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West Somerset Railway General Discussion

Discussion in 'Heritage Railways & Centres in the UK' started by gwr4090, Nov 15, 2007.

  1. Cuckoo Line

    Cuckoo Line New Member

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    It appears a difficult balance to get. It seems when you put a professional business person in who tries to get some strategy and focus on costs then too often all the volunteers and entusiasts get unhappy with what is going on and fail to see the bigger picture. However there are one or two examples where getting the right person, who tries to engage the volunteers etc things do seem to look more positive.
     
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  2. Lineisclear

    Lineisclear Member

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    I believe the major challenge to heritage railways generally is that their traditional business model may no longer work. The romantic ideal of a preserved line sustained by a combination of membership fees/share purchases, the farebox, secondary spend and volunteer labour was already looking shaky before the pandemic. The latest challenges of skyrocketing coal prices, uncapped electricity bills and general inflation can only make things worse. Basically the old model assumed that volunteers would be able to indulge their hobby, supported by members and the paying public. As the cost of ever more intrusive regulation mounts and historic infrastructure, once funded out of the public purse, wears out the medium term viability of many heritage operations is bound to be in question. Their big challenge is not just generating an operating surplus but the funds necessary for essential annual capital investment such as track and bridge replacement. Changes in structure may help, as will new ideas, but the principal change in attitude may need to come from a railway's supporters, including acceptance that strong management will, from time to time, have to make unpopular decisions.
     
  3. twr12

    twr12 Well-Known Member

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    Do you really consider cancelling a special event a good thing?

    Can you explain your reason?
     
  4. Matt78

    Matt78 Well-Known Member

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    A few random thoughts-

    There was a debate on another forum about post-covid measures. Pre booking is a good example of a positive change for most railways which enables them to plan cash flow better. I have seen wide variances in terms of stats, lines are quoting between 20% and 80% of pre booked business. The ability to book a private compartment also remains attractive to many.

    There are a number of railway which were able to press the reset button over the pandemic and some it seems are coming out stronger.

    Volunteers still remain a priceless resource when the cost of wages and ability to recruit in the hospitality/tourism sector are considered.

    The length of line is also a factor, we can argue about the optimum length but it’s noticeable that the two railway run on the most commercially profitable basis are 3.2 miles and 6.7 miles respectively.

    regards

    Matt
     
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  5. Bikermike

    Bikermike Well-Known Member

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    Why do you think it's a good idea to carry on regardless?

    If the event takes the railway under, is that a good idea?
    If the event can't be delivered to a suitable standard and damages goodwill, is that a good idea?
    If the event burns out volunteer goodwill and reduces the pool of available bodies for the rest of the year, is that a good idea?
     
  6. 35B

    35B Nat Pres stalwart

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    There’s something called the “sunk cost fallacy”, which assumes that once started, something must always be seen through.

    Pulling the plug on an event early if it can’t realistically do well enough to justify itself strikes me as a very good sign of common sense and realism.


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  7. martin1656

    martin1656 Nat Pres stalwart Friend

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    To be honest, we are now in uncertain waters, how much impact the rising cost of living is going to make no one really knows, we can only guess, Families who have disposable income, and are able to still spend on leisure pursuits, will still be able to, maybe not as regular, but as ever, some sections of society will fare better, than others, to most families a day out to a steam railway will set them back, about £100, in some cases more, as costs go up, so must prices, the people who are worse hit, are not likely to be the ones visiting any leisure activities at all in 2023, as its going to be beyond most of their spending power anyway, but those families with disposable incomes, might still be able to afford it, the question is, what percentage of the market are they?
     
  8. 35B

    35B Nat Pres stalwart

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    Completely agreed. But those unpopular decisions need to be reviewed for their effects. And as you’re aware from discussions here and elsewhere, those effects are both measurable (e.g. direct change to yields) and unmeasurable (e.g. the possible deterrent impact of confusing pre booking arrangements).

    Personally, my biggest concern is that heritage railways act in ways that appeal to customers, donors, and volunteers without repelling them. And I’m far from sure that the embrace of unpopular decisions as framed above is going to help with the existing ones, who are generally cheaper and easier to maintain than acquiring new ones.

    The pendulum is swinging in several directions at the moment, and it’s far from clear where it will stabilise, or where the scrap man may land.


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  9. 35B

    35B Nat Pres stalwart

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    I tend to agree, and with others who doubt the calibre of the plc’s management. But I stand by my view that those trends are what matter, not specific one offs which, in the context of the general trend, are (mixing metaphors) the icing on the cake.


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  10. Lineisclear

    Lineisclear Member

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    Very much agree.
    The first step is recognise that the pendulum has already swung and accept that, wherever it ends up, it's pretty certain to be in a radically different position. Hopefully the scrapman will be universally disappointed. The key to that happy outcome is recognizing that carrying on as we were is unlikely to be a prescription for survival. The greatest risk is a reaction to change of "But we've always done it like that!".
    Effective management will be examining their strategic options, making informed judgements as to where the pendulum is likely to stabilize and have plans ready to implement as soon as that becomes clear.
     
