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Have we reached Peak Preservation?

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yoyothehobo

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No i don't mean they are finally doing something with 45015.

Have we reached the peak of the heritage railway sector in the UK? Steam engines are becoming more and more difficult to keep running, through maintenance/expenses/coal purchasing etc... The industry has had a big hit from COVID, the country is probably at saturation of actual lines to see, the older volunteers and railwaymen are retiring/passing on and there does not seem to be the same enthusiasm for the current working ages to spend their free weekend time grafting away on the railway.

We are likely to see more and more diesel operations on heritage lines, but will this bring in the punters?

Any thoughts?
 
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WAO

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The key is in the name; heritage railway not heritage steam.

Most "punters" want the experience of a traditional carriage (now including Mark 3's!), station ambience and coffee and a pie in a station buffet. Steam has a pull but probably no more than 30%.

There are however many young (and female) volunteers, often with a modern railway background who have a brightness, optimism and awareness of customer service not always present in the seniors.

Like coffee shops, there is still selective
room for expansion.

WAO
 

Flying Phil

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We get this question about every three years and, despite Covid, there are more lines planning or actually building extensions. There are fewer unrestored locomotives. Yes, there are some that have run and are awaiting overhaul. There are now running "new builds" and more close to completion. The industry is mature, with more paid employees than ever and volunteers keep on turning up. Older non working supporters donate cash and interest or buy tickets to ride. Yes it is difficult and there will be changes ....but I remain optimistic and very proud of what so many people have achieved...and want to build into the future.
 

Titfield

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IMHO we are very close to the peak but not quite sure which side probably the downside but that may depend on which aspect of heritage railways you are looking at.

Whilst there are heritage diesel devotees and enthusiasts they do not appear to be anywhere close to the number of steam enthusiasts or people who find steam appealing. If diesel replaces steam on heritage lines then there will be a falling off of visitor numbers and revenue and I fear a spiral decline of less revenue = less steam = less revenue. This becomes a considerable challenge as the ORR HMRI pay much greater attention to the standards of heritage railways e.g. the well publicised issues at South Devon and West Somerset.

I dont think that steam engines are becoming more difficult to keep running in terms of restoration and maintenance per se but they are becoming more costly as some of the skill skills required e.g. boilersmithing is certainly becoming challenging as there are far fewer boilersmiths around. The cost of raw materials is also increasing far faster than the general rate of inflation eg copper.

One of the other big changes is in recruiting and retaining volunteers or to be more precise generating the same number of volunteer hours.. The days when someone would retire and look around for something to keep them occupied 3 -5 days a week is long gone. Many "retirees" or perhaps I should say those in receipt of a pension lead far busier lives: some have full time jobs, some have part time jobs, some have child care responsibilities (grand children etc) many have a very wide range of interests including multiple volunteering which soak up time. It is also fair to say that taking longer or multiple overseas holidays is far more prevalent than say 25 years ago. If the equation is more volunteers each devoting less time but the total volunteering hours is the same that may give some comfort but then one has to consider the implications of competency and training.

One of the other issues is competition for visitors. I think it is fair to say that there is a much wider range of past times / visitor attractions for people to spend their leisure time on than before. Are heritage railways delivering the standard of attraction to maintain their visitor numbers? yes there are some successes for eg the steam and lights trains at Christmas but what about the day in day out appeal of the low and shoulder seasons?

Personally I think heritage railways will have to become much more customer focused to attract and retain both customers (visitors) and volunteers. It can be done but I doubt that all the current heritage railways will survive. Many currently rely on donations' legacies and grants to survive. Will those funding streams be the same in the next 5 and 10 years? Competition for donations and legacies is growing all the time. Just see how many adverts there are for medical, animal and overseas aid charities there are on tv and the internet now.

I want heritage railways to survive but I think there will be a shakeout with a polarisation in much the same was as professional football with a premiership of a handful of steam railways and then a vast gulf to a much smaller lower league whose survival will be in doubt.
 

