Railways at war


11 October 2022
Railway at war weekend was postponed again Railway at war weekend was postponed again
Earlier this year the ever-popular Railway in Wartime event, hosted by North Yorks Moor Railways in October, was cancelled again, but not because of Covid. The Armourer investigates.

This time the reason given was that it was on advice from the Heritage Railway Association that all historic railways should cancel wartime events because of the war in Ukraine. The Armourer asked the Heritage Railway Association what advice it had given to NYMR and others, how long the advice would stand for considering that the Ukraine conflict has the potential to drag on for years. Also, what was the reasoning, considering these events are historic and not a reflection of Russian aggression in the Ukraine, and with events struggling to recover after the Covid pandemic, is this really the time to be cancelling events on this premise?

Steve Oates, Chief Executive of the HRA provided this response to our questions: ‘The Heritage Railway Association has not cancelled or banned anything. We are a trade support organisation, not a regulator. The HRA is an organisation that functions on collaboration and cooperation. We do not, nor would ever want to be, in the position to instruct members what to do on things like special events.  

We provide guidance, created by our network of heritage railway experts through the many committees that we operate as well as our board – which itself is made up of experienced heritage railway GMs, chairmen and other active hands-on personnel. When we publish a guidance note it’s not something we do lightly – whether that be on locomotive boiler maintenance or anything else.   

During our Annual General Meeting in York, a discussion with the 100+ attendees from member railways across the UK considered the impact of the war in Ukraine on heritage railways. We formally recognised our solidarity with colleagues on heritage railways in Ukraine and looked at how we in the UK should react.  

In subsequently preparing our guidance note to members, we were very careful that we did not overstep the mark. At no point have we ever expressed the view that 1940s recreation events shouldn’t take place. What we have done is suggested that member railways might need to think about the content of such events carefully.   

We think it’s highly unlikely that a railway event focused on the fashions, music and life at home in the 1940s, would cause upset to anyone. The sacrifices that people were making in the UK at the time are a matter of record. Where the HRA board all thought that sensitivity was required, is with ‘mock-battles’ and staged fights that wartime-themed events sometimes feature. Although horrendous fighting did take place during both world wars, it thankfully did not happen to any great extent in mainland Britain. As almost all of our members focus on the history of railways in mainland Britain, such battles are not such an essential part of the living history style recreation that most of our railways look to achieve.  

Some of our members have considered all of the factors (not just HRA guidance) and come to the conclusion that their wartime events weren’t right for them at the moment, while others have progressed with modified 1940s events. That is a decision each organisation has come to individually and for reasons as diverse as the railways themselves.

The HRA does not want to decry the work of the many living history groups that give up their time to recreate their chosen eras. Heritage railways provide an excellent platform to educate and inform people from all sorts of backgrounds on various eras in our history, and nobody at the HRA wants to see that change. Just like many other challenges in the world right now, we are much stronger if we work together as a wider heritage sector, than if we look for things that could divide us.’

Given this response, The Armourer contacted NYMR for an explanation of its interpretation of the HRA guidance, but the organisation did not respond.

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