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  11. 35B

    35B Nat Pres stalwart

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    And those plans also need to include proper change management to bring people along with those changes.

    I think it was Clausewitz who said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy; pre-prepared plans need to be able to be reviewed and revisited quickly in response to events.


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  12. jma1009

    jma1009 Well-Known Member

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    It will be interesting to study these new WSR PLC accounts when submitted to Companies House, and how the Auditors deal with the information provided so far, and how they deal with their statement in the last set of accounts that "a material uncertainty exits that may cast doubt on the company's ability to continue as a going concern".
     
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  13. Jamessquared

    Jamessquared Nat Pres stalwart

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    That's fair, provided you see some of the consequences of not doing things "how they were always done".

    As an example: on our line, for years the core weekend service was two trains doing three round trips each; plus a dining service doing either one or one-and-a-half. A round trip was 22 miles (or 18 miles, a decade ago) and took a cycle time of about 2 hours, or now 2.5 hours on the longer line.

    The three round-trip day worked very well for training. Typically the driver and fireman would do the first trip; fireman would drive and cleaner fire the second; then often the driver would drive and cleaner fire the third trip. So the cleaner got a decent amount of firing; the fireman got some driving experience etc - all part of the training and development.

    Since Covid, in the interests of cost saving, lots of two train days have become one train days; even on the two train days one of the trains now only does two round trips; and there is a greater emphasis on things like SteamLights that cover hardly any miles and spend ages hanging around. All of which is probably justifiable when viewed through the narrow prism of cost/benefit, but is having significant impact on the capacity to train crews. That could have a big operational impact in a few years when we find ourselves short of crews.

    So I totally get the fact that management may have to make tough decisions to keep railways solvent, but those decisions need to be made in the full understanding of how railways work as a system: a change in one area might have unintended consequences elsewhere, which is particularly insidious if those consequences take a few years to be really apparent.

    (I think also, pace @35B, I'd be keeping a really close eye on volunteer numbers and annual hours; membership numbers; and (non-legacy) donations to charities. Those might all be "canary in the mine" type indicators of an insidious loss of support).

    Tom
     
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  14. Big Al

    Big Al Nat Pres stalwart Staff Member Moderator

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    All it seems that the railway could offer for the Gala was the 'same old, same old' locomotives - maybe a more intensive service but that's about it. All that effort for something not a lot different from the normal timetable.

    By contrast, the Severn Valley has much to offer including the return of Hagley Hall and Flying Scotsman is going to The Swanage Railway. And the Bluebell has an interesting mixed traffic event coming up for its Giants of Steam Gala.

    So in the absence of anything worth going there for, the decision was made to cancel. That seems to me to be a pragmatic call.
     
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  15. Bikermike

    Bikermike Well-Known Member

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    On the evidence so far, absolutely agreed. Cancelling now hopefully has a lower negative effect than a poor gala.
     
  16. 61624

    61624 Part of the furniture

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    A few points to be made here, I fear. The biggest challenge we face for the future are evolving so as to continue to attract the public in viable numbers. That in itself should not be a a problem, but but we can't assume that it will just happen - it will require fresh investment and a new mindset. We have to find ways of broadening the appeal of our railways to a wider cross-section of visitor and volunteers whilst retaining our heritage roots and not become too "Disneyfied". The "Polar Express", for example, has shown that a more theatrical experience has great attraction for the public. Such changes will come about if led by management with the right approach and the ability to carry the staff and volunteers with them. "Strong management" is not a term that works for me - the WSR has what many would term strong management but it appears to be costing them heavily in legal fees, as did Peak Rail before it. "Competent management" is what should really be sought but is a different thing altogether imho, and far better suited to not just making hard decisions and imposing them, but explaining the need for them.
     
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  17. Gladiator 5076

    Gladiator 5076 Part of the furniture

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    Not often I agree with @Paulthehitch but to me it looks from the press release that the event was potentially a big loss maker. So it would be irresponsible just to plow ahead regardless.
    I could not justify the cost and it is my second nearest big line (disregarding the one I can see out of the window as I type this) and could do the visit in a day.
    Many are probably far more concerned with other financial issues than attending a steam gala.
    No well managed business ( I am not reopening the debate on if the WSR is) should not be doing things that at least look like they will break even.
     
  18. 30854

    30854 Resident of Nat Pres

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    Uncomfortable reading for some, though no less true for that. The only thing I don't doubt is that (at least most of) our lines will rise to meet these challenges as they have every previous hurdle overcome .... even if many of the solutions remain obscured for now.
     
  19. Gladiator 5076

    Gladiator 5076 Part of the furniture

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    The lines may well, the challenge will be will the public.
    Santa and or lights season approaches, that will be the first big test stuck in a the middle of a winter when people may not be able to keep warm.
    FS at Swanage will also be an indicator although I guess the "FS effect" may still cloud the data somewhat.
    Railways can rise to all sorts of challenges, but you cannot defeat simple economic reality.
     
  20. 30854

    30854 Resident of Nat Pres

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    There's a reasonable case for claiming that's precisely what our movement has been doing for the past 71 years!
     
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