Dunfanaghy Rd

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I would question the assertion that steam engines are "becoming more and more difficult to keep running". As far as repair techniques are concerned they are, if anything, becoming easier, albeit at a cost.
A fact often overlooked is that the overhaul cycle for steam engines does not fit neatly into the 10-year statutory boiler cycle. Some overhauls can consist of little more than boiler work, others are more complex. As a result there is often a degree of residual life in some components which can be exploited to reduce costs. (Back in the early days it was possible to get ex-Barry engines running relatively easily. I know of engines that returned to steam with the BR tubes and flues in situ, but needed mechanical work.)
As to extensions, some like the Bala make perfect sense. I'm dubious about most, though, especially in the post-Covid future.
Yes, I am sure that some current railways will fail, sadly, but Covid may have hastened the inevitable rather than caused it.
Pat
 

Titfield

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"Extensions" need very careful consideration. Will the additional revenue outweigh the additional costs?

If you double the mileage will passengers be prepared to pay double the fare? I would suggest this may be a significant disincentive to sales.

Does the railway have sufficient resources in pway to manage the additional line length. The recent WSR experience suggests this may be an issue. It isnt of course just about pway but consider all the lineside civils. Climate change with heavier rainfall has seen a number of landslides (of embankments) creating major issues for the national network. As we have seen a landslide on a heritage railway can be a financial and operational catastrophe.

A further issue - one already evident on some of the longer preserved railways - is the frequency of service. Self evidently with a longer line the interval between services can be considerable unless a second loco - with all that entails - is put into service. In a world of "on demand services" how many customers would plan their days sufficiently well? How often do potential customers turn up to find that the less "sensible train" of the day has gone (ie typically the last but one train thus giving the passenger time at the destination rather than just coming straight back).

I cant help but feel that small is beautiful as it is far more manageable than taking on additional commitments. Indeed when one looks at some heritage railways they have struggled to manage and maintain their current commitments.
 

Nicks

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Many heritage railways have become entertainment and hospitality businesses, as long as people want to spend their money on these things they will survive.
 

paul1609

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Ive been involved in Railway Preservation for nearly 40 years. In that time there has been a definite cycle of ups and downs.
The various railways don't follow the same curve at exactly the same time but external factors affect all the railways eventually.
In terms of the whole heritage railway cycle Id suggest that the peak of the current cycle was in around 2015 and we have been in a gentle decline since then.
Major factors causing the decline since then are not entirely railway orientated or particularly obvious to enthusiasts I'd suggest.
Id suggest they are:
a) Increased regulation
b) The Amazon effect-online retailing
c) Increases in the minimum wage.
Covid is obviously going to cause a major regression but I don't think that anybody can realistically forecast the outcome. I would suggest that the most likely outcome is that the cycle is going in to decline for around the next 5 years or maybe more, after which the industry will recover and move forward again.
 

LSWR Cavalier

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Some lines were short of cash, started appeals or got big legacies
Most or all have a lot of work done free or cheap (expenses) by volunteers

There are different forms of organisation, commercial companies, charities

I worked on one as a paid employee, I volunteered too, best job I ever had in some ways
 

Titfield

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The point Paul makes about amazon style online retailing is interesting.

Many heritage railways have hitherto relied on profits from the "station shop" to bolster income however it appears that some station shops are indecline as quite simply fewer books, dvds, magazines are purchased either due to being cheaper online or purchases of that style of item being in long term decline.

Likewise catering is becoming more challenging as the spread of Costas and Greggs impact the more traditional type of cafe.
 

Bletchleyite

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Likewise catering is becoming more challenging as the spread of Costas and Greggs impact the more traditional type of cafe.

If it's more profitable, could a preserved railway not open a Costa or a Greggs[1] franchise in their building? It's not conventional, but is there any actual reason they couldn't?

[1] I can't remember if they do franchises or not, but if not there's always Subway or similar.
 

Titfield

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Looked at this a couple of years ago and the costs / ts and cs of running a franchise were more onerous than many heritage railways would be comfortable with. (days and hours of opening, staff training, standardised fit out etc etc).

Having said that It would certainly be worth a try imho if the will was there.
 

