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West Somerset Railway's future in doubt after £800k loss


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From the BBC yesterday:


 

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The future of a heritage railway is in doubt after the company made a trading loss of more than £800,000.

The annual report of West Somerset Railway, seen by the BBC, shows this compares with a profit last year of £12,000.

The company's annual report questioned its ability to "continue as a going concern".

 

 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-50481869

 

What's happening?

 

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It would appear that they are at least reopening for various operations in the pre-Christmas period having stopped running trains while some of the problems were supposedly being sorted out.  The fact that they didn't receive an 'Enforcement Notice' doesn't really mean much as that would be the second stage if they don't sort things out having been given their first warning and being told what they needed to do.   If it turns out that they don't do/haven't done all they needed to do by the time of the follow visit then they could get an Improvement Notice  with a fixed date by which whatever is outstanding has to be completed - very few leisure sector Railways have reached that state but some have been served Improvement Notices in the past although, to my knowledge, none have been closed down by a Prohibition Order. (Different on the main line of course where West Coast effectively got a Prohibition Order and were prevented from operating.)

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The urgent rail renewals appeal, for £250,000, appears to have passed the half-way mark now. This was the primary subject of the ORR's concerns.

 

Meanwhile, a little bit more detail from the local rag:

 

https://www.somersetcountygazette.co.uk/news/18051165.financial-concerns-west-somerset-railway/

 

The AGM should be interesting!!

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It is a stark warning to other heritage lines - lose your volunteers and you could lose your railway. 

 

The trains are often full, but you can't run a heritage line purely as a business by paying large numbers of staff on a commercial basis. We'll you can, but not for very long... 

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45 minutes ago, fezza said:

It is a stark warning to other heritage lines - lose your volunteers and you could lose your railway. 

 

The trains are often full, but you can't run a heritage line purely as a business by paying large numbers of staff on a commercial basis. We'll you can, but not for very long... 

 

Indeed, the NYMR had a similar problem some decades ago, but better heads prevailed ultimately.

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54 minutes ago, fezza said:

It is a stark warning to other heritage lines - lose your volunteers and you could lose your railway. 

 

The trains are often full, but you can't run a heritage line purely as a business by paying large numbers of staff on a commercial basis. We'll you can, but not for very long... 

 

Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland? Some volunteers, but they augment the staff who are even unionised and have been on strike before today.

 

Dart Valley (whatever it's called now...)?

 

Just a couple off the top of my head.

 

 

Jason

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So the Dart Valley Railway Ltd - otherwise known currently as the Dartmouth Steam Railway (past Torbay Steam Railway) is essentially a private operation and makes a profit.

 

Finances are online for 2018 - https://www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk/web/data/page_files/GENERAL/Misc/Final Group accounts 2018.pdf

 

Unfortunately the numbers don't break down well (they operate river boats and buses as well as the steam trains these days) but they have a combined staff of 127 with a payroll of £2.7 million.

 

The interesting thing that perhaps reflects the challenges facing all the heritage lines is a couple of comments from the statement:

  • plans to upgrade Churston so that they can bring the entire maintenance of their stock in house, specifically mentioning "overcome the difficulties created by a National shortage of boiler works"
  • the rolling stock is deteriorating faster than expected

 

The other railway - South Devon Railway - which in the past was called the Dart Valley Railway only has a paid staff of 6 based on a 2004 financial statement, thus showing that a organization with a lot of volunteers can get away with lower costs.

 

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My take on it is that "commercial" largely employee based lines soon find it hard and cut corners (usually failing to reinvest at a sufficient rate). Unless you have a sugar daddy that approach catches up with you eventually. In my experience people often  tend to underestimate ongoing maintainance and ongoing  investment costs when drawing up business plans. 

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What is it about the two organisations? If Dart Valley Railway is able to attract so many (or enough) volunteers to keep it's "permies" down to just six, why hasn't

On 21/11/2019 at 19:33, fezza said:

It is a stark warning to other heritage lines - lose your volunteers and you could lose your railway. 

