Posted by: dorsetcpre | March 1, 2010

Heritage Railways

What are heritage railways and are they a peculiarly British phenomenon? Are they a means of transport, picturesque curiosity or tourist attraction? They are certainly an exercise in nostalgia and a celebration of industrial history and heritage, largely occasioned by the changing face of our railways in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and of much else as well, that is dear to our British heart. With the Beeching cuts of the sixties, branch lines suddenly became available to be purchased, but not without long and difficult negotiations, and beloved steam locomotives, set to disappear from our main lines, might be rescued. Steam locomotives were hugely popular; they ‘breathed’, had personality and were perceived as all but human.

The steam heritage railway brought together the beloved steam engine and the country station, with is ornamental canopy, well-stocked flowerbeds, cosy tearoom and friendly porter, struggling with a barrow of untidy luggage. John Betjeman, bruised by the wanton destruction of the Euston Arch, bishops and canons, Oxbridge dons and retired brigadiers and country ladies spoke up, with one voice, to champion the railway of the Titfield Thunderbolt and Oh, Mr Porter. Businessmen, enthusiasts and volunteers quickly came together to buy branch lines, redundant locomotives and quaint compartment-carriages. British Rail might have been expected to take the golden sovereigns offered with delight, as it handed over these loss-making enterprises. But not a bit of it, BR, prompted by government, wanted its pound of flesh and local authorities demanded first pick; they wanted town centre car parks, supermarkets, bypasses, ring roads and industrial estates to be built on redundant railway sites. How they enjoyed the bonanza. At the same time the Department of Transport grabbed some alignments for trunk road improvements, ensuring that some lines would never be reopened. A few enlightened authorities bought inexpensive rural rights of way for footpaths.

At Swanage a race ensured, while an heritage group sought to raise the purchase money, British Rail was pulling up the track as quickly as it could and looking for a higher bid. Not to be outdone the unions denied access to ‘blacklegs’, preventing steam trains driven by non-union volunteers from using junction stations on spurious safety grounds. So the Swanage railway was denied access to Wareham, the West Somerset to Taunton and so on, up and down the country. At Welshpool, where the narrow gauge Welshpool and Llanfair Railway, was passing from BR to a preservation group, the station and workshops, conveniently placed alongside the main line, were swept away to allow a ring road to be built, so forcing visitors to walk the length of the town to reach the little railway. This all had the effect of ensuring that volunteers and visitors arrived by car, rather than by train, at these railway enterprises! Heritage railways were set to become tourist attractions rather than the transport links that they might have become.

There are now more than 200 rail conservation groups, ranging from 20-mile steam railways to static exhibits in museums and in the open. Too many, perhaps, but they are generally well supported, some receiving limited financial support from local and tourist authorities. If I had to select the most interesting, an invidious task, I would go for the Severn Valley and North York Moors, in wonderful country, West Somerset and Bluebell in Sussex, with their beautifully restored Victorian stations, and the narrow gauge Ffestiniog in Snowdonia. A rare piece of imagination, from a recent transport minister in recent years, saw John Prescott authorise restoration of the long closed narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway over some 30 miles from Caernarvon to Portmadoc in Snowdonia, in a bold effort to provide an alternative to the car in this lovely but congested area. I cannot overlook the charming Swanage railway, on our doorstep, still winding its way through Corfe Castle and blending delightfully with the landscape. Interestingly and imaginatively Dorset County Council have come together with other bodies to promote a weekday rail service, set to start soon, from Swanage to Bournemouth. In a wearisome process they have had to obtain funding, overcome bureaucratic obstacles and quasi-safety concerns.

Steam railways operate under light railway orders and are restricted to 25 mph, unlike those steam locomotives that are still allowed to operate on main lines.  They are subject to inspection and monitoring by the same safety bodies as the national railways. Most operating staff are volunteers, but not all, and they must all be well trained.  Initially steam locomotives and rolling stock were acquired directly from British Rail. However, more than 100 locomotives came from an unexpected Aladdin’s cave in Wales, Woodham’s scrap yard in Barry. Woodhams, like other scrap yards, had bought scrap locomotives and rolling stock from BR, when most steam operation ceased in the late sixties. However, many locomotives were not cut up at the time, as might have been expected, but were gradually resold to steam railways and conservation groups to be lovingly restored from rusting hulks to pristine condition. The process was long, slow and expensive, a serious bottleneck being a lack of facilities for boiler reconditioning. A number of well-equipped workshops have now been established, some in former BR depots. Many locomotives are owned independently of operating railways.

Heritage railways are not a solely British invention and are slowly developing elsewhere in Europe and in other countries. There are probably as many, though, in Britain as in all other countries put together! Why? Is this because Beeching and British Rail were more brutal than other national railways or because we have a greater concern for heritage?  It is true that no other country had a goldmine, so full of steam locomotives, as Barry scrap yard! The rail preservation movement is surprisingly broadly based, being supported by peers, artists, vicars, industrial workers, among them current railway staff, and elderly ladies, selling tea and cakes and memorabilia.

by Stephen Howard

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