Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Man in a White Van!

The canals and railways have throughout their history had much in common.  From a period of explosive growth to the point of eventual abandonment for some of the canals. Mirrored in the effects of the devastating cuts inspired by demonised Dr Beeching that destroyed large swathes of the railways. The canals were built by private funding and eventually nationalised. It was very much the same story with the later railways. The same sort of goods were being carried and job functions of staff had broadly similar roles.

New phenomenon of the age

Much of the original canals were inspired and built for moving goods, at a time when motive power came through the use of horse drawn boats. The canal construction was carried out by what was a new phenomenon of the age, the navvies. Inspired by the mine owners the canals were planned, designed and coordinated by notable engineers. The canals and later the railways have from their first use improved transport speed and capacity, actually to becoming the main focus for starting and then supporting the Industrial Revolution.

The canal network grew as the demand for industrial transport increased and was key to the early pace of the Industrial Revolution. By contrast, the roads at the time were unsuitable to transport large amounts of materials quickly. Canal boats were very much quicker, could carry much larger volumes and were much safer for the more fragile items.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, improved understanding and technology allowed canals to be constructed in different ways. The early canals contoured round hills and valleys, later ones were constructed much straighter. Locks took canals up and down hills. The canals strode across valleys on taller and longer aqueducts and through hills in ever longer and deeper tunnels. The engineers learned a great deal from the construction of the canals. They mastered techniques and skills that were then applied to the construction of the railways.

Abandoned canals reopened

Many abandoned canals, broad and narrow, have been reopened over the years by dint of the hard work of various canal restoration societies. It was the same with a small number of branch railway lines. Some axed narrow and broad gauge lines were brought back into practical and public use by restoration societies, such as the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which was first opened in 1836 as the Whitby and Pickering Railway. The railway was planned by George Stephenson as a means of opening up trade routes inland from the then important seaport of Whitby.

The initial railway was designed and built to be used by horse-drawn carriages. Construction was carried out by the navvies and coordinated once again by top engineers. Today the North Yorkshire Moors Railway is typical of the heritage railway restorations. It is setting the gold standard for many other industrial heritage projects to try to emulate.

Tom Rolt

The Talyllyn Railway is a narrow gauge line (a sort of narrow canal) in Wales built in the 19th century to carry slate from the Bryn Eglwys quarries near Abergynolwyn. Opened in 1865, the line runs the seven and a quarter miles from Tywyn on the Cardigan Bay coast to Nant Gwernol, from where a series of horse-drawn tramways continued into the mountains. In 1950 the line's owner died, and the future for the Talyllyn Railway looked doomed, it had been losing money for some years. A group of enthusiasts, led by the engineer and author Tom Rolt, helped to turn the line around. That's the same Tom Rolt we often hear about on the inland waterways.

Improvements have been made and volunteer members of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society now provide most of the train crew and station staff required to operate the line. Volunteers assist with maintenance work and with many other activities. The track has been relaid, locomotives have been acquired and rebuilt, additional carriages have been constructed, a safe and flexible signalling system has been installed, and the many other improvements needed to cater for the much increased number of passengers have been carried out.

Rural byway

But the Talyllyn Railway is still very much the railway it always was, a rural byway where the pace of life is gentle, the average speed of the train is still less than nine miles per hour. Passengers can have an unhurried journey along the beautiful and unspoilt Fathew Valley. There are some similarities in speed and ethos on the Talyllyn Railway with the canals.

The abandoned railways that were rescued seem to be moving on at a pace. Proving that some lines can even provide a real tangible service to the public. At the same time heritage railways create substantial income from visitors drawn into their area. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway alone is credited with bringing in £31m a year into the local economy. The lines are still expanding as new sections are rebuilt and brought back into use.

I can look out of my window and see a partly reconstructed section of the Elsecar branch of the Dearne & Dove canal. The forming of the Barnsley Canal Group has inspired attempts to restore the whole canal. The evidence of recent tree felling and brush cutting demonstrates that the reconstruction continues. Alongside the canal is the line of the Elsecar railway. The Elsecar Heritage Railway was the former Elsecar Branch of the South Yorkshire Railway. The single track line ran from Mexborough to Elsecar, crossing the Dearne and Dove Canal by a lift bridge. These two restoration projects are inspired and driven forward by enthusiastic volunteers.

UK canal system

Despite a period of abandonment, the UK canal system is again experiencing increasing use. But now largely as a struggling leisure industry with a small amount of commercial traffic. The death knell for commercial carrying on the canals was sounded in the winter of 1962/63, when a long hard period of frost kept goods icebound on the canals for many months.

A few of the remaining canal customers turned to road and rail haulage to ensure reliability of supply. They never returned. Most canal customers failed to notice that the railway and road transport services had also been affected by the big freeze.

