In a number of recent commentaries, several views have been aired about ‘professionalism’, the need to adhere to modern-day standards of maintenance and safety, customer services and information, and the operation of everything from main line charters to photo shoots. Thing is, did any of the preservationists ever imagine, when they began their efforts at the Talyllyn, Middleton, Bluebell, and Festiniog, that they were giving birth to a new ‘industry’.
This new ‘heritage railway’ industry might have a substantial volunteer input but, most of the large lines, both standard and narrow gauge, have paid staff, employ contractors in a variety of ways from catering and toilet hygiene to p-way work and locomotive repairs. They employ haulage contractors to move engines, or deliver water, engineering companies manufacturing parts and spares, specialist oil and coal suppliers and suppliers of gifts, souvenirs, sandwiches, pies, printers, leaflet distributors and probably Uncle Tom Cobleigh too, all of them, and more, help to keep the show on the road.
The 1960s ‘Pie in the sky’ trainspotters, of which I was one, trying to raise money, selling cake, buns, and raffle tickets, to extricate a ‘rusting’ Barry hulk are today, the stuff of legend. The tales they tell are worthy of a pint down the local each time they are told, polished and retold with some new embellishment added.
And there’s the rub, heritage railways are businesses, with customers, complaints, insurance claims, rates, VAT, and a mountain of paperwork. None of which is the stuff that led a bunch of wildly optimistic kids, in the main, to undertake one of the most monumental feats of industrial archeology. However, for some, especially those who have been around for the odd decade or three, the increased levels of commercialisation are seen as little more than a necessary evil – faces on the smokebox to pay the bills.
Starry eyed romantics have, in the past, achieved miracles, but today it’s hard-headed commercialism which keeps steam in the boiler and the pint in the refreshment room. There’s no shortage of truth in the old adage – ‘you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. And this can be applied in Spades to; loco liveries, Flying Scotsman, black smoke, cylinder drain cocks, paucity of info, and the rumour mill. I nearly called this piece ‘winter of discontent’ but then I thought maybe being discontent is what makes us try and improve things, so not all bad.
The photo shows Ex-Keighley Gas works 0-4-0ST No.2 at Bobgins on the Tanfield Railway.