The Vega-31 shootdown, 27th March 1999

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who was to remain in power until his death in 1980.  Containing six republics and two equally heterogeneous provinces, merely keeping peace between them was a substantial challenge, let alone growing them as a federative unit.  However, Tito “organised the central government to ensure his control but, at the same time, he delegated more authority to the Yugoslav Republics.  All Yugoslavians had educational opportunities, jobs, food, and housing regardless of nationality.  Tito, seen by most as a benevolent dictator, brought peaceful co-existence to the Balkan region, a region historically synonymous with factionalism”1.

Despite the fact that discontent had continued throughout the period, Tito’s passing, however, represented the removal of the “glue” that had held Yugoslavia together for nearly 40 years.  Unrest increased significantly after 1980, in particular that roused by Slobodan Milosevic regarding the province of Kosovo – containing, at the time, a 90% ethnic Albanian population, but considered by ethnic Serbs to be the cradle of their civilisation.  At various points in the 20th century, both have felt persecuted at varying times and with varying justification, and ethnic tensions have consistently run very high indeed.  Civil war erupted in 1998/99, placing tiny Kosovo on the world stage.

In order to try and put the brakes on the escalating catastrophe in Kosovo, international negotiations were held in a chateau in Rambouillet, near Paris, between 6 and 23 February 1999; further talks followed in Paris from 15 to 18 March.  At the end of the second round, the Kosovar Albanians signed NATO’s proposed peace agreement, but the Serbians would not, and the talks broke down.  In fact, the Serbian military and police forces “stepped up the intensity of their operations against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, moving extra troops and modern tanks into the region…Tens of thousands of people began to flee their homes in the face of this systematic offensive”2.  US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke failed to persuade Milosevic to cease the attacks on the Albanians, and on 24 March 1999, NATO launched an air campaign entitled “Operation Allied Force”, with the aim of forcing the hand of the Yugoslavian government to end the persecution of the Kosovar Albanians.

A notable event occurred early on in the air war, on the night of 27 March 1999, when a Lockheed F-117A “Nighthawk” stealth attack aircraft of the United States Air Force – 82-0806 Something Wicked, callsign “Vega-31” – on a bombing raid in the vicinity of Beograd (Belgrade), was shot down by a Serbian surface-to-air missile; the only time that one of these planes was ever downed by an enemy.  The significance of the event is summed up by the Stealth Fighter Association: “the unthinkable had happened.  A super-secret invisible Stealth Fighter had been shot out of the sky”3.  The pilot of that plane was Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko, who miraculously managed to eject from the stricken aircraft and parachute to safety.  He landed just south of the town of Ruma, approximately 40 miles west of Beograd – by yet more good fortune, and clearly assisted by the cover of darkness, his landing was not observed, despite there being some traffic on the surrounding roads.  The enemy were, however, searching for him – as there would be great prestige and propaganda potential in capturing an F-117 pilot – but although they located the wreckage within about 15 minutes, remarkably Zelko remained undetected in the shallow irrigation ditch in which he was hiding.  Zelko later found out that they had “unleashed a giant manhunt…involving Army VJ, police, and villagers in the area.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but much later through study and analysis, I guessed that I was somewhere between one and two miles from the crash site, which is pretty close.  I believe I was well within the most heavily concentrated area of search”3.  Whilst in hiding, Zelko felt shockwaves from further US air attacks on targets very close to his location.  On the ground, he was able to make contact with his Command and Control and relay his position (although he got the impression that there was some suspicion that he may not have been the downed F-117 pilot but in fact a Serbian ambush), however he was able to authenticate himself with some personal information.  He was successfully plucked from enemy territory beneath the noses of the Serbians by a daring helicopter rescue mission approximately 8 hours after landing.  A truly exceptional event and a Combat Search and Rescue triumph.

