WITH technology powering ahead and attractions being forced to work even harder to provide the ultimate visitor experience, Didcot Railway Centre is stepping up a gear in 2014 with plans for a new, £4million entrance building and 163 more days in which to spread the magic of the railways. Debbie Waite reports
MANY of the children who come through the doors of Didcot Railway Centre (DRC) have never set foot on a modern train let alone one built in the Victorian era.
In a time of high speed rail and theme park rides designed by computers, steam locomotives have to work hard to keep up.
Not surprising then that while DRC’s visitor numbers were boosted slightly last year by the return of the restored blue King No.6023 and Railmotor No.93, shunting visitor figures past the 50,000-mark remains a challenge.
But staff and volunteers are not about to chug off into the sunset just yet. In fact they plan to double visitor numbers.
Commercial manager Ann Middleton said: “We want to start attracting 100,000 visitors a year by 2024. That would effectively double our visitor numbers now, which is pretty ambitious.
“The only way we can do that is by unlocking our potential. We have exciting plans for 2014.”
They include transforming the outdated, non-accessible staircase entrance through Didcot station subway.
Mrs Middleton explained: “It’s difficult for people with wheelchairs and this is something we want to change.
“We have just submitted stage one of the application for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“It’s a really ambitious project with a working estimate of £4million.
“But if this investigation and design stage is approved – and I am very hopeful it will be – it would mean visitors entering via an accessible ramp and into a new entrance building with a new ticket office featuring displays of many of the fantastic things they can see and try at the centre.”
It would also enable the centre to open 363 days a year as opposed to 200 days as a new office and catering unit would be manned by fewer staff on quieter days.
The funding would also pay for restoration of the coal stage, which is listed and the only one still used in the UK for coal engines.
As well as the £4m it is seeking from the Lottery, DRC plans to fundraise for other improvements, including a larger exhibition hall, the re-assembly of a Cotswold stone-built station – which is currently standing in Heyford – and the creation of an accessible carriage.
An extension to the museum building is already under way.
Mrs Middleton said: “I have been at the centre since 1985, which was the 150th anniversary of the GWR, and while times have changed, you can still sum up what is special about this place in the faces of the children.
“Thomas the Tank Engine has been instrumental in children’s continuing love of trains and we run many successful ‘Thomas Days’ each year.”
She continued: “There are many exciting attractions but what makes us stand out is that you can get up close to the engines.
Roger Orchard next to a vintage locomotive
“Our volunteers, without whom the centre would not be able to operate, form all our operating and restoration staff.
“We are a living history museum with a lot to offer. Interesting times are ahead.”
For more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.didcotrailway centre.org.uk to download a volunteer application form.
PAT Bosley, 66, from Didcot is administrative manager at DRC and has worked there for 27 years. She said: “Didcot is a railway town and DRC is a part of Didcot. I work in one of the former sheds and love it that I am surrounded by my town’s railway history every day.”
WHAT'S ON OFFER AT THE CENTRE
- THE Didcot Railway Centre offers visitors the chance to see a range of steam engines.
- The centre hosts a 1932 engine shed complex which is one of the only centres in the world for servicing First Great Western steam locomotives.
- It features the only working example of Brunel’s broad gauge.
- More than 40,000 visitors, including school groups, visit the railway centre each year.
- There are regular steam days and activities for all the family. This Saturday and Sunday, the centre will host Days out with Thomas and organisers are planning a special ‘Once in a blue moon’ event in April, featuring three big blue steam engines.
Living piece of railway history
DUE to the technical operational difficulties of running and manning a mainline service from London to Bristol, as well as the need for servicing locomotives going to Oxford, Didcot became an obvious midpoint maintenance and stabling point.
Having built a timber-framed broad gauge shed on the original site during the railways development west in the 1800s, in June 1932 a new steel-framed half-brick 4-road through shed was completed. It included a repair shop, coaling stage, sand furnace and turntable plus offices.
Post Second World War, the site remained virtually unchanged during the nationalised ownership of British Railways with Halls, Dukedogs and Panniers making up the bulk of the depot’s fleet.
But with the replacement of steam with diesel-traction under the ‘Beeching Axe’, the shed was closed in June 1965.
Steven Tomsett, 13, one of the young volunteers who help to maintain the signal box
The Great Western Society (GWS) was offered the use of the former depot, taking it over in 1967 and moving in with three locomotives and a number of carriages.
It went on to develop the site, retaining many of the original buildings and features, as both a working steam locomotive and railway museum, engineering maintenance centre, and railway line offering short rides to visitors.
There are three short lengths of running track, each with a station at both ends: The Branchline; the Broad Gauge Line, home to the 2005 replica GWR Firefly; and the Mainline, where there are long-term plans to reconstruct the Brunel-designed building from Heyford station.
On October 6, 2011, chairman Richard Croucher signed a new 50-year lease with Network Rail, therefore preserving the site for at least another 50 years.