Nigel Burbidge, Chairman of Ffestiniog Travel, considers the broader benefits of Britain’s heritage railways and why they should continue to thrive and be enjoyed.
For many people the term “heritage railways” probably conjures up some vision of grown men acting out their childhood fantasies or perhaps of something faintly anachronistic ‘mouldering at the end of a country lane’.
The truth, these days, is very different from such impressions as the leading railways in the sector are large businesses, turning over several millions of pounds and each employing over one hundred people at the peak of the tourist season. The Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways in North Wales, the Severn Valley Railway in the West Midlands and the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, amongst others, are major tourist attractions, drawing in over one hundred thousand visitors annually to immerse themselves in lovingly recreated time capsules; to be reminded of (and to pass on to their children and grandchildren) an age that somehow seemed more certain and secure than today.
Yet even these seemingly prosperous and secure businesses are not like normal commercial dividend paying enterprises. They are only successful because they are hugely subsidised by volunteers at all levels, from cleaners and ticket collectors through to professional lawyers, accountants and engineers giving their time and expertise freely and willingly to conserve something they are passionate about. Every penny that is generated from fares, selling souvenirs and through cafes and buffet cars is ploughed back into the enterprise, in the way of co-operatives.
One may ask why so many people volunteer in this way. For some, it is to keep alive the memory of a time when almost every town and village in the kingdom was served by its own country railway and the people who worked on them had their place in country society, up to the local station master who was often considered a village worthy in the same way as a pub landlord or a vicar. For others, it is the harnessing of primeval forces of water and fire to make steam and turn mere machines into the hissing, roaring monsters that pull these old trains. For others again, it is just the chance to spend time working with like-minded people in a common cause. Heritage railways are broad churches and welcome all sorts, provided they have respect for some basic ground rules, such as safety in operation.
These railways are hugely deserving of your support. Not only do they keep alive memories of a different time for future generations, they also nurture skills in the young and give them experience, such as mechanical and civil engineering, cooking, hospitality and old fashioned courtesy. Railways such as the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland offer apprenticeships and training in locations where jobs are not easy to find. They give support to their local communities in so many ways, from jobs and training though to commercial stimulus for hotels and bed and breakfast providers in their areas.
So, seek out these British gems of a bygone age, visit them and enjoy life at a gentler pace, relax as you pass through sometimes pastoral and sometimes stunning scenery. Why not travel to them by train and make a day of it? In doing so you can further support the heritage railways by buying your tickets online from agencies such as Ffestiniog Travel, set up to help people enjoy the wider pleasures of rail travel around the world, whilst ploughing its profits back into helping keep these lines alive. At Ffestiniog Travel profits help continue the preservation of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways.
Whilst heritage railways in Britain are known to many what may be less well understood is the international development with some stunning railways being preserved in such diverse locations as the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Harz Mountains in Germany. Now in its 40th year Ffestiniog Travel has arranged escorted and unescorted rail tours around the world allowing thousands of people to discover scenic and heritage rail journeys further afield. This year alone tours explore the pioneering railroads of the Old West in Colorado experiencing the majestic Rockies on the Silverton & Durango Railroad and the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad to name just two. FT takes travellers to India every year to appreciate the exceptional railways of the former British Hill Stations. Eastern Germany still boasts many active narrow gauge railways and these steam lines combined with stunning scenery make for a fantastic holiday. Ffestiniog Travel’s inaugural overseas escorted tour was to Switzerland in 1974 and it continues the tradition each year arranging escorted and tailor made tours to the breathtaking Swiss Alps to experience the engineering excellence of its railways including the UNESCO World Heritage Rhaetian Railway Network.
The UK’s railway heritage competes strongly on the world stage and Ffestiniog Travel this year will pay homage to it by visiting many of them including Scotland’s spectacular ‘Kyle Line’ and ‘The Road to the Isles’ on the famous Jacobite’ steam train. The ‘Railways of the North’ tour takes in the Keighley and Worth Valley railway, North Yorkshire Moors Railway and the Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway. Wales boasts many great little trains and so a tour of Wales from North to South captures these many railway gems.
These heritage railways, built and preserved by passionate volunteers, rely on visitors for their continued preservation and rarely fail to impress. Many are often the highlight of an escorted or unescorted tour confirming the principle that the journey itself should be as much a part of a holiday as the culture, leisure, food and wine enjoyed en route.