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Is there a future for heritage railways without volunteers?

Discussion in 'Heritage Railways & Centres in the UK' started by 21B, Jul 11, 2013.

  1. 21B

    21B Part of the furniture

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    One GM of a Welsh Railway has made no secret of his view that in the future his railway will operate largely or entirely without volunteers. I can't see how that can be viable myself, but what's your view?
     
  2. nanstallon

    nanstallon Well-Known Member

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    The American owners of the Dartmoor Railway and the Weardale Railway seem to think so - but it's difficult to see how people will want to work for free on a line that does only luxury dining trains rather than reviving a line for public use.

    I hope that the efforts of volunteers on those lines will be better appreciated, and regular train services recommenced.
     
  3. paulhitch

    paulhitch Guest

    I think, Simon, that there is a very great risk that railways will have to work without volunteers if existing lines do not go out of their way to attract new people. It will be made more difficult as retirement age creeps up and there will also be fewer relatively fit "early retirees" around.

    This forum could help as well by being much less sympathetic to such "wouldn't it be nice" proposals for new projects as come along. No, it would not be nice at all if something came along and parked itself in a catchment area of an existing scheme either for volunteers or visitors. We should be much more forthright and unsentimental in saying "be off with you, go away"!

    Recently the Bluebell triumphantly opened its extension. Traffic was well up, life was good. Then, out of the blue, came a severe locomotive difficulty. This shows how close to its margins even a long established, major player is operating.

    PH
     
  4. Jamessquared

    Jamessquared Nat Pres stalwart

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    I think you have to remember why steam (in particular) and the Victorian infrastructure (in general) disappeared from the mainline in the first place: it was too labour intensive relative to the fare revenue generated. Two crew on every engine; a guard elsewhere on the train; a signalman every few miles, and all backed up by lots of maintenance staff. None of that has gone away - if anything, it has got worse, because now all the maintenance is essentially an artisan industry, without the massive efficiencies of having a Crewe or Ashford or Swindon works to overhaul engines over a period of weeks rather than years; and mass produce everything from fishplates to fence posts to signals

    So preserved railways are essentially massively subsidised by volunteer labour - without it, I can't see them running. At least not unless you replaced steam with multiple units, rationalised out the signalboxes to a central signalling control etc etc - at which point, you no longer have a preserved railway, you just have a bit of modern railway infrastructure. Not much fun in that.

    On an earlier thread, I reckoned that on the Bluebell, only about half the real running costs came from fares / shop / food sales (back of the envelope calculation, but I think broadly right). The rest was the cashable value of volunteer labour, and - importantly - charitable donations. Strip out the volunteers and you risk losing not only a massive cash-value subsidy, but also potentially any incentive for donors to give money - after all, who wants to donate to a soulless commercial entity running a stripped-back basic service?

    Someone will now no doubt point out the P&D; the Lakeside and Haverthwaite; the Snowdon Mountain etc. There are probably specific reasons why they can survive with very low or no volunteer input, but I think they are very much the exceptions, not the rule.

    Tom
     
  5. TonyMay

    TonyMay New Member

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    More to the point, and this is where the Weardale's owners seem to fail in their business strategy, is that they are essentially in competition with other preserved railways, who can therefore have lower overhead labour costs, and also take the "leftovers" (so the cost of locos and rolling stock is pushed up because of demand), and also take donations. The US model of commercial preservation won't work in the UK for this reason, except for the few that are heavily commercialised because they're in mega tourist areas.
     
  6. ADB968008

    ADB968008 Guest

    Sorry but I disagree, the US model is probably what we will adopt over here, these are what makes it work:
    1. None of the main us heritage lines have signal boxes or signalling infrastructure. (Its usually radio communication if its needed ).
    2. Most run a 1 train service (and then it's usually 3 or 4 trips a day, starting somewhere noon to finish somewhere 4ish)
    3. Most lines have 1 steam engine only operational, most have less than 3 operational, some lines don't even have 3 engines.
    4. If it fails... It fails, out goes the diesel.
    5. The marketing is about the location, and the outside attractions, not the train itself.
    6. 1 main station. The rest are peripheral.
    7. Engines are right sized and right engineered for the line.
    8. The lines are around 5 miles or less. (In UK terms think 2-3 miles)
    9. No galas... There's plenty of special events centred on the location and the railways attractions, not visiting fleets and mass steam ups
    10. It's a ride, not a railway. (Think amusement park not British Rail recreated).

    In short, they are lean, well managed, profit orientated and live within their means, but still a hobby.

    Which lines fit that mould over here...

    Foxfield, Telford, Chasewater, most of our Scottish lines etc.


