Published: 10th Spetember 2016
Early this year, the South Devon Railway (SDR) started working with fellow Devon charity the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust ('Hannahs'). This was to see if there were ways of using SDR steam trains in connection with Hannahs forthcoming 'Illustrating Harry Potter' exhibition at their Seale Hayne campus during the summer, following - in some way - the concept of the unforgettable Hogwart's Express from J.K. Rowling's books.
Initially, the logistics did not look easy with the two sites being nearly 10 miles apart. However, SDR has its own red London double-deck Routemaster bus and an outline plan for provision of a link was drawn up in March by Matt Newbury of Hannah's and the SDR's Dick Wood.
Dubbed the 'Magic Express', visitors would take a one-way ride over the SDR then ride on the bus to Seale Hayne to see the exhibition. On leaving Hannahs the bus would provide the transport back for a return SDR trip to Buckfastleigh. Overall, a real-life historic transport experience.
“The SDR's red London bus, run by South Devon Railway Road Services as a separate limited company, is a popular vehicle for Summer weddings and other social events, especially on weekends,” explained Dick Wood. “Without knowing what the demand might be for the trains, the partnership opted for four Saturdays in July and August when the bus was free during the school holidays. That afforded two trips per day, one morning and one afternoon, on the SDR's easier Red timetable days. Prices were agreed and then publicised on Hannah's and the SDR websites from late April onwards.”
The one limiting factor was the seating capacity of the bus (64 people, including accompanying staff - usually four) so there could only ever have been a maximum 480 travellers using the 'Magic Express' rail and bus link to Hannahs over the four days, but a good business opportunity nevertheless.
Platform 9 3/4 at Buckfastleigh
All journeys started and finished at the SDR's Buckfastleigh station, which has a large car park and easy access off the A38. Visitors (most - of all ages – arriving in Harry Potter fancy dress and party mood) were met on arrival at Buckfastleigh, saw the bus, were shown the museum, given 'Magic Express' badges and quiz sheets and posed for photographs with the Platform 9 3/4 sign erected on the platform. They were accompanied to Hannahs by a mixture of SDR and Seale Hayne staff.
The seven-mile trip to Totness was steam-hauled with 'Magic Express' visitors riding in a reserved coach on the otherwise normal service train, answering quiz questions about what they saw during the trip to get into the swing of things.
On arrival at Totnes Littlehempston, visitors left the train to be greeted again by the SDR red bus crew who had gone there by road. More Harry Potter atmosphere was generated by costumed staff from the adjacent Totnes Rare Breeds Farm who brought owls onto the platform for the event days. 'Magic Express' visitors then walked across SDR’s footbridge to board the waiting bus at the mainline station for a short road journey to Hannahs via Newton Abbot.
Eye-catching posters and leaflets, plus press releases, websites and social media activity were used to publicise the Magic Express by both Hannahs and the SDR. All bookings were handled by Hannahs on-line to make things simple and also monitor interest.
“As expected, bookings were slow initially from the April/May launch, but soon bucked up when the school holiday period came ever closer and the marketing and publicity machines swung fully into action to boost sales and interest,” commented Dick Wood. “SDR's red bus was also used at Hannahs for a PR photocall with a specially made-up 'Magic Express' destination screen and staff in wizard costumes. The SDR is a member of the Devon Association of Tourist Attractions, which helped promote the 'Magic Express' trains via their website.
The first two 'Magic Express' trains on Saturday July 9 had loadings of 63% and carried a very respectable 76 people, but those running on July 23 hit 91% occupancy (109 passengers from 120 places) and trains on August 13 and 20 were sold out with 120 passengers on each trip. Overall, there was 88.5% occupancy and 425 tickets sold from the 480 available for all of the trains - a small-scale but nevertheless impressive and profitable operation!
“The 'Magic Express' trains not only provided a very good, and value-for-money day out for Harry Potter fans keen to see the 'Illustrating Harry Potter' exhibition at Seale Hayne, but also generated some good publicity and useful real income for both local charities,” Dick Wood summarised. “The 'Magic Express' was good news and certainly repaid the effort and faith which Hannahs and the SDR jointly put it into the project. Further collaborations by the two charities are now being considered.
The 'Illustrating Harry Potter' exhibition show continues to run every day at Hannahs until Sunday 25 September.
The boiler for Bulleid Pacific No. 34028 (SR No. 21C128) Eddystone was delivered from Swanage Railway to Buckfastlegh on August 4. South Devon Railway Engineering will undertake some serious overhaul work on the boiler, which joined two other Bullied Pacific boilers at the SDRE workshops, those from No. 34059 (SR No. 21C159) Sir Archibald Sinclair (Bluebell Railway) and No. 34101 (SR No. 21C101) Hartland (North Yorkshire Moors) which had arrived previously for major repairs.
The gathering of Bulleid boilers at SDRE is not coincidental, Bulleid owning groups having got together to commission work on their respective boilers in order to gain economies of scale.
SDRE built a reputation for work on Bulleid boilers when it completed ground breaking repairs on the boiler from No. 34027 (SR 21C127) Taw Valley (Severn Valley Railway) in April 2013, a contract originally started at Tavistock under the auspices of R K Pridham Engineering and transferred to Buckfastleigh when Pridham’s entire boiler repair business was bought by the SDR on Roger Pridham’s retirement in 2010.
That rebuild involved a completely new front tubeplate, new front half of the boiler barrel, most of a new outer firebox including complete new backhead, new foundation ring channels, a complete new inner firebox and two new thermic syphons. The 32 boiler flues with bottle ends welded on were also assembled at Buckfastleigh, the boiler then going to Bridgnorth where SVR’s Boiler Shop dealt with staying and tubing.