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‘It’s good to talk…’

I am not qualified to comment with any authority regarding the current debate that is creating a lot of heat and argument at the Severn Valley. If you have not been following this, it turns around the plans to raise £5 million to finance what seems to be almost a transformation of Bridgnorth station. These plans are quite controversial and there is a mounting opposition to them from SVR members and volunteers.

Our heritage railways are no strangers to dissent, argument, passionate debate and even antagonisms. Some of these have, on occasion, gone overboard into some pretty unseemly and unacceptable behaviour – the 6023 firebox graffiti incident springs to mind. Most railways have now been going long enough for whole generations of supporters and volunteers to have passed on and been replaced by others, some of whom have different priorities from those of the founders and this is inevitable. The railways themselves have grown, ridden crises of various kinds and some have now become substantial organisations with large and sometimes unwieldy budgets. Grant funding from public sources has become common which carry with them accountability questions and commitments that do not always sit easily on the shoulders of folk who, mostly, got into it because they loved their railway with a passion.

Two main issues arise from this: the first is about control and policy and the second is about democracy. Boards have been forced to become more professional and many people whose first instinct is for preservation over profitability have felt squeezed out as decisions that are made on business and economic grounds (not always by people with steam in their blood, it should be said) do not gel with their priorities. They have a passion for the restoration of their railway as a living museum that reflects the golden era of railways and want funds to be ploughed into those projects that invoke the past in as an authentic way as possible.

The counter argument is often made that, even if the above is true, the public need to be wooed in ways that are not always about preservation and that the average family on a day out don’t actually care if the engine pulling their train is in the right livery so long as it chuffs.

Mostly, despite the chuntering and grumbling among volunteers in mess rooms about this or that issue, a reasonable balance is maintained – at least enough to keep things moving forward – but there are times when it all goes too far one way and this may be the case at Bridgnorth at the moment.

When confrontation like this occurs, it pays to remember what you are doing and why, which brings me to my second issue – whose railway is it anyway? It was set up by passionate people: some of whom mortgaged their homes to buy the trackbed, some have worked for 20 years to restore their engine and now they get up routinely at 04.00 am to raise steam and they work in the snow and driving rain to lay track, rivet boilers, clean carriages and sweep platforms so that the trains run.

As our railways get bigger as businesses, the default position when radical plans are mooted in the higher echelons needs to be: talk to the people, not just once through a single ‘consultation’ but all the time. Ask the members what they think and do not assume you know what is best. Volunteers are the blood in the veins of our railways – without them, nothing would turn a wheel – and they have earned the right to be consulted and listened to ALL THE TIME about the direction their railway is taking.

Some of our railways are immensely democratic, and there is much less strife at those. Others use business models that require, at best, some amendment when applied to volunteer based organisations. Some, sadly, can seem woefully inappropriate. Unless we pay proper attention to these issues of accountability and democracy, we risk alienating the very volunteers that have made our wonderful heritage railways the huge success they are today.

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