A major challenge to the heritage sector

It was always going to be the keynote occasion of the year, but the glorious sunshine in the second week of July made certain of that. The series of main line specials marking the 50th anniversary of the end of Southern Region steam proved to be the outstanding success that the occasion merited, and accordingly the event forms the core theme of this special edition.

Of course, Southern steam did not die in 1967: it was just a case of turning the volume down for two decades or so, as an army of enthusiasts rescued and restored Bulleid Pacifics and others from Barry scrapyard, and tour operators gingerly reclaimed lost territory including electrified routes, to the point where today we have operators like Steam Dreams and the Railway Touring Company running regular charters over the Sunny South behind historically-appropriate locomotives. So much has been accomplished in the heritage sector over the last half century, and the anniversary main line runs and gala events have showcased our superb achievements in keeping Southern steam alive.

The romance of steam is guaranteed a perennial public following, but not so much the traction that replaced it on much of the Southern Region.

Electric traction has been, and is likely to always be, a poor third when it comes to preservation, after steam and diesel. There is currently no electrified heritage line, and if historic EMUs are to be run, it must be as locomotive-hauled stock. Apart from that, their only chance of being preserved is as static exhibits, and often as not end up stored as sheeted-over and neglected eyesores, with little or no commercial potential. That gives an instant and automatic disinclination for heritage lines to take such vehicles on board and afford them valuable siding space.

Yet if we are truly serious about railway “preservation” in the strictest sense of the word, we should conserve items from the whole spectrum of traction and rolling stock, not just those which the public of the day finds “sexy” and have an immediate and obvious second-hand use. A symphony consists of the entire work, not just the popular ‘sing-along’ bits.

The only venue in the UK devoted to saving electric traction, the award-winning Electric Railway Museum next to Coventry Airport, has been told by the city council that its lease will not be renewed, and accordingly it must close on October 8. What will happen to its unique stock collection afterwards is anyone’s guess: sympathetic heritage railways might offer a temporary bolthole to one or two vehicles, but if another home is not found, the collection will be dispersed with the future of many of its items in jeopardy.

It is a statement of the obvious that much of today’s national network is electrified, yet comparatively little is being done to save examples of classic electric traction for future generations.

Much the same happened in 1892, after the GWR became fully converted to standard gauge, with a mass extinction of broad gauge locomotives. The only surviving Brunel broad gauge locomotive in its original form today is Tiny, an 0-4-0VBT in the South Devon Railway’s museum at Buckfastleigh: it is as representative of the 7ft ¼in gauge empire that was, as Del Boy’s Reliant Robin is of the entire British motor car industry.

If we really are ‘preservationists’ as opposed to weekend enthusiasts ‘playing with trains’, then we must act now to ensure that the Coventry collection is conserved, and a new home is found.

An ideal location for a national electric railway museum might be Brighton, home to the Volk’s Electric Railway, the world’s oldest electric line still in service. Or perhaps the Science Museum could help, finding space at its Wroughton depot in Wiltshire?

This is a major challenge for the entire heritage sector, if that is what it really is.

Robin Jones, Editor

Enjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.