At the peak of their operation, railways in Great Britain
extended over 22,000 route-miles (about 33,500 route-km).
After the establishment of the core trunk network, every
town wanted to be included and a large number of branches
were added to the network, sometimes duplicating a service
offered by another company. Many of these lines were
unprofitable and losses accelerated as the advent of the
motorcar enticed travellers off the trains.
Railways in the UK were built, owned and operated by
commercial companies until 1948 when the Labour (Socialist)
government of the day nationalized all standard-gauge lines
(1435 cm). During the era of austerity that followed WWII,
trains remained the prime mode of transport, but in the late
1950s and early 60s, the country started to prosper and
an increasing number of families became car owners. As a
result, patronage of the railways declined and the taxpayer
had to shoulder an increasing share of the bills.
Because of the huge war debt that had accumulated by
1945, British Railways (BR) did not have enough money to
invest in conversion to diesel traction or electrification, so,
excluding electrified suburban services in major conurbations
like London and Manchester, most trains were steam hauled
until the 1950s and BR continued building steam locomotives
until 1960 when Evening Star was the last one built.
Steam is, of course, very labour intensive and the big
rail trade unions were very strong. Understandably, the
government of the day was looking for ways to save money
so they appointed the industrialist Dr Beeching as Chairman
of BR with a brief to ‘modernize’ the railways. He prepared
a report that predicated the rapid replacement of steam by
diesel and/or electric traction. He also proposed reducing
the national network to a few main lines, mainly by closing
nearly all branch lines unless a ‘social’ case could be made
for a government subsidy by showing that undue hardship
would ensue if the line were closed.
The replacement of steam locomotives by modern traction
required only a management decision, albeit requiring
investment and negotiations with trade unions, but the closure
of stations and railway lines had to run the gauntlet of long
procedures, public enquiries and much political opposition.
Indeed, not all the lines nominated for closure did close.
Sometimes long-standing rights were invoked, such as in the
case of Badminton, a village station built on land originally
owned by the Duke of Beaufort, whose descendants and
their guests had the right to stop trains there until the right
was overturned by act of Parliament.
Another example of such rights being exercised related
to a line in Sussex where opponents of closure discovered
that the act of Parliament authorizing building of the line had
a proviso requiring a minimum of four trains a day to call
at stations on the line. BR was taken to court and ordered
to re-open the line and reinstate four trains each way until
they obtained statutory authority to close the line. This delay
provided the breathing space to allow a support group to be
formed and to raise money for the purchase of the line, which
is now operated as the Bluebell Railway, one of the country’s
most popular heritage railways.
The Bluebell Railway was not the first to be reopened by
volunteers and credit for that goes to the Talyllyn Railway,
a narrow-gauge line in Wales that was purchased from its
former owners and reopened by volunteers in 1951. As far as
I know, this is the first line in the world to have been rescued
in this way but was quickly followed by the Puffing Billie
Railway in Australia in 1952. In 1953, a similar volunteer
takeover occurred on the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales,
which has become well known for its development of the
Welsh Highland Railway that ceased traffic in 1936. It is
arguable whether these lines are truly ‘heritage railways’
because some of the rolling stock has been purpose-built
since reopening and some lines could be described as
tourist railways. However, the volunteers are motivated by
the desire to preserve something of our railway past and of
course steam is the great attraction. Narrow-gauge railways
were cheaper and easier to reopen and operate and cynics
doubted whether a standard-gauge railway was within the
ability of volunteers to run. Today, there are 87 standard gauge
heritage railways proving them wrong.
Heritage railways in the UK now carry over 9 million
passengers each year and patronage is not restricted to
railway enthusiasts and is indeed dependent on the family
market. People mostly travel on these trains for leisure
purposes but there are a few who travel for other reasons.
The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway has a contract
to carry over 1000 schoolchildren to school everyday, all on a
15-inch gauge track, or one third of the normal gauge.
If you check the location of these railways on a map of
the UK, you will soon realize that they run almost entirely
through countryside rather than urban areas. There are
several reasons why. First, rural lines were more likely to be
loss making, leading to closure in the first place. Second, the
cost of buying a countryside line was invariably cheaper than
buying an abandoned line for redevelopment. Third, one of
the great advantages of train travel is the ability to see over
hedges and walls while riding in comfort. There is no doubt
that scenic lines attract passengers in their own right—as
commercial railways have discovered—and several lines are
promoted because they run through beautiful countryside.
It is questionable how much these lines serve the local
community as transport providers. Although the staff are
largely volunteer, steam railways are still costly to operate
and commonly a heritage railway will not run over the entire
length of the original line. Furthermore, few—if any—run
365 days a year. The lines with which I am most closely
connected as a director operate 245 days on average. We do
try to encourage local patronage by offering discount cards
to local residents but we find that these are mostly used when
entertaining guests that they bring to the line to show they are
in some way connected.
However, it is fair to say that a heritage railway does
create a tourist attraction of great economic benefit to the
area and to the community that the line runs through. A
recent survey by Manchester University showed that for
every £1 spent on the West Somerset Railway, an additional
£1 was also spent in local businesses, such as restaurants,
petrol stations, etc. The wider benefit generally appears to be
about £10 for every £1 spent and, although operating staff
are largely volunteer, there is also a small nucleus of paid
staff living in the locality.
There have also been spin-offs for commercial railways
connecting with a heritage railway. As an example, the line
between Norwich and Sheringham that was scheduled for
closure in the 1960s was kept open largely for visitors to the
North Norfolk Railway and patronage has doubled in the last
7 years, resulting in a regular service through the day.
As some readers may know I am President of
FEDECRAIL, the European Federation of Museum and
Tourist Railways, representing railways in 27 different
countries through Europe. The UK has the largest number of
railways and carries far more passengers than on mainland
Europe, but they are quickly catching up. In particular, we
have encouraged promoters of schemes from former Soviet
bloc countries to visit the UK so they can see how we have
grown the market. The most successful so far are in the
Baltic States where we have persuaded operators of narrow gauge
railways in Latvia and Lithuania to adopt some of
our practices and encourage tourism in areas that would
receive few visitors otherwise.
This is partly why I am involved actively in the working
group launching the International Association of Heritage
Tourist Trains and Trams (TINHATT) at the next world congress
to be held at the Queensland Rail Museum in Brisbane,
Australia, on 15 to 17 October 2009.
During the last few years I have visited different countries
worldwide and in Argentina was able to persuade the
Minister of Tourism that tourist railways and trains not only
generate tourism in their own right but also help protect the
environment by getting people out of their cars and also by
preventing them from straying across areas with fragile flora
and fauna, such as national parks. Tourists also contribute to
paying for the local infrastructure by ticket purchase, unlike
coach visitors whose buses damage local roads to the cost
of the local authority.
Even in this world recession, I am optimistic that our
museum and tourist railways are very resilient and for the time
being at least I can only say ‘full steam ahead.’