The West Somerset Railway (WSR) has won a Herculean race against time to undertake major infrastructure works costing some £170,000; overhaul its staff training, competence and compliance systems, and sort out its finances in going forward during the first three months of 2019 during an extended Winter closed period.
The Office of Rail & Road (ORR) visited the WSR again last Friday (22 March) to undertake an audit of progress made by the WSR against recommendations for changes in governance, regulatory compliance, mechanical and infrastructure improvements since the ORR’s last inspection in October 2018.
Following the ORR visit, WSR plc Chairman Jon Jones Pratt commented: “The ORR inspectors were very impressed by all of the massive progress across the board that we have made during a relatively short period, and I’m delighted they gave us a clean bill of health to re-open this coming weekend.
“But it’s been a race against time to try and get all of the work completed and a great testament to the hard work and dedication of our staff, volunteers, contractors and supporters to whom we owe a great debt of thanks. Our shareholders have bought over £20,000 of new shares since our stakeholders meeting on 2 March to help fund the works, and it’s been reminiscent of the efforts by the early WSR’s pioneers who first re-opened the line in 1976.”
The extended closure period enabled the WSR to focus its efforts on vital track works and other maintenance along the line, as well as dealing with all of the ORR’s recommendations.
Although all of the infrastructure works are well advanced, some unforeseen problems were found with the track work around Blue Anchor, including having to order a new replacement point, which means that steam and diesel train services will begin initially between Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, and Watchet from Saturday 30 March, and then over the full line to Minehead from Good Friday 19 April once the Blue Anchor works are largely completed.
So, on Saturday March 30th, former Great Western Railway Hall Class loco No. 6960 “Raveningham Hall” will steam out of Bishops Lydeard station at 10.15 – appropriately crewed by Jon Jones Pratt as Fireman and Driver Ray Lee – and operate the day’s services through the beautiful spring countryside, complete with lovely views of the Quantock Hills.
As there is no loco turning facility at Watchet, the return legs from the seaside town will be hauled by a 1960's heritage diesel locomotive courtesy of the D&EPG’s fleet at Williton in what railwaymen and women call a ‘top and tail’ operation with a loco at each end of the train, so recreating a realistic 1960's branch line theme.
WSR trains will then run to the same ‘top and tail’ service pattern on all timetabled running days until Friday 19th April, when the first full line steam services of the season will run through to Minehead.
Jon Jones-Pratt comments: “The WSR wishes to apologise to all accommodation providers in West Somerset who have been inconvenienced or lost business as a result of the extended closure period, but we had no choice and had to undertake some costly, unexpected and time consuming track works, especially around Blue Anchor. I look forward greatly to the day when the whole railway is open again.”
And the scheduled “Quantock Belle” dining train on March 31st will unusually traverse the line between Bishops Lydeard and Norton Fitzwarren, which is rarely used by passenger trains, before taking its Mother’s Day customers on their journey through the hills to Watchet.
WSR plc Chairman Jones Pratt continued: “Although we are all looking forward to our services continuing through to Minehead, the work needed at Blue Anchor has been more extensive than first thought. Having access to just over half of the line allows us much needed time to complete the works to the high standards required.
“Our Permanent Way Engineers and volunteers have all been working extremely hard, and in all weathers, over the closed period to ensure that we can get our services back up and running as soon as possible and we are grateful for all their efforts so far and the many thousands of hours worked.
“We hope that people will turn up in good numbers during our first weeks of operating to support the WSR again and enjoy the heritage steam railway experiences and services we offer.
“Our temporary terminus at Watchet is a vibrant seaside destination, and we have been in communication with many in the town to help enhance the experience as much as possible during this period.
“The support which the WSR has received from volunteers, staff, shareholders, support organisations and the general public over the closure period has been extremely humbling.”
2019 also marks the 40th Anniversary of the completion of the re-opening of the full length of the West Somerset Railway in 1979 and a celebration weekend will take place on 8th and 9th June.
Information about this and other special events including dining trains, children’s events, driving experiences and more can be seen at www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk or obtained by ringing 01643 704996.