(As an aside, this was not the first time during the 1990s civil war in Yugoslavia that an American airman had been shot down, then rescued by helicopter.  In June 1995, during the Bosnian War, USAF pilot Scott O’Grady survived for six days near Banja Luka having been shot down by the Bosnian Serbs whilst flying an F-16 “Fighting Falcon”.  However, this incident is arguably more significant, purely because Zelko’s aircraft was previously considered impossible to bring down).

Despite their failure to capture Zelko, the Serbians of course trumpeted their success at shooting the plane down, and it remains a subject of nationalistic pride even today.  It is still common to see Serbian tourist souvenirs, such as T-shirts, on sale bearing the phrase “sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible” and a picture of an F-117.  The salvaged canopy of the crashed plane itself is prominently exhibited in the Aeronautical Museum in Beograd.

As a postscript to this story, it was widely reported in the international press in 2012 that Zoltan Dani, formerly the commander of the Yugoslavian anti-aircraft rocket unit that shot down the F-117, and now the owner of a bakery, had met with Zelko and the two had become genuine friends.  This was made into a documentary, The Second Meeting (dir: Zeljko Mirkovic, 2013) and gives an interesting perspective on the human element of warfare.

Of course, the air combat continued after this encounter, and got increasingly more intense over the next two months.  NATO record that “following diplomatic efforts by Russia and the European Union on 3 June [1999], a Military Technical Agreement was concluded between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 9 June [1999]”, and on the following day, “UN Security Council Resolution 1244 welcomed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s acceptance of the principles for a political solution, including an immediate end to violence and a rapid withdrawal of its military, police and paramilitary forces and the deployment of an effective international civil and security presence, with substantial NATO participation”4.  As a result, after confirmation that the Yugoslav forces had begun to withdraw from Kosovo, Operation Allied Force was suspended with immediate effect.  It had lasted for 78 days.

The overall success of the operation has been queried.  Some claim that the damage – of all kinds – that it caused far outweighed that which it averted.  Certainly, the 14,000 bombs dropped during the 78 days resulted in a large number of civilian deaths – over 2,000, including 88 children.  One of the most well-known events was in broad daylight at Grdelica, in southern Serbia, on 12 April 1999, when two missiles fired by NATO aircraft struck a passenger train as it was crossing a river bridge, killing 14 and injuring 16.  The bridge was seen as one of many strategic locations targeted from the air; however, the bombing also resulted in the destruction of schools, hospitals, over 40,000 homes, and significant amounts of damage remain visible across the former Yugoslavia nearly 20 years on.

Despite this, it is clear that NATO achieved its stated aim – Milosevic did withdraw his troops from Kosovo, to ultimately be replaced by UNMIK (the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo), essentially an international security force created to maintain peace in the province.  The international presence has been reduced since the Kosovan declaration of independence in 2008, but, predictably, the unrest in and around Kosovo persists.


1 Shapiro, Susan G. & Shapiro, Ronald (2004), The Curtain Rises – Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Jefferson: McFarland.  ISBN 0-7864-1672-6.

2 NATO (undated), ‘NATO’s role in relation to the conflict in Kosovo’.  http://www.nato.int/kosovo/history.htm  Accessed 00:04 8 September 2016.

3 Stealth Fighter Association (2007), ‘Blast from the Past – Interview with Lt Colonel Dale Zelko, USAF’, Nighthawks magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1, May 2007.

4 NATO (undated), ‘The Kosovo Air Campaign’.  http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49602.htm  Accessed 23:04 14 March 2016.

Kosovo’s Railway Graveyard

Standing at the erstwhile crossroads of the Yugoslavian railway network, Kosovo Polje – or Fushë Kosovë, to use its Albanian name – is a town approximately five miles west of Pristina, the capital of the disputed state of Kosovo.  It has had a turbulent past riddled with conflict – not least in the last 20 years – but, on a breezy afternoon in September 2015, it cut a peaceful figure.