D365

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Looked at this a couple of years ago and the costs / ts and cs of running a franchise were more onerous than many heritage railways would be comfortable with. (days and hours of opening, staff training, standardised fit out etc etc).

Having said that It would certainly be worth a try imho if the will was there.
Exactly my thoughts, that would be a huge time and money sink for any heritage railway even before covid. You'd have to open seven days a week in order for there to even be a chance of breaking even.

It works at mainline stations because there is daily footfall, but even then you often only see chain outlets at "hub" stations.
 

Titfield

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Exactly my thoughts, that would be a huge time and money sink for any heritage railway even before covid. You'd have to open seven days a week in order for there to even be a chance of breaking even.

It works at mainline stations because there is daily footfall, but even then you often only see chain outlets at "hub" stations.

Absolutely agree. Retailing and catering is become increasingly competitive and tougher to make a profit. Many Heritage Railways have had the advantage of a "captive market" but even that is no guarantee of profit.

In Swanage, a town I know well, the number of outlets selling food items within a 5 minute walk of the station is over 20. It may be a busy town in the season but even so competition is increasing and making it more challenging.
 

Ianigsy

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I remember one of the staff at Llangollen saying a few years ago that what the majority of visitors wanted was an hour-long out and back trip behind a steam engine for about £15-20.

One consequence of the decline of loco-hauled trains and standardisation of freight classes is that there just won't be the same variety to preserve any more - of the working locos on the main line at the moment, I think there's only classes 57, 66, 67, 68, 70, 88, 90, 91 and 92 that don't have examples preserved and some of those could have another 20 years plus before they become available.
 

tbtc

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Yes, I think we've reached "peak preservation".

A few reasons:

The preservation movement did well when there were many abandoned lines that could be snapped up without much upgrade. That's not the case now - roads have been built in the way, retail parks built where stations once stood - there's not the same room for expansion or new lines that there once was

The preservation movement did well when many locomotives that had been taken out of service prematurely (e.g. a lot of steam locomotives were scrapped because they were steam locomotives and BR were rushing to diesel, rather than because they had become life expired, so they didn't need massive overhauls - plus BR didn't use stock as intensively so some locomotives were used fairly sparingly - compared to the outrage that you now get if someone sees as much as a two coach DMU sat unused at Tyseley/ Heaton/ Neville Hill off peak). That's not the case now - any steam is several decades old and any diesel stock that gets withdrawn nowadays has been fairly intensively worked on the modern railway.

The preservation movement did well when construction could be done fairly cheaply - land was cheap - applying twenty first century regulations would have killed off a lot of the re-openings that did happen - it's a much more professional (i.e. "expensive") world now

The preservation movement did well when there were a lot of people able to retire in their fifties and sixties on good pensions, able to devote a bit of time to projects when they were still physically able to be of much use. One of the older members of staff at the place I work left with the intention to volunteer at Middleton in Leeds but his generation were able to - many of today's thirty/forty somethings will be lucky to retire much before seventy

The preservation movement did well when there was a connection with the steam that they ran - the "tourists" paid money to ride on the kind of steam trains they used to commute on, staffed by the kind of people who'd have been working such services back in the day. Now though, there's a disconnect - kids grow up with Thomas The Tank Engine and the Hogwart's Express but the trains they use for commuting are more likely to be DMUs - the staff working on preserved lines won't be working the traction they might have worked on as drivers/guards on the "big railway"

The preservation movement did well when there were fewer tourist attractions around. Nowadays every other farm seems to have converted a couple of fields to a big playground/ "tractor rides"/ "sheep racing" etc, museums make much more effort to attract people, we have Wildlife Parks and "Go Apes" and more old buildings opened as Stately Homes, the market for the "Family Friendly Day Out That Shouldn't Cost More Than Fifty Quid All In" has a lot of competition. You can take the family to the zoo and be looking at giraffes a couple of minutes later but you might take the family to a preserved railway and find that the next service isn't for over an hour (and it's set up so that 99% of the attractions are at the "far" station so there's nothing much to do at the station you parked your car at).

