By Cliff Thomas

West Country steam railways open for business

Published 6th April 2014

West Somerset Railway’s Spring Steam Gala’s message - open for business!

Given a ‘Withered Arm and The Atlantic Coast Express’ (ACE) theme, the WSR’s Spring Gala attracted 5,130 passengers with fare revenues from the four-day event 19% up compared with the nine-day 2013 spring gala. This was a gratifying result given that a couple of months earlier national news media created an impression that Somerset was under water.

ACE feast of steam

The feast of steam saw 10 locomotives in action over the four days, 9 hauling trains on the Minehead – Bishops Lydeard line (plus selected services working beyond Bishops Lydeard to the Norton Fitzwarren platform) supported by the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust’s Peckett 0-4-0ST Kilmersdon on ‘special duties’.

Guest steam for the event came in the form of ‘Battle of Britain’ No. 34070 Manston (visiting from the Swanage Railway), ‘West Country’ No. 34007 Wadebridge (Mid-Hants Railway), GWR 4300 class 2-6-0 No. 5322 (Didcot) and SR Maunsell U class 2-6-0 No. 31806 (Mid Hants). The visitors joined WSR residents GWR Large Prairie No. 4160, No. 6960 Raveningham Hall, No. 7828 Odney Manor, GWR 2-8-0 No. 3850 and S&DJR 7F No. 88. Peckett 0-4-0ST Kilmersdon worked ‘Driver for a Fiver’ duties at Minehead on the Friday and Saturday and was in steam in the sidings at Washford on the Sunday.

In accordance with the ‘Withered Arm’ theme, the WSR’s stations were ‘renamed’ for the event, becoming Crediton (Bishops Lydeard), Bridestowe (Crowcombe Heathfield), Portsmouth Arms (Stogumber), Halwill Junction (Williton), Yeo Mill Halt (Doniford Halt), Bideford (Watchet), Mortehoe (Washford), Instow (Blue Anchor), Filleigh (Dunster) and Ilfracombe (Minehead).

One day of problems as Manston fails

The event went well overall, the exception being Friday March 28, although the WSR may have been forgiven for thinking the date was really the 13th! Amid the wind and rain (the only poor weather day) the timetable slipped along with Wadebridge’s wheels on the damp rail head, ‘Battle of Britain’ No. 34070 Manston suffered a big end bearing failure and spent the remainder of the gala in the loco compound at Bishops Lydeard and Prairie No. 4160 arrived at Williton short of water and had to come off its train to access the water column before continuing its journey.

The timetable dropped by an hour or more and loco allocations had to be re-arranged, upgrading S&DJR 7F No. 88 from light steam at Washford to front line service, with diagrams adjusted to ensure No. 34007 Wadebridge worked remaining ‘Atlantic Coast Express’ designated trains, a duty otherwise to have been shared with Manston.

Never mind the problems, these things can happen and the WSR dealt with them. The point which was crystal clear to anyone visiting the gala is that neither the Minehead branch nor anywhere else in Somerset is under water. The fact is, the overwhelming majority of Somerset was never affected by the flooding which hit the headlines in January and February.

Combating incorrect impressions or the drip drip drip of incorrect information

While heartbreaking and devastating for the people living around villages such as Moorland and Burrowbridge, the flooding occurred in a comparatively small area of the low-lying Somerset Levels. The waters receded during March and dredging of the drainage channels and rivers is in progress as the comparatively small number of people whose homes and farms were inundated set about dealing with the aftermath.

The problem the WSR is wrestling with is one of perception, sharply brought into focus when WSR and Exmoor Tourism marketing people attended the Best of Britain and Ireland Travel Trade Show at Birmingham’s NEC in mid-March. Tour operators were telling them packages with the county name in the title are subject to a stream of cancellations, “because they’re all flooded down there”.

The result is the tour becoming unviable, leading to cancellation of the booking with the WSR. The incorrect impression has spread worldwide with operators from India and Japan reporting the same story. Local accommodation providers were saying business was down 80-90% at the end of February - if people do not come to the area they will not be travelling on the WSR.

Hopefully, the success of the gala will help get the message across – Somerset is not flooded, and the railway line from the outskirts of Taunton to the coast at Minehead never was!

How to get to Minehead

National Rail services run to Taunton on a regular basis from Scotland, Bristol, London and Cornwall. From Taunton a dedicated bus link operates on days when through rail services are not available direct to Minehead. Check www.redspottedhanky.co.uk for details.

Otherwise, charter trains from all over the network travel to Minehead on a regular basis, see the www.rail.co.uk charter train listings for details.

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