In August 1968, the last scheduled British Railways steam train ran on the British railway network. By then, the heritage movement had already started, and the slowness of the Barry scrapyard in South Wales to scrap redundant steam locomotives provided one source of motive power for many of the new railway owners and operators.

Time passed, and diesel locomotives and multiple units were added to many heritage railways’ fleets. Heritage vehicles now operate on the main line railway too. All this keeps alive the history and tradition of the railways from time past, and the public loves it, as do the people who run the railway heritage movement – staff and volunteers.

Nostalgia is often viewed through rose-tinted glasses, and one of the unwelcome characteristics of railways of the past is the comparatively poor safety record. Historic tragedies are well documented in Her Majesty’s Railway Inspector’s reports, most of which are available on The Railways Archive. Indeed, it lists ten reports from 50 years ago about accidents involving fatalities or major injury.

Ex-GWR locomotive Bradley Manor.

Ex-GWR locomotive Bradley Manor.

Modern standards

Today, with improved design and operational control, derailments or collisions leading to injuries or fatalities are rare, and this is now the expectation of all UK railways. However, it is challenging for heritage railways to deliver safety to the same standard as the national network when they are operating old rolling stock that predates modern design standards, often using volunteer staff.

But delivering modern safety standards is their duty and the results are good; the ORR paid tribute to them in their 2017-18 Annual Safety Report saying: “Heritage operators across Britain continue to demonstrate enthusiasm to manage their operations safely.”

Accidents still happen, and recent examples include the derailment of a Welsh Highland Railway locomotive due to the failure of a suspension component and the near miss on the South Devon Railway where a child nearly fell though the missing floor in a toilet whose door had been inadequately secured.

Heritage operators also have a duty to evaluate and implement improvements that further reduce risk and address societal concern. It is the hallmark of operating a good safety management system that the lessons of incidents are taken on board and changes made. Yet, it is the very nature of heritage and, charter operations, that many of the safety features of modern railways could spoil the heritage appeal.

A case in point is Mark 1 coaches (see end panel), which are the mainstay of such operations and which have a number of features – poor crashworthiness, opening windows, slam doors and lack of retention toilets that would in an ideal world be eliminated.

It was with all this in mind that Rail Engineer visited the Severn Valley Railway and met Neil Taylor, its engineering services manager. Neil is a chartered engineer and a fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, with over 30 years experience. Unusually, his experience is not from the railway but from the defence industry. In discussion it quickly became apparent that both industries share similar problems when operating older equipment!

The Severn Valley Railway is one of the largest and oldest heritage lines in the UK. It is 16 miles long, operating between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth. It was incorporated 51 years ago in 1967 and started operations in 1970 between Bridgnorth and Hampton Loade. The line was gradually extended, reaching Kidderminster in 1984. According to its 2017 accounts, the railway had a £7 million turnover, carried roundly 240,000 passengers and has approximately 80 permanent, 50 part-time and another 50 seasonal staff, plus around 1,700 volunteers.

Load rig for carriage dynamo.

Load rig for carriage dynamos.

Kidderminster carriage works

The first stop was the carriage works at Kidderminster. The tour included nostalgic sights of 60-year-old rolling stock being overhauled or converted. It has often been said that old rolling stock can be kept in service indefinitely as everything can be re-created as it wears out or breaks – like Trigger’s broom (“I’ve had this broom for 20 years. It’s had 17 new heads and 14 new handles!”).

The tour showed how SVR manages this process and takes account of new issues as vehicles get older and older. Neil described how the railway has documented the maintenance and repair requirements of all the coaches and the competence required of the staff and volunteers. Documentation is based on the original British Rail documents, but updated to take account of factors never considered by BR.

BR maintained these vehicles from new to about 30 years old. Some coaches are now well over 60 years old and suffer problems that BR never had to deal with. Indeed, some of the older coaches use materials no longer available and substitutes have to be found.

Amongst the first people Rail Engineer met were two apprentices, one of whom was on an exchange from France. In the coach shop was one of SVR’s brake guard’s (BG) vehicles that had been converted to a wheelchair persons’ vehicle some years ago and is now being converted into a dining car for disabled people. The disabled toilet was a masterpiece as it looked as though it was an original fitting.

