Settle to Carlisle line's 'Staycation Express' charter rail service returning to blaze a trail

A dedicated charter service started as an experiment on the scenic Settle-Carlisle railway line last summer. Next month, it returns for a second running. John Blow reports.

Adrian Quine, right, with Emilia Steven and Alan Collinson from Rail Charter Services Ltd at Settle railway station.Picture by Tony Johnson.
Adrian Quine, right, with Emilia Steven and Alan Collinson from Rail Charter Services Ltd at Settle railway station.Picture by Tony Johnson.

You’d be hard pressed to discover a sight that better sums up the beauty of rural Yorkshire than the classic image of the Ribblehead Viaduct nestled between Ingleborough and Whernside.

Better still, one in which a train is rolling across the architectural wonder with passengers looking back out in amazement at the region’s splendour.

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In recent history, though, the way railways have operated has meant that services crossing the viaduct and its surrounding scenery have mainly been of necessity instead of those which can really bask in the glory of what is one of the country’s greatest train journeys.

Ribblehead Viaduct in the Yorkshire Dales in May this year. Picture by Simon Hulme.

No more. Last summer, a dedicated charter service, nicknamed the “Staycation Express”, offered something perhaps more fitting for the extraordinary route.

In July it returns to the famous Settle-Carlisle line – and organisers think it could be a trailblazer for tourist rail services around the country.

Adrian Quine, co-founder and director of Rail Charter Services Ltd, the company which runs the service, says that some scenic routes tend to be “Cinderella” lines – when they’re on “stunning, beautiful routes but they’re almost an afterthought” – because they are treated as commuter operations when they need to be looked at as a tourist offering.

“You can only really truly maximise the cash potential of these small, very scenic rail routes with a very bespoke offer,” he says.

“One-size-fits-all is never going to work.”

The operators previously revealed an expanded programme this summer following the success of their inaugural season on a service which is inspired by railway journeys seen in places such as the Alps or the Rocky Mountains.

The company began as an experiment last year – journeying on what Adrian believes is one of the country’s finest rail routes – to take advantage of increased visitor numbers in the Yorkshire Dales following the first wave of the pandemic.

It was so well-received that its owners have now committed to a revised timetable and a longer route for 2021 and have even sourced their own InterCity125 locomotive and carriages for passengers.

Adrian has previously said that the new train will be the only remaining InterCity125 in Britain to retain its kitchen and buffet car, meaning that passengers on the Settle to Carlisle line will be able to experience the first dining train that has traversed the scenic route since 1975.

Last summer a shuttle service ran, but now the 125 will operate along the full length of the route between Skipton and Carlisle, with stops at Settle and Appleby.

Flexible ticketing arrangements mean travellers can ‘mix and match’ with Northern’s regular timetabled services if they wish, and customers are also encouraged to arrive at Skipton by train from Leeds, Bradford or York for environmental reasons.

The timetable has been updated this year, with Friday journeys dropped, and Sunday running introduced instead.

Under previous circumstances the route was dominated by Northern, which operates many services around Yorkshire, but in March last year the Government suspended rail franchise agreements, initially for six months, to maintain service as passenger demand fell due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That opened a space for the company’s experiment to take place last year.

Since then, franchises were scrapped altogether, marking an end to a system that was in place since the 1990s.

However, Adrian says that his company wants to work with Northern and sees itself as complementary rather than in competition.

“It’s creating a different market and what we found last year was that as we grew, they grew as well.”

Booking has gone well, he says, with high numbers experienced so far for the service.

“We’ve been staggered by the amount of bookings – it’s really struck a chord with people.”

He says that two main markets have been identified: Yorkshire-based day-trippers and people from around the country who are staying in Cumbria going on trips to Yorkshire

This will benefit Yorkshire’s restaurants, pubs, hotels and other tourism and hospitality businesses, he says.

“I think it’s really important that the Settle-Carlisle line is truly a joint railway for both counties.

“It’s about supporting both counties, it’s not one over the other.”

He adds: “It’s bringing the community together, supporting the community, helping everybody to grow and really helping to develop tourism off the back of COVID.”

Visit Cumbria, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Rotary clubs of Settle and Appleby have also been involved in the project, says Adrian.

But he’s clear that it’s “not a flash in the pan” and its early success means it is here to stay.

Adrian, 54, of Lazonby in Cumrbia, will be on the company’s first train service of the summer on July 19 (the last one of the year is on September 9) and expects something of a “party atmosphere”.

“It’s always a sense of euphoria when you’ve done all the hard work and you see the first train go and you’re on it,” he says.

The train, which has been painted racing green with a silver streak, has been refurbished to have leather seats, private tables for customers, power points and wide picture windows.

Importance has been placed on social distancing, with all its seating around tables of two or four, while the company has also fitted Perspex screens to separate each bay from the next.

Food and drink from the region has also been sourced for diners to enjoy on board.

“That’s a really important thing for me – I don’t just want to be buying branded stuff from some corporation,” Adrian says.

He also hopes that the service would dissuade people from driving into the Dales.

Julie Barker, head of visitor services at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said: “Although the ‘Staycation Express’ does not stop at the five Settle-to-Carlisle line stations within the National Park, it does offer its customers a chance to see the amazing Dales landscape.”

She said that hopefully a trip on the service would inspire people to return to the Dales for a stay, not just a day trip – a message the park authority is promoting to help local businesses.

Adrian, who has written columns about rail transport for the Telegraph national news outlet, believes that the service can provide inspiration for other scenic routes around the country.

“I think it’s a real trailblazer, not just for the Settle-Carlisle lines.”

To view ticketing options, visit https://railcharterservices.info.