 

The trains are often full, but you can't run a heritage line purely as a business by paying large numbers of staff on a commercial basis. We'll you can, but not for very long... 

 

But why did they loose their volunteers? Was it a deliberate policy or by neglect? I know from working with some other Non-Government Organisations that the "permies" often regard volunteers with distain, complaining about their supposed "lack of professional skills". Is that what happened here?

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One of the features of the WSR is the very poor relationship between the professional managers of the PLC and the volunteer community with the perception of the latter being that they were regarded as cheap labour who could be ordered about at the whim of the former.

This does I think highlight one of the issues of the professionalisation of heritage railways. Yes the professionals bring in the skills that the railways need to thrive but they can also bring in attitudes from the professional workplace which are anathema to the volunteers on which the railways depend.

Cheers

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I seem to remember that many, many years ago when the WSR first started, Somerset CC put a covenant in that services with be provided by the railway when adverse weather conditions prevail.  It followed a particularly bad winter (1977 I think) where Minehead was practically cut off because of snow drifts and the railway was the only way to get stuff in. 

 

I think because Somerset CC owned the trackbed at the time, or still do, they would cover any costs of “emergency” services and the WSR was to ensure that the RoW was kept functional.  With austerity and financial cuts on county councils, that might now have been thrown out the window.

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34 minutes ago, PenrithBeacon said:

One of the features of the WSR is the very poor relationship between the professional managers of the PLC and the volunteer community with the perception of the latter being that they were regarded as cheap labour who could be ordered about at the whim of the former.

 

Ah yes, that's exactly what I've experienced at several well-known charities. The "professional" managers (who often lack personal communication skills and insight) conflate financial cost with value to the organisation. As in, they assume a volunteer (of low financial cost) is also of low value to the organisation. Usually with large amounts of cognitive dissonance when the volunteers decide they don't want to play anymore and walk out. The proportion of voluntary financial donations that actually gets spent "at the coal face" is a good measure of the financial health of such organisations, but that might be thread drift?

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44 minutes ago, KeithMacdonald said:

 

Ah yes, that's exactly what I've experienced at several well-known charities. The "professional" managers (who often lack personal communication skills and insight) conflate financial cost with value to the organisation. As in, they assume a volunteer (of low financial cost) is also of low value to the organisation. Usually with large amounts of cognitive dissonance when the volunteers decide they don't want to play anymore and walk out. The proportion of voluntary financial donations that actually gets spent "at the coal face" is a good measure of the financial health of such organisations, but that might be thread drift?

The irony is that a large chunk of the amateur volunteers are (or were) also 'professionals' in their full time jobs, and are more skilled than the full time charity staff. 

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Virtually every heritage railway have loss making years. Bluebell,  KESR and others reported losses last year. Whilst the WSR has suffered from bad management in recent years , that is now history. You don't turn things around in months, it takes time. Especially with the amount of infrastructure and other works the railway is having to undertake. The BBC article is misleading and typically for the beeb,  only paints half a picture.

It should be noted that the vast majority of our heritage railways could not survive on revenue alone. It is the other monies raised, plus the volunteers input that keep these wonderful heritage assets afloat.

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13 minutes ago, pete_mcfarlane said:

The irony is that a large chunk of the amateur volunteers are (or were) also 'professionals' in their full time jobs, and are more skilled than the full time charity staff. 

The charity in the context of the WSR is the WSRA, the operating company is the WSR PLC. 

 

Most heritage railways separate the charitable arm, ie fund raising,  from the operating company and I think, but I'm not entirely sure, that this is because of regulations from the Charities Commission and tax issues. I'm sure others can add a lot more to that.

 

Cheers

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13 minutes ago, Denbridge said:

Whilst the WSR has suffered from bad management in recent years , that is now history.

It did take a while, but eventually the Junta previously running the WSRA for several years was ousted by an EGM in 2016.

 

14 minutes ago, Denbridge said:

You don't turn things around in months, it takes time. Especially with the amount of infrastructure and other works the railway is having to undertake.

