40 years of heritage: the life and times of Gloucestershire’s historic railway…


40 years of heritage: the life and times of Gloucestershire’s historic railway…

Chugging serenely out of the station at Cheltenham Racecourse, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d hopped through time, as steam billows from the engine ahead of you, and the pistons drive the wheels to lightly clack along the rails. You are of course enjoying the sights, sounds and gentle countryside exploration aboard one of the steam trains on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway (GWSR). 2021 marks an astounding 40 years of having this amazing heritage attraction on our doorstep, in which time the railway has been built from nothing, to more than 14 miles of track connecting Cheltenham to Broadway via Winchcombe and Toddington. What better way to celebrate this history than by getting aboard a train to Winchcombe to see the special celebratory GWSR 40th Anniversary Exhibition?

Few could have had a more abrupt start to the pandemic than the GWSR. Just days after running their busiest trips of the year, delivering punters to the Cheltenham Festival & Gold Cup on dedicated racing trains, than they’re forced to shut down entirely and almost overnight. For a business that thrives and runs exclusively on a face-to-face, in-person service, there was no opportunity to ‘pivot’ or ‘diversify’ as many other hospitality businesses did. Instead, it was a case of close and monitor, tentatively planning for re-opening, while unsure of exactly when restrictions would ease. Lockdown 1.0 couldn’t have come at a worse time either, just weeks after the railway had recovered from a major landslip onto the tracks that cost the best part of £1million to resolve. Repairs were funded largely through private donation, but the landslide none-the-less depleted much of the financial reserve of the GWSR heritage railway; reserves that they were hoping to replenish with a successful season.

Each year, the railway transports between 120,000 and 140,000 passengers along the rails using both traditional coal-powered steam trains, and heritage diesel engines. As restrictions lifted last May, the railway knew that their recovery would be limited by social distancing restrictions, but also that they had a rare and unique opportunity to create an extra-special service. They introduced their socially-distanced special service, reviving the traditional class of compartment carriages, with advance bookings only for bubbles of two to six people. The adaptation went down a storm, adding an extra touch of glamour and prestige to this already fabulous journey. While the trains have now reverted to their traditional eight carriages, and many of the distancing restrictions have been lifted, the historic glory of the compartment carriages live on, with GWSR continuing to use these carriages as part of all of their trips.

For 2020, the GWSR was fully booked for most of their COVID-secure trips, but it still represented a season that was down 77% in terms of passengers and revenue. GWSR employs seven full time staff who were retained through the pandemic, alongside a friendly gang of volunteers. The average age of the volunteers did create a challenge – 60 years plus meant that many were forced or chose to isolate, adding a dynamic challenge for the railway to manage when trains were back up and running. The UK government culture recovery grants were a lifeline for this fabulous railway during the second lockdown, enabling them to plan a simplified version of their annual Santa special trips, which will return in full this year. In 2020, just half of the normal 11,000 visitors got the chance to meet Santa, but GWSR is planning to be back up to full capacity this winter, with their famed grotto also making a reappearance.

Despite maintaining the limits and COVID-secure changes that they instigated, 2021 has seen the railway return to a more normal routine. The cafés are doing a roaring trade, the trains are always leaving the station fully booked, and they are on track to be back up to full capacity for the 2022 season. As well as the beloved favourites returning, 2022 will also see a brand-new roster of family-friendly events launched, so keep your eyes peeled for exciting times ahead! In the meantime, don’t forget to visit the heritage exhibition at the station in Winchcombe, and get on board with the #LoveYourRailway campaign, celebrating the life and times of heritage railways in Britain. What are you waiting for? All aboard your new #HappyPlaceCheltenham.

40 years of heritage: the life and times of Gloucestershire’s historic railway…


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