Shortage of volunteers

Discussion in 'Railtours & Preservation' started by bionic, 22 Aug 2019.

  1. mushroomchow

    mushroomchow Member

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    So here's where I'm at now as far as my own views of the heritage sector and the challenges it faces to retain volunteers, especially those with bespoke skills, stand. They're not very positive, unfortunately, so cast your eyes away if you don't want to read what I see as the bleak reality on the horizon...

    I hung my boots up at the GCR this month after 12 years as a volunteer. Just don't have the time for it anymore, and as such was unable to commit the number of turns needed to maintain my working member status. I know the ropes, know the railway and platform duties like the back of my hand, and have by all accounts been a valued servant of the line for more than a decade, but I just have too many other things in my adult life that take priority nowadays. They can't justify keeping me on the books for "the odd turn" every 4 months or so anymore, which is completely understandable given the microscope railways now find themselves under in terms of H&S, professionalism and welfare, but it's worth noting that my role was non-safety critical and I can't speak for the whole railway from the position of a lowly porter / P.I.

    Since I'm leaving the country in January, there is zero point in me reapplying and sitting through the training that now appears mandatory in order to potter around on the station maybe once or twice between now and me leaving. Even if I did, my credentials would just lapse again in the two years I'm going to be gone, and I'd have to do it all again when (or if) I return from my working holiday and decide I have the time for the railway again. The days of asking to volunteer and being able to just walk-up and get stuck in are long gone now. It's a ballache when you're unable to commit, and kind of hurts given I was a regular for the first six years I volunteered, before moving away for University. But, again, I get the real world is biting, and the railway can't justify casual volunteers anymore for legal reasons as operations professionalise. But there is a chronic issue with that professionalisation - the workforce is still almost entirely voluntary and ultimately doing their turn on the railway "for fun", so to have to jump through more and more hoops just to turn out for a day's work is not in the least bit appealing without some other form of incentive beyond "keeping the past alive".

    The volunteer workforce in the heritage railway sector is disproportionately made up of A) retired or semi-retired people and B) young people of Uni age and lower, who have the spare time to be able to make the commitment. If my experience is anything to go by, for those of working age with time at a premium, there is a huge shortage in necessary skills and experience, or the outright love of the job to keep them prioritising it above work, family and other personal hobbies and commitments. The few of working age that do seem to turn out regularly for the railway seem to have little else going on, which is fine, but it's not a sustainable model to rely on the odd person with that much spare time to cover the manpower of the majority of the population, as the older generation with the skills needed becomes less able to contribute by the day.

    Put simply, unless you can train up those kids in group B above, then convince them to stay on with the railway when they hit the world of work, numerous disciplines, (especially those safety-critical ones that now require a de facto professional qualification to do on a voluntary basis with next to no prospect of real-world transferrable employment) are certain to face a chronic and possibly fatal shortage of skilled labour.

    As bright as the future looks on the surface when you see youth in the heritage sector, scratch the surface and there's still a massive skills shortage looming with the passing of the last of the "steam" generation: one that won't be filled unless some sort of educational or financial incentive arises to keep young apprentices on lines in sustainable numbers. :(
     
    Last edited: 9 Sep 2019
  2. telstarbox

    telstarbox Established Member

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    Are there any UK heritage railways where people are paid (drivers, guards, cafe staff, anyone?)
     
  3. michael74

    michael74 Member

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    Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company. No volunteers a fully paid (mostly) seasonal staff.
     
  4. Steamie Boxes

    Steamie Boxes Member

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    Ravenglass pay the drivers for the full year, as they help on the PWay during winter. The Cafe staff are seasonal as are the office staff, guards are all volunteers as are diesel drivers
     
  5. Tomnick

    Tomnick Established Member

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    Most heritage railways have a core of paid staff to keep the place ticking over in the week, many of whom will be competent in the ‘important’ (i.e. you need them to run trains!) roles, even if they don’t routinely do the work on a paid basis.
     
  6. LowLevel

    LowLevel Established Member

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    Things change alas.

