The Two Models of Railway Preservation

If I were leading a railway preservation movement, should I rely on the financial strength of a large railway corporation, or should I appeal to the people for donations?

Here I am, again, droning on about railway preservation. However, this time rather than talking endlessly about how Hong Kong failed at railway preservation, I should talk more about how railway relics are preserved, specifically what I know about how the relics are maintained, financially speaking.

But before that, a few clarifying notes. By “railway preservation”, I mean the preservation of not just a railway line, but the preservation of old rolling stock and other relics. Essentially, I use this term “railway preservation” to talk about the preservation of everything related to the operation of a railway.

Those who know my style will realize at this juncture, there will be quite an explanation about the reason I decided to write this. And of course, this is no exception.

I have to confess this is a foretaste to what I may write about later in the year. Spoiler alert: it will be about railways, although it is not opinion pieces about railway preservation. It will be something much more personal, much more related to what I plan to execute in the future, but that’s the story for another time.

The reason I write this article is chiefly to report on my observation on railway preservation movements. Since I started researching (on the Internet) about railway preservation, I’ve found most of them fall into two categories, in terms of how they raise money to finance their ventures. Inevitably, this is an oversimplification of the matter, for there will definitely be movements or organizations that do not belong to any of these categories. But it makes an easy distinction and makes my life easier when I explain the shortcomings and advantages of either fundraising methods.

So, here we go. The reasons explained I can get on with the analysis itself. Railway preservation, indeed any other ventures, requires money; but where does it come from? The results of my two-year trek on the Internet on this issue seems to tell me there are two very effective ways of raising funds for railway preservation movements. And because they are more commonly seen in some countries than others, I will, therefore, be naming such models after the countries that utilized them the most — the British Model, and the Japanese Model, though, of course, these models are not exclusively used in these countries only. Hell, preservation movements aren’t even exclusive to the UK and Japan either. The distinction between these models mainly lay in who are taking the initiative to make the venture happen — Is it done by large corporations? Or is it a movement coming from amongst the average doe like you or me?

Representation of the Japanese Model of Railway Preservation — Engine C11 190, owned by the Ōigawa Railway of Shizuoka, Japan (Photo by Asagiri371x1 https://blog.goo.ne.jp/asagiri371x1)

Let’s begin with the Japanese Model of Railway Preservation. The main features of this model are that movements following it mostly spring from a corporation’s need to attract attention, i.e. the need to create publicity. In Japan, most railway museums and operating steam locomotives are maintained by corporate entities. Say, the Railway Museum in Saitama (埼玉), or the numerous Japanese steam locomotives currently operating around the country (Engines D51 200, C12 66, to name but a few), they all belong to a corporation — the former to the East Japan Railway Company (or JR East), and the latter belongs to large railway corporations such as the Ōigawa Railway (大井川鐵道). These corporations own them and have the rights to close those museums or stop running trains headed by those engines as they wish. They fund the maintenance of these relics and pay employees wages to do that.

The reason Japan developed such a manner of preserving railway relics is likely because the movement was first initiated by corporate entities, and the motive behind the Japanese preservation movement is comparatively more commercially-oriented than in other countries. Japanese companies don’t just want to preserve their railway heritage, but to boost ridership as well. In fact, the aforementioned Ōigawa Railway, being one of the pioneers on this front (operating a steam-hauled passenger service since 1976), started running steam trains purely because local traffic was trailing off, and they desperately needed to keep themselves above the water. For them, and third-sector community-owned public railways, in particular, anything that increases demands and income will do; it so happened that using old steam locomotives to haul trains matched their desires.

These movements are more commercially minded, in fact, many railway companies in Japan used steam-hauled services to attract tourists to visit, and to the more cynical people at least, such movements possess a slight hint that the locomotives and museums are nothing more than tools in a long-running public relations campaign to convince people that those companies cared about Japan’s railway heritage when deep down in their mind, all they think about is to profit from this nostalgic sentiment.

