All aboard the Cathedrals Express - though not quite full steam ahead!

Mal Tattersall boards the Cathedrals Express at Bedford station
Mal Tattersall boards the Cathedrals Express at Bedford station

Pah … the Fat Controller would not have been amused. And neither were the 100 or so slightly bleary-eyed passengers waiting on Bedford station at 7.30 on Saturday morning for what was supposed to be a special steam train excursion.

In fact some were steaming that Galatea, an 80-year-old locomotive which once hauled passenger expresses across British Rail’s London Midland Region at 90mph, had failed a last minute “fitness-to-run” test.

Apparently the crimson-painted Jubilee class loco – which looks a dead ringer for James the Red Engine in the Rev Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine stories – developed a problem with its valve gear.

So instead the Cathedrals Express was going to be coupled up to a diesel locomotive for the run south through St Albans and then on to Bath and Bristol.

The apologetic organisers, Steam Dreams, tried to put a brave face on it. After all, they pointed out, it was still a vintage engine. Just a diesel one.

But there would be no belching of black smoke, no hissing of steam, no shrieking of whistles, no clanking of coupling rods and no screeching of giant wheels on metal tracks as we thundered through Flitwick and Harlington and Leagrave before the next stop at St Albans.

Fortunately, no flecks of soot in your eye either if you leaned out the old-fashioned British Rail carriage windows the way everyone used to do.

Still at least the train was running on time – which is more than blooming Thameslink’s trains normally do – and while the carriage seats might be old they were considerably more roomy and comfortable than the new-fangled “benches” Thameslink force us to perch on.

And soon, after a scrumptious champagne breakfast in the restored dining car, our initial disappointment began quickly ebbing away.

Aimee Stevenson, the passenger services director, strolled down through the carriages apologising personally to all the passengers. The problems with Galatea had just been one of those unfortunate things.

As compensation, she promised Steam Dreams would be offering partial refunds or up to £90 credit against another of their trips.

By the time we had sped through Reading, with the sun streaming through the windows, and past the spectacular White Horses of Pewsey and Westbury carved into the hillsides, nobody cared we weren’t steam-hauled.

In fact we felt rather like celebrities waving to little groups of trainspotters huddled at the stations we thundered through to photograph our Class 47 Co-Co diesel engine.

Dozens more camera-clicking enthusiasts were waiting on the platform as we pulled first into Bath and then, 15 minute later, Bristol.

If anything the return journey – with a succulent dinner of roasted fillet of beef, washed down with a robust bottle of Rioja, and looked after every minute by the kind, attentive staff – was even more enjoyable.

As for Galatea, well, one steam enthusiast explained, the loco is actually nothing at all like James the Red Engine, who although “a really useful and splendid engine” could be rather arrogant.

For a start Galatea has a 4-6-0 wheel formation, while James it seems is a 2-6-0. What’s more, my trainspotting chum “Charlie the Gricer” told me, Galatea is named after the goddess of calm seas.

And it is one of only four of 191 Jubilee class engines, all designed by the old London, Midland, Scottish company’s chief engineer Sir William Stanier, to have escaped the scrapyard.

So all in all, a wonderful day out. And while we may have been steaming when we left Bedford after hearing that Galatea was “indisposed”, by the time we returned on Saturday evening we were feeling really chuffed.

Back bang on time as well, despite the vintage engine. Oh, if only those blighters at Thameslink could make us passengers feel half that good on the daily commute into London.

Watch out for Steam Dreams’ next trip. You’d be loco to miss it.

> Steam Dreams run many steam-hauled excursions to various destinations around Britain throughout the year. The next local one is to York and Scarborough on August 27, picking up passengers at Stevenage and Peterborough, with another heading for the picturesque Settle to Carlisle line over spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct on September 9, which picks up at Milton Keynes. For more details phone 01483 209888 or visit www.steamdreams.co.uk