Sunday, February 03, 2013

More on the politics of railway preservation

Last week Joseph Boughey wrote a guest post for Liberal England on the politics of the railway preservation movement.

Now Out in the Shires has written a post of his own debating the issues that Joseph raised:
What I don't think is up for debate is the "small is beautiful" element of the movement, in as much as the preserved railways are often most successful when they can present as the underdog. An interesting observation of the preserved railway scene is that the more successful a particular railway gets, the more divergence there is between the aims of the company and that of its volunteer workforce. 
You can see this with the way people leave the premier lines after decades as a volunteer, because it no longer feels like they're all in it together. There's now a "commercial manager" where once there was the vicar's wife, and money is spent on websites and e-commerce, when they spent half of 1984 restoring an Edmondson ticket press....
This gives me a chance to say what a good blog Out in the Shires is.

How could I fail to like someone who finds it natural to frame his argument in references to The Titfield Thunderbolt and A Canterbury Tale?


Gareth Aubrey said...

It's also worth pointing out that that transition to commercial managers is almost certainly inevitable and indeed necessary. My father's a preservationist who spent his teenage summers cleaning Flying Scotsman (which bizarrely means he knew Lord McAlpine as a young boy...) who may well spend more time volunteering when he retires (from the railways, as it happens), but he's the last generation for whom steam railways were a component of their life and not something from the past. Meanwhile it looks like it'll be a long time until we're seeking to preserve Class 60's (which is the point at which my generation might get involved, and even then...) so the volunteer underdog model ceases to be sustainable

Joseph Boughey said...

I suspect that you are right, in that skills and tacit knowledge that were available to an older generation simply won't be available as time goes on. This is happening on the "profesional" railway (and indeed canals), where a level of deskilling has taken place, as staff retire who had a range of tacit skills and knowledge learned from the job. It will not be possible to transfer all remaining skills to the preserved railway.

This would massively upset people like L T C Rolt of the Talyllyn, to whom the exercise of craft was paramount. However, the reliance on tourism requires new skills in marketing (which includes adapting the "offer" to potential customers) and this too points towards the dominance of commercial forces and approaches.

There was a commercial emphasis, and a divergence between volunteers and distant management, early in railway preservation. The Ffestiniog Railway exemplified this in the 1950s - effectively privately owned by the late Alan Pegler, and at one point run by prominent figures from Buckinghamshire; on site at Porthmadog, was a professional manager (ex BR) on site, in the form of Allan Garraway (who also featured in the Small is Beautiful film). This was a far cry from the "workers cooperative of enthusiasts" which is (and was) one characterisation of the Talyllyn Railway, and I suspect that this model may only apply in future to small-scale enthusiast operations that do not rely on the attraction of tourist revenue on any significant scale.

My posting was, actually, mainly about politics - the political implications of small-scale self-managed organisations! Interesting that the comments have developed to emphasise this transition from volunteer to commercial. In political terms, the Big Society notion (RIP??) was pushing the other way - volunteers to replace the commercial, enthusiasts to run public services like libraries. Beyond this, there are also the small, flat political organisations that, in order to get power and expand, may need to bceome more like commercial businesses, with leadership, discipline, procedures, mission statements, visions, management-speak....I could go on! As I put in my original posting, the key political question is the political and economic forms in which such organisations are embedded.

Back to railways, the "uncertain politics" are rarely discussed, so I am gratified to see some interest here. Maybe others will contribute?