    When I started on the GCR a few years before yourself my membership form was lost by the then very disorganised volunteer liaison officer so my first turn was arranged with the department manager and I came down and set to putting out lineside fires and the test is history.

    The problem with your own role is it has recently come under the spotlight from the ORR - the days of train dispatchers avoiding being considered to be safety critical are over and on the GCR they now have their own competency management, including a medical at some expense to the railway per individual and assessment and observations.

    As a platform inspector/train dispatcher you won't be able to retain your competency without making a minimum number of turns per year.

    A couple of hours for a basic induction is also now required to demonstrate that you've been briefed on working around the railway which is what is required to work as a porter. Yes, it's teaching granny to suck eggs but it has to be done. It doesn't take long.

    There's also been cases, sadly, of people signing up, taking their passes and only turning up a couple of times a year while using their free travel arrangements at the railway and the reciprocal travel elsewhere multiple times per month. This is why the department head is asked to sign off each volunteer each year. For a year where things are tough they can apply their discretion but if you've not been regular for a number of years you are likely to be signed off the list and have to reapply. To a degree, that is business and you'll find charities are generally the same wherever you go.

    I undertake a few roles that show me the whole railway regularly and I see plenty of youth coming through into the teens and 20s in all roles, control, guards, station staff, drivers - I myself work full time as a railwayman and have a healthy social life but still maintain a few safety critical roles.

    We take signalmen 'off the street' in addition, there's no requirement for portering if that's not your bag.

    I think the GCR is perhaps in a better position than many railways I've noted, to be honest.

    It is a sad because you are indeed a hard worker and well thought of, and it would be nice to see you back when the world has settled down a bit.

    In the meantime though, the authorities are watching and those who don't comply will go out of business far more quickly than through starvation of volunteers.
     
  7. UP13

    UP13 Member

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    A couple of years ago I expressed an interest at volunteering at a local narrow gauge railway that has only recently opened and has ambitions to extend. I was very enthusiastically welcomed and asked to fill in a form.

    I never heard back from them...
     
  8. Cowley

    Cowley Established Member

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    An excellent well balanced post, and very informative.
     
  9. SquireBev

    SquireBev Member

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    At 32, I'm under no illusions about whether or not I still qualify as a "young person", but I've been idly toying with the idea of volunteering at a local heritage railway. Having no children, and a partner who works most weekends, I do find myself with a regular pattern of free time that could be put to good use one way or another.

    The primary concern, however, relates to the frosty reception often meted out to newcomers by established and longer-serving members. As a gay man, I'm not sure how welcoming an environment I'd be entering, given the lack of social awareness prevalent among certain elements of the railway fraternity.
     
  10. LowLevel

    LowLevel Established Member

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    Different railways may work in different ways I guess but being gay isn't particularly unusual.
     
  11. trebor79

    trebor79 Member

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    Well it's over 20 years ago now. Initially I was met with a frosty/wary reception (I was only 16 and the particular in an area which was filled with youths mostly intent on vandalism). But that soon melted away into a very warm atmosphere and in no time at all I felt part of the team.
    There were at least 3 gay volunteers, one openly so and the other 2 I suspect were closeted. Nobody ever mentioned his sexuality or treated him any differently to anyone else.
    The only people that they took the piss out of were trainspotters and a couple of volunteers who were social oddballs (and even then only gently and never to their faces).
    Most people were too interested in playing trains to bother about each others sexuality.
     
