WHETHER it’s for the short term or the long run, the 34-year-old Canberra Railway Museum is closing its doors.
Volunteer Garry Reynolds says: “We had to get rid of all our staff, we just can’t pay them, we’re in significant debt.”
The museum, which is home to historic locomotives, carriages and rail memorabilia, has been a popular attraction for tourists, but has been struggling with the core funding that has come too overwhelmingly expensive for the Australian Railway Historical Society.
“Passenger traffic has been great, but we haven’t relied on the government and we didn’t want to raise costs for visitors, so unfortunately we’ve failed,” Reynolds says.
President David Sommerville says: “The closure of the museum will see some beautiful old carriages sold to pay off debt, some removed from Canberra to other heritage groups interstate and some may even be scrapped with parts of Canberra’s heritage gone forever.
“It is a sad day for the ACT. We feel that we have built up a tremendous heritage resource in Canberra on behalf of the community.
“In other states, governments provide a financial foundation for this task. In Canberra, while we appreciate the government’s ad hoc assistance, we really need support for the core business of displaying and operating the heritage items which attract tourists from across Australia and around the world.
“In particular, we have restored the biggest operating steam locomotive in the southern hemisphere – Beyer Garratt 6029 – proudly called “City of Canberra”. This has acted as a spectacular ambassador for the ACT travelling to many towns and cities and drawing commendations from around the world and a prestigious heritage award. It gives another insight into the spirit of the community of Canberra. Regrettably it has had to be relocated interstate to secure temporary storage where the specialist knowledge is available to maintain this impressive machine.
“We are also the community custodian of the first locomotive to steam into Canberra in 1914 and have been forced to stop critical restoration work required to keep this ACT heritage locomotive in operational condition.
“Then there are the dozens of heritage carriages our volunteers have been restoring for the enjoyment of many Canberrans and visitors over the years that now stand idle whilst attempts are made to restructure the operation.”
Mr Sommerville says that the Museum has tried to stand self-sufficient for many years but now it really has become impossible without assistance.
“What’s needed is a combination of good business advice to restructure the operations and an injection of funds to remove debt so we can make the museum viable again.
“While we value the donations from a generous public and our members, it is not sufficient in today’s world with the high costs of operations and just keeping the gates open with insurances and other charges.
“We have 60 active volunteers ready and willing to continue to contribute their efforts to make thmuseum an even greater attraction in Canberra. However, all this is at risk.”
“Whilst we appreciate the assistance provided in recent days by the ACT government, we are fearful that without further moves to address this rapidly deteriorating situation Canberra will lose its heritage assets and a treasured tourist attraction for visitors and local families.”
Reynolds says the business will be under forensic analysis over the next month or so and during that time volunteers will be unable to take care of the museum items.
“We’re storing the locomotives in Thirlmere. We’ve been having trouble with graffiti lately and we want to protect the vulnerability of the museums things which are well over 100 years old,” he says.
President Sommerville says that when the museum faced this prospect several years ago it tried to remain self-sufficient in protecting Canberra’s rail heritage.
“We set up an enterprise called Espee Railroad Services to carry freight and provide crews for railway operators. For a period this appeared successful in generating revenue for our heritage operations. However, we lost a major commercial freight client as they were unable to safely load the train in the ACT government-maintained rail yard.
“Now with a major downturn in the rail industry we have been squeezed out by the big commercial players.
“This means that we no longer have this inflow of funds to independently support our displays, family events and popular tourist trips and have had to cancel all future trips whilst we undertake a restructure. Affected passengers are being contacted and will receive a full refund.”
“We have also been forced to lay-off our paid staff including highly skilled specialist staff needed to maintain steam locomotives. These skills are simply not available elsewhere in the ACT.”