Amid much celebrations on Good Friday 19 April -- and hot on the heels of the GWR funding announcement to trial shuttle services to the WSR this year -- the Easter weekend saw the West Somerset Railway (WSR) operate the first passenger services running into Minehead of the 2019 season after a three-month break whilst various infrastructure works were carried out along the 22-mile line.
To mark the arrival of the first WSR service to arrive in Minehead since January 2nd, the Town Mayor Norman Hercock and Watchet Town Crier, and Punch & Judy show performer, David Milton, plus local TV crews, were on hand to welcome the train hauled by steam loco, Manor Class No. 7828 "Odney Manor" and appropriately crewed by Fireman and WSR plc Chairman Jon Jones Pratt and Driver and WSR General Manager Paul Conibeare.
Crowds of visitors, locals and WSR supporters alike waiting on the Minehead platform cheered and applauded the train's arrival at 11.35, before a short opening ceremony and ribbon cutting event held by the station entrance with "Odney Manor" as a fitting backdrop.
And, the WSR's 2019 Easter passenger figures were very buoyant and, at 3,329 over the four days, were just 237 people less than the 3,566 Easter figure in 2018. That said, revenue for 2019 was actually up slightly compared to 2018 and a very good five-figure result to help boost the railway's under pressure finances!
Despite some very hot weather, which saw many West Country people head for the beach and Moors, the WSR's busiest day was Easter Saturday 20th April with 1,058 passengers carried followed by Friday 19th April with 854 passengers, and then Easter Sunday 21st April with 847 carried, and Bank Holiday Monday 22nd with 570 passengers.
To help mark the event, the railway also hosted a 'Paw Patrol' children's character events that drew many families to the seaside and travelling on many packed WSR services.
The 'Paw Patrol' event took place on Minehead Station, where visitors could see 'Chase' and 'Marshall' from the 'Paw Patrol' TV series, plus the WSR's very own mascot 'Brunel the Dog', all take part in arts and crafts demonstrations, face painting and enjoy some family entertainment with a Punch & Judy show.
This was the first year that the WSR has held a two-day 'Meet and Greet' event, and it proved to be a great success overall, with many visitors posting comments on social media platforms to express their gratitude for a great family day out.
Commenting about the Easter weekend, WSR plc Chairman Jon Jones Pratt said: "It was just a fantastic feeling to celebrate the return of our trains to Minehead in some style and with such a big hit event on the first weekend . Everyone at the WSR can feel very pleased and proud of their efforts in achieving this milestone."
Passenger figures on the WSR have been reassuringly high since the line reopened again after a three-month break to carry out various infrastructure works along the line on Saturday 30 March from Bishops Lydeard to Watchet and then on to Minehead on Good Friday 19 April in time for Easter. The total number of passengers from Sat 30 March to Sunday 28 April is almost 10,000 at 9,784, but the figures have been up every day on those in 2018 since the line fully reopened to Minehead on 19 April which is very encouraging.
I have attached some pix of the events of Good Friday 19th April for the first train back to Minehead and ribbon cutting etc which feature The Mayor, Town Crier, WSR Chairman and General Manager, plus WSR Mascot Brunel the Dog and Acting WSR CME Bob Meanley.
And no fewer than three former GWR Manor 78xx class locos, plus maybe two visiting pannier tank engines, and the West Somerset's own Mogul No. 9351 and resident former S&D 7F No. 53808 are expected to be the line's principal all steam, star motive power this Summer making it something of a feast for GWR fans.
The trio of Manors will be home-based No. 7828 Odney Manor and No. 7822 Foxcote Manor from the Llangollen Railway, plus hopefully No. 7802 Bradley Manor from the Severn Valley Railway, all of which will re-kindle the sight, sound, smell and memories for many of the popular Blue route diagram Class 4 types on Cambrian lines in Wales towards the end of steam.
Subject to inspections and hire agreements being concluded, Bradley Manor will hopefully arrive soon from the SVR in exchange for Hall class No. 6960 Raveningham Hall going the other way. This is expected to be a temporary move after the WSR reduced its Bishops Lydeard to Minehead axle loading to 19 tonnes while the 22-mile line catches up with a backlog of track and infrastructure works, thereby making the Red route diagram Hall just over the new lower axle weight limit.
And Hugh Shipton’s former GWR 64xx Pannier No. 6430 from the Llangollen Railway was a surprise and welcome Easter visitor when it called in for a short seaside holiday after the SDR's 50th Anniversary Gala but left again on Thursday 25th April.
But on loan Tyseley Locomotive Works 57xx Pannier No. 7752 is being repainted from its latter-day London Transport livery as L94 back into GWR Brunswick green, and also undergoing light repairs before entering service.
Also, for the 40th anniversary of the line’s reopening to Bishops Lydeard gala weekend on June 8/9, it is hoped to have 64xx Pannier No. 6412 back from the South Devon Railway but that now can only happen if a suitable cover loco can be found in time to run the SDR services that weekend. No. 6412 was one of the WSR’s original engines in back 1979 after purchase from the Dart Valley Railway in 1976, and then sold back to the SDR in 2007.
Popular WSR Mogul 2-6-0 No. 9351 is expected to return to traffic in the Summer after overhaul by the WSRA at Williton loco works.
For the June 20-23 diesel gala, Class 14 D9526, Class 33s D6566 and D6575 from the home fleet will run, with Class 35 Hymeks D7017 and D7018, the latter making its first normal public appearances since overhaul after engine failure in August 1995.
Class 47 D1661 and Class 52 D1010 Western Campaigner are out of service under overhaul. Other visitors to the event will be Class 25 D7535 from the South Devon Railway, Class 31 No. 31163/97205 from the Chinnor & Princess Risborough Railway, Class 37 D6948 from the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, and two Class 73/1s from GB Railfreight.
WSR plc Chairman Jon Jones Pratt commented: "We may also look to bring in some other steam engines later this year to provide variety but, in all honesty, the loco line-up for the 2019 season will be one of the best ever seen on the WSR and we are committed to achieving that.
"With regard to us reducing the axle weight limit, it will actually be a good thing for the WSR in the short term because it will allow us a period to better maintain and protect the WSR track and infrastructure to the correct standards before we then look at raising the weight limits again. And it also allows us to do something different rather than just the status quo plus we'll have a Class 37 this year too, so we are not standing still!"