The challenges of the new world on a Heritage Railway.
Quite quickly it became clear that all but a couple of paid staff had to be put into the government furlough scheme and we had to do some fairly drastic financial predictions for the coming months to ensure the railway’s future was not put in jeopardy.
We were then left with what essentially was a deserted railway which then became vulnerable to theft or vandalism. We quite quickly used the daily exercise permission to use our volunteers to do security walks around our sites between four and six times a day. Across the whole Railway this required 28 local people per day, not an insignificant number, and the support of all of our local volunteers has been overwhelming. This presence has undoubtedly had a big impact on the risks and we have only seen a small number of problems during the period of restrictions.
As the restrictions continued operations on the main line network became difficult too and the fact that Northern Rail were not operating many of their trains left them with a problem – where to store the ones that were out of use. We received a phone call asking to stable one or two class 144 Pacers on our land to help out, as a ‘favour’ to help our Network colleagues to keep moving. Quickly this turned into a commercial discussion around keeping more or less the whole remaining fleet of 144 units at Keighley. To our delight we reached an agreement with Northern, and we still see these units with us at Keighley, kept as Northern Rail’s strategic reserve. We are not sure how long they will be with us, but as long as they are at Keighley they are contributing to our funds!
As time went on our thoughts turned to the practicalities of how to carry out some of the looming essential work like keeping our pressure systems such as Diesel loco’s/DMU air reservoirs and steam locomotive boilers available for use when needed. This meant investigating the guidance that was available in industry and introducing safe methods of work to enable people to come on site.
As some restrictions have been eased slightly, this has been made more practical, but we are still now in a position where only some work can be carried out and ideally, of course, only jobs that do not incur costs!
Time to look ahead
As I write this we are still altering and reshaping the nine phase reopening plan to ensure that we have a structured and robust approach to restarting the railway. We are currently in phase two, which involves expanding our activity to include some priority work and preparatory work for future phases. Very soon we will be in phase three of starting to operate some non passenger trains on our line again. The work to enable this to happen has been a difficult balance of managing risk and also coming up with measures that are practical. What we don’t want is to create such an imbalance that an accident is more likely to happen because of an over the top approach to COVID measures.
When the railway had to close we were in the middle of completing arguably our biggest civil maintenance project in the history of the preservation society. Bridge 11, just south of Ingrow Tunnel, was life expired and was in need to replacement. The rusty old bridge beams were to be replaced with some more modern reinforced concrete beams but being partially installed by using a 50 ton capacity steam crane. This job was almost up to the point where the beams were installed when a halt had to be called. This now leaves us with a major project left to finish before we can open again and much of the organising of contractors and volunteer labour to do all over again. This is, of course, made more complicated by the increased health measures now needed – more risk assessments and control measures to implement! We are aiming to recommence this project in June and finish the bridge during July, which will give the railway back to the operating department in early August (COVID-19 permitting!!) ready for re-opening when the time is right.
Risk to Heritage Railways
If anyone had said to me in February ‘What worries you most about the long term continuation of Heritage Railways?’ I would probably have said coal… I still think that could be the answer I would still give now, however when you are in the middle of a global pandemic, the only member of paid staff working full time and the future looking bleak things start to look slightly different…!
Sticking to the positives – we are now looking towards re-opening to the public and, during our close period so far, our public and members’ appeals have raised just short of £200,000. A fantastic and record breaking result! Heartfelt thanks go to everyone who has donated. We are pretty confident that we can develop a model for visitors to come to the railway, even with some health restrictions still in place, and to go away again having had fun, without having to worry too much about contracting or spreading a virus.
A risk based approach
The process for developing a tourist train trip in these unusual times comes back to that word, now even more commonplace – RISK. A Risk based approach is the only view to take and work on from there. Any method of working needs to come from an assessment of the risks and this ensures that safety is your number one priority. But you must add to that, that your control measures do not put you out of business, just another factor to consider when creating a balance alongside the many, many other considerations.
The current situation makes the immediate and long term future uncertain, therefore sticking with the facts is really important. Predictions and forecasts are important to aid planning, but we’ve found that in this particular case, staying grounded is imperative, whilst working up realistic plans that are robust should what we think will happen, comes to pass.
A changing service
At KWVR our approach is going to be based around temporarily changing our service from what is a branch line stopping service, with flexibility of boarding and alighting, to a round trip, there and back only service. This model gives us control over the visitor flow at the railway and enables us to focus our attention on the visitor facilities at just two of our six stations.
We plan to use our compartment stock in order to fit in with social distancing, however that evolves over the coming months. In terms of motive power, initially we will focus on providing what is needed for that level of service. We are planning some specialist cleaning for public areas, including our carriages and station facilities.
All of our tickets will be pre-booked and, according to a survey that we carried out amongst our followers, most people would be happy with our approach and will still visit us. There is obviously the chance that, once people can visualise how things are different, this could change. But we are committed to providing a fun day out for people that complies with the advice and does not create intolerable risks.
Passion for the KWVR
What is very clear right now is the passion held for the KWVR. Whether it is our volunteers, working hard behind the scenes to get things back up and running again, or our fantastic supporters with collective deep pockets who, have helped us almost reach our fundraising target. The fact is for a 5 mile railway it packs a punch and has an awesome community of people involved.
On a personal note, I am certainly looking forward to the day when we can hold our Beer Festival, operate a steam or diesel gala or even just take my own family for a ride on our or any other heritage railway. We don’t know when this will be. All we can do is keep our ear to the ground, plan as new challenges are presented to us, reflect on what our heritage colleagues across the UK are saying and, not least, keep our fingers crossed that although COVID-19 could be here for a long time, we can get our businesses back to normal before too much longer.