  12. mushroomchow

    mushroomchow Member

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    I've obviously let my identity slip with that post, but I don't want to get into a public argument or hang out dirty washing. I do, however, feel a bit of context on my side is needed relevant to the wider thread discussion about workforce retention and training young volunteers, because my personal experience has run into roadblocks in both cases:
    • I never actually asked to be a Platform Inspector - I was happy continuing to be a Porter, but it was deemed that due to my long service i really ought to be taking on those responsibilities - which, of course, put me in the firing line of greater H&S scrutiny as I was technically on the books as one despite not being "passed out". I completely understand why I was asked, and agreed to train mostly because I acknowledge it's a position where staff are needed to keep the station open on a regular basis, and naturally I want to do my bit. However, my casual levels of commitment weren't able to match the new requirements, which kind of made my mind up for me at a time when, if anything, my time available to give to the railway was going in the other direction. I guess I could have asked to be taken off the books as a PI, but that would have led to the same awkward conversations about my lack of commitment. I had initially agreed to train in the role on the (mistaken) assumption that things would continue more or less as they had done to that point, save for a few shifts shadowing an existing PI before passing out. Which, to my knowledge, was how it worked when I started at the line, but has clearly changed for understandable reasons.
    • I was going to train as a signalman at one point a few years ago, but after indicating my interest, attending an initial training class and being sent away with a copy of Red For Danger to read, I heard nothing back. I found that concerning, considering it's another specialist role that I expect to face a dwindling workforce in coming years with the changing face of the "big railway" making professional signalmen rarer and rarer, and my experience kind of made me feel unwanted. That said, the signalman roster seems healthy, so again I don't have any immediate fears for its continued operation, just personal disappointment that the railway never got back to me about continuing my own training in a vital role at a time when I could have found the time to do it. That time has now passed and I'm realistically going to have to wait decades until I retire to find the time to train as one, if ever. I'm an extreme case, granted, but I still represent a missed opportunity to train a young staff member before adult life gets in the way. The line isn't going to be able to keep picking up capable signalmen "off the street" as you mention forever, I'm afraid, because give it even 10 years and they won't exist in any sustainable number. :|
    • Agree that there are some people who take the mickey by doing the bare minimum of turns and using their working membership to get free rides whenever they want. It's not something I've ever personally done - I've maybe ridden once a year on average in the twelve years I've been there - because I'm an honest person who does it for the love of the job and keeping the past alive. Oh, and I've always given back when I have ridden by buying the "famous all day breakfast". ;)
    • Not disagreeing that the line is in a healthy position for now, but the calendar is also far busier with big events and high visitor numbers than in years past. The station seems to always find a way to continue functioning and there have been some great developments in recent years, so full marks to everyone involved. But with a busier and more commercial calendar, you ultimately need even more volunteers to stay functional and safe, and that seems to be beginning to stretch the roster from what I've seen.
    • I'm probably unique in having been happy at my age to continue pottering about the station doing odd jobs, and I'm aware some of my concerns are a little hypocritical when I've said in the same breath that I can't commit to fill those looming skill gaps. I'm just being realistic in acknowledging that the two demographics I mentioned seem to make up the overwhelming number of volunteers - across the whole railway, not just on our station - and I fear that poses a real risk to its long-term sustainability.
    • Full respect for managing to do all that alongside your volunteer commitments - I just couldn't even think about doing the same alongside everything else currently going on in my life, most of which takes priority, and I doubt I'm a unique case. In reality, I'm not sure I can see a situation where I actually return to the railway unless something changes in my life to give me a lot more free time, or I sacrifice one or more of my other hobbies for it, one of which is basically semi-professional at this point and takes up most of my spare time. :|
    I write all this with the caveat that there's no bad blood on my part, and I certainly don't want to talk the line or my experiences down. I love the GCR and the people I've had the pleasure of working with over the past decade. There have been some wonderful memories, especially being there when Tornado ran its first public trains or witnessing at point blank range Sir Lamiel giving the aforementioned ORR an aneurysm with its over-zealous TPO runs back in the day! I will view with interest the progress you make over the coming years from afar, particularly regarding bridging the gap. I would absolutely recommend to anybody from the area reading this to give it a go, if you feel you can give the time. We're so lucky to have it on our doorstep. :wub:

    However, I just don't share the view that the volunteer situation - either at the line or across the wider heritage sector - is as rosy and secure as some make it out to be. I do feel we're at a crossroads as a wider industry. The twin impacts of greater role scrutiny and the limited shelf-life of older volunteers with bespoke skills are a real danger to maintaining the necessary workforce. The former ultimately made me hang up my boots prematurely, when I felt I could have given a few more days before I leave in January. :'(

    Indeed, at smaller railways the grim reality is already starting to bite. I write this as a railway in Hampshire closes its doors after 55 years, citing an "aging workforce" and lack of new volunteers as one of the major reasons. My fear is that this malaise is only going to work its way up through bigger and bigger railways unless something changes. :(

    PS - Thank you for your kind words, it's nice to know. I'll probably be down to the station to drop off my trusty winter trenchcoat between now and leaving, so put the word out if anyone would like one. :wub:
     
  13. headshot119

    headshot119 Established Member

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    Snipped down your quote to just the relevant part...

