Robin Coombes recounts his experience of completing a doctorate into the study of heritage railways at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Rail Research and Education

The simple answer to the question in the title is: yes absolutely. For those who have pondered this question, as I did for many years, it will perhaps be of value to share my recent experience. I have just recent, as a mature student, completed and been awarded the first doctorate into heritage railways.

Why do a PhD? Like the mountaineer wanting to conquer a particular summit, it has always been in the back of my mind as representing the ultimate academic challenge. Like the famous quiz master said, ‘I’ve started so I will finish’ – a logical progression from school exams, ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s and finally a PhD. However, that by itself is not a good enough reason and there is a danger of becoming a perpetual student.

The ‘why’ therefore has to be your belief, and only yours, that it is the right thing to do at the right time in your career, in order to explore something you are curious about. I was careful not to say ‘find answers’ because it is not that simple, and the research may lead to different conclusions and discoveries, than what you originally thought, which happened in my case.

For me, it was to better understand a topic that I was passionate about – heritage railways. I would be then able to use the results to help others sustain what is important to me – protecting and preserving the amazing legacy that heritage railways have built up over the last sixty years.

For many, the decision to undertake a PhD will be to give a boost to early career prospects, while for others perhaps it will be about researching a live project, or in mid-career, a desire to change direction or to delve deeper into a subject that fascinates you. If your reason ‘why’ is strong, and deep down you will know if it is, then I would encourage you to ‘go for it’.

A PhD is not for everyone, and certainly not a requirement or ‘free pass’ on most career paths on the railway. The benefits are likely to be far more subtle: more confidence, more inner resilience and self-reliance, and a greater ability and capacity to think through issues and consequences.

Once you have satisfied the ‘why’ you want to do it, next is the ‘what’. This is very much an individual choice, after all it is you, and only you, who will be living, breathing and thinking of little else for between the next three to six years. It matters not if it is the science of passenger flows, cutting edge engineering systems, the latest management styles or climate risk, it is what is important to YOU. The criteria to be satisfied is that you have identified a knowledge gap in the subject of your choice and your research will address that gap and make an original contribution. So you are always both building on what others have found out, and treading new ground. For me, it was also important that the results would have some practical benefit beyond the pure research.

The question I addressed was how do heritage railways become sustainable, and what determines their longevity and sustainability? My overall proposition was that heritage railways have proved themselves more resilient in operation than could reasonably have been expected at their beginning – their average life being now over 40 years (compared to ten years for a typical SME), with no major casualties, albeit a few close calls.

The final part was the ‘how’. I developed a conceptual framework built up from a number of overlapping theories – governance, sustainability, complex and dynamic systems, social capital, organisational change, risk management, heritage tourism, operation and safety. The design of the methodology was based on finding techniques that could measure and provide evidence of the standards of governance and performance.

The practicalities of finding out and testing my theory meant I read a lot – including the full set of more than 500 Steam Railway magazines and the relevant editions of Railway Magazine that cover the preservation era! There are few academic papers specifically on heritage railways, so I broadened my sources to related fields – railways in general, social history, governance, economics, sustainability, social capital, safety and risk management, heritage tourism; then wider still, to psychology and philosophy – to see if and how this wider knowledge and its related theories could be applied to heritage railways. For me, being able to explore related topic areas was the great eye opener.

I visited numerous heritage railways, trying to see them though fresh and objective eyes. I talked to a lot of people, asking many, many questions, and listened so I could gain an insight from different perspectives – the visitor, the volunteer, the director, the Regulator. I researched and wrote up case studies of individual railways.

I immersed myself in the running of heritage railways by becoming the Company Secretary of a mainline Train Operating Company and a member of several heritage railways, attending their meetings, and following social media.

The evidence I found changed my thinking and theory. My original theory was ‘good governance ‘was the key determinate, but the evidence did not support this as railways survived despite poor governance. Then I looked for reasons to explain this by analysing ‘near death’ experiences of heritage railways and discovered it was social capital that had saved the day and so revised my proposition.


The three takeaways from the research are:

  • The story of heritage railways has shown they have made the art of the impossible possible.
  • Governance is incredibly important, but their social capital or goodwill is even more important.
  • Heritage railways are now mature heritage tourist attractions but are going to need to be focused, innovative and dig deep into their goodwill and reserves if they are to continue to renew themselves, meet the current challenges and pass on their legacy to a new generation.

The thesis made 14 practical recommendations, based on the conditions found, including the establishment of a Heritage Railways Safety and Standards Board, which has been taken up by the HRA and supported by the ORR, and I am writing a ‘Handbook for Heritage Railways’.

And finally, there is the trepidation (sheer terror) of the Viva where, after years of blood, sweat and tears, your work is examined by an external and internal examiner. Needless to say, the elation, relief of passing and subsequent celebration made it all worthwhile.

This, in a nutshell, was my experience, though I could not have done it without the guidance and support of my two supervisors – Professor Anson Jack and Dr Julian Clark – and the help of Ian Skinner of the ORR. It is vital in considering a PhD to find a supervisor(s) who you can respect and work well with. Knowledge aside, a good supervisor must be willing to devote time to the thesis. From anecdotal tales, beware the elusive professor, however stellar his or her reputation. It is worth talking to a supervisor’s past or current PhD students before making your request. I am happy to provide further advice if needed and can be contacted through the Editor.

Robin Coombes undertook the research as a mature student. His previous career included a managerial role at British Railways, Environment Consultant (ERES), Chairman of a national Architecture Consultancy (B3) and Company Secretary of a Train Operating Company (Vintage Trains). He is an accomplished photographer with two books of railway photography published. He plans to use the results of his research to assist heritage railways increase their resilience and attractiveness to a new generation.