I realise that July is upon us and that I have not done the customary summary of 2022, let alone the look ahead to 2023 and beyond (as promised on the blog at the turn of the year). We have a great deal going on, not all of which, of course, finds its way onto the blog.
With that in mind, and because I want to give readers a bit of an insight into how we plan our work programmes, I thought I’d offer a brief (ish!) summary in this post, and look at what we are doing at the moment and what we have planned for the next three years – this being the museum’s overall timescale for its ongoing recovery, post COVID-19, and in managing our way through the present economic challenges faced by everyone, and every organisation.
Looking back at 2022, it was encouraging to see visitor numbers starting to return to something like their pre-COVID-19 levels. This brought the site back to life following the disruption of the lockdown era, and also meant that we were able to establish a more stable financial situation. Against this, the economic situation, not least soaring costs, has had to be acknowledged and accommodated within our reflections. The same picture applies to 2023, thus far, which at least shows some consistency!
Below: One of the recent developments has been the strengthening of links with local vehicle owning groups, such as the North East Bus Preservation Trust – whose Sunderland 13 has been resident at the museum for several months.
Therefore, rather than stretch the old programmes to try and make them fit this new era, the strategic plan for the transport and industry (and all museum maintenance/renewal work) has been re-cast for this new period. I think it is fair to say that this challenge has been one seen across our sector, and heritage railways with larger staff bases have faced the challenge in particular, as cutting cloth to suit has to weigh up people vs programme.
We’ve faced some challenges recently in terms of the team’s capacity to carry out the scale and volume of work required, which has been made doubly harder through some staff departing for opportunities elsewhere. This has forced a re-think about the roles we need, and the fruits of this should start to manifest themselves through the summer and well into 2024.
The museum will be looking for skilled and flexible individuals to add to the engineering team, and then exploring how running maintenance is factored into their work programmes. At the same time, the maintenance systems (that sit alongside our Safety Management System) will be reviewed, to make sure they continue to be appropriate for the levels of operation that we currently foresee.
The operations and maintenance/curatorial functions are now separately managed, with my role continuing to look at the development and endurance of the working collections, whilst the operational side sits with the Chief Operating Officer’s team now. There will be a period of transition, and I will continue to input into ensuring we are compliant with the regulations and seek to improve and develop best-practice in this area. Such work will benefit not just safe operation of the collection, but also its condition and, hopefully, reliability.
I’ll now move on to the programme that I believe to be realistic and realisable for the period 2023 – 2026. I’m not going to attach fixed dates to anything here – people always hold you to them and that isn’t particularly helpful on a blog, but rest assured that we have a timeline in place for this work too, and what I am suggesting below is indicative of this programme, rather than quoting from it verbatim… To make it readable, I’ve grouped the subjects under operating themes, to reflect what will be seen by visitors, in the museum.
Rowley Station remains operationally mothballed in 2023 and into 2024, though the team there continue to make sure it feels very much a functioning exhibit. The track repairs are due to start in 2024, with other infrastructure work also required through 2023 into 2024. We will not hire any motive power into this area, as Dunrobin will be completed in 2024 and will give us our own locomotive here. NER 559 should be complete in 2025 or thereabouts, and this will give us the required second locomotive to ensure a regular operation in this area. There are some thoughts around other curatorial developments in this area, not least around rolling stock (wagons in particular) but any progress here will be driven by the availability of funding and manpower.
Below: The restoration of Dunrobin has become quite a lengthy process, but one with a very realistic finishing line starting to become visible. The team at Bridgnorth are working on the locomotive at present, with the milestone of re-wheeling the frames having now been accomplished. This locomotive represents a substantial investment by Beamish in the railway operation, and it will form the centrepiece of passenger ops at Rowley once the project is completed; swiftly being joined by NER 559 to give us an attractive and versatile working railway once again.
The Colliery standard gauge railway will continue to be the curatorial showcase for the transport collection in this area, and No.1 will remain operational throughout this period. In 2023/24 we will prepare plans to fund and then carry out the boiler overhaul on No.18, which would ideally come back into operation in time for its 150th anniversary in 2027.
Otherwise, it’s a case of looking after what we have and ensuring some regularity of operation for visitors to enjoy. The level crossing requires attention fairly soon and we will move No.17 back to the engine shed to refresh the display there a little. There is also some work around interpretation in this area underway and the results of this should appear soon.
Below: This winter the team who operate the railways have been busy maintaining them too – and the repainted chaldrons are a good example of the work they have been carrying out. Five waggons are available for use in 2023 and are seen here following re-application of their numbers and lettering.
The narrow gauge railway will see limited development in this period (2023-2026) as some of the existing track requires significant improvement to ease curves and improve the reliability of some of the turnouts. We will continue to operate Glyder and Samson, and the Dundee Gas Works loco, 721, should join the working fleet within this period too. We also need to look at rolling stock as the FR waggons will return to Wales in the not too distant futre, and I’d like to see some colliery ‘hutches’ restored for use on this stockyard railway.
