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Opened in 1927, the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (“RHDR”) is the longest 15 inch gauge railway in the world.  One of Kent’s top tourist attractions, the RHDR runs 14 miles from the Cinque Port town of Hythe, terminating at Dungeness Peninsula. This is a national nature reserve and the only area of desert in the United Kingdom.

As well as being a major tourist attraction, the RHDR is one of the largest employers on the Romney Marsh. The full time staff of around 60 people is supported by a cadre of 120 volunteers.  These volunteers commit anything from a few days each month to many days in each week in supporting the railway's day to day operations. Volunteers undertake a complete range of tasks from permanent way duties, and locomotive driving to selling tickets and serving in the railway’s shops and catering outlets.

The RHDR plays an important part in the conservation efforts of the Romney Marsh. Dungeness, the final stop on the railway, is one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world. It is a home to 600 species of plants, one third of the total number of the plant species found in the United Kingdom.

Joe Bannister, a partner in Hogan Lovells' London Business Restructuring and Insolvency (“BRI”) has been an RHDR volunteer for many years. Joe is also a trustee of the Romney, Hythe Dymchurch Railway Association (“RHDRA”). The RHDRA is a registered charity. It provides volunteering and funding support to the railway.

We spoke to Joe about his experience working on the RHDR and RHDR’s impact on the local community.

How long have you known and been working with the RHDR?

I first began to volunteer on the RHDR in the summer of 2012. That marked both the start of my sabbatical and my turning 50. As a lifelong railway enthusiast and photographer, I decided that it was time to put something back into the preserved railway field, having for the preceding 40 years, starting with the Isle of Man Steam Railway in my childhood, been a passive consumer of the history of steam locomotives and steam railways.

I had first come across the RHDR on a day trip away from Eastbourne in 1981. I had spent much of that year (between school and university) living in Eastbourne and working as a warehouseman in a hair cosmetics factory. The RHDR, with its one third size collection of 15 inch gauge steam locomotives had long fascinated me, both on various day trips and through the many RHDR books, articles and other mementos I had acquired between 1981 and 2012. 

These mementos include a large wooden, chime, whistle, currently sitting on the cabinet behind my desk.  Its sound perfectly reproduces the mighty chrome plated chime whistle carried by locomotive No 8, Hurricane and presented to Howey by his good friend Sir Nigel Gresley, one time Chief Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway.  Hurricane is my favourite locomotive.  My London BRI colleagues will testify that the sound of this whistle reverberates across the 7 floor of our offices in moments of triumph or disaster respectively.

The RHDR was built between 1925 and 1927 by a millionaire racing driver and property developer, Captain J E P Howey and his motor racing driving friend Count Louis Zborowski. It is, in essence, a replica of the United Kingdom's East Coast main line; an enormous train set to the untutored eye. The RHDR has provided transport across the Romney Marsh for tourists as well as, between 1977 and 2015, school children.  Sadly in today's Instagram and social media fuelled world a passion for steam railways as against sporting heroes is not necessarily seen as "cool".  The result was that by 2015, the number of schoolchildren travelling daily on the train had dwindled from a couple of hundred to a number between 20 and 30

The RHDR’s combination of superb engineering, tourist and public service functions had thus always fascinated me. I also decided to volunteer there because of the intense service – up to 14 trains a day in the high season – operated by a fleet of 11 steam locomotives and two diesels.  In addition, the General Manager was the first on the three railways I had approached with a clear 4 week block of time to offer me a programme of tasks for that four weeks stint. In other words, an example of the sort of proactive response that has become so essential a part of the "day job" of any successful City professional.

What do you do to support the RHDR?

I spend one weekend in each month on the railway other than December where I come down for two weekends. Although it is a narrow gauge railway, RHDR paid staff and volunteers alike are subject to the same levels of strict supervision as apply on the "big" railway. Staff who perform “operational” roles are subject to annual assessments and in some cases, medicals. I am “passed” (as a "despatcher") to send trains on their way. I therefore often act as station foreman at New Romney or Hythe where I am responsible for looking after passengers, moving stock and despatching trains.

In 2017, I was also asked to serve as a trustee on the RHDRA. I chair the finance liaison and compliance ("FLC") committee. With help from Don McGown and Elliot Weston, we have given the RHDRA advice on its own constitution and on the relationship between the RHDRA and the railway itself. That requires care since the railway itself is a commercial undertaking (albeit one where all profits go back into its maintenance and preservation) and the RHDRA a registered charity.

What is the social mission of the RHDR and how does it provide employment and community impact?

As I said earlier, the RHDR is the third largest employer on the Romney Marsh. Its cadre of volunteers includes a mixture of sixth formers, university students, people in full time employment elsewhere and retired individuals. Volunteers come from all walks of life, ranging from career railway professionals enjoying "busmen's' holidays" through factory workers, lawyers and accountants seeking an escape – and reality check – from their respective day jobs. The RHDR runs a series of work experience schemes for young people and  offers all those who support it a wide range of opportunities to carry out everything from operational to retail assignments.

What have been the high points of working with the RHDR?

For me, the most satisfying aspect of working on the RHDR is the wide range of people that I meet. The railway’s 90 year history has also given it a unique place within the local community. One of the nicest things for me has been supporting the annual “Santa specials” in December, a time when once often sees successive generations of the same family coming along to see Father Christmas together.

Working in the RHDRA and on the railway also means that I have gained a deeper understanding of what really makes a preserved railway "tick". It has taught me that there are more similarities between the work of a professional services firm and a historic transport undertaking than one might otherwise have expected. Railway enthusiasts – and indeed the operation of the steam locomotives – is, while important, no more than a small part of what is at base as much of a "service" business as is Hogan Lovells. Clients will only return to Hogan Lovells if they consider they have received an outstanding overall "experience" and at a fair price. Customers will only return to the RHDR if they see all of clean restaurants and shops, friendly staff and value for money.  Travelling on the trains is no more than one element – albeit an important one – of this wider experience. 

What are the biggest challenges of working at the RHDR?

For me, the biggest challenge working with volunteers, particularly on the RHDRA, is the very different pace of operation between an international professional services business and a voluntary organisation. Some of the workings both on the RHDR and the RHDRA are driven by word of mouth and “practice”.  The starting point if one is looking at changes to the relationship between the RHDRA and the RHDR can often be “We have always done it this way, why on Earth should we do it any differently?"   

 In the day job, that approach is invariably given short shrift. The challenge on the RHDR is identifying those areas where change really is necessary while not unnecessarily ruffling feathers. The other challenge, for me, has been the fact that much of the work of a railway volunteer is practically focused – talking to people, finding out the best way of moving stock, working out how to take the ramp quickly off the wheelchair carriage – or even ensuring that couplings between carriage and locomotive have been correctly fastened. That may not be intellectually demanding, but to a lawyer with “two left hands and two right feet”, getting these matters right are on occasion even more challenging than ensuring that I deliver "the whole of the firm to the whole of a particular Hogan Lovells client, on time and on budget", returning for a moment to "management speak"…...