Welcome to the 'New Somerset and Dorset Railway'
Sunday, August 29, 2010
when heritage rail meets peak oil
I had a strange phone conversation the other day. It wasn't about the S&D but drifted towards it. The person on the other end of the phone was an S&D fan but also involved down at the West Somerset Railway. He was quite amused when I mentioned our plans, coming out with the time worn classic cliches 'of course it will never happen' and 'you're dreamers'. Hmmm.
Well firstly I really would like to know exactly how we're going to get from A to B, or Bournemouth to Bath, without the railway in a couple of decades time. Are we really expected to just stay rooted in our towns and villages, never venturing more than five miles from home? Because that's what they're saying.
And as for dreamers?? WTF? I wouldn't waste a second of my time on any unproductive activity, and anything less than a fully restored entire S&D is, to my mind, a total waste of time. And I think that applies to every member of the New S&D, a membership that is growing daily and is poised to overtake other S&D groups over the next year or two.
Of course there were two clues to his attitude - his age and his allegiance to the WSR.
Most people over 50 were totally immersed in the (now totally daft) paradigm that railways - all railways - were finished in the 60s and 70s. Some (like myself) have shaken this perverse, and now totally irrelevant, paradigm off, but far too many still want to believe that railways are an anachronism, that steam trains, paying tourist families and playing at railways has some sort of future. It doesn't of course, once peak oil effects really kick in the infrastructure will be simply snatched back and converted to 'real' railways again, unless the heritage lines transform themselves into community railways pretty sharpish. A few, Swanage and (ironically) the West Somerset, are already doing this, but too many are still at the playing trains stage.
All of this will of course wash over the future passengers and freight suppliers along the lines themselves. They have no interest in social history, steam trains, ancient rolling stock or any of the other arcane and uneconomic accoutrements of the heritage railway. They'll just want to get from A to B, Bournemouth to Bath.
But if we're really careful we can save the S&D heritage as part of the whole line revival. There is no reason why our stations and infrastructure can't be as they were. The railway station will soon become once again the centre of every city, town and village. A basic station is not an option, even at the village level. Villages, towns and cities will reorientate themselves around their stations and railways, the stations themselves will become incredible hives of activity with restaurants, shops etc - big, elegant buildings will be required!
There's no reason why in 2050 a double headed steam train can't recreate the Pines Express of 1960, carry paying passengers and slipping effortlessly between the regular electric services on the route - particularly if the locos are fuelled by sustainable wood - serving elegant and substantial stations en route. Nobody wants bus shelters any more - particularly when our passengers in 40 or 50 years time won't even know what a bus is!
Perhaps a start towards squaring the circle and preparing heritage railways for a very different future would be for the various S&D groups to actually start acknowledging the existence of the New S&D - displaying our leaflets at Washford, Midsomer Norton and Shillingstone would be a step towards our inevitable working closely together as doors open all along the route!