Fushë Kosovë remains a railway crossroads, but its services are much curtailed from the Yugoslavian heyday – ethnic and political tensions have severed hitherto-vital links and reduced former main lines to branch line status.  As an example, our train was taken as far north as the divided and volatile town of Mitrovica, but the traincrew were not prepared to take it any further up the route towards Lesak, because “if the Serbs see the Albanian writing on the side of the locomotive, they will shoot at us!”  However, more about that another time…

One thing that Fushë Kosovë does retain, however, is a large railway depot.  It is where the entire fleet of the Kosovan railway is based and maintained.

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Two Kosovan Railways diesel locomotives at the Fushë Kosovë maintenance depot.

However, the depot itself has another claim to fame.  It has a padlocked compound at its southern end in which approximately 15 locomotives are parked – rusty, faded, battered and derelict.  These actually hold the key to telling us a fair amount about the history of Kosovo since the war of 1998/99.

(Now, what I will say at this point is that, despite the tags, this is not urban exploration in its truest sense.  It’s not especially urban, and I gained full permission to have a wander round with my camera).

Kosovo, as a former territory of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, benefited from being a small cog in the big wheel of a relatively homogeneous Balkan railway network; Jugoslovenske Zeleznice (Yugoslavian Railways).  Rolling stock procurement was done on a “Yugoslavian” scale and therefore you would not have expected to find different types of train in each republic/province.  However, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia has changed this.  It’s just one more way that each republic can cement its independence.

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JZ Class 661 diesel locomotive.

However, one thing that has all but disappeared elsewhere is any trace of the JZ logo, or indeed many reminders at all that the constituent parts used to be part of the federation with each other.

The Fushë Kosovë compound is an exception.  Here, the locomotives sit rotting, Kosovan purely by dint of being unserviceable there when the federation collapsed.  Nobody especially wants them, and in a cash-strapped environment, nobody really sees a need to spend any money on them, or more importantly, as their problem to do so.  Some of these locomotives will have not seen use since Yugoslavian days, many have certainly not seen heavy maintenance since then, as the faded painted dates on their bodysides attest.  The majority – if not all – will never pull a train again.

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Jugoslovenske Zeleznice.
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Jugoslovenske Zeleznice.
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A reminder of when Kosovo Polje (Fushë Kosovë) reported to Beograd (Belgrade). Nowadays they are not even in the same country.

Kosovo will be most well-known – certainly to people of my generation – as being the scene of deep-set tension between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs, and most notably, the attempt of Slobodan Milosevic’s government to brutally suppress the Kosovo Liberation Army’s campaign for independence which erupted into civil war in 1998/99.  Between March and June 1999, our TV screens were full of images of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign – “Operation Allied Force” – carried out with the intention of removing Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo.  Milosevic accepted the terms of an international peace plan, and the UN deployed a security presence in Kosovo, the “United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo” (UNMIK); NATO also deployed peacekeepers – the Kosovo Force (KFOR).  KFOR supported UNMIK’s work, but, as befitted their parentage, there was no chain of command between the two.

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KFOR and United Nations (UNMIK) logos on a former French Railways (SNCF) diesel

KFOR were up against a difficult task and it became clear that, dilapidated as they may be, the Kosovan railways would be integral to their operations.  Initially, the British Army (79 Railway Squadron of the Royal Logistic Corps) was in charge of railway operations for KFOR.

79 Railway Squadron had been present in West Germany during the Cold War which, had it turned “hot” and escalated into conflict between East and West, would have seen the squadron operate a support network of railway services using Class 216 diesel-hydraulic locomotives (on which the crews had been fully trained).  Sadly, the British Army no longer maintains a railway operating capability – if required in the future, these duties will be carried out by civilians instead.

The Italian Railway Regiment took over in the September, providing 120 specially-trained railwaymen and women, who were veterans of the Bosnian railway rebuilding earlier in the decade and therefore more than able to carry out what was required of them.  They brought their own train, the Rapid Reaction Train, in order to assist, which arrived in the October.

