Heritage Railways and Tramways (Voluntary Work) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:06 pm on 15 July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Jones of Cheltenham Lord Jones of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat 1:06, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for introducing the Bill and for his superb explanation of why it is needed.

When I was a young trainspotter, uncles and aunts often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up, young man?” The answer was always, “A train driver”, and I had many friends who felt the same way. None of us achieved it because, by the time we had grown up, steam trains had been replaced by diesel locomotives, which somehow did not present the same drama.

Some of the most interesting people you can meet are old steam engine drivers. They know how to make these things work, maintain the correct quantity of coal, build up the appropriate level of steam and charge through the countryside leaving a trail of smoke behind them. They tell stories of near misses, when perhaps someone had missed a signal and they had to slam on the brakes to come to a juddering halt before they rammed into another train on the line. They know what it was like to plough their way through blizzards, trying to keep to a timetable. They are an outstanding generation of dedicated and skilled people. Sadly, as time goes by, fewer and fewer of them are still around, but fortunately many have passed on their skills to volunteers on the network of heritage railways around the country. That network needs to recruit the next generation of steam engine enthusiasts, which is what the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, is about.

The career progression for a volunteer on heritage railways is the same as it was in the golden age of steam. You start as a cleaner, getting to know the locomotives, the engine parts and the drivers. After a couple of years you may become a fireman, and then eventually a driver. It is very structured. A volunteer on the Swanage Railway says: “It’s lovely to work on these really elegant old heritage machines. They’ve all got their quirks; even engines of the same class behave in different ways. You have to learn to know what they like and what they don’t want”.

Heritage railways across the UK attract millions of visitors and passengers a year, but the shortage of young volunteer drivers is worrying the industry. The Swanage Railway in Dorset has 42 drivers, the oldest of whom is 79 and the youngest 27. As the older ones step down from the footplate for the last time, there is a dearth of younger people ready to jump in. The shortage means that the railway draws in people from far and wide. One driver comes to Swanage from the east Midlands; another travels all the way from Preston. The Bill would enable and encourage interested young people to get involved with their own heritage railway.

Why do people volunteer? There are two main attractions: the locomotives themselves and the people. Everyone appreciates a steam engine and the engineering side of it, but the other half is the people. The railway is one big family. The beauty of it is that there are so many different jobs in one organisation: the drivers, the people in the booking office, and those in maintenance and catering. You get to know people across other railways as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, is very involved with the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway —my heritage railway—and the Sapperton tunnel, which is featured in one of the Edward Marston books in the Railway Detective series. Looking at its website, GWSR currently has vacancies for volunteers in many departments, including carriage and wagon maintenance; safety and first aid; the trust’s information centre and promotions; estates management; the model railway at Winchcombe; railway catering services for the cafes at Winchcombe and Broadway stations and the buffet bars on trains; retail, or helping to run the shop at Toddington; special events, including the special Santa trains in December; and the Toddington Narrow Gauge Railway. Many of these voluntary positions can be a starting point for the young people at whom this Bill is aimed. I wish this Bill well in encouraging more young people to get involved in our heritage railways across the United Kingdom.