Conserving the railway's past

Conserving the ancestry of today’s railway was not always such a high priority. 

The railway has a history spanning almost two centuries. Most people appreciate its contribution - for example, its principal role in the Industrial Revolution, creating the opportunity for trade at greater speeds across larger distances. But that still didn’t stop many important railway landmarks being allowed to fall into rack and ruin or be lost altogether. 

But times have changed. In October 1984, at a conference on The Future of the Railway Heritage, British Railways Board (BRB) Chairman Robert Reid announced the formation of The Railway Heritage Trust.

BRB made £1 million available to the Trust, to demonstrate its commitment to the conservation of Britain’s railway heritage. And so, in April 1985, the RHT was born. An independent registered company limited by guarantee, it was initially supported entirely by the BRB.

With privatisation in the 1990s, funding was split: BRB (Residuary) supported the RHT’s work on closed lines, until that too disappeared in September last year (see panel, page 55 ), when responsibility for that area passed to the Highways Agency. 

Since privatisation, Railtrack and subsequently Network Rail have sponsored the RHT’s work on the operational railway.

Sir William McAlpine has been chairman of the Trust from day one. In addition, the Trust can call on an advisory board of some 42 influential railway, heritage and architectural names. 

But it’s the executive director who really looks after the Trust. Only three people have filled the role since the RHT’s inception, and all of them were once senior civil engineers in the industry.

Since 2010, that role has been in the safe hands of Andy Savage, who follows in the footsteps of Leslie Soane and Jim Cornell. Savage heads a small team that includes company secretary Malcolm Wood (the secretary has always been an architect by trade) and an administrator.

Savage jokes that it’s not quite true that the administrator has always been Claire Pickton, although Pickton jests that she’ll soon be applying for a grant for restoration work on herself, she’s been there that long!

Savage has enjoyed a long association with the heritage of the railways, and it’s clearly very important to him. Previously he was deputy chief inspector at the RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch), and safety director for Carillion Transport before that. Conserving railway heritage must be a bit of a change of pace, after such intense work?

“The phone doesn’t ring in the night,” he tells RAIL. “One way or another, I had decades on call. When the phone rang in the night, it was, by definition, bad news.”

So, what exactly does the Railway Heritage Trust do?

“Basically, heritage features on the operational railway that we can give money to, and finding a new use for things that no longer have a role. That’s become much more what we’re doing now, finding new uses.

“We cover both listed structures and buildings, and those in a conservation area. They have to be connected with Network Rail or the Highways Agency’s Historical Railways Estate. I use the phrase ‘connected with’ deliberately, because it might be something that’s moving out of their care, and we might give them a grant to help transfer it.

“We don’t do projects on heritage railways that are totally divorced from the main line. However, Didcot and Wensleydale, and one or two other bits, are slightly more eligible for grants, because they are on leased Network Rail property. We’ve given grants to both in the past because of that.”

With so many potentially eligible projects, how many grants have been given in total?

“We’ve done 1,380 grants in 28 years, and the value is now up to £44m. The external funding is up to £56m. So that’s £100m worth of work in 28 years.”

That £56m is from other companies, providing funding for projects to which the RHT has given a grant. But where does the money come from to fund the RHT grants?

“Network Rail gives us £2m a year. The Highways Agency is, at the moment, giving us £200,000 a year. That’s different from how BRBR funded us because they did it by project, so we have a bit more flexibility with the Highways Agency. But it’s still basically a new organisation that’s settling down, so things may not stay the same.

“We also got a legacy from
the estate of a Mr Maber, so
that’s given us about £180,000 for war memorials and the like, which we are very
deep into, making sure they’re in good condition. 

“In fact, up until yesterday, I would have been able to open that drawer next to me and get out a war memorial to show you, but I handed it back to Network Rail yesterday.”

What was that memorial for?

“The Weston Office House in Crewe. The building got into a very poor state, and a private individual took the memorial for safekeeping. We got it back again and returned it to Network Rail. We do a lot on war memorials.”

What other types of project do you cover?

“Lots of stuff on stations - for example, the Stationmaster’s house at Ribblehead. Network Rail had sold it off, and we helped the Settle & Carlisle Trust to restore it. That bought the ownership of the entrance of the station, which had been sold off when the station was closed, back into the S&C Trust and Network Rail. Now the house is somewhere for people to go and stay.

“There’s a lot of work going on at Nottingham at the moment that we’re funding, and contributing to.

“Chester station as well. The footbridge there was covered in corrugated iron, which became so high that you couldn’t see the bridge, and it was cold because the wind blew through. We’ve now glazed the side so you can see the bridge, and it’s transformed the appearance of it. And it’s much better from the point of view of the comfort of passengers.”

Savage speaks enthusiastically about a host of projects with which the Trust has been involved over the past year, including a very unusual one.

“Bromsgrove locomens’ graves. An experimental locomotive on the Lickey Incline blew up in 1840 and killed the two crew members. The workmates funded gravestones for them, and both were in pretty poor condition. 

“BR had done work on them in the past, but not enough, and they really needed taking to pieces and doing properly. So we put some money up, along with ASLEF, CrossCountry and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.”

What is the procedure with such projects? Do they approach the RHT for a grant, or does the RHT find out about a project and offer to help?

“Sometimes we encourage them. Like the York Tap, for example, for which East Coast approached us. We’d done the Sheffield Tap, then East Coast said: ‘What do we do with the tearooms at York?’ 

