallaig, they are very comfortable and ScotRail are trying to improve their marketing to remind people there are other ways of travelling. Mallaig is beautiful, so please visit.”

ScotRail runs four services to Mallaig, Monday to Saturday, and three services on Sunday.

However, the company has stressed it cannot be expected to cover the suspension of The Jacobite.

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In statement, ScotRail said: “We know the importance of reliable and punctual services serving the communities of the West Highlands, and we are working hard to provide that to customers.  

“West Coast Railways has provided a popular tourism service and we recognise the impact that the current suspension of the Jacobite will have on that sector locally.  

“However, ScotRail does not have the additional trains or staff to operate to cover the suspension of West Coast Railways services. This would require the removal of services in other parts of Scotland.  

“We will continue to work with Transport Scotland to provide any support required.”

A WCR spokesperson said: "West Coast Railways has always shared the ORR’s commitment to safe railways. But, our current dispute has highlighted instances of unfairness that we feel must be challenged.

"They have said that our hinged-door rolling stock is unsafe to run on the main line, however, identical carriages without CDL [central door locking] are being run by other operators, on the main line at this very moment.

"Our ask of the ORR is to grant us a temporary exemption to operate on the main line, while they consider our long-term application which could take up to four months. 

"WCR owns about 63% of the total heritage rolling stock in the UK and no other company operates as many charter trains as we do. With our substantial fleet of coaches it would cost £7 million to install CDL, which would wipe out our profits for close to a decade."

The ORR has said it does not wish to comment.