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.