Running a Railway with No Staff Overhead

by Manohar V Rakhe, July 2012

Being able to run a railway without having to pay a penny to the operating staff sounds like a daydreamer's fantasy. But in case of the steam railways operating in Britain, and there are quite a few of them, it happens to be a reality. All these steam railways are run with the help of unpaid volunteers, from station cleaners, waiters in the station cafes right up to the engine drivers. The only qualification required is enthusiasm and dedication on your part. Training for working as an engine driver, a guard, a signalman or indeed any job that requires a special skill and aptitude, is provided by suitably qualified and experienced people. These trainers are volunteers themselves. Having spent a huge part of their working lives, working on the railways, on retirement, quite a few of them find railways have become an integral part of their lives and they are prepared to go to any lengths to keep their association with railways going. And that is a hugely helpful asset for the number of steam railways operating in Britain.

The national railways of Britain (formerly British Railways) stopped using steam locomotives a long time ago. The cost of running a steam train, compared to an electric or diesel engine hauled train, the slower speed and last but not least the pollution aspect, all helped put the steam engines out of circulation. But the British have one admirable quality. The older a particular thing is, the more they love it and hence strive to preserve it. As a result, when British Railways retired their steam engines, gradually lovers of the steam engines started appearing in all parts of the country. Those with money to match their enthusiasm, started buying steam engines, carriages, signalling equipment, even stretches of tracks, without any firm plans for the utilisation of the items they had bought. But gradually, these enthusiasts got together and thus steam railways started sprouting in all corners of the country.

One thing common to these steam railways, is that they all operate on the lines which British Railways had found loss making and hence had been discontinued. But there is another thing common to all these railways, which is not immediately apparent, and that is every one of these railways runs through stunningly beautiful countryside. One such railway I have travelled on many times is The Severn Valley Railway. Quite a few of these railways have been operating for a long time. But the latest railway to join this select group is The Epping - Ongar Railway, which started operating on 25 May 2012.

The line itself was in existence from a long time ago, run first by British Railways and later by London Underground, which ran it as a shuttle service between Epping and Ongar, operating only during traffic rush hours. In 1994, London Underground suspended the service, as it was running at a loss. For a long period the line was neglected and had started suffering dilapidation as a result. However, as had happened in several instances in the past, some entrepreneur came to the rescue. First, the entire section of the track, stations, signalling equipment etc. was purchased. The whole lot was in a very advanced state of disrepair, dereliction and sheer vandalism. During my own stint as a chemist with London Underground, I had worked on a weed killing project on the stretch of track between Epping and Ongar. So I knew, how quickly weeds over ran the tracks if not cleared out regularly. After lying unused for a long period, the very thought of starting a railway there, would have given anybody nightmares. But this gentleman persisted with his dream project and just pushed on. A call went out for volunteers to come and work on this dream project and volunteers just flooded in. They were not just people who had worked on British Railways before. A substantial number of volunteers were very young people, who were still in all kinds of employment, with no connection with railways of any kind. I had the pleasure and the privilege of knowing one such volunteer, AnneMarie Mahon, personally. She used to work with me in a company that specialised in detection of asbestos in building and insulating materials. Although she worked in the office and I in the laboratory, we had one thing in common. LOVE of the railways. In my younger days, some 60 years ago, like all boys of that age, I wanted to be an engine driver, a steam engine of course! (I still do!!) AnneMarie does too, and she is only in her early twenties!!! She typified the volunteers who worked on the EOR. They all came from widely differing backgrounds, wide age groups and what have you. The only thing they had in common was their love of the railways. The volunteer force got down to the back breaking task of getting the railway steaming again. To guide these volunteers and to ensure their work came up to the required standard, an experienced and railway loving engineer was essential. He materialised in the form of Simon Hanney. Initially, he too was a volunteer worker. But as the work progressed, there was a need of somebody taking the responsibility on a full time basis. Simon took on the mantle and was appointed General Manager. At that time he was the only paid employee of the EOR. Now, there are just 2 paid employees. Hundreds of others still work as unpaid volunteers.

In Britain, the safety aspect of all kinds of working and leisure activities is supervised by The Health and Safety Executive. The standards they set are extremely high, to say the least. Therefore, all the restoration, refurbishment, repairs and new construction had to meet the standards set by the HSE. One day, during the spring of 2011, I visited the site at North Weald station. Although it was bright and sunny, it was still very cold. But I found quite a few volunteers working away merrily. It was during this visit; AnneMarie showed me the enormity of tasks, facing the volunteers. The station building was vandalised to such an extent that it was unimaginable that it could be restored to its former glory. I thought the best option would be to demolish it completely and rebuild it. But I had reckoned without the grit and the determination of the volunteers. The same was the case with carriages, which were in an appalling condition.

When I took a ride in one of these coaches on the opening day, I would never have believed it was a reconditioned coach and not a new one. Shining paintwork, new glass in the windows, upholstery in spotless condition, gleaming door handles. The transformation was total.

The same kind of devotion was applied to the other vital aspects of running a railway. Track was repaired and brought to current safety standards. Heritage signalling was installed to modern day standards to ensure that trains run smoothly and more trains can run. I dare say the same level of dedication would have gone in restoring the steam locomotives, currently owned and operated by EOR. One of them is named Pitchford Hall. Pitchford Hall is a member of the GWR 4900 or "Hall" Class of locomotives, designed by Charles Collett.

Another steam locomotive currently in service with EOR is the "Isabel". Hawthorne Leslie built saddle tank 0-6-0 locomotive "Isabel" was EOR's first steam locomotive purchase.

Although the railway is entitled "Epping Ongar Railway", currently the trains do not operate between Epping and Ongar. Instead they run between North Weald and Ongar. EOR have laid on a special heritage bus service between Epping and North Weald, which is timed to connect with train arrivals and departures at North Weald.

As mentioned earlier, the railway passes through stunningly beautiful countryside. On either side of the tracks there are fields of broad beans or similar vegetables which are various shades of green. There are also fields of oilseed rape, which look eye-catchingly yellow when in bloom. Adjacent to the tracks on either side are trees of various kinds. In summer they look soothingly green. In the autumn, the leaves attain different colours from yellow to orange and pink and this beautiful sight has to be seen to be believed.

As an ardent lover of steam locomotives everywhere, I wish EOR a very long and prosperous service life.

May be we at IRFCA could bring about something similar, using the existing infrastructure, using the available rolling stock and just substituting a steam locomotive in place of the diesel or the electric one?