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North Norfolk Railway lockdown report

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North Norfolk Railway -Locomotive

A lot has happened since we last spoke to North Norfolk Railway’s general manager Andrew Munden back in June 2019 - We got back in touch with him to see how they’ve coped during the pandemic.

How did the North Norfolk Railway react when the first lockdown was announced?

I think we just approached it pragmatically - We were closely monitoring what the other heritage railways were doing and the impact on different areas all over the country.

It was quite evident from a week or two leading up it what was going to happen.

Whilst there was a degree of uncertainty until the government announced the furlough arrangements, we realised what was coming and we set to and closed the railway down.

Initially the whole railway closed, we then knuckled down and started transferring passengers who had pre-booked for dining trains and the other events, but we’d already cancelled the big steam galas as it was fairly evident we were not just going to be locked down for a week.

This was going to be an extended period of closure.

Did the NNR’s keep busy during the lockdowns?

Obviously we didn’t have any volunteers into the railway, at that time the railways permanent staff was around 45 people and the majority of those (myself included) were on furlough.

The restoration work we do, however, was classified as manufacturing business so by early May the engineering overhauls business had been able to reopen.  It reopened on May 1st 2020, and has stayed open throughout the lockdowns, getting increasingly busy throughout that period.

Our chief mechanical engineer and 10 people continued working in the engineering overhaul business up at Weybourne, are still in the middle of a very busy period and have continued to work flat out during all the various lockdown periods that we’ve had since March 2020.

There’s been nothing preventing them getting materials or getting work out the other end, and with only 10 people on the site it was actually very easy to comply with the social distancing requirements.

When the March 2020 lockdown happened we were working on some European boilers, which tends to be our speciality (we specialise in overhauling boilers from across the UK and parts of Europe) - different railways around the country have different specialisms - if you want wheel sets,for example, you’d go to the South Devon railway down at Buckfastleigh railway, but we’re boiler experts.

We overhaul steam locomotives and bits of steam locomotives for clients all over the UK and Europe - at any given time we’ve got between 15 and 20 contract overhaul boilers on site at Weybourne.

What plans have you got for summer 2021 and beyond?

Some railways have chosen to re-open, some have yet to re-open - but we reopened on April 12th with exactly the same operational restrictions in place as we used in the summer of 2020. 

Obviously last year (2020) we couldn’t do any events other than our Christmas ones, some of which happened successfully (like our Santa Operation) whereas our Norfolk Lights Express was late starting due to the November lockdown and was sadly prematurely curtailed by the lockdown restrictions that came in from for Christmas onwards.

Only about 40% we had planned to operate were actually able to run.

This year we’ve adopted a policy of “Start cautiously and grow steadily” - We started on April 12th and have slowly ramped the level of the train service based on emerging demand.

We are planning a number of events this year (2021) but not all of our traditional ones will happen - we can’t, for example, hold the beer festival in July because many of the independent brewers that would usually be involved are simply not in the position (having been closed for much of the year) to be able to supply our needs this soon after pubs reopened.

We do, however, expect to be able to run a scaled down 1940’s event in September.

We’re only planning to run two railway gala events this year (we’d normally run three) and they, in turn, will be scaled down as we will not be bringing in any visiting locomotives purely on a financial basis.

It’s not cheap to move steam locomotives around the country by road and, given the continuing level of uncertainty plus the need to rebuild the finances of the business after the lockdowns we’re having to cut our cloth accordingly and make best use of what we already have here.

At the moment I’m planning on the assumption that the July 19th lift of restrictions does happen so we’re planning on going to our full summer, two steam service from the start of the school holidays on July 26th!

That will operate until the first week of September 2021, then the train service will slowly ramp back down and finish at the end of October.

We are also still planning on running the third year of the Norfolk Lights Express but who can tell!

The progress of the pandemic and how the virus will no doubt in coming months I think it will be a very brave person who can predict whether or not there’s the likelihood of further restrictions being imposed later in the year!

 


By Stuart Paterson at 6 Jul 2021, 00:00 AM