The greatest advantage of adopting the Japanese model is that financially, if the company owning the relics are firmly in the black, then there is no worry of these relics being ill-maintained. The company can afford to maintain those museums and old rolling stocks by hiring professional workers to do the maintenance. And, because of its attractiveness to tourists and railway enthusiasts, the commercial motive will keep the company running these ventures once they’ve started it. So we see large companies owning not one, not two, but multiple engines — JR East has a total of 4 engines, belonging to the Classes D51, C57, C58, and C61, in operational conditions right now, for instance. In the United States as well, Union Pacific also owned multiple operational steam locomotives because they can afford to.

However, because the Japanese Model can be said to be a top-down preservation movement, i.e. a movement that starts from the top, initiated by large companies and trusts, the movements, though financially sound, lacked a certain soul. The human element has been left out. If outsiders want to involve in the movement, they will either have to pay for a journey or to actually enter the corporation and work his way up the corporate hierarchy. There is no way for people to get closer to these relics.

And while it is undoubtedly beneficial to have these relics preserved, without the human element, the museums and preserved relics are nothing more than tools in a spin doctor’s kit — A way for companies to promote their so-called “Corporate Social Responsibility”. It is well and good that JR East restored engine D51 498 to operational conditions, but the motive behind the restoration is because JR East wanted to put up a public relations stunt when the Orient Express visited Japan (which itself, ironically, is another PR stunt) in 1988, rather than because of any sentimental reasons. They could well have chosen to restore an ancient electric locomotive like the EF55 and it would have made no difference to the nature of the stunt. That suddenly makes the whole venture less cool, and without that connection with the masses, these movements will become dull if other companies sought to emulate for commercial reasons. As the number operational steam locomotives belonging to large faceless corporations or indeed any other corporation-led preservation movements increases, the appeal of such movements will inevitably dim because the uniqueness of such ventures will diminish.

And, because the level of human involvement and the ways humans are allowed to involve, in these ventures are strictly limited by the Corporations that started it if the appeal of these ventures started to diminish, it spells crisis for many of them. Quoting from Japanese Wikipedia, though the government is active in supporting it, the Japanese people seem not to appreciate it — probably because they are a bit cynical about such corporation-led preservation movements? The Japanese are very keen on buying merchandise related to these preserved relics, but not so keen on paying for tickets to ride on steam-hauled trains. Enthusiasts, though supportive of having more steam locomotives restored to operational conditions, are very indifferent about having to part with their cash — they prefer taking pictures of trains on the lineside rather than paying to ride on them. Also, the limiting nature of these preservation movements may, in my personal opinions, have contributed to a skills shortage that might bring everything to a halt.

Commercial use of steam locomotives on Japan’s national railway network had ceased since 1976, more than 40 years ago. The personnel once professionally trained to run these machines would have been at least 50 years old now. During this hiatus, these old skills would be gradually disappearing, as trained men become aged and eventually die. Training new personnel to drive and maintain ancient relics will take time, as men sought to learn and perfect lost skills. Coupled with rising costs, and the commercial for-profit nature of these projects, corporations may find it financially not feasible to keep those special trains running anymore. And that is if the companies owning them can hold it out that long.

Remember I said before that the Japanese Model’s advantage is people need not worry about the standards of maintenance because large railway corporations are mostly financially sound? Well, sometimes fortunes turn, and suddenly some companies find it difficult to maintain these old relics which, after all, apart from its nostalgic appeal, are obsolete equipment and only serve to increase maintenance costs. Although under the Japanese Model, there have been numerous successes. There is a case that can be considered as an important cautionary tale — the rise and fall of engine C62 3.

