Welcome to the 'New Somerset and Dorset Railway'
Friday, January 16, 2009
heritage railways in the new golden age of railways
The heritage railway (formerly preserverved railway) is really a child of the 1950s-1980s. It was created in a very different world, one where it was seriously considered that road traffic would continue to expand, where railways were some quaint historical artefact, where steam power (despite its use in nuclear power generation) was finished. It carried tourists on trips through pretty scenery, just for the experience of travelling behind a steam locomotive. It was great! It was nostalgia and volunteers, crisps and coke, tea towels and fridge magnets.
The world has changed. We face two huge challenges, Climate Change and Peak Oil.
Both will impact enormously on the heritage railway movement, and are already beginning to do so. The Severn Valley suffered two disastrous bouts of Climate Change related rain damage recently. The price of coal and oil rocketed until a few months ago, then plunged precipitously. This volatility has long been forecast by Peak Oil economists. Both threats have serious economic impacts - the current economic downturn may well be the first symptom of Peak Oil.
But there is an upside. Both threats will increase the use and relevance of rail. Rail is four times as energy efficient as roads in moving passengers and freight. Rail is far more flexible in its energy inputs - it can use conventional electricity, oil (for a few more years), renewable energy delivered via wires, conductor rails, conduits or flywheels, it can use steam generated by coal, biomass or wood.
The real problem is that a railway will, wherever it is, be considered in the future as a locale's principle asset. Will there really be room for amateur-operated railways in this new world? Will a line even be allowed to purchase coal to run passengers on journeys they don't need to make? And without coal that will be the end of them, because oil would have vanished years before.
In a way privatization was an acknowledgement that railways would become of prime importance in the future and perhaps an admission that huge national government may not survive, as we all look to living simpler and more locally-based lives.
The process will be gradual, but the sharper-minded lines are already planning for their own survival. Where genuine passenger flows can be identified then services are being gradually introduced that are geared towards passengers, rather than tourists. The Norden to Swanage service is a classic example, removing cars from the roads and narrow streets of Swanage. Soon you'll be able to hop off a train from the network at Wareham and take the train the whole way down. Moves to reconnect Minehead to Taunton are also signs of this process. Even the Lynton and Barnstaple are serious enough to see that to survive they need to connect back down to Barnstaple - they cannot rest on their laurels up in the heights of Exmoor with only the soon-to-be extinct car and bus to link them to the rest of the world. Closer to home the Trust at Midsomer Norton consider reconnection to the network at Radstock to be a big priority. ALL heritage railways will have to justify their existence in the future by offering real passenger and freight services to communities no longer having any real alternatives.
This is the new world of rail development, full of both opportunities and threats. The New S&D will be in the vanguard of these developments and will ensure that our stretches of Somerset and Dorset, at least, will still be connected to civilization in the future!