ADVICE FROM EXISTING MINIATURE RAILWAY OPERATORS

Mike Hanson, Rudyard Lake Steam Railway

“My advice is to put aside the interesting questions of gauge, equipment etc and start with the customers.
How many will there be, how much will they pay and how often will the trains run? Is there enough business to justify paying staff? If not then effectively its a weekend only operation.
The likely costs of need considering from insurances to fuel. Having done that stress test it by changing the key assumptions ( passenger Nos etc ) up and down by say 15%, 25% 50%.

The benefit of all this boring stuff is:
1. It will inform the sort and size of railway which is likely to be viable
2. It will make you case to local landlords and public authorities both stronger and much more credible
3. It should avoid some nasty surprises later.

Clearly a lot of information is needed by a potential operator about likely costs and opportunities. We have been recently discussing at Britain’s Great Little Railways how we can help potential operators. One way is to apply to join. It would cost £35 but would give you access to those who are already doing it. We do share information readily because other railways are not really our competitors. We have all clearly gained from sharing information and publicity.
Our competition is other leisure activity so I’m more interested in what Alton Towers is doing rather than the Churnet Valley who are 5 miles down the road from us.

Anyone who is serious about running a railway should talk privately to those who are already doing it and I am sure will not find the response disappointing.
What will get pretty short shrift is time wasters. I have lost count of the number of emails I have had on Exmoor’s behalf which say “Can you just give me a price for a 15 inch gauge A4 or Black Beauty? “

In reality if you want to run a railway much the best way is to buy an existing one. There are some on the market and more would be if the owners were approached the right way. Putting your own stamp on something is easier and cheaper and I suggest just as rewarding. The risks, costs and stress are also a fraction of those of starting with a green field and you get to get some enjoyment straight away rather than spending years in negotiation and construction. The railway at Markeaton Park is a classic example where this could be done”.

Michael Croft, Perrygrove Railway

“Whilst I agree that the business plan comes first, and discussions with landowners probably second, but the Transport & Works Order is very high up the list for railways of 15 inch gauge and above . I am trying to understand the law on this at the moment and it is very confusing but my current view is that if you cross a carriageway on the level, or by an over-bridge, or by an under-bridge or tunnel you do need a T&WO. The term “carriageway” is ill-defined but almost certainly means a road on which the public have the right to drive vehicles. I believe the applicant for a T&WO has to pay the costs of the DfT, the cost of the public enquiry, and (correct me someone if I am wrong) the costs incurred by objectors. As mentioned above the L&B are facing costs of £250k for their short extension – see this link:
http://www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/142901/11-07-Lynton-Barnstaple-Railway-_2_.pdf

Given the way this discussion is going I expect this info. is superfluous but it might be useful so here goes:

Formation width – Last time I asked (2008) the ORR expects the following for new-build railways:
1. A path on one side of the track within the railway boundary (ie: separate from any public path or bridle path):-700mm wide
2. Clearance between the fence and the designed maximum kinematic envelope (NOT the rolling stock width) of all rolling stock :- 1130mm on the side with the path
3. Clearance between the designed maximum kinematic envelope of all rolling stock and obstacles more than 2000 long:- 830mm

Taking a reasonable kinematic envelope for typical modern 15″ gauge stock as (say) 1300mm that gives 3260mm. Add 75mm each side for the diameter of timber fence posts gives 3410mm or about 11 feet 2 inches. Assuming my figures are still current.

Dispensation for reduced clearances is given in special circumstances. I believe the Welsh Highland Railway was permitted to reduce clearances through the tunnels in the Aberglaslyn Pass for instance. But it would be hard to argue that clearances should be reduced throughout the entire route of a new-build railway.

I agree with the suggestions to buy an existing railway, and run with a mix of paid staff and volunteers. Everyone seems to be agreeing, must be something wrong with this thread!