Being the most powerful passenger locomotive in Japan, and the record holder of “the fastest narrow-gauge steam locomotive in the world”, JNR’s Class C62 definitely deserved a place in the railway preservation movement. Indeed, five of the 49 C62s are preserved in whole all around Japan, including the very engine that did the speed record — Engine C62 17, which did 129 km/h on the Tokkaido Main Line on 15 December 1954. Because the C62s are quite a star in Japanese railway circles, and in the 80s when the preservation movement began to take root, engine C62 3 was one of the first steam locomotives (following C57 1) to be restored to working order in 1987. For a grand total of eight years, C62 3 worked specials on JR Hokkaido’s Hakodate Main Line, until in 1995 the organization owning her failed to secure enough funds to keep her running, and C62 3’s working life in the preservation movement ended.

The sad thing is, after the organization running C62 3 disbanded in 1996 and JR Hokkaido took over ownership of the engine, the cash-strapped company decided not to continue maintaining the engine in operational condition, but chose the less-costly-to-maintain Class C11 as their candidate to be restored and head special trains, with the result that 20 years on, C62 3 continued to be a static exhibit. The story of engine C62 3 illustrated the major shortcomings of a commercially-oriented preservation movement — No money, no talk; little money, little talk.

The focus to make money also contributed, in my mind, to the lack of diversity of engines being preserved in operational conditions throughout Japan. Small, ubiquitous tank engines are all the rage — C11s, C12s, and to a way lesser extent C10s — because they’re easier to maintain and cost less to maintain without compromising the appeal; whereas operational tender engines are mostly owned by not-as-cash-strapped members of the JR Group, and even there the classes are not diverse — mostly D51s and C57s. Interesting classes such as the C53 (the only class of three-cylinder steam locomotive in Japan) or the ubiquitous 9600 (the last class of steam locomotives to run in Japan) are still being left out, presumably because of maintenance concerns.

Therefore, while the Japanese Model certainly has the advantage of financial security, the commercially-oriented mode of operation meant the limit on which engine to choose, as well as the degree of public participation. Relics financed under this model are strictly the assets of the railway company, and theoretically, if the company decided to backpedal and scrap what they had originally decided to preserve, there can be no way of stopping them. After all, those things are theirs, the railways have their say on the ultimate fate of these ancient and obsolete items.

Representation of the British Model of Railway Preservation — LNER Peppercorn Class A1 60163 Tornado, owned by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust (Photo by Andylucia https://cifunderground.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/22-6-13/comment-page-1/)

With the Japanese Model covered, let’s move on to the alternative model — the British Model of Railway Preservation. The British Model is essentially the opposite of the Japanese Model. Preservation movements adapting the British Model is a bottom-up movement, meaning the origins of a preservation movement comes from the average railway enthusiast, instead of being launched by large railway corporations.

To the best of my knowledge, this model is the most common in the United Kingdom, and it originates from the United Kingdom; hence the name. The origins of the British preservation movement (indeed probably any other railway preservation movements) is the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, established in 1950. It was the brainchild of the author L. T. C. Rolt and other railway enthusiasts and was intended to save an obscure Welsh narrow gauge railway (the Talyllyn Railway) from the scrap dealer. The nature of the Society is that anyone with an interest in railways can get a taste of running it by joining the Society. Relying heavily on the use of volunteers to maintain the railway, the Preservation Society is a non-profit organization.

This was pioneer work at the time, as no non-profit organizations had run a public railway before, nor was any railways preserved before the Talyllyn. However, this mode of operation proved a success as it rescued the railway from oblivion, and the Talyllyn Railway continued operating to this day; its nature as a place for railway enthusiasts to satisfy their desire to work for a railway remained in place. That is a yardstick laid for future preservation movements in the UK and beyond, although few outside the UK adopted this model.

The major advantage of the British Model is exactly what the Japanese Model failed to provide — public participation. While relics preserved under the Japanese Model often limits the ways outsiders can participate in the movement, the British Model possesses fewer such limits. Not only are people welcomed to buy tickets and ride on trains, they are also welcomed to volunteer and work on the line, or support the organization by making donations, one-off or regular. This gives the people a sense of belonging as they can proudly proclaim themselves as part of the organization.