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79 Railway Squadron of the Royal Logistic Corps (British Army)

As an aside, this wasn’t the first train to run all the way through to Kosovo.  A remarkable train had operated in September 1999 in connection with the KFOR operations, all the more special as it was a charity endeavour.  What was called the “Train for Life” took three ex-British Rail Class 20 diesel locomotives and their train from London all the way through to Kosovo, arriving in Fushë Kosovë – not without some resistance en route! – on 27 September.  It was conveying 15 carriages of donated clothes, food and medical supplies, as well as educational material and other items to assist with the rebuilding of Kosovo.  Key to this was the train itself.  The three British locomotives then remained in Kosovo for a while, operating trains for KFOR, eventually returning to Britain where they re-entered service on less prestigious duties.

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The reconstruction and recommissioning of the railway network in Kosovo continued.  At this point, it’s important to point out that not all the work was done by soldiers – at all points they were assisted by railwaymen who had previously worked for the JZ and gave their labour for free.  In the same way that railwaymen have in divided communities the world over, ethnic Albanian railwaymen worked alongside ethnic Serb railwaymen – the common bond of the railway proving strong.

Piece by piece, the damaged and severed railway lines were brought back into use, predominantly for the transportation of supplies (both of a construction and a humanitarian nature).  As well as assisting in the general rebuilding of Kosovo, this proved great for morale.  A NATO article in 1999 quoted Pejë stationmaster, Muharrem Ukaj, as saying on the event of the first train back to his station after the reopening of the line: “This is a big day.  I am full of feeling, almost about to cry”.  The recommencement of trains was one very forceful sign that life might be returning to normal (whatever “normal” was).

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In December 1999, the railways were opened up for the use of civilian passengers – for free; 20,000 people travelled in the first three months.

UNMIK’s mandate was, and is, “to help ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo and advance regional stability in the Western Balkans”.  This included the eventual transition of the management of the railways (along with other services) back to civilians.  The operation of the trains remained under the control of KFOR, until it was handed over to UNMIK in March 2001, and then to local civilian management.

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Former Deutsche Bundesbahn (West German Railways) diesel shunter – showing its last overhaul was in November 1984 in Munich

One notable thing about Fushë Kosovë, and the Kosovan railways in general, is the remarkable variety of trains that can now be found there.  This can largely be attributed to KFOR.  Only three ex-JZ locomotives were fit to be used for KFOR’s post-war railway operations.  All of the others – which remain in the compound – were simply no prospect for renovation, having stood neglected for too long, or suffered severe mechanical failure or damage in the past (or both!).

It was therefore up to KFOR (and, it transpired, its successors) to source alternative rolling stock to use.  Some of the nations working as part of KFOR came up trumps here.  Locomotives and railcars were donated or borrowed from service in the UK, France, Italy and Germany; although it followed that as these were the ones most easily spared from their “day jobs”, they were generally near to the end of their service lives or already surplus to requirements.  The British and German rolling stock was repatriated for further use,  whereas the French and Italian rolling stock is still at Fushë Kosovë – depressingly, it was used until it broke down and then was unceremoniously parked up amidst the weeds, its purpose served.

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Nohab locomotive imported from Norway – still in use until recently

Four Norwegian diesel locomotives were donated to Kosovo as “start-up aid” in 2001.  These, too, are all now out of service. In addition, a fairly extensive amount of Swedish rolling stock was acquired towards the middle of the decade.  The network appears to go through cycles of acquiring another country’s cast-offs, using it until it breaks, then repeat ad nauseam. This may seem wasteful on the face of it, but it makes commercial sense for such a small, cash-strapped organisation to operate in this manner – especially if it can negotiate to acquire the replacement stock as an economic donation.

Kosovo declared their independence from Serbia in February 2008, and although this has not been universally recognised, it certainly did mark a watershed in the evolution of the former Yugoslavia.  “The youngest country in Europe” certainly feels as if it is developing, and although parts of it seem crushingly down-at-heel, its people are on the whole positive, the younger generations multi-lingual and technology-literate with a clear yearning to better both themselves and their environment.

