What is a Heritage Railway?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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A heritage railway is a railway line which is maintained for the purpose of historical interest, rather than for the transport of commercial passengers and cargo. Such railways are sometimes known as tourist or preserved railways, and in addition to being valued tourist attractions, they are also living examples of the history of railroads, and therefore they are of great interest to some people. Many regions have a heritage railway or two, thanks to the once-abundant sprawl of railways all over the world, and tickets are typically readily available to those who desire them.

Railway lines and stations were abandoned en masse in the 20th century as operators began to turn to trucking and other modes of transit. Especially in small, rural communities, running a railway line become economically unfeasible, leading many companies to close down massive sections of track while retiring older railway cars such as steam locomotives and old passenger cars.

In the 1950s, preservation organizations began to realize that the loss of traditional railways and equipment could be a great tragedy, so they began offering to buy out abandoned stations and tracks. Many railway companies were happy to unload unwanted property and equipment, and some were also interested in the historic preservation aspect as well. Many railroad employees were sad to see the demise of traditional steam engines, for example, and they were delighted to see such engines preserved and put in use on heritage railways.


In many cases, a heritage railway is owned by an enthusiast or preservation organization, which may be forced to charge high prices for tickets to maintain the railway. Despite the fact that train trips are typically short, the tracks and railroad equipment still see a great deal of wear, causing high maintenance costs. Heritage railways are also maintained by for-profit companies, many of which have bought up multiple heritage railway sites to make the venture more profitable.

A trip on a heritage railway is typically only a few hours long, and it may end at a spur or dead end, although some heritage railways offer transport between various towns or other sites of interest. Along the way, passengers can enjoy interesting scenery, and appreciate what it might have been like to ride historical trains in their heyday. Some heritage railway staff dress up in period costume and meticulously restore their trains to offer historically accurate amenities and decorations, creating a complete experience for their guests.


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