INTEGRATING WITH THE COMMUNITY PAYS OFF
Not all railways are able to describe their locations as ‘prime’. Bodmin & Wenford Railway manager CHRIS HATTON explains how novel tie-ups with local organisations help to boost revenue.
The Bodmin and Wenford Railway exists where it does mainly because china clay freight traffic to Wenford Bridge dries continued until 1983, meaning the rails were never lifted and the formation and bridges survived intact. By this time, there was enough local interest in steam trains, railways and community enterprises to allow a steam centre to be established. Over the intervening period, and with a lot of hard work, the railway has grown into a six-mile, steeply graded line through the Cornish countryside, with a stable of ex-GWR locomotives and a range of wagons and carriages.
Unfortunately, from a hard-nosed railway business perspective, the railway’s location is not a prime tourism hotspot. Despite being situated in Cornwall, Bodmin is not (yet) particularly high on holidaymakers’ hit lists and, as Poldark pre-dates the arrival of the railways, we are unlikely to secure the spotlight from that quarter.
Another geographical challenge for the railway is that Cornwall is hemmed in by the sea. Whereas a railway located in the centre of the country can draw visitors (and volunteers) from any point of the compass, we can only really go 15 or so miles to the north or south before we encounter ocean. This limits the pool of people from which we can attract customers, particularly for the parts of the year considered ‘off peak’ by the local tourism industry. At these times, we are limited by our local catchment area, for example at Christmas for our Santa trains, and in spring and autumn for our family events.
Sometimes we have wished we could just pick the track up and move it somewhere more appealing to the tourist market, but it is a bit more difficult with 12in:1ft scale railways than it used to be with my ‘OO’ gauge model railway. Much as we’d like to work trains between the popular Padstow and Wadebridge, or Newquay and St Agnes, and easier as it would be to attract visitors to those locations, Bodmin is where we are and where the railway will stay.
To draw people to Bodmin, we typically spend around £1 per person out of a £13 fare on marketing and advertising. This has historically allowed us to balance the books and attract sufficient customers to the railway to allow us to continue to keep our living museum of mid-Cornwall’s railway history alive.
Faced with the railway’s inherent location-based challenges, we have put a lot of thought in recent years into how to make this investment stretch further. We have focused our efforts on improving our customer experience, most notably at our special events.
One way in which we have been improving the quality of our events is to coordinate them with local organisations so that they offer something beyond a simple train journey. Over the past couple of years, we have changed our approach, from being an inward-facing railway, concerned principally with events inside our 13 miles of fences, to becoming an organisation that’s more integrated with the local community.
This has entailed the management team dedicating time to attending community meetings and interest groups to understand the organisations around us in Bodmin, and to start to build working relationships with them.
We are already seeing the rewards of this policy and are confident that there are even greater rewards to come.
We are fortunate that our principal station – Bodmin General – is located directly across the road from Cornwall’s Regimental Museum. The two were built adjacent to each other at a similar time, and their histories are closely linked.
We have always had a shared ticketing arrangement with the museum but, thanks to organisational and staff changes in recent years within both organisations, we are now working even more closely together. We are collaborating on several events this year, to our mutual benefit.
A particular highlight of this collaborative approach was ‘The Trench’ event, which the Regimental Museum ran in summer to commemorate the end of the First World War.
For 20 hot summer evenings, 60 new ‘recruits’ per night were ‘enlisted’ at the Regimental Museum in the same rooms where men enlisted for the First World War 100 years beforehand.
Each recruit was allocated the identity of a real soldier from the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. The recruits were marched across the road to the station and put on a
UNFORTUNATELY, FROM A HARD-NOSED RAILWAY BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE, THE RAILWAY’S LOCATION IS NOT A PRIME TOURISM HOTSPOT
train formed of our autocoach and whatever locomotive had been in steam for the service that day.
The railway transported the recruits to a temporary scaffolding platform at Dreason built for the event, where they were turfed off and marched up the hill to a trench built in a lineside field. An hour later, they had experienced a thought-provoking piece of immersive theatre, been ‘shot’ at a bit and found out whether or not their real DCLI counterparts had survived the war or perished.
Then we took them back to Bodmin General. A particularly poignant moment was finding the name of the great-grandfather of one of our firemen on the DCLI roll of honour on the side of ‘The Trench’.
Our young fireman kindly volunteered to fire the lion’s share of these trains to help commemorate the memory of his relative who had boarded a long troop train, never to set foot on Cornish soil again.
While the event was centred less on the railway and more on the museum, it was very welcome income for us in the early part of the summer when the weather was unusually dry and hot and passenger numbers were, as a result, slightly lower than we would have liked.
The railway journey undoubtedly added an extra dimension to the museum’s event and we also provided ‘ration packs’ from our café which, again, was a useful source of income at a lean time of the year.
‘The Trench’ has been dismantled now and the platform taken down. However, while we will not be able to run this event again (not for at least another 100 years!) it really demonstrated to us what can be achieved, particularly when working with the other organisations around us.
We have some great ideas for similar joint ventures over the next few years and we are confident that this is a growth area that we can build on to help secure our railway’s future for years to come.
First World War re-enactors trudge into the distance, having alighted from one of the Bodmin & Wenford Railway’s ‘Trench’ trains at Dreason on July 15.