Chris Shaw, Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway

I agree with Merlin, dealing with Local Authorities is a nightmare. Years ago before Cleethorpes, we looked at a Railway in the Rother Valley Country Park. At that time the park was run by 4 local Councils. Sheffield City, Rotherham Borough, Derbyshire County and North East Derbyshire District. If you got 3 to agree then 1 wouldn’t, by the time you had got that one to agree, then another would change their mind. In the end I gave up!

When we took over at Cleethorpes the story was roughly the same, but we worked at it, and in time we got the lease we wanted.

I did what I suppose I shouldn’t have done and some 8 years ago stood for Council, and now find myself as the Council Leader, before anyone thinks thats a good way to beat Local Government think again. If railways get mentioned at all I have to declare my interest and if CCLR is mentioned I leave the room.

I also find that I have no time to do what I got a Railway for in the first place, driving trains.

All I can say is good look, don’t relay on the Council with any financial help these days.

David Humphries, North Bay Railway

As an operator, can I endorse everything that has been said here, especially by David Barnes.

I would add that one of the first jobs you need to do is assess your potential number of customers.

A 3 mile railway with one train in the system is going to mean that the timetable is going to be hourly from one end and then it is going to be a rush with intermediate stations. Analysis needs to be made on where people are going to join and leave the train and if your research comes up with a number beyond 64 people per hour, then realistically, 15 ” is going to be too small and perhaps a 2′ gauge set up will be needed. The last thing you want to be doing is being a victim of your own success and end up with a failure.

Fare prices need to be considered too. Basically, can you generate enough income to pay all your potential costs. If not, don’t even consider it.

I don’t know who said it first, but as a railway operator, the best way to end up with a small fortune, is to start with a large one.

You need to look at what other things you can do to up sell – cafe, retail, ice cream, other attractions. A calculator needs to be run over the numbers too to work out the contribution or otherwise.

I am sorry if I appear to be bursting your bubble, but your business plan needs to be absolutely bomb proof before you start. You are building an attraction to move people from a to b. You want to do it as a 15″ gauge railway. A 15″ gauge railway may not be the best gauge to do it. Indeed, a railway may not be the best people mover.

If you want to discuss things through give me a bell, or pm me and provide your contact details.


David Colley, Sherwood Forest Railway

Michael, far from being conspirators or competitors, the comments made so far have been made with the best intentions. The Miniature Railway World is among the closest linked business’s I know of. There is not one of the operators that would wish another to fail, whether an embryonic idea or a successful railway as this could be as likely to be themselves. Everyone I know will help in any way they can, confident in the knowledge that if we can help them then all they need do is ask. Personally, I was gutted when the Mull & West Highland Railway failed, through no fault of their own, and if there was anything that could have been done, I’m sure everyone would have helped.

However, there are more effective ways of going about this:

Join the BGLR, get to know your fellow clan.

Start with some informal talks with existing operators.

Talk to the suppliers, get an idea of the real costings involved in all the different gauges, from 2′ down to 10 1/4″.

As Mike said, get a real idea of passengers, not just park admittance or other railway’s figures. This will give you a firmer direction of which scale to go with.

Get a feasibility study done, then halve those figures. This way you will get a nice treat instead of a bitter disappointment. In my experience, these studies are done to justify a huge loan, planning application or other such reasons. They can be great when used to get what you want, but not always the truth.

Never forget to add contingencies. Heck we still forget to do this from time to time! If you’re looking at 2,640 sleepers per mile (based on 2 feet spacing) then order 2750. You’ll need the extra in sidings/run-around loops etc.

Remember David H’s sentiment.

Quote:

the best way to end up with a small fortune, is to start with a large one.

Never a truer bell rang.

But most important of all is talk. Don’t send idle e-mails or write innocent letters. Pick up the phone and have a chat with the people you will be dealing with. Now or somewhere down the line, if you are serious, you will be dealing with these people and you will be taken so much seriously when you do this.

Everyone here from an operating side of things will wish you and your group the best of luck with your, somewhat ambitious, task. I look forward to enjoying a nice ride in the not so distant future.

Miniature Railways in the UK