Chairman's Message - Reopening Plans

5 June 2020

Dear friends, colleagues and members,

I hope you’re all well and your family and friends are well during these unprecedented times. Since the railway closed in March a significant amount has changed across the UK and the world and everyone has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in some way. Friends and loved ones have been lost, we’ve adapted to new ways of working, many of us have been home schooling and our NHS has risen to the challenge and succeeded. And now, as we move into the summer, we see the first signs of the lockdown easing and the beginnings of life returning to normal.

So what’s been happening at the Bluebell Railway? Since the railway closed in March a lot has happened and all of it behind the scenes.

We have seen our income dry up overnight, we have placed our staff on the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough), Bluebell Railway Preservation Society Chairman Graham Aitken resigned and Vice Chairman Steve Bigg picked up the reigns, Roy Watts has been appointed as BRPS acting Vice Chairman, the Board has held all of its meetings via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, Board meetings have been held twice per month and attended by the BRPS and Trust as part of ‘One Railway’, we’ve lost friends and colleagues such as infrastructure director Chris White, new appointments to the Board have been made and we’ve launched our Coronavirus emergency appeal.

All of this has happened remotely and I’m very grateful to my Plc Board colleagues, the BRPS Trustees, the Bluebell Railway Trust and our management team who have all worked extremely hard to make sure the Bluebell Railway successfully comes through this pandemic. I’m also extremely grateful to you – our members, shareholders and others –who have given so generously to our appeal and made it possible for us to be within touching distance of our £300,000 target. Thank you.

As part of our fortnightly Board meetings we have been investigating when and how the railway could reopen in line with Government guidelines and other advice. This is not only for the public to come and enjoy our railway but also for you, our members and volunteers, a large proportion of whom I know are eager to get back and volunteer again.

I’m pleased to say we are almost there with our plans, the content of which is being written into a comprehensive reopening plan supported by risk assessments, social distancing guidance, health and well-being guidance, service plans, timetables, catering offerings, carriage requirements, locomotive requirements, communications and our Safety Management System.

The Office of Rail and Road has helpfully provided some guidance on what heritage railways should look for and do because it’s not as easy as just turning up and getting going again.

Should the Government’s five tests continue to be met, our plan is to reopen the railway at some point over the summer and provide a certain level of public service trains along with our dining trains. There will be a phased reintroduction of staff across all departments followed by a phased reintroduction of volunteers across all departments. Some safety critical and vital heritage skilled staff will return prior to opening to start implementing the plan so that our railway is safe and ready for when the public arrive.

Certain volunteers will be asked to come back prior to reopening too, especially those who work tirelessly across our railway to make sure what the public see is clean, crisp, presentable and the envy of other railways. As a Board we still have some more key details to work through so please bear with us for just a little longer and more details on the exact opening dates and the plan will be published very soon.

2020 is of course our 60th anniversary year and the Diamond Jubilee Steering Group had planned a significant event for August. However, along with other national and international events plus other Bluebell events, we have had to postpone our plans. We will mark the occasion this year with a more low-key celebration but I’m pleased to say that our anniversary will be celebrated in 2021, when we can suitably celebrate 60 years at the forefront of railway preservation. I look forward to seeing you all at that event.

Finally I’d like to thank you all for your support and patience. Many things have changed over the last three months and things will continue to change – the Bluebell Railway won’t be immune to that change, either in the short or long term. However, we will reopen, we will see our famous steam locomotives and rolling stock running again, our stations full of people, our staff and volunteers hard at work, our infrastructure renewed and the sound and smell of steam in the air again.

 So, please look out for a further update very soon and in the meantime stay safe and I look forward to seeing you all very soon.

  • Christopher Hunford, Chairman and Locomotive Director, Bluebell Railway Plc