Shropshire Star

Town hoping Severn Valley Railway will get back on the right track

The chairman of the Bridgnorth Chamber of Commerce has said a drop in visitor numbers at the Severn Valley Railway is "bad news" for the town, but remains optimistic that things will improve throughout the year.

The Flying Scotsman at the Severn Valley Railway in Bridgnorth

It comes amid the award-winning Shropshire tourist attraction announcing voluntary redundancies due to rapidly rising costs and a drop in visitor numbers.

With an array of stations on the line, including Bridgnorth and Highley, it is feared that falling visitor numbers for the heritage railway could reduce footfall in Bridgnorth and impact the local economy.

Chair of the town's Chamber of Commerce, Steve Robbins, addressed the concerns and said: "The first thing to say is that everyone's struggling at the moment, it's not just in this area.

"I have been around quite a few towns in Shropshire and Worcestershire. It's not just Bridgnorth. It's not even a problem for just the UK, it's worldwide. It's the aftermath of the pandemic. Everyone's going to be struggling a bit.

"There's just not the money around now, with the cost of living crisis."

The iconic railway has legions of fans across the world, and ex-Judas Priest star KK Downing even celebrated the band being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with a photoshoot at the Engine House in Highley.

KK Downing at the Engine House at Severn Valley Railway

However, the attraction claims that spiralling fuel costs due to the war in Ukraine and the impact of the cost of living crisis on visitor numbers has prompted 'proactive action' to 'protect its business'.

Railway leaders are now considering a raft of cost-cutting measures, including changes to staff working patterns, a recruitment freeze and voluntary redundancies.

Steve Robbins added: "It's bad news for Bridgnorth if Severn Valley Railway reduce their train services, but it's almost inevitable - people aren't going on days out.

"But hopefully things get better throughout the year. The pandemic has shown that people do want to go out more and value the ability to go out for the day.

"Reducing the number of services would affect the number of tourists, but it's also the time of year - there will be more in the summer. And people will use less energy in the summer so that will mitigate things.

"And Bridgnorth does have a huge advantage - it's a fabulous town for people to enjoy."

The Severn Valley Railway is currently in its annual maintenance shutdown period – and will reopen on Saturday, March 4. Upon its reopening, operations will be concentrated into four days a week, using a mix of steam and heritage diesel-hauled services.

The railway says it hasn’t ruled out compulsory redundancies, but is working hard to avoid these.

Mike Ball, chairman of SVR (Holdings) Plc said: “When we planned our programme and budgets for 2022, it was on the basis that we would see a gradual return to ‘normal’ pre-pandemic levels of activity as the year progressed.

"This did not happen, and the economic outlook suggests that 2023 may well be worse than 2022.

“What we believed were temporary changes are going to be longer term ones, and we must adapt in order to survive now and thrive in the future.”

Tourist attractions across the UK continue to be impacted by up to 30 per cent drops in visitor numbers since Covid and this has been made worse by the ongoing cost of living crisis.

The cost of utilities is one of the biggest expenses that the railway currently faces and managers have confirmed they are clamping down on wastage across 16 miles of the SVR's line.

They have asked volunteers to 'consolidate their working patterns', so that premises only need heating and lighting for minimal times, as well as encouraging work to be put off where possible until the spring and summer, to save on costs.

“The SVR has been running as a preserved railway since 1970, and it has an inspirational and glorious history," Mr Ball added.

"We’re determined to do everything we can now to protect it for future generations to enjoy. The year ahead is going to be critical to achieving that aim.”

Helen Smith, SVR’s managing director added: “We are facing the double problem of a significant drop in passenger revenue and secondary spend alongside escalating costs across all areas of the business.

"The current situation in Ukraine means the cost of utilities to heat and light our premises has rocketed, along with the cost of coal and diesel to power our locomotives.

“We want to make these important changes, in the coming year and beyond, to ensure our award-winning attraction continues to offer an excellent value-for-money experience for visitors.

“The resourcefulness and dedication of the SVR’s staff, both paid and volunteer, is truly marvellous.

"They are literally the life-blood of what makes this railway tick, and we’re working actively with everyone to achieve our objectives this year.

"We’re also grateful to our wonderful visitors who choose us to spend their time with. We want to make sure they have a heritage experience to cherish in 2023.”