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It would be misleading to intimate that Kosovo has been a calm place since the end of the civil war, over 17 years ago.  Violent clashes are frequently seen in response to what might be seen by outsiders as relatively innocuous stimuli.  Some claim that Kosovo is a hotbed of Islamic extremism and recruitment for Isis; although it is considered as one of the most pro-American societies in the world, its citizens still grateful for NATO’s efforts to remove the Serbian oppressors in 1999.  One thing is for certain, Kosovo has changed much for the better since Pristina was a daily fixture on the TV news, but it will continue to develop, and the manner in which it does so remains to be seen.

The majority of these locomotives have remained largely untouched in their compound through numerous conflicts and changes of ideology.  Ultimately, I suspect that they will stay there until such a time as the price of scrap metal picks up.  However, until that time, a small snapshot of both the former Yugoslavia, and the collective effort to help rebuild Kosovo after the civil war, will continue to decay in a padlocked compound in Fushë Kosovë.

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Marshal Tito’s Blue Train

For people of my generation, Belgrade (Beograd) was notable from school textbooks as the capital of Yugoslavia, and its burning buildings were sadly a regular sight on the TV news as it was pounded by NATO aerial bombardment.

Nowadays, Beograd is the capital of modern-day Serbia, and its post-war incarnation is beginning to thrive once again.  This brief article is about something lurking within a shed in one of its southern suburbs…

The socialist federation of Yugoslavia was born out of the Second World War under the direction of Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), a key figure of the wartime resistance.

From 1947, he used the Blue Train to both travel around and entertain and impress guests; in much the same vein as the British Royal Family’s own private train.  The Blue Train was the epitome of luxury, being essentially a hotel on wheels – it included bathrooms, suites, and copious amounts of leather and wood panelling.  As a feather in the cap and a demonstration of Yugoslavia’s increasing prosperity, virtually every material that went into it was locally sourced.

This special train was greeted rapturously by the locals wherever it passed through.  It was routinely hauled by three dedicated steam locomotives, one of which is now plinthed and on display at the side of Beograd’s main railway station.  As part of the ongoing modernisation of Yugoslavia, these were replaced in 1957 by three West German-built Class 761 diesel-hydraulics, named “Dinara”, “Kozara” and “Sutjeska” in honour of important Second World War battles fought in the Balkans.

The provenance of these showcase locomotives is interesting and reflects the complex political history of mid-20th century Yugoslavia.  Tito’s Communist and (particularly) anti-Nazi pedigree and is established fact; therefore it is entirely natural that a Yugoslavia under his leadership would emerge from the war aligned with Soviet Russia.  However, Tito was less loyal to Stalin than the leaders of the Communist states in Eastern Europe.  He had less reason to be; the Red Army had played a considerably lesser role in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the Nazis than, say, Czechoslovakia or (East) Germany – in fact, much of the credit for it might well be laid at the door of Tito’s own partisans.  Tito’s insistence on pursuing what he saw as Yugoslavia’s own path – whether or not Stalin approved – angered the Soviet leader greatly and resulted in Yugoslavia being expelled from Cominform in June 1948.  Despite relations thawing after Stalin’s death amid Khrushchev’s general policy of “de-Stalinisation”, the rift was never fully healed.

However, far from hamstringing Yugoslavia, it arguably was the making of it.  Yugoslavia was able to pursue a more nationalistic approach to socialism, which led to a notable economic boom, and the fact that it was not aligned with either “East” or “West” meant that it was able to establish trade relations with both sides.  Therefore, whilst its Eastern European neighbours were sourcing locomotives from behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia was able to look further afield.  This middle ground was not, however, always a blessing: it meant that as well as embracing both sides, Yugoslavia needed to maintain defence plans against them both too.  It did, however, mean that the Blue Train saw a wide range of guests, from Gaddafi, Ceaucescu and Brezhnev to Arafat, Mitterand and our very own Queen!