“And I said: ‘This is a wonderfully quirky building, it really lends itself to Pivovar.’ They went and got Pivovar interested in restoring it as a public house.”

Is it a complicated process to get the funding for these projects put through?

“Our processes are deliberately designed to be very quick and very simple, because we don’t pay until the work is done. Either we’re moving something out of the railway’s ownership, which is good for the railway, or we’re restoring the railway’s infrastructure. 

“So even if the business doesn’t do well, the railway is protected because the money has been put into their asset, not into the business.”

How does that work then?

“Basically, we specify what work we want done to justify the grant when we make our award, and we don’t pay the grant until that work is done. So the railway sees the building improved, or ownership transferred, before we pay out.”

Getting back to the projects themselves, does the Trust only deal with listed structures?

“If it’s not listed or in a conservation area, it’s not in our scope. We will very rarely make an exception. However, whether or not it’s a listed structure, we can advise. 

“The big one recently was London Bridge and its Driver roof . That had to go. It was as much in the way as the arch was at Euston, although we have given a grant towards its re-erection at Aberystwyth.”

So what you’re saying is: if it would be detrimental to the effectiveness of a station to keep a heritage aspect, you would advise its removal?

“My view is very clear that the heritage should serve the railway, not the railway serve the heritage.

“The railway is here to provide a means of moving passengers and freight around the country, and it can’t stay still. 

“You go and talk to that guy down there on the statue outside , or Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I’m not a great fan of a lot of what Brunel did. Stephenson was a far more competent engineer, by all accounts. 

“But anybody of that era, what would they do if they wanted to alter the railway to make it more effective? They’d have bulldozed everything out of the way and started again. So we’re actually better at doing it than they were, I think.

“Of course, King’s Cross is a classic. King’s Cross and St Pancras today are not the stations that were there when I joined the railway in 1970. And thank God. They’re far better. It’s a different world.”

In total, the RHT funds about 50 to 60 projects a year, but it could also be involved with any number of projects at any one time in an advisory capacity. Savage must have some particular favourites from his time at the Trust so far.

“I certainly have a soft spot for the York Tap and the Harrogate Tap. The York Tap was my idea. It’s been a real success.

“Moorthorpe station, too. We’d pretty much given up on Moorthorpe. We’d tried and tried. It was in a real state when I went there, first time. And now it’s transformed. It was nice advising them. 

“They’d started work, and I went out to see how it was going. I arrived on site when they’d just demolished the brick pillars under the canopy and the bricks between them. They were about to take the hammer to what they found inside, which were originally cast iron pillars. 

“There was a fairly rapid forceful debate on the basis that ‘you want a £70,000 grant from me, you are not going to demolish these pillars, are you?’ 

“I advised them to put glazing behind them, so you keep the original format of the station, but glaze it at the front to provide an enclosed area. Which they did. The quality of the restoration is great now.”

The restoration project at Moorthorpe was completed last year. As well as the other smaller projects with which the RHT will be involved this year, what are the bigger ones on the books now?

“The three big projects we have at the moment, all of which are on site now, are Manchester Victoria, Nottingham Midland and Wakefield Kirkgate. 

“In the case of Nottingham, the station’s in pretty good nick, but a lot of alterations and a lot of heritage features have been done up as part of that. So that’s expensive, but it’s a relatively simple job. 

“Manchester Victoria has been messed around, but at least it’s kept as a busy operational station. What has been done is restoration of the station. It was in a reasonable but not brilliant state, and we’ve been getting rid of a lot of the mess.

“Wakefield Kirkgate, in contrast, had been totally abandoned and left to rot. Andrew Adonis described it as the worst station on the system, and he was absolutely right. We’re working to make something really good of it.”

With so many of these buildings owned by Network Rail, the RHT and NR work very closely on many of the projects the RHT funds. Is that working relationship a positive one?

“One of the reasons why we sit here is that the other end of the office is where Network Rail’s town planners sit. We are constantly in communication with them. We used to be in separate buildings, and it’s amazing the difference it makes being on the same floor. It created a barrier that just evaporated overnight when we moved in here.”

NR’s planners will be moving offices shortly, but the RHT will move as well. It’s clear that the two work well together, but is there anything else that would make it easier to get projects underway?

“I would like to speed up how we deal with the leases with NR. That is the biggest frustration, because inevitably the property division is focused on commercial property deals. As a result, the sort of thing we’re dealing with quite often is peppercorn - it goes to the bottom of the pile, and tends to stay there.

“That’s not for lack of commitment at the top, nor for any malice at all with the people sitting here. I know these people, I work with them, they’re good people, but Network Rail is focused on delivery and finance. It has legal responsibilities for these buildings, but actually getting them leased out isn’t sometimes at the top of the pile.”

It may be a small team, but the achievements of Savage’s team over his four years are clear. 

Savage notes that some of the railway’s heritage that no longer exists would not have been allowed to disappear, were those decisions being made now. 

The Doric Arch at Euston, for example, was the original 1837 entrance to the station, but was dismantled in 1961. Savage will be telling RAIL more about this particular item in a forthcoming issue.

It’s a shame for the railway’s heritage that we can’t send Andy Savage back in time to save some of the past that has already been lost, but a great boon for the future that he and the RHT are here to protect it now. And long may that continue.

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