    Take it from someone who's worked in the heritage sector for just over 10 years. Volunteer shortage is becoming a bigger issue at many railways around the country, the sooner management throughout the sector acknowledges this, the faster a solution can be worked towards. Though I'm not sure what the solution is.

    Notably it's not just in the railway sector where it is an issue, but it stretches to other areas.
     
  14. theironroad

    theironroad Established Member

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  15. fireftrm

    fireftrm Member

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    I really doubt that there would be such a frosty reception, in my experience new volunteers are welcomed with open arms. From your location I rather suspect your local railway would be VERY open to you joining them. Being gay is, as it it should be, no issue and there are at least as many, if not more, LGBTQ people in heritage railway work as in any other area of society. Feel free to PM me as I know a lot of Heritage railway people and can suggest those to contact
     
  16. Belperpete

    Belperpete Member

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    We surely can't still be relying on the "steam" generation? It is 50-odd years ago that steam died on BR. Any ex-BR drivers who were in their twenties when steam died would be in their seventies now. Most of the loco-crew that I see on heritage railways are far younger than that.

    Inevitably, when the pressures of work and family life kick-in, many (if not most) young volunteers will fade away. This is a basic fact of life, particularly now that many middle-class jobs are no longer the 9-5 that they once were. However, on the line that I volunteer with, I have noticed many subsequently re-appear later in life, particularly when their kids are grown up. In some cases, they bring their kids to the railway, and the next generation is snared. The trick is to get the youngsters sufficiently enthused that they never completely forget their time volunteering.

    I think it all very much depends on your attitude. If you appear frivolous, or look unlikely to give any long-term commitment, then you may well receive a wary reception. If you have done a bit of homework, show that you know something about the line and have thought about the kind of commitment needed and what you can offer, then you are likely to be taken seriously.

    My suggestion for anyone wanting to volunteer would be to ask if you could try a "taster" to see if a particular role is right for you. Many lines offer "new volunteer" events where people are introduced to the various departments and can try their hand at various roles.
     
  17. STEVIEBOY1

    STEVIEBOY1 Established Member

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    I would love to volunteer at a heritage railway, but I do not drive and there are none that are close enough to get to by public transport without having a rather long or complicated / expensive journey.
     
  18. trebor79

    trebor79 Member

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    That's exactly what I did in my teens. Up before dawn, bus to town, walk to that station. Train to Newcastle, metro to Shiremoor and then walked a mile or so down the old waggonway to the Stephenson Railway Museum. Reverse on the way back except sometimes I got a lift to Shiremoor.
    If you're keen enough you'll do it!
     
  19. STEVIEBOY1

    STEVIEBOY1 Established Member

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    From where I live, it would take around 2 hours each way to get to either of the nearest railways to me, with at least 1 change of train enroute for one, and a bus and 1 change of train enroute for the other.
     
  20. ge-gn

    ge-gn Member

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    It took me 9 hours on the train to get to the place I volunteered in my teens. Aside from the enjoyment of working on a railway, it was a right of passage learning how to fend for myself at a young age. Different days now I accept, it was 30years ago. But it led to a railway career. Don't volunteer now, for a few reasons, but I don't regret any of it, or the experiences I enjoyed. If you want to do it, do it!
     
  21. alexl92

    alexl92 Established Member

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    That's all very well, and I don't disagree, but not everyone can afford an extra 4 hours per day of travel on top of giving their time as a volunteer, not to mention the cost of said travel.
     
  22. ian1944

    ian1944 Member

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    There's a Monty Python - type progression in these recent reminiscences:

    (1) Up before dawn, bus to town, walk to that station. Train to Newcastle, metro to Shiremoor and then walked a mile or so down the old waggonway to the Stephenson Railway Museum.