The preservation movement did well when there were fewer types of train - much easier to find something that would appeal to people back in the day but in 2021, do you focus on one type of type/era, do you offer a muddle of everything - how do you find a gap in the market when there are so many different versions of "railway" that you could try to recreate? Are you aiming for a particular niche of enthusiast or just ordinary punters who think that A Train Is A Train Is A Train (and wouldn't notice that you had carriages only built after the locomotive hauling them had been scrapped)?

Plus, as per the above comments, the money to be made from retailing and food faces a lot more competition - gift shops aren't the money maker that they once were - you'll still be able to make a good profit on a cup of hot tea on a cold day but people are more savvy when it comes to paying over the odds for a meal.

There's certainly a market for preserved railways but I think that some contraction will probably happen over the next decade (sure, there'll be some expansion in places but I think that there'll be more contraction overall - even if there are big noises made about ambitious expansion plans which never come to fruition). Maybe we'll have fewer lines but bigger/better ones, more focus on a wide range of things (e.g. more than one train in operation at once)
 

Bletchleyite

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I wonder if we might see some lines not running trains any more but instead with things like "rail bikes" like you get elsewhere in Europe? That would be a good addition to the portfolio. I don't want to see it close, but a very scenic line like Llangollen would be great for that.
 

DB

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Isn't the biggest issue likely to be that with people working longer, the pool of active retired volunteers is going to shrink, and replacing many of these with paid staff is likely to be unaffordable for many lines.

I wonder if we might see some lines not running trains any more but instead with things like "rail bikes" like you get elsewhere in Europe? That would be a good addition to the portfolio. I don't want to see it close, but a very scenic line like Llangollen would be great for that.

Yes, it's perhaps a little surprising that there are none in this country - I guess it's proabably that most of the closed lines here were long gone before this became a concept. And it would probably need Sustrans or similar to take an interest.
 

Bletchleyite

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Yes, it's perhaps a little surprising that there are none in this country - I guess it's proabably that most of the closed lines here were long gone before this became a concept. And it would probably need Sustrans or similar to take an interest.

Conwy Valley, anyone? :D :D :D
 

philthetube

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If it's more profitable, could a preserved railway not open a Costa or a Greggs[1] franchise in their building? It's not conventional, but is there any actual reason they couldn't?

[1] I can't remember if they do franchises or not, but if not there's always Subway or similar.
Costa certainly do, however the issue is location, if your preserved railway has a daily throughput of people then you have a chance, if it only sees passengers when trains are running and that is mainly weekends and school hols then it would never pay.
 

DB

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Costa certainly do, however the issue is location, if your preserved railway has a daily throughput of people then you have a chance, if it only sees passengers when trains are running and that is mainly weekends and school hols then it would never pay.

A coffee franchise soesn't really fit with what most people go to a preserved railway for though, does it? Wouldn't fit with the ambience at all!
 

Titfield

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Most tourist attractions are summer and school holidays only. There are a lot of days outside of the peak and shoulder seasons when there is little traffic at many attractions.

A coffee franchise soesn't really fit with what most people go to a preserved railway for though, does it? Wouldn't fit with the ambience at all!
It might not do but go to Swanage and see the queue outside Greggs!!
 

Bletchleyite

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A coffee franchise soesn't really fit with what most people go to a preserved railway for though, does it? Wouldn't fit with the ambience at all!

Perhaps not, but it might sell more widely than people just coming to ride the train (if the station is usefully located for that).
 

LondonExile

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Absolutely agree. Retailing and catering is become increasingly competitive and tougher to make a profit. Many Heritage Railways have had the advantage of a "captive market" but even that is no guarantee of profit.

In Swanage, a town I know well, the number of outlets selling food items within a 5 minute walk of the station is over 20. It may be a busy town in the season but even so competition is increasing and making it more challenging.
I think running catering as an overall concept is a good one - but I can't see taking a franchise from a chain as being a good idea. It jars with the overall experience being marketed and the chain get their cut of things. The benefits I can see over running catering yourself are skills and compliance with food legislation will all have been worked out for you in the company manuals, and the fact that the brand name is well known.