    The US model isn't a panacea...several US lines have gone under (east broad top, Jamestown was rumoured etc)... That's probable inevitability here in the UK at some point.

    Yes too us many may shudder at the thought of no black 5, bulleid pacific, or 4 train operation... But similarly these lines will lose the most volunteers at the same time of rising costs and will suffer the most, and the smaller engines wont be upto the extended lengths.
    Volunteer base is largely logistical, who lives close enough, it doesn't matter the lines length if people can't get to it (hence why Scottish lines are more disadvantaged to English).. Volunteers needed for Chasewater is far more sustainable than West Somerset, their costs lower but customer satisfaction is probably the same, I would be surprised if ROI % was higher at the WSR.

    Watching a video of Braunton pull a few dozen people around a largely empty train looks nice, but did revenue executed costs this week ? - now how about a payroll for driver, fireman, guard, tti, 10 station staff, 4 shed staff, 4 signal boxes, the buffet, shop, then add management jobs for marketing, sales, accounting, operations, mechanical eng, retail etc ?
    An ELR running with a fleet of 3 industrials running only Bury to Summerseat, based on two 8 hour shifts, maybe 4 round trips, 1 train operation with 3 coaches, no signal box and focus on the retail and catering probably won't be noticed by most passengers, and the Revenue whilst lower than Heywood to Rawtenstall could feasibly be much higher than Bury to Summerseat is today, and sustainable with many less volunteers, meaning sustainability on a much better scale. However this is implies a smaller trainset and isn't as much fun for them running it..

    If not, then the longer lines will need to become much more overtly commercial to overcome it and remain the same... £50pp for a day out at the ELR, NYMR, MHR etc ?
     
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  7. richards

    richards Well-Known Member

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    Not just other preserved railways. *Anything* that people do as a leisure activity. Lots of other popular leisure activities are far more expensive that a ride on a preserved railway. So there are people who will pay more. You just need to offer the right thing in the right location. For example compare the usual Santa Special to the Polar Express idea.

    Richard
     
  8. 1472

    1472 Well-Known Member

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    If there are fewer early retirees and generally poorer/older pensioners in the future then the midweek loadings outside school holidays on many lines will suffer considerably. This might lead to reducing midweek services on some lines, problems covering costs and increased need for volunteer input to cover essential tasks - a slippery slope?

    Where lines operate with occasional enginemen who volunteer but do not get enough time to hone their skills properly it might actually be cheaper (re the coal bill in particular) to employ on min wage local seasonal firemen of proven skills!

    Add in avoidance of some of the recent damage incidents involving locos and the case becomes more compelling.
     
  9. ZBmer

    ZBmer New Member

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    The US model may well be viable in one version of the future UK heritage railway world. But it's unlikely to be workable until most other lines - at least in its immediate area - have gone to the wall. Even then, such a line can only work with rigorous cost controls and a USP that separates it from mainline steam. Assuming that still exists, of course.

    The public would also have to be educated over time to the death of the 'working museum' aspect currently presented by most of our standard-gauge heritage railways. I think that may take longer than the lifespan of a generation or two of volunteers.

    Can a 'wholly professional' heritage line afford to wait that long?

    Roger
     
  10. Standard 4MT

    Standard 4MT New Member

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    The Vale of Rheidol Railway seems to run without Volunteer input at present and had for several years before (unless this is the Mid Wales Railway you are talking of)
    A great little line running from Aberystwyth to Devils Bridge, the last British Rail steam Railway (narrow Gauge).
    Not sure if the new museum / engineering buildings will be run by paid staff, wouldn't have thought so, should be busy at start with the glass over roof from London Bridge being fitted.
     
  11. mikechant

    mikechant Member

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    I joined BR in 1985 and was gobsmacked to find out I could get priv travel on a BR owned narrow gauge steam railway. If I remember rightly I couldn't use the already dated box that I'd used to travel to Aberystwyth but had to buy a 1/4 price ticket - think I might still have it somewhere. This would have been about 1987, the line was sold off in 1989. I always wondered why (unlike other similar situations like the IOW ferry) the priv travel did not continue (according to the ATOC website) for pre 1989 BR staff.

    Edit: Just to say I don't mind paying full price, I was just curious about this!

    Further edit: To add something ontopic! Surely it's obvious that *some* preserved railways could survive without volunteers - The now-extended Bluebell, the KWVR, the SVR, the DSR, the NYMR etc. come to mind. I'd guess about 2/3 of preserved railways would fold without volunteers and the other 1/3 would survive as viable tourist-focussed businesses. Of course, I'm not saying this would be a good thing - I'd rather have all of them running!. In fact, I'm very heartened by the number of young (20ish) volunteers I've seen on my recent visits to various lines.
     