    (2) From where I live, it would take around 2 hours each way to get to either of the nearest railways to me, with at least 1 change of train enroute for one, and a bus and 1 change of train enroute for the other.

    (3) It took me 9 hours on the train to get to the place I volunteered in my teens.

    I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing 'Hallelujah.'

    And a reminder of how things used to be on heritage railways. In 1991 when my son was 16, we had a week's holiday in Boat of Garten. He went to the Strathspey station on arrival latish on Saturday, was on the footplate on Sunday and spent the rest of the week firing with no previous experience.
     
  23. trebor79

    trebor79 Member

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    Which just goes to show it's not that difficult, and railways that insist upon nothing but years of drudgery before a decent crack of the whip are taking the proverbial.
    Once you've got the hang of getting an injector going, how and where to fling coal into the box and what the dampers and blower do the rest is finessing.
     
  24. 70014IronDuke

    70014IronDuke Established Member

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    Why don't you drop each of these railways a line in an email, tell them where you live and ask if they've got any volunteers who live near you? You might find there is a fairly regular lift available.
     
  25. Tomnick

    Tomnick Established Member

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    ...until something goes wrong, mechanical failure or whatever, and you're suddenly responsible for preventing (at best) serious damage to the loco or (at worst) serious damage to numerous people, adjacent property etc.. The ORR are *very* interested in heritage railways and their competence management systems at the moment, so it's more important than ever to make sure that there's a robust training regime.
     
  26. trebor79

    trebor79 Member

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    Absolutely agree proper training is essential, and there's no way it would be acceptable these days to do things as they were 20 or 30 years ago.
    But to pretend that years of doing little else but cleaning and disposing of locos is part of that training is a fallacy. That might have been appropriate back in the day when people were getting paid and learning was more a process of osmosis. But it's not right for a volunteer organisation in the 21st century.
     
  27. Spartacus

    Spartacus Established Member

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    It’s a bit ironic that those few remaining who trained on BR steam will have gone through a lot quicker progression than their predecessors at any time but wartime, while it appears a few of their modern successors are having to go through just as slow a progression, if not slower in a few cases.
     
  28. Spagnoletti

    Spagnoletti Member

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    There's a 'dead mens shoes' effect at work here too. While older volunteers are either reducing their hours or packing in entirely, they're not doing it that quickly, and it's important for a steam department to have the correct numbers of drivers, firemen and cleaners to meet rostering requirements. A new start can't progress through the grades simply because there's a bunch of other guys with more seniority in the way. That can really slow things down.
     
  29. Cowley

    Cowley Established Member

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    It’s a very different scenario to mainline steam days because of the difference in hours spent doing the job six days a week as a cleaner/passed cleaner/fireman etc vs doing the odd couple of weekends a month on the footplate. It’s going to take a while to get up the grades I’d have thought?
     
  30. 45669

    45669 Member

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    Nobody has mentioned that joining the supporting society is a good way to support a railway and this can lead to joining the ranks of existing volunteers. The society magazines will have reports from the various departmental heads and will usually end with an appeal for more volunteer help.

    Distance need not be an issue, especially if you get to know other people on a line that live near you. One of them is likely to have a car, even if you don't. I used to live in Middlesex and was a regular volunteer on the Ffestiniog Railway. That required an overnight drive on the Friday night at first, although later we used to go straight from work in the early evening so could get there at a rather late bedtime. Our tasks were usually working on the PW, so training then was mainly restricted to learning which end of a mattock was the handle.

    Many years later I volunteered on the Nene Valley as I had moved to the Huntingdon area. Again I joined the PW gang, but had to give it up when I got too old. The spirit was still willing, but the flesh was decidedly less so!

    However, I would advise anyone young and fit enough to investigate PW work as you get to see parts of the railway that others don't see. Well maintained track is just as important as well as maintained engines and working with a gang can be more rewarding where teamwork is required. I made friends doing that I'm still in touch with nearly 60 years later.
     

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