Volunteers are the life-blood of heritage organisations, nowhere more so than on the labour-intensive steam railways.
I visited the East Lancashire Railway [http://www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk] on a freezing January day, an unforgiving time of year when tourists stay at home.
Nevertheless, the ELR was running their Blue Timetable, a full service using two trains, one hauled by steam, the other by diesel. The ticket-office, shop, stations, cafés and the trains themselves were fully staffed and operational.
As we travelled above the snow-line to Rawtenstall, we passed a tracklaying crew, clad in hi-vis jackets, sorting out a siding in billowing snow.
The twelve-mile ELR route actually encompasses two former rail routes out of Bury – north via Ramsbottom to Rawtenstall, and east to Heywood where a link is planned to Castleton to join the Network Rail route from Manchester to Rochdale and beyond.
The railway also runs the over-stuffed Bury Transport Museum in the goods shed behind Bury Bolton Street station and offers a wide-ranging events programme from on-board dining to train-driving experiences, from days out with Thomas the Tank Engine to guided rail ale trails.
All this is made possible by a small army of volunteers – there must have been nearer a hundred than fifty on a quiet day – giving the most valuable thing they have, their time. The satisfaction they gain from working a traditional railway and serving the public must be considerable: they could just as easily stay at home and watch television.
Those of us who simply pay our fare, buy refreshments and maybe take home a souvenir are in a small way supporting their venture, and we shouldn’t take for granted the hidden value of the volunteers that turn out regardless to make the railway function.