By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor
Published in 2017, The Railway Preservation Revolution by Jonathan Brown should be required reading for anyone interested in heritage railways. Although it only tells the story of tourist railroading in Great Britain, this may be the best book ever written about North American railway preservation.
That’s because the experience is universal. Dedicated volunteers save rolling stock from the scrapper, revive railroads on the brink of abandonment, do world class restorations and create a family-oriented nostalgia industry from nothing. There’s also the less attractive side of the movement. Some railroads fail financially and infighting rears its ugly head. Sticklers for historical accuracy criticize compromises intended to attract riders and keep vintage equipment running. Tourist line operators gripe about government regulations. As the new century progresses, everyone wonders if the supply of volunteers will dry up. Sound familiar?
From afar, British heritage railroading looks like a steam powered nirvana. The book lists over 100 railways in an area the size of Oregon. To put it another way, the United States has about 250 tourist railways and operating museums, but is 40 times larger. According to the book, British railways carried 7.1 million passengers in 2011, involved 18,000 volunteers, 2200 paid staff and generated revenue of 92 million pounds. North American tourist railroads and museums carry about 9 million passengers each year.
The UK preservation movement started slowly in the 1950s in Wales. Volunteers rescued a pair of privately owned Welsh 2-foot narrow gauges, the Talyllyn and the Ffestiniog. The start of the current movement to preserve cast-off British Rail branches was the creation of the Bluebell Railway in 1960.
Two major events set the stage for the preservation boom. First was the 1963 report “The Reshaping of British Railways”, denigrated by railfans as “Lord Beeching’s Axe”. British Rail was hemorrhaging money and the report recommended the closure of 5000 miles of mostly branch lines. Abandonments began immediately and continued through 1981.
At first BR didn’t take the volunteer preservationists seriously. After a number of successful line acquisitions, Parliament passed legislation that defined how railroads would be transferred to new owners and the movement accelerated dramatically. By decade, here’s the count of newly established railroads.
UK preserved railway startups
4 2010s, so far
On top of that, existing railroads have opened 30 line extensions since 1979.
As new railroads appeared, the concern was repeatedly raised that the market had become oversaturated. However, apart from a dip in ridership during the 2008-09 recession, that hasn’t seemed to happen. The author speculates that we’re seeing the end of new lines, although he lists nine groups that are trying to establish themselves.
In North America mainline steam was extinct by 1960, predating the preservation movement. Therefore most preserved steam has involved short line locomotives that lasted a bit longer and the belated revival of some of the engines placed on display in city parks during the 1950s.
Because mainline steam in Britain continued until 1968, locomotives in reasonable condition were much more available for preservation. By happy circumstance, BR sold 297 of them to the Woodham Brothers scrap yard in Barry, South Wales. Woodham scrapped only 84 of them. The remaining 213 languished and all were eventually saved, the last in 1990. Over 100 of them have been restored to operation.
As in North America, some notable locomotive classes did not survive the scrapper. That has led to a new, albeit limited movement to build replica locomotives. The prime example so far is the Class A1 4-6-2 Tornado, an aristocratic machine if there ever was one. Others are underway. Replication has crossed the Atlantic, resulting in copies of 19th Century power and the current Pennsylvania T1 project.
Much of the book describes the development of the individual railways. Although it may be foreign to North Americans, you have to be impressed by polished locos with brass nameplates pulling gleaming rakes of carriages past signal boxes, through level crossings and finally stopping at high level platforms next to Victorian depots. Well worth a read.
The Railway Preservation Revolution is published by Pen & Sword Transport.