Below: No.721’s overhaul is progressing both at Beamish and the John Fowler works in Cumbria (who have the boiler). David Young has been instrumental in enabling the work on the axleboxes and wheelsets to prograss at Beamish, and the rolling chassis is seen here whilst being tested on the narrow gauge line. 721 will join Glyder and Samson in the Colliery, operating the stockyard railway and offering another locomotive not likely to be seen in original condition (and sans air brakes) elsewhere.
Waggonway developments have been incremental and will continue as such, with enhancements to the exhibit largely being carried out by the team who work there. Puffing Billy will be the main motive power at least for 2023/24 and Steam Elephant’s overhaul will only commence once Gateshead 10’s is completed.
We will be providing the train with a new coach (maybe two new coaches), and there is some thought that Steam Elephant might gain a suitable tender (to carry an increased water capacity) when it returns. I’d like to turn the Forcett coach into a running vehicle, but this might have to await the post 2026 plan before that proves possible.
This year, 2023, marks an important milestone for the Tramway, as it reached its half-century. Plans for visiting tramcars have proved to be impractical, for a variety of reasons, but our main way of showing our appreciation to the system is in the continuing and increasing investment into it.
We’ve spent a very substantial sum of money on the track this year, we have also seen the overhead line equipment receive attention from our friends and colleagues at Nexus, we will continue to invest in track this year and next winter and the extensive overhaul of Gateshead 10 continues to absorb most of our engineering resource as this comprehensive rebuild reaches its final stages.
We have now confirmed that 10 will not be ready this year, given how much remains to be done and the competing pressures on the people who have to do that work, but the pace is being maintained and the tram, when complete, will be fit for many more decades of service.
Next through the workshop after 10 will be Oporto 196, which needs a mechanical overhaul and repairs to the body. It may also gain a new livery, if the paintwork proves to be beyond repair. There is also a degree of intermediate work needed on Sunderland 16 and Newcastle 114, whilst Blackpool 31 needs both staircases overhauling next winter.
Below: Whilst the comprehensive mechanical overhaul continues on Gateshead 10, work is also progressing on the repaint – and here is a recent view showing the application of the first topcoat onto the tram. The image makes it look rather pinker than it is in reality.
The bus operation has seen rapid development at Beamish over the last ten years or so, and the provision of a dedicated depot and workshop proved to be the perfect validation of this. The 1950s route will become a formal ‘thing’ this year, and we hope that a variation to its route will also become possible by 2026.
The next WAV restoration has started, with West Riding 560 in the workshop. Meanwhile, the current fleet needs ongoing attention, a few repaints and the commission of Sunderland 2. We also have the prospect of the Rookhope Dodge bus project being significantly progressed during this period too.
For now, trolleybus operation is on the back burner, as we don’t have the capacity to construct the system in-house (which would be our preferred approach). We are also catching up on the other transport infrastructure works, though some workshop activity to prepare items for the trolleybus route has been ongoing.
The route still forms part of our development plans, but for now the priority for our resources has to be focussed on the existing operations and ensuring these can continue to function effectively and safely.
Below: West Riding 560’s restoration will be a substantial project, but one that is now underway – initially focussing on the overhaul of its engine and the modifications needed to fit this to the chassis. Once this is complete, the gearbox will follow and then a new propshaft will be ordered. It is hoped to progress this work through 2023, with as much mechanical restoration being carried out in-house as possible before a contractor is appointed to complete the restoration of the body and carry out the adaptations needed for its new role as a WAV at Beamish.
The engineering team has suffered some setbacks in terms of staff departures recently, but continues to make fantastic progress on a number of fronts. In support of this, we intend to invest in filling vacant posts and putting some energy and resource into the facilities that are being used, which have developed in an ad-hoc way dependent on donations of suitable machine tools.
We are currently taking stock of this, and have paused all engineering work on site in this area, in order to give the team time to carry out the necessary works and for us to update the documentation that sits alongside the practical work. Recent work has focussed on Gateshead 10, Puffing Billy and the Joicey winding engine.
Over in the fabrication shop, they are working on the engine mounts for the Leyland Cub bus and numerous other jobs in support of the museum operation. In the RHEC, various doors and gates have been made, and this is also the focal point for the Friends of Beamish volunteers, whose current large project is the Dodge Bus, alongside a host of smaller jobs for the museum site, and in particular the Remaking Beamish developments.
Below: Away from Beamish, the creation of a replica of NER 559 continues, the new boiler has now been completed and tested (hydraulic). Until it is required within the build process, it is now at Beamish for display in the Colliery. The work programme for this project should see it completed in 2025.
The development of the collection is an important element of our activity, and one which considers new acquisitions, some disposals/transfers and also restoration/conservation work. Also included within this scope is some enhancement of the engagement carried out within the department, and to this end a number of subtle information panels are being produced to either replace existing information (in the case of the bus depot) and to add it to areas such as the tram depot and Colliery Engine Works. This doesn’t replace the role of engagement staff, but does provide supplementary information in areas that may not be staffed or where more detailed information can be digested.
We are in discussion with Nexus regarding the disposal of the Metrocars, and have indicated our interest in acquiring a set at some point in the future – probably to use as undercover space for schools visiting the museum. No location for this has been decided yet, but it represents an opportunity first noted in our Collections Management Plan some years ago, to add another form of local public transport to the collection.
