IT’S full steam ahead for one of the North East’s most picturesque tourist railways after a cash boost.
Heatherslaw Light Railway on the Ford and Etal estate in north Northumberland, has been awarded £42,530 to complete work on a steam locomotive.
The grant has come from the Northumberland Uplands Local Action Group which delivers money from the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) managed by One North East.
The visitor experience at the attraction will be improved as the increased capacity of the extra steam locomotive and two extra carriages to reduce waiting times.
It will also mean visitors will be guaranteed a trip on a steam-hauled train, rather than the substituted diesel engine at peak periods.
The news comes after One North East revealed that it has been a record summer for tourism in the region with occupancy rates at 85% from July to September 2009 for self-catering properties – the highest it has been since One North East took over responsibility for tourism in 2003. Figures also revealed that many of the region’s attractions also saw an increase in visitor numbers this year with major events like the Great North Run having an impact on occupancy levels.
The improvements will secure the existing six jobs at the railway and create a further full time and part time job.
It is also estimated that 10 jobs in the local economy will be secured and a further three will be created as a result of the trickle-down effect of an additional 40% boost to visitors to the railway by 2011.
Paul Smith, director of Heatherslaw Light Railway, said: “This funding will allow us to complete a steam locomotive that is currently 50% built and construct two new 16-passenger capacity carriages and consequently ensure that our visitors will be much more likely to get a steam trip. Inevitably, when there is a period to wait for such a ride, some people decide to go elsewhere so these improvements will increase our visitor numbers.
“Some people also think they aren’t getting the ‘real’ experience when they have a ride on the diesel train so satisfaction will also be increased. It is a real boost for our business and the local economy.”
Heatherslaw Light Railway is a 15 inch narrow gauge railway which runs from the working Heatherslaw Corn Mill to Etal Village. It was founded by Neville Smith and Sidney Ford over 20 years ago and following Neville’s untimely death earlier this year, is now run by Sid with Neville’s son, Paul.
The company will use the funding to pay for external expertise to complete the new steam locomotive that Neville began to build over four years ago.
Alan Keef Ltd – a specialist steam locomotive manufacturer and restoration company with an international reputation – will carry out the completion of the locomotive. Existing staff have the experience to complete the additional two carriages to keep costs down.
Tom Burston, Local Action Group co-ordinator, said: “The group is delighted to give its backing to this family tourist attraction that will now be able to guarantee a real experience of riding on a steam train.
“The new train and carriages will mean that the business will become more sustainable and allow it to grow as a key attraction in the area. We are hoping that other neighbouring businesses in and around Etal will also be able to capitalise on an increase in visitor numbers to the area.”
The railway is matching the RDPE investment bringing the total new investment to approximately £85,000. The funding has also included consultancy support from Adam Wellings Consulting, who has worked with the business over the last few months.
He said: “The lack of an additional steam engine meant the business couldn’t capitalise on all its other assets and really grow the business. This investment will help Heatherslaw enormously.”
Page 3 - Visitors on the increase at National Trust sites >>
Visitors on the increase at National Trust sites
VISITORS to National Trust properties across the North East this year are up more than 100,000 on 2008.
The visitor total from March 1-October 31 was 713,968.
Membership in the region has also seen a sharp increase with 24,609 new recruits – a 5,307 jump over last year.
Free-to-access trust sites, such as along the Durham and Northumberland coasts and Allen Banks in Northumberland , have also seen a huge surge in visitor popularity.
Kevin Redgrave, trust acting head warden on the Northumberland Coast, said: “This has been an exceptionally busy year for us. The car parks have been full to overflowing.
“Locals who have lived around here all their lives say they haven’t seen it this busy since the 1960s.”
All the National Trust’s 11-pay-for-entry sites in the North East have recorded their best ever summers.
The October school half-term alone saw Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island attract more than 2,000 visitors – despite the unpredictable weather and inconvenient tides which meant people had less time to spend there.
The autumn half-term has traditionally marked the end of the National Trust tourist season, but with many properties this year electing to stay open in the run-up to Christmas and beyond, the visitor milestone is expected to again be shattered.
Wallington Hall in Northumberland anticipates breaking the 200,000 visitor mark for the first time by the end of the trust financial year in February 2010.
It is currently on target to attract around 203,000 people – 39,000 more than the next best year in 2007.
David Ronn, the National Trust’s regional director Yorkshire and North East, said: “At the start of the year we weren’t sure how the recession was going to affect us. We didn’t know if it was a threat or an opportunity we could grasp with both hands.
“As it turns out, we have had a bumper season. What has happened is that Britons are exploring their own country again. We believe that is a long-term good for domestic tourism.
“People will never be weaned off overseas trips, but the National Trust believes it can successfully build on the dividends this year has reaped not just for us, but for the local economy.
“More visitors to National Trust properties means more money going into the local economy. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, especially with the country going through such a dire recession.”