Well said.

 

15 minutes ago, Denbridge said:

The BBC article is misleading and typically for the beeb,  only paints half a picture.

 

Agreed. Also the article in the Somerset County Gutsache is similarly misleading.

 

 

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24 minutes ago, pete_mcfarlane said:

The irony is that a large chunk of the amateur volunteers are (or were) also 'professionals' in their full time jobs, and are more skilled than the full time charity staff. 

 

Funny you should say that - 25 - 30 years ago Swanage Railway took on a new full-time 'mechanical engineer', volunteer muggins here had to show him how to operate both a lathe, and universal mill, I could've refused, but it was all in a good cause!!??:sungum:

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2 hours ago, PenrithBeacon said:

One of the features of the WSR is the very poor relationship between the professional managers of the PLC and the volunteer community with the perception of the latter being that they were regarded as cheap labour who could be ordered about at the whim of the former.

This does I think highlight one of the issues of the professionalisation of heritage railways. Yes the professionals bring in the skills that the railways need to thrive but they can also bring in attitudes from the professional workplace which are anathema to the volunteers on which the railways depend.

Cheers

I am afraid you are right and the WSR is not the only one. I have heard appalling statements in private about volunteers from senior employees. Employees need reminding they are only hired hands that are there to serve the wider  heritage railway community - and not the other way around. 

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5 hours ago, fezza said:

My take on it is that "commercial" largely employee based lines soon find it hard and cut corners (usually failing to reinvest at a sufficient rate). Unless you have a sugar daddy that approach catches up with you eventually. In my experience people often  tend to underestimate ongoing maintainance and ongoing  investment costs when drawing up business plans. 

 

And the problem with such generalities is that it ignores the fact that those issues also face the largely/entirely volunteer based organizations.

 

Note: I am not picking on the South Devon Railway here, as it is likely they simply had the misfortune to not be the only one cutting corners but they were the one where circumstances caught up with them (or the one that went public).

 

It was the South Devon Railway that a couple of years ago that had the issue of a child, needing a toilet, opened a door and there was no floor.  Like anything, there wasn't any one single cause.  If I recall correctly there were issues in the repair shop, there was a shortage of usable coaches, there was the need for fare revenue that meant the decision was made to put the coach into service anyway, there was a failure to securely lock the toilet out of service, and there was a failure to adequately inform the onboard staff/volunteers.

 

Fortunately nobody was harmed, lessons were learned by everyone in the heritage railway industry, and I believe part of the SDR response was to hire a further full time staff member.

 

The reality is that all heritage operations (like many commercial operations) face financial issues - the coal, spare parts, boiler overhauls, replacement items for the trackwork, etc. all cost real money even if work is often done by volunteers - and it can be easy to justify cutting corners because next year will be better, or we need to save the operation, etc.

 

Or simply even the ability to find sufficient volunteers.

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4 hours ago, KeithMacdonald said:

What is it about the two organisations? If Dart Valley Railway is able to attract so many (or enough) volunteers to keep it's "permies" down to just six, why hasn't

 

I assume you meant to continue and ask why hasn't the Dartmouth Steam Railway.

 

While I have no association with either operation (my interest in them is from the fact I lived in Paignton in the late 80s), it is easy to find a reason.

 

The most obvious one is that if you can generate sufficient revenue to go with a fully paid staff that makes things much, much easier.  It means you don't need to worry if you will have sufficient people on hand on any given day of operations to actually operate the service the customers expect.  It means any job that needs to be done, no matter how dirty or otherwise unglamorous, gets done because someone is being paid to do it.

 

Almost anyone who organizes a volunteer based operation - heritage railways, youth sports, etc. - will tell you the hardest part of the operation is getting enough volunteers to actually do what is needed to be done, so if you can avoid that you will usually be much better off.

 

So the Dartmouth Steam Railway, with significant advantages of location and history, is fortunate to be able to generate enough revenue to be able to avoid needing volunteers.

