Tenterden - Northiam - Bodiam
Kent & East Sussex Railway

Reflections of our General Manager


Photo: Robin Coombes

1. Can you reflect on your first year as the General Manager of the K&ESR? What have been the highlights and challenges of your tenure so far?

My first year as General Manager has been an intense and rewarding experience. It's been a dream come true to lead our historic railway and work with the incredible people who make it happen. The highlights include witnessing the joy of children during our Santa Specials and arriving each morning at the office and being able to enjoy the beautiful views of the Weald of Kent from our picturesque Tenterden Town Station. Lowering the flag to half-mast in honour of Queen Elizabeth II was a poignant moment that for me signalled the end of an Era, but also the beginning of a new one. But one in which we face many challenges, from aging equipment to rising costs. For us to stay relevant to a new generation, we need to commit ourselves to making the railway experience more immersive and captivating for our visitors. Overall, it has been a privilege to be welcomed and be part of the K&ESR family and, despite all the challenges, I am genuinely excited about the future, which includes the final part of the jigsaw - completing the line from Tenterden all the way to Robertsbridge. The people, the history, and the passion for this railway make every moment of my job truly unforgettable. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

2. What motivated you to take on the role of General Manager at the K&ESR, and how has your previous experience prepared you for this position? 

In essence, my career has led me to this role, where I can put my passion, expertise, and determination to use, leading our railway. Taking on the role of GM was a dream come true for me. After completing my PhD, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to put my research into practice and make a real impact in the railway heritage world. My career has been like a long apprenticeship, gaining valuable experience along the way. I started as a qualified Architect and later became a Project Manager and Marketing Manager with British Railways. As the Managing Director of an international consultancy in heritage tourism and economic development, I was involved in projects such as the National Botanic Garden. Additionally, I served as a Company Secretary for a mainline Train Operating Company - Vintage Trains – and contributed to the creation of the ORR’s guide on good governance. With this diverse experience and a lifetime of involvement in preserved railways, I will give it everything I have and with all the staff and volunteers, make the K&ESR as successful as we can in the current climate. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

3. What are your main goals and objectives for the K&ESR moving forward? Are there any specific initiatives or projects that you plan to implement? 

My main goals revolve around sustainability, safety, and development. To achieve this vision, I am proposing a series of initiatives and projects that will shape our future. As a regulated railway, Safety must always be our top priority, and we will ensure strict adherence to safety protocols and foster a culture of awareness and responsibility. We are good, but there is always room for improvement. Financial stability is vital, as we must cover both our fixed costs and invest in essential infrastructure and assets such as buildings, track and signalling if we are to have a sustainable future. All heritage railways are finding this is walking a tightrope. Enchanting our visitors is key to generating income, and we need to offer exceptional experiences like the Wealden Pullman, Santa Specials, and themed events to leave to memorable memories so visitors will want to return. To fulfil our educational objectives, we'll offer unique experiences and lifelong learning opportunities, from apprentices to those just retiring from another career and joining our railway. We need to address some of the basics, such as more training for our colleagues and a better, more informative and user-friendly website - which is essential for engaging effectively with our audience. We also know we must foster more collaboration with other heritage railways to share some of the challenges we face. This we are doing via the HRA and "Southern Six". We know we must change, and we know that is never easy, so we will have to build a new pioneering spirit relevant to the twenty first century that preserves our heritage and inspires future generations as the original pioneers did. In 2024 we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the reopening: I want to be able to set the path to achieve our one hundredth anniversary in 2074. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

4. How do you plan to ensure the financial sustainability of the railway while maintaining its cultural significance? 

Ensuring financial sustainability of the K&ESR while preserving its cultural significance requires finding a delicate balance. On one hand, we want to attract revenue-generating events that may feature popular film or TV characters to appeal to a broader audience. However, we must also remain true to our charitable objectives, which focus on preserving the railway's authenticity and historical accuracy both before and after its preservation. 

To address this dilemma, we will carefully evaluate revenue-generating opportunities to ensure they align with our heritage and values. We will prioritise events that still promote our cultural significance while appealing to a wider market. Additionally, we'll seek innovative ways to enhance visitor experiences without compromising our historical integrity. 

By embracing both financial prudence and cultural preservation, we aim to create a sustainable future for the K&ESR while staying true to our rich heritage. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

5. What strategies do you have in place to enhance the visitor experience and meet the evolving needs and aspirations of modern consumers and communities? 

Our focus remains on delivering a warm and friendly welcome, offering an experience that evokes nostalgia and memories, and increasingly we wish to highlight the area’s history and wildlife through more interpretation. Excellence in customer service remains our priority, so ensuring every visitor feels valued and cared for. We take pride in our restored carriages from different eras, providing a genuine journey back in time. Storytelling will play an increasingly significant role, with guides sharing captivating tales of the railway's historic and social significance. Equally, accessibility and inclusivity are at the core of our values, making the railway experience enjoyable for all. In a changing world, we offer a magical blend of local history, beautiful landscape and railway heritage while meeting modern expectations of service and safety. We are after all inviting our visitors to embark on an unforgettable journey that captivates their heart and leaves them with precious memories. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

6. How do you prioritise safety, particularly in relation to the challenges of maintaining and operating vintage equipment and infrastructure? 

Prioritising safety is more than just following rules; it's a deep commitment to everyone's well-being. We are reviewing our Safety Management System to better tailor it to the unique challenges of operating as a heritage railway. Our aim is to foster a culture that values safety above all, where everyone takes responsibility for themselves and others. We know there is some way to go in developing a consistent safety culture throughout the railway. Safety will always be our foundation and we must adapt and learn from incidents, ensuring that everyone who visits the Railway has a wonderful experience and returns home safely. 