Small cafes manage the compliance aspect fine - and whilst I'm sure there will be some customers who choose to remain hungry and wait until they can get to Greggs or Starbucks in town - many many more won't care and the real question for them is "Are you selling anything I want at a price I'm prepared to pay?"

Piping the smells from the kitchen to a convenient spot on the platform where people disembark and ensuring service is swift should deliver more from a catering operation than exchanging a large proportion of your takings for the Greggs branding and recipes.
 

DB

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Perhaps not, but it might sell more widely than people just coming to ride the train (if the station is usefully located for that).

How many preserved railway stations actually are though? Even those in larger towns tend to be far enough from the centre that there won't be much passing trade, in most cases.
 

Flying Phil

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The GCR cafes at Quorn and Rothley are usually (Pre Covid) quite busy throughout the week with local people. The Granite cafe at Mountsorrel is very popular. The argument that the generation that "Knew BR steam" is now declining may well be true, but so many more are coming through who have only known preserved steam...yet still they come.
It is also true that many people will not be retiring until 67 or 70. They are however healthy and in many cases financially ok so are able to support the heritage railways that they love.
There is also the social aspect of our railways - obviously badly affected by the current situation.....but for many older folk, going to their railway is extremely important for their physical and mental well-being. This demographic are still an increasing proportion of our population.
Peak Preservation?....... Not yet!
 

30907

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How many preserved railway stations actually are though? Even those in larger towns tend to be far enough from the centre that there won't be much passing trade, in most cases.
Fair point, there aren't many. Bury Bolton Street has its pub, which I suspect does non-railway trade (Porthmadog Harbour similarly?) . At Keighley the station cafe was taken in-house just before Covid - IIRC the business case included having a kitchen that could support dining trains etc, and of course Keighley has just a few NR passengers to boost takings :)

On the more general issue:
I would be surprised if any new lines were opened, and one or two smaller ones might close; however:
- replica locos will continue to appear, and others will be thoroughly overhauled/re-engineered to provide efficient motive power;
- in due course we shall probably see replica coaches (possibly on recycled underframes, SR style), but that is a generation away IMO;
- the supply of volunteers is likely to continue, as the increase in retirement age isn't likely to outpace the increase in longevity (over the preservation era lifespan has steadily increased - by 10 years in 60).
 

Bletchleyite

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- in due course we shall probably see replica coaches (possibly on recycled underframes, SR style), but that is a generation away IMO;

I wonder if Boston Lodge (Ffestiniog) will get into building standard gauge coaches? They already build new old-looking coaches for the FfR.
 

BigB

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I wonder if Boston Lodge (Ffestiniog) will get into building standard gauge coaches? They already build new old-looking coaches for the FfR.
Personally I feel this is unlikely - A) a full size coach takes up a lot of space thus requiring a new dedicated workshop and B) there are plenty available.
There is a lot more involved with standard gauge coaches than narrow gauge which is why so many are languishing in sidings. Many railways can't actually give them away ( in that they don't want to scrap them, but want them to go to a good home where they will be restored and run).
The economics for me don't stack up for building a coach from scratch for a preserved line. A full overhaul to main line standard is eye wateringly expensive, as is buying a main line registered coach. Unless you can recoup some of the build costs this way, then I question the logic of it. Narrow gauge are an exception, as there is rarely a ready supply of second hand stock to buy.
I actually see it being more likely that newer coaches are procured and made to look old. We did joke about the SRPS fleet (all Mk1) being vinyl covered as teak, before crimson and cream was agreed on.... but look at the premium fleets like Northern Belle or Royal Scotsman, or Blue Pullman. Not too many truly "old" coaches in their fleet though essentially they are made to look like they are. And for most customers, that is perfectly fine.
 

30907

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Personally I feel this is unlikely - A) a full size coach ...plenty available.
....I actually see it being more likely that newer coaches are procured and made to look old.
So do I, initially - the question is, for how long. In 30 years Mk1s will be 90 years old, and Mk2/a/b/c 80; anything newer will be a/c stock which adds disproportionate complications for a 25mph heritage railway.
I was perhaps being pessimistic - it may be that Mk1 coach bodies can last even longer.
 
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