First heritage railway doctorate awarded

07 October 2021
The University of Birmingham presents the first doctorate into the study of heritage railways.

The first doctorate into the study of heritage railways has been awarded to Robin Coombes following research undertaken at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Rail Research and Education. Sponsored by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and the Heritage Railway Association (HRA), the study focussed on the sustainability and governance of heritage railways and is a landmark in the study of social history.

Railway PhD

The sustainability of heritage railways in the rapidly changing times of the 21st century is a subject that has never been investigated in such depth. This pioneering study demonstrates that there is no fundamental reason – operationally, politically, technically, financially - why heritage railways cannot be sustainable well into the foreseeable future. However, the sector is facing ever greater challenges from changes in society generally and in particular, the need for renewal as people, infrastructure and assets become older and decline. 

Observations from the study, including the age profiles and rates of repairs and restorations, shows that over the next ten years the heritage railway sector needs to find and appoint more than 700 new Directors; recruit more than 10,000 volunteers; fund and undertake major overhauls of 300 steam locomotives and 1,000 coaches; relay at least 100 miles of track and manage the day-to-day upkeep of all assets and infrastructure. It has to stay relevant and attractive to the millions of visitors who visit each year. Although this is not a new task, one that has been repeatedly achieved over 70 years, it gets harder each time.  

Robin Coombes, who carried out extensive research over a period of 5 years, commented, “the story of heritage railways has shown that the art of the impossible is possible. Good governance is incredibly important, particularly for their safe operation, but their social capital, the goodwill of their volunteers, members and supporters, is even more important for their sustainability. I am optimistic, if the ingenuity, inventiveness and pioneering tradition they possess amongst their volunteers and supporters is fully engaged, they will not lose what they cherish and hold so dear. If there is a problem, it is not the quality of the next generation – I have met many younger than I who are eager and more than equal to the challenge. The question is, have we found enough of them and can the current leadership inspire and engage them?”. 

Railway PhD

Professor Clive Roberts, Head of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Rail Research and Education explained, “the study is important for heritage railways as it recognises their maturity and distinctiveness as a sector and identifies potential risk”.

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The research represents a source of knowledge and has perhaps most importantly, helped inform the rail regulator’s (Office of Rail and Road - ORR) development of a heritage rail version of its Risk Management Maturity Model (RM3) for the wider rail industry, setting out the 12 Tablets of Governance.

Ian Skinner, Assistant Chief Inspector of Railways at the ORR commented, “The evidence from the research helped me consider the leadership and governance challenge on heritage railways. I see increasing realisation within the sector that it needs to be addressed. Thanks to the research there is now in place a practical tool to help heritage railways navigate a post-pandemic world of challenge and uncertainty.”

Mark Smith, a Director of the Heritage Railway Association said, “The research has the potential to be very useful to heritage railways”.


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