Britain's heritage railways are booming. But a demographic timebomb looms

The East Lancashire Heritage Railway in action. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

In his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell accused the English of being a nation “addicted to hobbies and spare-time occupations”. Perhaps it’s this trait that that has led nearly 20,000 volunteers — almost 90 per cent of the total workforce — to run and maintain Britain’s heritage railways network.

The majority of these volunteers are north of 50-years-old — “males of a certain age” as one industry worker put it — who would’ve likely grown up with steam trains in the not so distant past. That means there’s a potential demographic time-bomb looming.

So the industry, if you want to call it that, is worrying both about encouraging young people to get on board, and about the risk of losing old engineering expertise. And, let’s face it, steam railways aren’t exactly cool.  

“The ageing workforce that is made up of workers from the 60s is sadly dying,” says John Crane, a director of the Heritage Railway Association (HRA). “These people are not being replaced, and more importantly the workforce is associated with a loss of skills. Obviously we’re using old-fashioned technology which isn’t appropriate for modern industry and the skills are being lost.”

Collectively UK and Ireland has in the region of 130 heritage railways with 450 stations spanning 550 miles. For some perspective: that’s more stations than the London Underground, and enough track to cover the distance from London to Inverness.


But though heritage railways aren't topping any cool lists, they do bring with them huge economic benefits to the local communities they serve, and are worth an estimated £250m to the UK leisure economy. The latest report by HRA shows that 8.4m people travelled on heritage railways in 2014, up 9 per cent on the previous year; while the collective revenue for HRA members was up 6 per cent, at £112m .

Though they are few, there are even some heritage railways used for practical purposes. Swanage Railways in Dorset has a park and ride incorporated on the line, and so people are using the heritage railway widely for convenience and commuting.

“Parking is very limited in Swanage and can be quite expensive,” says David Rawsthorn, the head of sales for Swanage railways. “Likewise there is very little car parking in Corfe Castle village, so consequently people use Norden Park & Ride to leave their car, and then use the railway to either get to Corfe Castle or to come all the way down to Swanage.”

There is also the North Yorkshire Moors Railway – 18 miles of track on one of the earliest and most historic lines in the North of England. That has a license to link Grosmont to Whitby, which means it runs an extra six miles of track on the mainline. Though not exactly used as a commuter path, it does serve a practical purpose in connecting a busy tourist patch. 

A report carried out in 2013 by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail Transport concluded that there was potential for heritage railways to offer more public transport, rather than the much more common steam ride day out aimed at tourists. But the cost of maintaining heritage railways is higher; trains are slower; and basic regulations would likely hamper this scenario.

The next train to Kidderminster

Britain’s railway network is the oldest in the world, and its heritage is among the richest. From the first commercially used steam train, Salamanca, which ran between Middleton and Leeds back in 1812; to the nationalisation of the rail networks during the First World War; to the preservation we see today – Britain’s railways have left an indelible mark on its history and identity. And travelling on an old steam loco can be a great way to see parts of the UK that you may not otherwise think of. 

Kidderminster is a Midlands market town known for not much other than its carpets industry, a nearby safari park and a second-rate football club. But it also contains the main station of the heritage Severn Valley Railway (SVR), considered by many railway buffs as one of the finest in operation.


As you enter you really feel as though you’ve stepped through a time-warp to an age before we were reliant on digital technology, to an environment and industry dictated by great engineering and the commitment of many volunteers who keep the show running. Undoubtedly, the best thing in Kidderminster is the thing that takes you out of it. 

The SVR is fortunate to be punctuated with good pubs serving real ale. These boozers – with their walls often full of old railway memorabilia – are often teeming with eccentric characters who have a keen interest in steam locomotives, and of course, beer. A return ticket from Kidderminster for the full 16 miles of track and back again, will set you back £18: not exactly commuter friendly prices.  

As you relax in one of its rather elaborately furnished carriages, the train meanders along the River Severn and through some brilliant charming Wyre Forrest countryside. You feel as you could be journeying your way to Hogwarts (certainly when you pass the safari park and spot a giraffe or hippo), rather than Bridgnorth, a Shropshire town Hitler hoped to use as  Nazi HQ in Britain.

One testament to the importance of heritage railways to local economies is the major flooding SVR faced in 2007. The floods left trains running only between Kidderminster and the first, stop Bewdley, cutting off four station towns. Service businesses, especially hotels and bed-sits in Bridgnorth, suffered huge economic losses, with some businesses worrying they’d go under. 

Past and future

British Rail finished operating mainline steam locos in 1968. Where lines have survived – or have since been developed – it’s largely the result of groups of enthusiasts who got together and bought locos from scrapyards.

That’s how the Severn Valley came to have a multi-million pound annual turnover. It’s now celebrating its 50th year in operation for public use, its busiest yet. Then there’s the inherent value of the heritage itself. Keeping this show on the road – or the tracks– will require more investment in training up young people in to be armed with appropriate technical skills for the future.

Topping up the furnace. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

“Really the big issue in skills shortage is boiler smiths, because that’s a very, very specialist skill, and every steam loco has a boiler,” says Kieran Hards, a heritage railways engineer (who also loves bungee jumping). “When a rebuild becomes absolutely massive – when you start talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds – it’s normally when the boilers are shot, because it’s not just normal wielding; it’s copper welding. Most people can learn to weld steel; but copper is a very specialist skill.”

Despite the extensive network of operational heritage railways throughout the UK, none of them receive financial support from central or local government, and any training is largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It does seem odd considering the potential value they hold to the areas they serve. They can prove, however, to be a great photo-op for local MPs. 

“If you’re going to have money available for museums, the science museum, etc., and if you believe tradition and the past is worth preserving, then surely it’s worth keeping 100-year-old steam engines running,” Hards adds. “Even if there was a central fund of a couple of hundred thousand – it could get maybe ten to twenty people a year through a training programme.”

Heritage railway lines that exist are getting longer; there’s more trains operating per day; more days per year — and there are still new lines opening. Millions of people are enjoying them each year, and figures clearly paint an upward trajectory in public interest. Let’s just hope that, figuratively and literally, heritage railways can keep their steam. 

Stephen McGrath tweets as @McGrathWriter.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.