Come on, do the locomotion

20th July 2007 at 01:00
A miniature railway is making a massive difference in Scotland. Kay Smith speaks to the teacher who is keeping it on track for her late husband

When Kerr's Miniature Railway in the Scottish town of Arbroath was left without its driving force after teacher-owner Matthew Kerr died in April last year, few thought his wife Jill would take it over. But alongside her day job teaching modern languages at Arbroath Academy, Jill is now ensuring that the oldest passenger-carrying miniature railway in Scotland continues to deliver a first-class service.

Through all weathers, at weekends or on school holidays, Jill and her 11-year son John collect fares and, in Jill's case, drive the mini-versions of steam and diesel locomotives that pull the passenger carriages along a neat 10-and a-quarter inch gauge rail line, which runs for a quarter of a mile along the seafront.

When Jill married Matthew, once head of pupil support at Montrose Academy, she found plenty of reasons to curse the railway. "It was Matthew's all-consuming passion. I thought I'd married a man and found instead that I'd married a railway. We had a son early on and I was virtually left to bring him up as a single parent." She did show interest, however. A non-profit making, volunteer-run enterprise started by Matthew's father in 1935, she helped out through the summer months by bringing along meals and John. "It was important for me that he was a part of it all." She even wanted to learn to drive the trains, but was told that she had to "riddle the ballast first" and weed the line as they say in the trade. But she wasn't prepared to start at the bottom. Even when Matthew died, Jill says she had "no picture in my mind whatsoever of running the railway. It was put in trust for John until he is old enough to decide whether he wants to take it on. I was making inquiries about putting the trains in storage until then. But when you've watched someone die of cancer it teaches you to grab every moment."

Jill drives the miniature trains with the volunteers who help run the railway. She also handles administration and finances: it gets no public grants but charges pound;1 a ride money which is all ploughed back into the enterprise. She even now riddles the ballast tidies up the stones between the tracks. "It's important for the other volunteers that I'm seen to do that."

But not prepared to merely replicate the blueprint left by her husband, Jill is marketing the railway to attract as many passengers as possible. "I wanted to bring the railway into the 21st century. Matthew was a purist. 'This is a miniature railway for enthusiasts not just for entertainment,' he'd say." Special promotions have been held at Hallowe'en, Christmas and Easter. There's also been a Dog's Day Out to encourage dog walkers to have a ride on the train with their pets.

She says: "The dogs loved it and one owner told me it was the first time she'd been on the train in 40 years."

Arbroath has long benefited from the railway as a gem of a tourist attraction and it's put the town on the world map of miniature railways. Now Jill's efforts have been recognised by a Citizen of the Year award from the Arbroath Rotary Club. "Matthew always claimed he never had much time for what he saw as pomposity. But I greatly appreciated the award, which was also intended as a memorial to my husband who did a great service to his town," she says.

John has also been doing his bit. Hands-on in helping out since he was able to walk (he was given his own baby engine made out of an electric wheelchair when he was three years old), he is now taking on his mother's marketing mantle and is planning to set up a Friends of the Railway scheme. "It will get more people involved, and give them a sense of ownership in it," says Jill.

Jill did not let her bereavement keep her off her work for long. "I had a week off, that's all. I had a couple of bad moments at school. But everyone was very supportive and the pupils were absolutely wonderful."

She feels her teaching experience is helping her come up with ideas to market the railway. "It helps you think of different ways of presenting things."

The trade-off in skills goes both ways. She is bringing the railway into her teaching, with third and fourth-year pupils on Scottish Qualification Authority Access level courses in French and German mounting an exhibition of photographs of the railway and its foreign passengers.

Pupils will source the family histories behind the photographs and write captions in their languages. "Arbroath Academy serves areas of multiple deprivation and these are pupils who are not likely to turn up to an exam," says Jill. "But they can be highly motivated by a project like this. It will also help them develop enterprise and critical-thinking skills, and co operative learning abilities."

The exhibition opens next year at the school and at a public venue.

When John was born, Jill left teaching with some relief. "It was such a hard job." But she was ready to go back to the classroom after six years as a youth work organiser for the Red Cross in Scotland. "The break was good for me. I developed a thicker skin, and I could think more broadly about the skills as well as the attitudes I was trying to impart."

She also feels the railway work has helped improve her worklife balance. "I used to spend a lot of my spare time marking and doing research and preparation and generally worrying about the job. Now, especially as John has got older, I've got more time for other things such as the railway. It's given me a healthier perspective about teaching. I don't get so cut up about it."

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