There are various irons in fires for other artefacts that we might add, and we continue to consider numerous offers to the museum from the public. Most are not progressed, but sometimes items are offered that do fit into our plan, and which we are able to resource (usually in terms of storage) in order to ensure we retain a vibrant collecting strategy.
Below: A fine addition to the collection in 2023 was Sunderland 2, a 1929 Leyland Lion LT1. This bus will receive limited attention initially, but we hope to commission it for demonstration use during April, and then carry out a programme of continual overhaul/restoration from that point onwards.
These represent an important part of our activity, and we bookend the season with the Spring and Autumn steam/transport galas this year. The bus running weekend proved to be very successful and ably supported the busy museum over the Coronation weekend. This is certainly an event that we would like to repeat and develop.
Keeping this programme fresh is certainly challenging, but we receive tremendous support from the wider movement, and are now in the position where we have waiting lists of potential attendees.
The challenges around increased fuel costs/coal prices have had an impact, in particular in bringing exhibits in from further afield, but we are confident that we have an appealing programme for this year and 2024 through to 2025. I think the latter will become something of a year of railways for us, as it should see all of the transport areas in operation, with a wider variety of our own motive power available for visitors to enjoy once again.
Below: The new bus-themed event (Fares Please!) was very successful and will be developed for future years. Here some of the participants gather in the Town at the end of the first day.
People, Systems and Safety
All of our plans rely on people – to carry out the work and to operate the systems. We face a challenge, as with other similar organisations, with the age profile of our workforce and the need to make the work attractive in terms of facilities and pay. So we must recruit and train new people, and consider very carefully the succession planning around this too. Apprentices are an obvious solution, but their impact takes a while to come through, and we will need people in roles before there is time to do this. So the management of people will be a hybrid of existing staff, new recruits and new trainees.
We also need to have in place robust management systems, for which a new Competence Management System is being developed by the Transport Operations Manager, taking the current means of managing this out of the Safety Management System and giving it its own platform. This also extends to workshop staff, for whom we will need to be able to demonstrate to the appropriate enforcing bodies that they have the requisite competence and authorisation to carry out their duties.
Our Safety Management System (SMS) continues to develop and evolve, and the current focus is on a piece of work around extending the scope of the bus operations documentation to better match our increasingly busy physical operation. After this, the railway/tramway SMS will be due review again, and the CMS (Competence Management System) will be rolled out and staff inducted to this (though most are already using HOPS, our chosen IT architecture for this role).
As can be seen from the above, we, like all of the heritage sector, face considerable challenges. COVID-19 set us back something like five years, in terms of deferring work and this overlapping with the new work that would have been done in the post-lockdown period anyway. We also lost those years of work and energy from the teams, and now face a post-pandemic landscape of soaring inflation and pressure from increasing energy (and material) costs.
However, we have a strategy that takes us through this period of recovery and reinvigoration, and also will see some exciting projects reach their conclusion, not least Gateshead 10, Dunrobin, NER 559 and 721. Underpinning it all we are looking at our people and systems and the infrastructure upon which we depend, but which tends to be less glamorous, will receive further investment and enhancement. The aim is to use this period of time to ensure that the exhibits our visitors enjoy so much are safe, reliable and robust, a well as curatorially sound and demonstrating excellent engagement with visitors.
Here are the highlighted/aspirations from to take from the above:
- Re-start Rowley Station operations in 2025, with a finished Dunrobin and two coaches available for the service
- Commission new stock to be phased in at the Waggonway
- Continue to operate interesting industrial locomotives on the Colliery narrow and standard gauge railways
- Complete Gateshead 10’s rebuild, and possibly start and complete Oporto 196 in this same period
- Continue to invest in the transport infrastructure, including Rowley and the Tramway
- Make significant progress on the restoration of West Riding 560
- Continue to maintain the current working fleet of vehicles, and look at opportunities to introduce new vehicles to the working pool as and when opportunities arise
- Develop the curatorial knowledge and presentation, through exhibits and engagement, across the transport functions
- Recruit and reinforce the engineering/workshop team and develop the facilities available for overhauls and maintenance
- Continue to review and refresh the Safety and Competence Management Systems and engage with our colleagues across the sector with regard to best-practice and a collective approach to managing the our historic transport collection and operation
The museum has reached a maturity now (as it strides well into its fifth decade) which also brings new challenges. The landscape it lives in has changed, and the infrastructure has aged. The visitor expectations have also changed and people no longer come for what would traditionally be seen as an educational experience, but rather a value-for money, quality visitor experience.
We must make sure we ensure the historical activity underpins everything we do, whilst accepting the changed appetite from our visitors – the fulfilling of which ensures the museum remains viable and sustainable. In this area of the visitor economy, what we present is very attractive and of immense social and cultural value – which is a very good starting point to build the next era of the museum from.
It is an exciting time and the challenges prompt innovative solutions, change (which can be invigorating) and the need to consider just what it is that we do, why and who we do it for – which is all part of making the museum’s visitor experience one of the best that there is.