The apprentices were repairing corrosion damage at cantrail level on one end of the vehicle. James Broughton, the carriage shop chargehand, compared this work in progress with a completed repair at the other end of the vehicle. James also described how BR mark 1 coaches suffer from corrosion of the “crash pillars” at vehicle ends. These square sections were only protected on the outside and, after decades of service, they corrode from the inside.

Corrosion damage around cantrail of ex-BG mark 1 vehicle.

Corrosion damage around cantrail of ex-BG mark 1 vehicle.

James also demonstrated heritage test equipment for the coaches’ belt-driven dynamos and vacuum brake cylinders and the documentation covering their safe use. In the context of the South Devon Railway accident, Neil talked Rail Engineer through the repair and test process and documentation for the door locks used on the various different types of carriage, with a modern digital force meter to ensure that spring forces are within tolerance.

During a train ride from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, hauled by West Country pacific “Taw Valley”, Neil and Jane Preece, the SVR’s HR manager, described how the railway is run and how competence is assured. They were clearly proud of their Heritage Skills Training Academy, which is funded by the Severn Valley Railway Charitable Trust and has an association with Dudley College and, through them, the Black Country museum.

At the time of the visit, there were 10 apprentices in the Academy, the majority of whom are gaining technical skills across the railway including locomotive mechanical maintenance, boiler shop, carriage mechanical and carriage bodywork. Two apprentices are recruited annually through a national recruitment process, as SVR seeks people who are enthusiastic about railways but not rail enthusiasts!

All operational staff have to be demonstrably competent for the job they do and they have an enormous mine of good practice to draw upon from the members who come from all walks of life. Neil emphasised that SVR is a member-led railway; the staff support the volunteers but also, sometimes encourage volunteers to “move with the times”.

Neil said that he routinely reviews Rail Accident Investigation Branch reports relevant to the SVR and has had several papers approved by SVR’s senior management aimed at further improving the competence and culture. This includes demonstrating competence of staff and volunteers using material from the Heritage Railway Association (HRA), and the Boiler and Engineering Skills Training Trust (BESTT), redrafting the railway’s safety management procedures and developing a “just safety culture” (learning from mistakes, not blame).

Boiler for BR standard Class 4 number 75069.

Boiler for BR standard Class 4 number 75069.

Facilities at Bridgnorth

The boiler shop opened in 1990, is involved in the repair and manufacture of boilers for locomotives that operate on the SVR (of 27 locos currently operating, the SVR only owns three) and manufactures for others. A new boiler was being manufactured for the Bala Lake railway’s “Alice” and a number of boilers were in work, both new and refurbished, for the Isle of Man steam railway.

Neil made the point that it is usually much easier and often cheaper to manufacture new boilers than attempt to repair older boilers where many of the materials were of questionable quality. The machine shop included machine tools that your writer recognised from his time as a trainee in the 1960s, although Neil confessed that they do have a numerically controlled lathe for making, for example, boiler stays.

Old skills much in evidence included manufacture of white metal bearings and, in the locomotive shed, some excellent quality welding was observed on frames that had cracked.

Neil illustrated the problems of running old vehicles with the work they had done to manage fractures on locomotive leaf springs. As a result, they have serialised all the springs and have virtually completed a programme to refurbish or renew them. Neil made the point that new springs cost little more than refurbished springs. All this was in place before the incident on the Welsh Highland Line.

Purists might wonder about the historical accuracy, and Neil was at pains to reassure that the railway has to look, feel and sound right, but in order to deliver a safe railway that is also dependable and reliable they have to recognise that they need to have much more control of process and have to embrace modern health and safety practice. Sometimes substituting modern materials saves an awful lot of trouble.

As the tour concluded, Neil gave his honest assessment of his engineering domain:

  • They practice competence management;
  • They use processes that are suitable for competent-wise people;
  • They learn from their own and others’ mistakes;
  • The carriage works is where he would like it to be;
  • There is more work to do in the locomotive works and the material from BESTT is a good start for the training/tutorial aspects, but work is needed to translate all this in to competence statements against which people can be assessed.

All that remained was a leisurely trip back to Kidderminster on a mark 1 set hauled by ex-GWR locomotive “Bradley Manor”, enjoying a coffee brought to my seat, confident that SVR is in good hands.

Thanks to Neil Taylor and Jane Preece of the Severn Valley Railway for their help in preparing this article.


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