When the infamous Dr Richard Beeching took the axe to Britain’s branch lines, and British Railways rushed with indecent haste to get rid of their nearly-new steam locomotives, they were inadvertently creating the start of something big.
The railway preservation movement that had its roots – or routes? – in those dark days around half a century ago began with a handful of enthusiasts giving up their weekends to lavish their attention and muscle power on weed-tangled rail lines and rusty unloved steam locomotives.
The movement has steadily grown until in the 21st century it’s an essential part of Britain’s heritage tourism scene, employing hundreds of people and involving thousands of volunteers without whom those railways wouldn’t exist.
Many years ago – long before any kid’s ambition was to be a Premiership footballer or just be famous – most little lads wanted to be an engine driver when they grew up, driving a real-life steam loco such as the Flying Scotsman or the Duchess of Hamilton which they already had in miniature on their model railways.
Heritage railways still offer that kind of opportunity, although for every engine driver there’s a dozen other volunteers who are just happy to be a part of a piece of history with a future. They may be walking up and down the train collecting tickets, selling coffee and cakes in the buffet or up to their eyes in oil and soot, cleaning the locomotives back in the engine shed.
So why do they do it and what type of person becomes a railway volunteer?
“We get people from all walks of life,” says Stan Ashley, volunteer liaison officer on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, which was the first preserved railway back in the 1960s and gained fame in The Railway Children movie.
“We have some who are really interested in dealing with the public, and some who are passionate about engineering. We have a lot of volunteers who are about to retire or are newly retired with time on their hands, but a surprising number of young people are also joining all the time. Some are college age, and may be doing an engineering course.
“There’s just something about working on a railway that’s enjoyable. It involves teamwork, and there’s a wide range of jobs.”
To become a steam train driver, a volunteer has to follow the old traditional path, starting by cleaning the engines and graduating to a fireman then a driver. It’s not a quick process, but immensely rewarding for those who make the grade. While most realise a childhood dream by driving steam locomotives, some learn to drive the less-romantic diesel locomotives or multiple units.
For every engine driver, there may be ten other volunteers. The most visible ones are those who operate the trains, work the signalling system, run the stations and staff the shops and catering outlets.
Other volunteers do a variety of maintenance work ranging from gardening and painting, keeping the gas lights in working order, through to laying track and rebuilding locomotives and carriages.
Other jobs require officebased expertise, such as accounts, admin and publicity, and many preserved railways have a visitor centre or museum which has to be staffed. Even everyday jobs such as cleaning the carriages and locomotives are enjoyable and useful.
Most volunteers have no previous experience of working on a railway when they arrive, and in most cases the new helpers train by working alongside existing volunteers. There are no age limits, and volunteers can range from teens – the KWVR, for example, has a young people group for under-16s – up to seventies and eighties provided they are fit enough and can do the work safely.
Volunteers vary widely in the time they devote to their tasks. Some offer just a few days a year, while others are never away from the place. Certain jobs on the operating roster have a minimum number of turns, to ensure that staff remain fully conversant with the needs of their role. Younger volunteers gain valuable experience of dealing with the public and co-workers, which serves
them well when preparing a CV for a job application.
If you’re interested in joining in the fun or running a railway, simply contact your local preserved line. Look on their websites and you’ll find a section on volunteering. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get on the right track!