Steam clouds have turned to storm clouds for Britain’s heritage railways amid a cash crisis which could signal the end of the line.
Closures forced by the pandemic saw passenger numbers and income evaporate while costs have spiralled.
The nation’s 160 heritage lines have given holiday joy to millions down the years. They are, finally – and thankfully – up and running again.
But they face a worrying timetable of their own – getting enough cash in before bills become insurmountable.
Today, life-long rail enthusiast Pete Waterman and conservationist Bill Oddie urge readers to get on board with saving this national treasure and preserve it for future generations.
Music mogul Pete, 74, who owns several locomotives, told the Sunday Mirror: “Support your local heritage line because they need you desperately. Our country is what it is because of our heritage. If you deny it, then we’ve got nothing.”
And ex-Springwatch host Bill, 80, said: “It would be a real tragedy if we lost our heritage railways.
“We absolutely must do everything we can to back them.
“I’ve filmed on some and it was an absolute childhood dream come true.
“But I worry that the Government, who are in the process of wrecking a great deal of countryside with HS2, wouldn’t balk if a few were lost, so we have to protect them.”
The revival of Britain’s Victorian rail lines and preservation of steam and diesel engines was driven, literally, by thousands of passionate volunteers.
The vast majority of the tracks were closed by British Railways chairman Sir Richard Beeching in the 1960s as part of sweeping modernisation. Now a key tourism attraction, the 160 heritage railways cover nearly 600 miles of track between 460 stations.
They fuel an estimated £500million boost to the economy – even featuring in movie blockbusters starring Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.
But it all comes at a price. Unique engines can cost £1million a decade to maintain. Brake blocks are £1,000 a pop, bespoke parts are eye-wateringly dear – and coal isn’t cheap.
Record producer Pete, who helped fundraising campaigns to keep East Lancashire Railway afloat, said: “The bottom line is some will close in 12 months because the impact of the pandemic on preservation and heritage rail has been phenomenal.
“We are also seeing some older volunteers frightened off because of the pandemic. The heritage railway industry has the largest volunteer group of any charity in Britain – over 20,000 – and it’s protecting our heritage. It’s crucial we keep it going.
“In many places, like the Severn Valley and North York Moors, it is vital. Take it away and their economy is in real trouble.”
Steve Oates, CEO of the Heritage Railway Association and a volunteer since boyhood days with the Isle Of Wight steam railway, said of the pandemic: “We have lost millions. Some of our larger railways employ over 100 staff, others just a handful, but whatever the size it was devastating. They survived on a knife edge.”
The furloughing of staff, National Lottery grants and local fundraising efforts have helped these railways weather the Covid storm... for now.
Over £30million of the £1.57billion Culture Recovery Fund was allocated to 60 heritage railways.
But as restrictions ease, the attractions desperately need more fares.
Last year, North Yorkshire Moors Railway had to find £5.5million to keep trundling. Only last week it launched Love Your Railway – a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of heritage railways, collaborating with over 50 other organisations.
The six-week campaign runs until September 5 and aims to shine a spotlight on the important work heritage railways do and highlight how they have been affected by Covid.
NYMR general manager Chris Price said: “Take away our heritage railways and a part of our history dies with it.
“Nobody is doing this to make money. This is all done for the love of heritage railways. There is no other place in the world that has this level of heritage railways and interaction with the communities and financial benefit. It adds upwards of over half a billion pounds a year to the UK economy. It is something that attracts tourism and international filming.
“This year we’ve had Mission Impossible and Indiana Jones both filming.
“Our own railway is worth upwards of £40million a year to the economy of North Yorkshire, with jobs it creates.
“We do so much more than people realise – even offering internet connection trackside to rural homes.”
Teacher Phil Akester, one of 1,000 volunteers with NYMR, started out as a cleaner aged 11 and now, at 23, is a driver. He said volunteers – even some from Holland – kept in touch over lockdown with internet chats.
Phil, from Beverley, East Yorks, said: “It made you appreciate how much you love what you do, how important it is in your life. Some were pensioners who have driven trains since the 1960s and may not otherwise have spoken to people for days.”
Heritage railways can be traced back to 1950. Tom Rolt, founder of The Inland Waterway Association, helped save Talyllyn Railway in Snowdonia, North Wales, by raising cash and creating the first preserved railway in the world.
Chris Price said: “From this acorn did big oak trees grow.
“But things didn’t really take off until after the Beeching cuts when the network was dramatically cut back. This left lots of disused lines across Britain and the model set up by Tom was then emulated on these lines, one at a time.
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“The whole thing was set up by enthusiastic volunteers. They are all labours of love rather than business dealings.
“Some have gone on to become businesses but predominantly they are run by volunteers for community and public benefit.”
Talyllyn is now thought to boost the Welsh economy by £3.5million a year.
General manager Stuart Williams said: “We are the third biggest employer in our town as well as attracting 50,000 people
to a part of Wales they wouldn’t usually come to.”
Now the engines are firing once again and the HRA’s Steve Oates hopes it will, literally, be full steam ahead. He adds: “There’s been a good bounce back already this year. The season’s not going too badly, but there’s a long way to go.
“The key thing about heritage railways is the resilience, because there’s a real love for them.
“We want the Hogwarts Express, the Thomas the Tank Engine, the Flying Scotsmans.”