If buying locos manufactured in the Munich suburbs would’ve annoyed Moscow as the Cold War reached its tensest period (and the Hungarian Railways’ purchase of a small fleet of Swedish-built diesels in the early 1960s certainly did; further orders were forbidden and less reliable Soviet-built locomotives “recommended” instead), then the direction of Yugoslavian locomotive procurement through the 1960s would have enraged them.  Almost all of the mainline diesel locomotives bought for use in Yugoslavia were products of the American giant General Motors; built either in North America or under licence in Yugoslavia.  As in their homeland, these proved themselves incredibly reliable over the challenging and often mountainous terrain of many of the Balkan routes, and many are still in service today.

It is also from this source that the next generation of Blue Train locomotives were obtained.  In 1978, the three German locomotives were withdrawn from their special duties.  They now stand rusting away in sidings in Topcider, a southern suburb of Beograd.

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The three 1957-vintage Blue Train locomotives at Topcider in 2015 – from Google Street View!

They were replaced by four brand-new General Motors Class 666 diesel-electric locomotives; the first three inheriting the previous battle-inspired names and the fourth having the title “Neretva” bestowed upon it, on the same theme.

However, the GMs’ most notable duty was to be Tito’s final journey.  After a protracted illness, the dictator died on 4 May 1980 in a Ljubljana hospital.  The Blue Train – hauled by 666.003 “Sutjeska” and 666.004 “Neretva” – conveyed his remains, departing Ljubljana at 08:20 the next day and, after a break in Zagreb, arrived in Beograd approximately six hours later.  Tito was buried in the “House of Flowers” there three days later.

Although the Blue Train is seen as “Tito’s”, it continued to operate after his death, conveying the new order of Yugoslavian top brass.  An example of its use was to take Slobodan Milosevic to Kosovo Polje in order for him to give the infamous speech to over a million people at the Gazimestan memorial on 28 June 1989.  This was one of the train’s last uses; its carriages were retired that year.

Quite clearly, this private train would never have been one that the likes of you or I could have travelled on.  However, parallel to the rise of “Ostalgia” in the former East Germany – i.e. a renewed interest and nostalgia for the days of old, both by people who were and were not there – we have seen the emergence of “Yugonostalgia”.  Perhaps it is not surprising that people should hanker after the “good old days” of Tito’s reign.  History has tended to routinely bestow the title of “benevolent dictator” upon him; what is undeniable is that he ensured that the six republics and two provinces that made up Yugoslavia both thrived economically and co-existed reasonably peacefully for the duration of his tenure, whereas the decline and conflict that occurred there in the two decades following his death has left an indelible mark both literally and metaphorically.

To feed on the renewed interest in pre-1980 Yugoslavia, some of the carriages have been retained in working order for private charters and, from 2013, conveyed tourists along the stunningly scenic 300-mile route from Beograd to the Montenegrin sea port of Bar.  Interestingly, this route passes through that country’s capital Podgorica, which was named Titograd for a number of decades when in Yugoslavia (its airport code is still “TGD”, to act as just a small reminder of the pre-1992 world!).  Perhaps surprisingly, given the palatial surroundings of the train and the associated prestige of sharing environs with the ghosts of the world leaders of the past, tickets were available on board this special train from the equivalent of just £129.  It appeared popular, however the severe flooding that affected much of the Balkans in May 2014 severed the railway, and although it reopened fully a year later, it is unclear as to whether the Blue Train has resumed operation.  The excellent “Man in Seat 61” website advises that it has not; Serbian Railways (Železnice Srbije; ZS) do still however advertise it on their website.

Here is a photo of the Blue Train in recent years, complete with one of the 1978-built locomotives

As a footnote, one of the Blue Train locomotives from Tito’s funeral train – 666.003 “Sutjeska” – was returned to operation for ŽS in 2013 – which was an event deemed worthy of the national news! – and so ensured that at least one part of the legacy of a very famous train will continue to grace the iron road for some time to come.