A discussion paper for BRPS Members - Not for publication
Likewise, our Membership numbers have also hovered around the 8,500 mark, which whilst fairly healthy has not grown in significance and our volunteer worker base remains fairly constant, an issue we at Trustee level are keen to improve.
Our enthusiast base has significantly dwindled to a very small percentage of visitors. Only on such events as the hugely successful Giants of Steam event when "Green Arrow" visited us did we see anything like the enthusiast turn out that we have experienced in the past.
Are we really addressing the enthusiast market adding new elements of interest, are we getting boring or staid in our approach?
Secondly, are we really preparing ourselves for operation into East Grinstead (and indeed beyond at some future stage) and the potential traffic opportunities it may offer us?
The Trustees recently received and debated at great length, a request from The Hampshire & Sussex Unit Preservation Group (H&SUPS) enquiring about the possibility of locating their 3H DEMU at the Bluebell, which is currently in the final phases of restoration to full working order at Rampart's in Derby.
Coupled to this, mail from Members sent to me personally (currently at a ratio of around 3 SR DEMU's for every 1 SR EMU!) and to other Trustees, has indicated that there is an strong interest in saving a "Thumper" unit, so very closely associated with the railways surrounding Bluebell.
Many of these letters are written by long standing members and present a very balanced view set against the Bluebell ethos.
The Trustees have currently declined the H&SUPS's offer on the basis that we currently do not have the space for the supporting infrastructure to accept the unit. More importantly, we felt that really, we could not make the final decision unless we involved the membership in taking what will be a fundamental step in policy change for the railway.
But here's what H&SUPS would offer the Bluebell; One complete 3H unit in fully restored BR Green livery to a very high standard. They have a membership that contains expertise in mechanical overhaul and a raft of spares as well as links with the well known Hasting Diesels Group based at St Leonard's. In a nutshell, we are being offered a working unit with support -ready to run!
Now before you start sticking pins in a Roy Watts doll, please let me say to you that, I am writing this completely unbiased. I, like you, do have a personal view but it is not just my personal thoughts that count, I am merely trying to present a balanced view no more than that. It has become very apparent from the membership that it may be prudent to look at the way we begin to prepare ourselves not just for East Grinstead and beyond but we also and perhaps more importantly, consider how we can continue to attract and bring in new blood and help increase our excellent volunteer workforce that will indeed, be further stretched when the extension(s) are complete.
Maybe this is the new dimension that is the catalyst in doing this but whatever, I believe Bluebell in its maturity, is adult enough to make an informed decision and that it will do so in such a way that its core values remain as they are now. Bluebell will embed its standards of operational excellence in such a way that it will embrace any change in a sympathetic manner that does not betray or lose the railway's historical significance.
I write this out of total respect to the many members who have both spoken and written about this subject.
I also make it very clear, my one key passion remains as always, to see our Railway and our people continue to grow, diversify, develop and remain successful at the top of the heritage movement.
Sometimes we have to take a risk but we must continue to make the railway a success, we must be aware of the commercial opportunities and we must fight for every hard earned penny we so that we can continue to make practical and sensible investment in the tools and infrastructure for our people and that we ALL continue to enjoy our treasured railway.
You may or may not agree, that is your prerogative but before putting my head on a plate, be balanced in your approach, do not get blinkered by total emotion as I do not accept carte blanche "no" (or yes for that matter) but be reasoned.
"Thumpers" are old and life expired on BR, no question.
... But so are some of Bluebell's Locos, look at the Adams Tank and 27 as examples.
Thumpers offer an alternative for off peak running at a lower cost than steam, either at a moments notice or when traffic demands are very light or variable such as at half term. If we get a failure what can we currently do, cancel an afternoon's services? It has happened and only too recently.
... We are giving the steam fleet yet more undue opportunities to fail and wear out within its 10 year cycle, let's get more from steam by aiding its life with Diesel. Look at the amount of steaming days we already have. Up to three engines can be operational even on the quietest of days ... can we really continue to stretch our stock?
Where do we house a diesel? Can the two traction methods work together?
... Steam and diesel can work together, look at any other society, do the Mid Hants house their 3H unit anywhere other than Ropley? I guess not. We have a nearly empty pump house siding that will easily hold a three car unit if required. If we use HSUPS we would get all the expertise we need without calling on our existing engineering staff.
Why do we really need one when our existing fleet can adequately cope? ... Can it?
When we are through to East Grinstead, we MUST look at the timetable we offer. There will be strong resistance to changing the first train from Sheffield Park at 11.00am because that perfectly suits schools and party traffic, whereas if you are arriving at East Grinstead, the first time you will probably see a train will be at 11.45 and does that really give you the opportunity to enjoy a full day on the railway before you have to go back? An early and late DEMU could offer an easy alternative to getting you "Into" the railway therefore maximising the opportunity of riding behind steam, allowing a full days visit.
But the Bluebell Line never had diesels ... it's not prototypical!
... Yes, but Thumpers were and still are (at time of writing) part of the classic Sussex railway scene, look at all the neighbouring LBSCR lines in the mid sixties that fell on the Beeching Axe, The Cuckoo Line, TWW to EG , EG to TB and the Oxted Lines. They all had 3H and 3D motive power from 1962 to the end. This is much a part of our heritage as Birch Grove or the "would-be" Atlantic. Remember that 10000, the experimental Diesel and the Bulleid Diesel shunters were rumoured to have made a test runs through SP and to Brighton Works in the early 1950's.
We should never be purist on our traction policy. "Preserving a Puffer for prosperity" is fine "but if it can't puff anymore it isn't much use"!
Will this open the doors to other types such as seeing a class 55 at Sheffield Park?
... No, Bluebell should ensure that this does not happen and mitigate this risk factor and it can do it. It is about careful management that can set this aside. Remember how we felt about fluorescent lighting in the offices, credit card machines and Mark 1 coaches but we have worked together and moved on.
Will this really damage our railways' reputation?
... Difficult to judge. It's a good unique selling point but can we afford to live with nostalgia or look at what is best for the Railway in the longer term?
So respected Members, what are your thoughts? Are we stifling the future growth and diversity of our society or the attraction for people to join us?
Are we overlooking the needs and requirements of our visitors or indeed localised traffic?
... We have said "No" to many things in the past and we have regretted it later that we did not take the opportunity, again being so very critical for missing an opportunity.
I leave it to you as a Society member to have your say, to cast your vote, remembering the points that have been raised so far. This is a decision that everyone must be involved in and what 'we' decide now is right for the future success and growth of The Bluebell Railway".
Never forget that whatever we do, we are Railway preservationists.
This is for all of us Bluebell United ... priceless!
Write to me at Sheffield Park station, be honest, be brutal if needs be, but be focussed and reasoned.
This web page that has been set up to assist in furthering discussion.
Thank you for reading this and I look forward to hearing from you.
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