The fact that organizations under the British Model are non-profit organizations are also important because it allows the organizations to initiate ventures that commercially-oriented Corporations would have deemed too fantastic. That brought me to, in my mind, the most remarkable venture in terms of railway preservation, and this case is probably the best illustration of how, if put to proper practice, the British Model benefitted the entire railway preservation movement.

In 1990, a number of railway enthusiasts decided instead of lamenting about the lack of a preserved specimen of LNER’s Peppercorn Class A1 steam locomotive, they should build one themselves. This resulted in the creation of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, and 18 years later their dreams were finally fulfilled by the launch of Engine #60163 Tornado. The A1 Trust is the organization that builds the engine, and the organization that organized the finances. During the near two decades of construction, the Trust appealed to the British public for regular donations and sponsorships. The object is to have a large number of people contributing a small amount of money to make a large sum that eventually can make Tornado happen, and it worked in the end.

By all standards, the tale is a remarkable one. Besides, the Tornado story also illustrated what the British Model can achieve at best — public participation, and a diverse preservation fleet. Precisely because preservation movements following the British Model are non-profit and organized by enthusiasts, these movements can stride to preserve whatever they want to preserve, instead of worrying about cost-effectiveness and profitability. Because of that, if you are lucky enough to tour a heritage railway in the UK, you can find all sorts of motive power from old diesels to dinky tank engines to large mainline tender engines. The diversity of it meant the appeal will not diminish despite the fact that the number of preservation organizations has increased many folds since the creation of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society.

Of course, the drawbacks of the British Model is that the reliance on donations and sponsorships from the masses and companies are never totally reliable. Preservation movements following the British Model, because their aim is to preserve, not to earn profits, don’t always have huge financial backings like Corporate-led movements. And the cash-strapped nature of things sometimes mean some plans can only be implemented after a long time — it’s remarkable that Tornado can be built in 18 years, supported mostly by generous donations, but still it took the A1 Trust 18 years to build her. That’s a heck of a long time and it isn’t the longest railway reconstruction or restoration project in the UK — Restoration of the LNWR G2 Class #49395 took several decades to complete, for instance. Contrast that with the restoration of D51 498, it took JR East only 5 months to restore her to operational conditions, so the British Model really don’t allow things to be hurried, unless a remarkable amount of money can be raised from sponsorships.

Furthermore, the British Model also harbours a big assumption if movements following it are to be successful — the necessity for ample public support. If the public is not impressed about a certain movement, then it is doomed to fail. The idea of “a lot of people giving a little to support a movement” is based on the assumption that there are that many people willing to support the movement in the first place. As such, if the public is apathetic about railway preservation, it will be very hard for movements under the British Model to succeed. In fact, in the late 1980s, a movement to construct an LNWR Bloomer Class locomotive went nowhere because of lack of funding. Construction of the engine stopped in 1990 and it was not until 27 years later, with money becoming more available, that the organization building it restarted the construction. So, it can take a very long time to achieve the goal a preservation movement sets to achieve if they are to follow the British Model.

I have strived to avoid using “the difference in national characters” to explain why these two Models of Railway Preservation arose from where they had arisen. The main reason is that given the right circumstances, I believe a Japanese railway enthusiast is able to suggest something as dramatic as the one that made engines like Tornado possible. The difference in financing preservation movements is likely due to who initiated the movements first, and for what purpose the movement is initiated. In the UK, the reason is likely very simple — the want to save something belonging to the past and is a vital part of present-day life; in Japan and other Asian countries, the reason is more cynical — the desire to create gimmick and boost profits. No one model is superior to others, but examining their advantages and shortcomings allow me, at the very least, to think of which one to go by if I were leading a preservation movement myself.

A railway enthusiast, and a not-very-good writing enthusiast. Native Cantonese speaker, but English would dominate this place, maybe. That's my pen name BTW.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store