There are ongoing discussions, which at times are becoming quite heated, within the wider Ffestiniog / Welsh Highland Railway community about the nature of the services planned in this post pandemic period. On the one hand, the company sees the need to maximise train loadings and thus reduce the unit costs, to cope with huge increases in fuel and staff costs. This leads logically to the need to continue the successful pandemic style timetable of booked tours – from Porthmadoc to Tan–y-Bwlch / Blaenau Ffestiniog / Beddgelert / Caernarfon and back, with one train journey being filled before another is timetabled, and with no intermediate stops. The service pattern for late March 2022 shown above reflects this and consists of a number of named and themed trains. Without a doubt this meets the needs of most passengers, who are not necessarily railway enthusiasts, but simply want a good day our for them and their family, and is cost effective in that trains are maximally loaded. On the other hand, there is a strong, and as I perceive, growing, feeling amongst Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Society members and supporters that a more normal scheduled timetable with intermediate stops should be reinstated, to restore the railways to what are perceived as their true selves as service providers. I have sympathy with both points of view – the financial challenges are certainly significant and need to be addressed, but the provision of specific tours simply does not meet the needs and aspiration of many. This includes myself, as I nearly always use the railway for journeys to intermediate stops, with walks of varying length between stations and “tours” hold no attraction at all for me. As things stand I, along with others, have no real reason to travel on the railways. As I write there are, I understand, proposals are being worked on to reinstate intermediate stops on some journeys, although it is not clear if this will approach anything like a regular service pattern.
The purpose of this post is to raise just one issue that is of potential significance. Last year I had the privilege of being an examiner for a University of Birmingham PhD thesis by Robin Coombs entitled “The sustainability of heritage railways”. I quote from the thesis abstract.
………In particular, the thesis explores the necessary condition(s) for the successful operation of a heritage railway in terms of governing their sustainability as expressed through consideration of their life cycle trajectory around the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic and social. The hypothesis proposed in the study is that good governance of railway assets and management is the key determinate of the sustainability of a heritage railway. This hypothesis was tested through a survey of 39 Directors and General Managers and 252 heritage railway enthusiasts of 104 heritage railways, semi-structured interviews with 15 Directors and General Managers, and the author’s recorded field observations and participation in 52 heritage railway visits and events. The research shows that the longevity of heritage railways does not simply arise from ‘good governance’ but is in fact the product of multiple interlinked variables and processes. Indeed, many heritage railways have survived and prospered despite poor governance, rather than because of ‘good governance’. One of the most significant of these explanatory variables is social capital, a hitherto under-researched governance variable in heritage railway studies. Through case study examples, social capital is demonstrated to have compensated and mitigated for failures of organisational governance and weaknesses in operational conditions on heritage railways. In this respect, heritage railways are argued to be similar to charitable and other public-good organisations. On this basis the hypothesis was rejected, and an alternative hypothesis proposed: that social capital (of which philanthropy, reciprocity and trust are key constituents) is a key determinant of the sustainability of heritage railways.
Robin makes a very strong case for the importance of what he calls social capital in the long-term sustainability of heritage railways – supporters contributing financially and materially and through voluntary activities. To my mind this is of very great importance in the current Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland context. A robust approach to income and expenditure through a business plan is certainly required in these financially constrained times, but if in doing so the relationship with volunteers and supporters is fractured, through the provision of a service pattern that does not meet their needs or their aspirations for the railways, this could potentially have a serious effect on the provision of social capital and thus on the long-term future of the railways, as supporters direct their time, efforts and money elsewhere. This simple fact should not be forgotten as future service provision is considered. I would thus suggest that conserving and expanding the social capital that the railways have built up over the decades is as important for the future of the railways as a financially robust business plan.
Robin’s thesis will in due course appear on the University of Birmingham’s ethesis web site at https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/ . In the meantime he can be heard describing his work in this podcast.