Robin Coombes has been awarded the first doctorate in the study of heritage railways following research at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Rail Research and Education.
Sponsored by the Office of Rail and Road and the Heritage Railway Association, the study by Robin looked into the sustainability and governance of heritage railways.
The study demonstrated that there is no fundamental reason as to why heritage railways cannot be sustainable well into the future, but the sector is facing greater challenges as people and assets become older.
Study observations, including age profiles and rates of repairs, found that heritage railways need to appoint 700 new directors, 10,000 volunteers, overhaul 300 steam locomotives, restore 1,000 coaches and relay at least 100 miles of track over the next ten years.
Robin Coombes, who carried out extensive research over a period of 5 years, commented, “the story of heritage railways has shown that the art of the impossible is possible. Good governance is incredibly important, particularly for their safe operation, but their social capital, the goodwill of their volunteers, members and supporters, is even more important for their sustainability. I am optimistic, if the ingenuity, inventiveness and pioneering tradition they possess amongst their volunteers and supporters is fully engaged, they will not lose what they cherish and hold so dear. If there is a problem, it is not the quality of the next generation; I have met many younger than I who are eager and more than equal to the challenge. The question is, have we found enough of them and can the current leadership inspire and engage them”.
Professor Clive Roberts, Head of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Rail Research and Education explained, “the study is important for heritage railways as it recognises their maturity and distinctiveness as a sector and identifies potential risk”.
Ian Skinner, Assistant Chief Inspector of Railways at the ORR commented, “The evidence from the research helped me consider the leadership and governance challenge on heritage railways. I see increasing realisation within the sector that it needs to be addressed. Thanks to the research there is now in place a practical tool to help heritage railways navigate a post pandemic world of challenge and uncertainty.”
Mark Smith, a Director of the Heritage Railway Association said, “The research has the potential to be very useful to heritage railways”.
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