K&ESR General Manager Robin Coombes, Tenterden Mayor Sue Ferguson

7. Can you discuss the importance of stakeholder engagement and collaboration in the success of the KESR? How do you foster strong relationships with stakeholders, including volunteers, local communities, and regulatory bodies?  

At the heart of the K&ESR’s future success lies engagement and collaboration with all our stakeholders. Our railway is deeply connected to our local communities and working together with stakeholders, including our own ‘Railway Family’, is essential to our survival and a sustainable future. Volunteers are the backbone of our Railway. I value their skills and dedication at every level from Board Member to Pullman ‘Washer-Upper’. By recognising everyone’s individual contributions, providing development opportunities, and fostering a sense of belonging, we together create a strong community. Our relationship with local communities goes beyond being a tourist attraction. We actively participate in community events and listen to feedback. Transparency and respect guide our interactions, and we address concerns openly. Compliance with regulations and safety standards is crucial. We maintain open communication with regulatory bodies, ensuring we meet requirements while staying true to our vision. Partnerships are powerful. We collaborate with other organisations and businesses to pool resources and expand our impact. Educational initiatives enrich our communities and pass on our heritage to future generations. In all this communication is key: we are keeping everyone informed through newsletters, social media and community events, building trust and encouraging involvement. We naturally embrace diversity and inclusivity, ensuring that everyone feels welcome and valued at our railway. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

8. In your opinion, what role does the K&ESR play in preserving and promoting the nation's railway heritage? How do you balance the preservation of tradition with the need for innovation and adaptation? 

The K&ESR plays a vital role in preserving and promoting the nation's railway heritage. As the first Light Railway under the 1896 Light Railway Act, it has historical significance in the preservation movement. It exemplifies the spirit of a light railway while staying relevant in the present. Preserving tradition doesn't mean staying stuck in the past. The K&ESR embraces innovation and adapts to meet modern expectations while upholding historical authenticity. 

The railway's impact goes beyond its borders, with international connections and visitors from around the world, fostering a sense of community through shared railway heritage. Looking ahead, 2025 will be the Rail 200 celebration, marking the 200-year anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, a milestone in British engineering history, to which K&ESR will also mark. Balancing preservation and innovation are essential. By staying connected to our historical roots, the K&ESR educates future generations about railway heritage. At the same time, it embraces modern standards to create a safe and immersive experience for all visitors. With a commitment to both tradition and innovation, we can ensure a lasting impact on the nation's railway heritage. 


Photo: Robin Coombes

9. How do you address the diverse range of skills, experiences, and abilities within the our volunteer workforce? What initiatives or programs are in place to support their development and wellbeing?

In addressing the diverse skills, experiences, and abilities of our volunteer workforce, we also embrace the concept of neurodiversity. This means understanding and accommodating the unique strengths and challenges of individuals on the autistic spectrum and other neuro divergent conditions, creating an inclusive and supportive environment. We value the wealth of knowledge and passion our volunteers bring. Many have deep expertise in railway history, operations, or engineering, which is crucial for preserving our heritage. Their attention to detail helps us operationally as well maintaining locomotives, coaches, tracks, and stations authentically. To support our volunteers, we are in the process of developing several initiatives. We prioritise clear and open communication, and increasingly providing explicit instructions and guidance for tasks. This promotes clarity and reduces misunderstandings. Education and training are essential in this process and helps make all volunteers feel valued and appreciated. By embracing neurodiversity and fostering inclusivity, we encourage our volunteers to contribute their unique talents to the success of the K&ESR. As General Manager, I want to cultivate an environment where everyone feels welcomed, and everyone’s diverse strengths enriches our railway.



Photo: Robin Coombes

10. Looking ahead, what do you envision for the future of the K&ESR? Are there any long-term goals or aspirations that you hope to achieve during your tenure as General Manager? 

My vision for the future is one where our railway stands as a continued pioneering force in the industry. We will offer experiences that go beyond a simple train ride, transforming us into an immersive theatre that showcases the beauty of our lineside, its nature and history, and our own special place in railway history. By providing diverse and engaging experiences, I believe we will attract new audiences and meet the changing expectations of our visitors. Our primary goal is sustainability, ensuring the long-term viability of the Railway. To achieve this, we will focus on sustainability in every aspect of our operations. We'll involve younger generations in decision-making and cultivate new leadership to secure a resilient future for the K&ESR. To thrive, we must evolve our business model. This means rebalancing costs and income, increasing secondary spend, and exploring new sources of revenue. Leveraging our charitable status and seeking diverse fundraising opportunities will preserve and enhance our heritage. Nurturing visionary leaders is essential for our transformation and future success. We need to identify the next generation of young leaders, to draw on their fresh perspectives and innovative ideas which will drive us forward. We must make transparent and inclusive decision-making the cornerstone of our approach. By involving a broader representation of stakeholders in our plans, we'll foster open communication and engagement, ensuring that everyone feels valued and heard, so building a reputation as a reliable and trustworthy organisation. If we act as a unified team, together we can embark on what must be a transformative journey, creating a railway that stands as a beacon of excellence in the heritage rail sector for years to come. I know many will say we have heard these words before, what is different now? I admit I do not have all the answers and I wish I did have a magic wand. All I can replete is to answer the question, “how do you eat an elephant?”. The answer, “One bite at a time”, is exactly the approach we must adopt. I know just how much we must win both hearts and minds. To win over the most sceptical, negative, and cynical individuals, I must transcend jargon and weaselly business words, relying instead on practical actions and visible demonstrations of our commitment to change. Leading this transformation will undoubtedly be our greatest challenge, as we strive to keep everyone united and cohesive. The stark reality is that our options are clear - we must change or face the risk of decline and demise. 

Robin Coombes

General Manager

For K&ESR Members Newsletter July 2023