Heritage railways trade body welcomes today’s government support – but detail remains to be clarified

The Seven Valley Railway is among the heritage railways which have ceased operations until further notice. GWR 0-6-0PT No. 7714 is seen arriving at Bewdley station. GARETH EVANS

The Heritage Railway Association (HRA) has reacted warmly to the package of measures announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak (Conservative, Richmond (Yorks)) this afternoon (Friday, March 20) – although it is seeking clarity on some issues specifically related to heritage rail.

Steve Oates, chief executive of the HRA, the trade body for the UK heritage railway sector, said: “We welcome today’s announcement on support for retaining salaried employees, and the earlier news of a business rates holiday for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, and the grant funding geared to rateable values. However, many heritage railways don’t pay business rates, so may not benefit.

“The new Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme will help some – but more than a few railways already have loans, and may not be able to cope with more. We’re working with the Tourism Alliance and DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) to confirm that heritage railways, tramways and cliff railways are included in the government’s definition of the leisure sector, and can thus benefit from the £330 bn support being made available.”

It comes as the UK’s heritage railways are being hit hard by the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. Impacts include:

  • Visitor bookings have fallen through the floor.
  • Volunteer staff, some safety-critical, are heeding advice on social distancing and self-isolation. Manpower is in short supply.
  • Costs continue to come in – insurance, utilities, salaries, rent, rates and loan repayments all continue to mount up.
  • In an effort to contain costs, some railways have delayed or cancelled special events. Most have closed until further notice.

What HRA is doing

The Heritage Railway Association said it is working to ensure that its members, which are key players in the country’s leisure and tourism sector, receive meaningful support of the same kind as that available to transport and holiday operators, hotel owners and theme parks. The trade body is calling for clarity on issues specifically related to heritage rail, particularly on the treatment of charities, payroll support, and insurance cover.

“We’re also providing railways with regular and frequent updates on COVID-19 , with guidance and advice to meet the particular needs of railway operation in mind,” explained Steve Oates, HRA CEO.

“Furthermore, we’ve provided a business resilience action plan, to help railways plot a path through the threats and risks posed by COVID-19 . We’re talking to many of our members too on a daily basis, providing advice and, equally important, gathering information.”

A number of industry representatives attended a meeting of the Tourism Industry Council meeting last Monday (March 17), where specific support measures were called for and relayed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Those measures include: urgent access to funds; salary and redundancy support; relief not only on business rates, but on VAT and PAYE; mandatory closures of attractions, to enable insurance support to be provided; continuing business advice for tourism and leisure, and clarity on definitions.

Call to share best practice

The HRA is in the process of contacting all its railways and museums, gathering information on estimated losses, cashflow predictions, the kind of support they seek to see them through the pandemic, and an outline of the measures they’re taking in an attempt to contain the financial impact on their businesses.

Steve Oates, chief executive of the Heritage Railway Association
Steve Oates, chief executive of the Heritage Railway Association

Steve Oates said: “We’re calling on our members to work together, to share experiences and ideas, to work towards common solutions wherever possible, to provide practical aid to each other, and to form a single, powerful voice.

“Putting emergency business measures in place will help railways to reduce their sense of uncertainty. There will still be staff with work to do, volunteers who want to help and, before long, families looking for some leisure and entertainment. Being ready for their return is the goal of every railway’s survival plan.”

Resilience

Steve concluded: “One of the certainties of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the situation continues to change very rapidly. The HRA is now constantly monitoring every useful source, to ensure its guidance and support is timely and realistic. However, heritage railway operators are all resourceful and resilient railway professionals at heart. Overcoming challenges is part of the business of building and running a heritage railway, and I know our members will meet this challenge as robustly as any other.”

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