 

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It has long been a problem operating a railway (and no doubt other organisations, there was an example in a totally different field recently quoted by an RMweb member) where you have a mixture of professional (i.e. paid staff) and volunteers.  Some railways have managed the relationships well, others have had their problems and in one case I know of things have only worked out well, and profitably, after the volunteers were  given their marching orders.

 

Sometimes, probably most often, it is down to personality clashes but I do know of instances where volunteers have taken the attitude that 'I'm doing this in my spare time and I don't want you telling me what I can/can't do and when I can/can't do it'.  Equally there are managers who regard volunteers as just another body on the (unpaid) payroll and use them accordingly.  The reality is that managing volunteers - and yes, they have to be managed and they need to realise that - can be a very delicate task and one where considerable tact is required.  Although equally there are plenty of volunteers around, judging by things I have seen and heard, who seem to regard safety procedures, even those for their own protection, as bureaucratic interference spoiling their idea of a pleasant day trying to do something they enjoy.

 

Whatever the relationships and the special skills needed to manage them a key point which must never be overlooked is that anybody working on any railway in Britain is subject to some pretty stringent legal requirements so there has to be a regulated and organised managerial structure, as the law of the land requires.  Some railways in the heritage/leisure sector have been very good at this, some so-so, and some distinctly lacking.  But one thing is always worth remembering however you are involved - it will never be at all pleasant to have to stand in front of the man or lady in a grey wig to not only account for things which have gone disastrously wrong but even more so to have to suffer the legal consequences of them going wrong,.  The law will treat you no differently if you were paid to be there or if you were an unpaid volunteer.

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It may or may not be totally O/t but I have heard (from several people re: two very different "Heritage Lines") that many of the Volunteers were not overly keen on current or former Railway Staff joining their ranks - Along the lines of they will think it should be run like their railway.

I found that to be a particularly strange view point 'cos I thought that a railway is a railway, and best practice is always the type to aim for.

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14 minutes ago, LBRJ said:

It may or may not be totally O/t but I have heard (from several people re: two very different "Heritage Lines") that many of the Volunteers were not overly keen on current or former Railway Staff joining their ranks - Along the lines of they will think it should be run like their railway.

I found that to be a particularly strange view point 'cos I thought that a railway is a railway, and best practice is always the type to aim for.

To which I would always ask 'but did they run their railway properly and safely?'   One can of course ask exactly the same question of the volunteers.   Interestingly you could get exactly the same answers in respect of - but not from - both groups and they wouldn't necessarily be the answers you wanted to hear or one an HMRI would be happy to learn about.

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4 minutes ago, The Stationmaster said:

To which I would always ask 'but did they run their railway properly and safely?'   One can of course ask exactly the same question of the volunteers.   Interestingly you could get exactly the same answers in respect of - but not from - both groups and they wouldn't necessarily be the answers you wanted to hear or one an HMRI would be happy to learn about.

 

Didn't Alan Garraway run the Festiniog* along those lines? In that you may be a volunteer and amateur, but you're working on a proper railway and you should conduct yourself like one.

 

 

*old spelling

 

 

Jason

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7 hours ago, KeithMacdonald said:

What is it about the two organisations? If Dart Valley Railway is able to attract so many (or enough) volunteers to keep it's "permies" down to just six, why hasn't

 

But why did they loose their volunteers? Was it a deliberate policy or by neglect? I know from working with some other Non-Government Organisations that the "permies" often regard volunteers with distain, complaining about their supposed "lack of professional skills". Is that what happened here?

My impression is that the South Devon Railway (at Buckfastleigh) and the Dartmouth Steam Railway (at Paignton) have an entirely different atmosphere. This presumably dates right back to when they were one and the same, and then split?

The SDR try to recreate a typical GWR/WR branch line. The DSR has colour light signalling throughout, and names its locos and rolling stock. I enjoy visits to both, but at one I can immerse myself in the spirit of the place, the other has nice views (oh and a steam engine).

 

cheers

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