Dr Beeching

This period also coincided with two reports which would bring about a fundamental change in the railways. The Reshaping of British Railways (1963) and The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes (1965) Both written by Dr Richard Beeching and published by the British Railways Board. The first report identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of railway line for closure, 55% of stations and 30% of route miles at that time.

Beeching's name is to this day associated with the mass closure of railways and the loss of many local services. Much as the name Rolt and Aickman is associated with the rescue of the canal infrastructure. I wonder whose name would be associated in the public's mind with the parlous state of the inland waterways today?

Canal and River Trust

Control of the canals in the United Kingdom is within the remit of the Canal & River Trust. However, a minority of canals are still privately owned. Some abandoned and derelict canals are being being reopened, section by section, some requiring the construction of some new routes around sections that have been overbuilt. All achieved and driven by small canal societies raising funds for the planning and to allow small restoration projects to take place.

However, it's at this point where the restoration of canals and heritage railways begin to diverge. I think the divergence comes down to a cast iron ethos in management style. For the canals there is CaRT, with its planned under investment in the infrastructure, which I believe is a carry over with the management inspired from the bad old days of the British Waterways Board. Where we now have an infrastructure which can be seen once more clearly falling into decline, there is a slow return to the bad old days brought about by penny pinching and a lack of maintenance.

By contrast

By contrast, there is an ongoing investment in cash and ideas for improving the heritage railway infrastructure. The ethos behind our heritage railway lines that are being completely run by volunteers is awe inspiring.

Volunteers can drive and fire steam locomotives. The track is maintained by volunteer permanent way staff. The signalling and safety of trains is controlled by volunteer signal men. The guards, ticket collectors and station platform staff are once again volunteers. Railway engine sheds are a working attraction for visitors where locomotive and carriage repairs by volunteers can be seen taking place. Railway warehouses are an attraction run by volunteers where railway memorabilia is displayed. There is no limit to what the individual can achieve when motivated by inspiration and enthusiasm. Some may well be the old platform end, train-spotter geek of yesteryear, but you can't fault their commitment.

The difference

However, I can't see the heritage railways ever carving poetry into the sides of railway carriages. Neither can I see a time when railway cuttings and embankments would be used to encourage voles and badgers to make their homes there. I can't see track-side land being sold off to developers. That short sighted lesson was learned by the remainder railway post Beeching. I could not imagine a railway line where trees would be allowed to encroach onto the permanent way. I can't imagine a heritage railway line anywhere where rubbish would be allowed to accumulate in the same way as it does in and around our canals.

Therein lies the secret of the heritage railway. It's volunteers are being inspired to join in. Their camaraderie, pride and commitment is palpable. Employed not as a litter pickers but knowing that they can choose to work at almost any level.

Maintained working practices

The heritage railways have maintained the working practices and the jobs done in the past. The lengthsman, ganger, plate-layer and signalman. Driver, fireman, guard, shunter, wheel tapper and the crossing keeper. Job functions that were essential to maintain the railway infrastructure.

So what is available for the CaRT volunteers on the canals. It seems to me that there is a bit of windlass work and a lot of litter picking on offer. After all, it seems the canals are now maintained by a man in a white van. The skills and knowledge of the old workforce are seemingly lost forever. You can't have succession when there is no one to pass on the skills and local knowledge.

Disillusioned employees

I make a point to engage in conversation with CaRT staff whenever I get the chance. I have discovered on my travels employees who are disenchanted, frustrated and disillusioned. As one said to me recently "We are being led by donkeys!" Another said "There is so much bullshit and paperwork, I can't be arsed anymore!" Perhaps the most telling comment was "If 50 new volunteers turned up tomorrow at Fearns Wharf, they would not know what to do with them." When the employees are disillusioned, when the employees see wasted effort and feel that there is nothing they can do about it, what sort of future for the volunteers.

I referred earlier to Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman, the individuals who inspired the IWA. Can you imagine what their thoughts would be today on the lack of investment and the lack of foresight. Rolt and Aickman had hopes and aspirations for the future. They wanted control into the hands of people who were motivated, inspired and who really cared. They must be revolving at high speed.

Richard Parry

Well the new CEO for the trust has at long last been unveiled and the link with the railway continues into a new tenure. Richard Parry who comes from the railways' "First Group" might well be a breath of fresh air blowing through the portals of ivory towers. As I wrote earlier 'I wonder whose name will be associated in the boating public's mind with the parlous state of the inland waterways today? It might well be a new name that brings in a new era of improvements in all aspects of the trust's business. A good start would be made with a bit more transparency. I hope that Richard avoids CaRT becoming another 'Beeching Line', and that some of the ethos of the heritage railways comes at long last to CaRT.

Let the honeymoon commence.


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