Minor and heritage railways


There are well over 200 minor and heritage railways operating across Great Britain, and we are responsible for regulating their safety.

Minor and heritage railways are 'lines of local interest', museum railways or tourist railways that preserve, recreate or simulate railways of the past. or demonstrate or operate historical or special types of motive power or rolling stock.

These privately owned railways range in size and scope of operation, and are separate from the mainline railway (although some have physical connections and interworking with the mainline). All are vertically integrated businesses, meaning that they both manage the infrastructure and operate the trains.

Much of the rolling stock and other equipment used on these systems is original and is of historic value in its own right. Many systems deliberately aim to replicate both the look and operating practices of historic former railways companies.

The Heritage Railway Association (HRA) represents the majority of minor and heritage railways.

How do we regulate minor and heritage railways?

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The Health and Safety (Enforcing Authority for Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems) Regulations 2006 allocate health and safety enforcement functions to ORR for, among other things, minor and heritage railways that have a track of a gauge of at least 350mm or cross a carriageway.

Like any other business, minor and heritage railways need to comply with the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and regulations made under it. This includes the Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems (Safety) Regulations 2006 (ROGs). ROGs give us discretion to exclude certain transport systems, such as minor and heritage railways, from the mainline railway requirements. ORR has published guidance on ROGs which includes details on which parts are relevant to minor and heritage railways.

We have published guidance specifically about health and safety law in relation to wholly volunteer run railways (WVRR) organisations. A WVRR will not have any employees. The guidance sets out our position on the applicability of the law to these types of organisations.

Minor and heritage railway systems need to have a safety management system (SMS) in place that has been adapted to fit the size and nature of the operation. This should include having in place appropriate, and proportionate systems and procedures to ensure the safety of its staff, volunteers, passengers, and public. We have published guidance for minor and heritage railways to help them interpret and apply the specific requirements of ROGS in a proportionate way.

Railway operators who operate on systems that have a line speed not exceeding 25mph (40kph) are exempted from the Railway Safety Regulations 1999. Minor and heritage railway systems can also apply to be exempt from certain mainline safety requirements, such as train driver licensing.

An ORR Principal Inspector leads a team of inspectors who provide advice and guidance on health and safety matters, undertake proactive inspections and respond to incidents and complaints. We also enforce relevant health and safety legislation.

We encourage the HRA in its sector leadership. In particular we encourage and support HRA in developing and maintaining its core guidance and standards for the industry. The HRA has its own website which contains a wealth of technical and regulatory guidance to help the sector comply with its obligations.

Key areas of interest

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The following are key areas of interest to minor and heritage rail:

  • leadership and governance
  • inspection and maintenance of:
    • permanent way
    • traction and rolling stock (T&RS), including the management of asbestos and other hazardous materials (e.g. lead, welding fume, dust)
    • structures, earthworks, and buildings
  • competence management systems generally, with particular focus on operating staff (including drivers, firemen, guards, dispatchers, signallers) and those engaged in safety critical engineering maintenance roles (including traction and rolling stock, permanent way and signal engineering)
  • rule book
  • workshops and safe working environment
  • staff safety, such as risk of working at height and working with heavy machinery
  • level crossings – existing and new

Safety management systems (SMSs)

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ROGS requires all railways within scope to have in place a Safety Management System. A health and safety management system (SMS) enables a railway (or tramway) organisation to meet its legal duties to identify, eliminate or reduce the risks that its activities create. 

An effective SMS is more than a written policy and set of procedures. It is the railway’s underpinning attitude of how it safety delivers its objectives in a systematic way that is making best use of its resources, be they money, time, equipment and staff. 

We have published guidance for minor and heritage railways to help them have in place a proportionate safety management system. The guidance provides a summary of the ROGS requirements for safety management systems and how dutyholders can apply these requirements to their own railway. Due to the considerable variation found in Great Britain’s minor and heritage railways it is neither appropriate nor possible to prescribe a 'one size fits all' approach. 

This innovative approach draws on our supervisory findings, and we encourage all minor and heritage railways to consider its contents and take appropriate action. 

We welcome constructive feedback and comments on the guidance, to assist us with future revisions of the document. Please send your feedback to heritage.sms@orr.gov.uk.

Assessing the capability of your SMS

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Once a railway organisation has a SMS in place, it should have arrangements review the SMS on an ongoing basis to identify areas of weakness and areas for improvement. This is where our Rail Management Maturity Model (RM3) can help.

RM3 is relevant to the minor and heritage railway sector and can be a useful tool to help both ORR and dutyholders assess the capability of their established safety management system and identify areas for development. During our supervisory activity, where we gain sufficient evidence, we will initially assess the company’s SMS maturity on a small number of RM3 criteria including:

  • SP1 Leadership & SP3 Governance
  • SP4 Written SMS arrangements
  • OP2 Competence management
  • OC7 Record keeping
  • PI1 Risk management
  • RCS2 Asset management
  • RCS3 Change management
  • MRA2 Audit
  • MRA3 Incident investigation

We have developed RM3 Topic Set 1 Heritage Railways to support heritage railway and tramway organisations use the use of RM3. The intent is to provide meaningful descriptors over ten criteria listed above that reflect the heritage sector railway environment.