  12. ZBmer

    ZBmer New Member

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    Not sure about this lot; I think they're all too big. Wages bill alone for a large line like SVR would likely be £2million+ pa. Current turnover of most lines - even big ones - is well below £4million pa. Unless there was a very dramatic reduction in size/ services/ stock and thus personnel need, the figures don't stack up at all. And if the necessary reductions were made, the lines as we know them wouldn't exist any more.

    The economics and historical low-budget build of many narrow-gauge lines make them a safer bet in a fully professional world. On the other hand, they often need fewer volunteers too.

    Basic point taken, but I find it hard to credit that even a very incompetent fireman/woman could waste the several £K of coal that would compensate for a paid substitute. It would be cheaper to invest in some careful MIC training and better supervision, perhaps.

    Exactly so. There's a well-entrenched social tradition in UK of volunteering for all sorts of activities. Contrary to the several doom-mongers on this forum and in other media, I'm rather optimistic that while the circumstances of individual volunteers will change over time, their enthusiasm and numbers will actually hold up pretty well. Perhaps enough to render this thread obsolete?

    Roger
     
  13. Jamessquared

    Jamessquared Nat Pres stalwart

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    How do you figure the Bluebell (can't speak for the others) could do without volunteers? I'd say we need them more than ever! Yes, we currently have increased revenue, but it would very quickly get swallowed up if we paid loco crew, signalmen, station staff etc, without even thinking about the amount of unpaid maintenance work that goes in.

    The other fundamental point: The Bluebell has had £1 million+ per year in charitable donations for the last couple of years. I'm sure that would get severely curtailed if we went down an "all professional" route, with a commercial entity just running the service for their own commercial ends and to benefit anonymous shareholders. How much money are railways like Weardale or Dartmoor making in charitable donations? As a donor, where is the incentive to subsidise someone else's company?

    Tom
     
  14. Bean-counter

    Bean-counter Resident of Nat Pres

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    I have to say I think the more complex operations would struggle most without their volunteers - and they are, naturally, the bigger ones. On the NYMR, we have trading turnover around the £5 million mark and just under half is taken up on wages. We have near 100% volunteer footplate crews (no-one is employed to do footplate work but several staff members employed in other roles can do it if required - and frequently do as volunteers as well as covering gaps paid), up to levels of 70% volunteer cover on signalling and variable but probably around 50% cover on guarding. All TTIs are volunteer and Booking Offices are a mixture of paid and volunteer. Each station has a station group who spend many hours ensuring the stations look something special. There is considerable volunteer input to all engineering departments, especially Pway and S & T, where the volunteers outnumber the staff, and then there are quite a few volunteers who put in many hours on administration and management, including chasing grants and other funding and actually running the owning Trust and its various functions, with assistance from the PLC staff. There are groups such as the LNERCA based on the line who are entirely volunteer.

    There is no doubt the NYMR could not survive without volunteers - I have been told a past GM many years ago was supposed to want the operating to be all paid, but it just ain't going to happen. We are always on the outlook for more and aim to cover as much as possible of new growth in business with volunteers.

    The most likely sort of operation to maybe achieve it would be one that was not too long and hence used 1 or maximum 2 sets in traffic with tight provision of resources and a good catchment for business - in other words, the Paignton & Dartmouth!

    Steven
     
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  15. pete2hogs

    pete2hogs Member

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    Having lived in the US for over four years I think it is a huge mistake to apply the US model to the UK private railways. In any case, the description of the way US preservation scene operates is a huge generalisation - it certainly applies to some which are run purely as tourist attractions but may have one or two enthusiast owned locos as being the only place to keep them, but not all.

    Attractions of any kind in the US are much sparser than here, distances to travel much longer , the population density outside the big cities is much lower, the idea of volunteering in the US is quite different, and the use of free time is quite different to here - most vacations are taken up with family visits and other commitments of that kind, and in any case they have about half the vacation time we do. There never has been a preservation movement on anything like the scale we have here, nor is the average US citizen given much to nostalgia or interested in railways. Most US citizens will never have travelled on a train. Contrast the number of enthusiast magazines, the number of locos originally preserved by enthusiast groups (most survivors were plinthed or donated), the number of passenger journeys on the 'real' railways, etc. etc.

    Despite all that there are some sites run on UK lines, albeit on a smaller scale due to the fact there has always been a lesser number of enthusiasts.

    I always intended to visit the East Broad Top but despite it only being two states over it would have been a two day drive to get to it - never managed it.
     

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