Private operator Rail Charter Services' trains between Appleby, Settle and Skipton proved so popular that director Adrian Quine believes they have opened up a whole new market and customer base. The final service of the season ran on Sunday, after 48 days of operations and around 300 journeys Over 15,000 people have ridden the Staycation Express.
As the Settle to Carlisle route is a mainline, regular timetabled passenger services are operated by Northern between Leeds and Carlisle. Mr Quine spotted a niche for intermediate services using tourist-friendly rolling stock to attract the patronage of travellers who simply want to admire the scenic line and the market towns along it for the sheer joy of the journey itself. The famous Ribblehead Viaduct is a major draw for them, as are attractive, well-preserved Victorian stations such as Dent, the highest in England and recently purchased by the Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Railway, who will run it as a holiday let.
The idea was conceived during the lockdown spring, and Mr Quine admits the decision to proceed was a huge gamble - but it is one that has paid off spectacularly as the Dales became one of many beneficiaries of the staycation boom. Rail Charter Services even coined the name Staycation Express, capturing the mood of the moment.
The company is a subsidy of Crewe-based Locomotive Services Ltd, which specialises in operating luxury steam charter trains for one-off excursions likened to a 'rail cruise'. This was their first venture into a more affordable end of the market.
The summer has thrown up challenges - including a lightning strike following a thunderstorm which damaged signalling equipment - but many trains sold out completely, actress Joanna Lumley was welcomed on board and hoardes of trainspotters gathered to admire the unusual locomotives hired to haul the trains, many of which were 1970s and 80s- era British Rail diesels beloved by enthusiasts.
The company fell into a mutually co-operative and easy working relationship with Northern, who welcomed the offer to relieve some of the passenger demand in the summer months. Northern's diesels - usually used on inner-city commuter routes and designed accordingly - are not tailored to leisure travellers who want panoramic views, comfortable seating and a catering service.
"The first season has been a real success, which is incredible given that it was in the midst of Covid when we conceived the idea. Often, the railway industry can throw a lot of regulatory hurdles at operators like ourselves, but Northern have been very supportive and pragmatic. It seems like the industry is now realising the need of working closely with us," said Mr Quine
"I think it was inevitable that we would see an uptick in passengers this summer, and as Northern's capacity was almost halved during lockdown, they wouldn't have been able to cope.
"The Settle to Carlisle line is a very seasonal route. In summer, demand exceeds supply, and Northern struggle, with their fixed fleet. Their rolling stock is inter-urban, and doesn't fit this route.
"Our trains were aimed at walkers and cyclists, who wanted more space, big windows, a catering service and a tour guide on board - we opened up a whole new market, with many passengers new to the railway who just wanted a family day out."
Usage increased towards the final weekend of operations - September 12-13 - and RCS have learned valuable lessons about peaks and troughs.
"Some trains sold out completely, and they tended to be in the middle of the day. We had expected some of the walkers and cyclists to want the 8am starts, but it was actually families and holidaymakers preferring a late morning departure. Many of them, especially families with young children or elderly people, just wanted to travel over the line, enjoy the scenery, wander around for an hour at the other end, then come back again. It was a day out for them, and that was far more popular than the one-way tickets for people who wanted to stay overnight somewhere.
"We will only really find out for sure in a normal year - we can't take what happened this summer as read."
Northern have already expressed interest in continuing the partnership next summer, and Mr Quine is adamant they want to 'complement rather than rival' Northern's regular workings.
"The route has very distinct, diverse customer groups and they recognise that they don't have the trains and resources to serve them all. Daily services are their territory, but ours is a more bespoke offering and we will work more closely together."
Amendments are likely to include fewer Friday trains, as it was discovered that holiday accommodation changeovers before the weekend mean Fridays are quieter days. Wednesdays surprisingly proved the busiest day for services.
The trains themselves were well-received, as RCS inherited a set of recently-retired InterCity 125 first-class carriages which had been refurbished.
"We got a lot of positive feedback - the carriages were comfortable with large tables and reclining seats. It's very different to a normal service, and that's part of the experience."
Mr Quine is also proud of their punctuality record. The majority of the 300 trains that ran this summer did so on time, with the only hiccups being the aftermath of the lightning strike and a failed freight train that blocked the line - both problems out of the operator's hands.
"To say we ran trains on 48 days, six days a week, everything went very smoothly."
This efficiency was fortunate, as delays would not have been the desired image to portray when Joanna Lumley arrived to ride the train while filming a new ITV travel series.
Producers contacted RCS after hearing about the Staycation Express, and arranged for national treasure Lumley to board it for a leg of her journey to Scotland.
"She absolutely loved it - she came and chatted to the driver, and a local artist even met her to present her with a portrait of herself. She loved the views and said how stunning they were.
"The record producer Pete Waterman came up travel on the very first train, and you could see the little boy in him - he loved the rolling stock.
"Michael Portillo (the president of the Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Railway) was keen too, but he was in Spain during lockdown and in the end had to give his apologies."
Ultimately, the Staycation Express's success can be attributed to its affordability and accessibility.
"Our parent company run one-off steam specials that are luxury day trips, with champagne and four-course meals. Tickets start at about £200 a seat. This is the first time a charter company had ever run backwards and forwards over a short section of route, and become more of a 'visitor attraction' as a result.
"We sold first-class tickets for less than £20 per person, for a 56-mile journey. That is very good value compared to normal first-class fares on the network. We also adopted a graded fares approach, with peak and off-peak trains, and mix and match with Northern services.
"As Michael Portillo said to us, this is the sort of service that this line deserves."