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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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