By Phil Marsh

Peace breaks out at the West Somerset Railway

Published 3rd March 2016

West Somerset Railway Association members vote for a new start after years of political battles

West Somerset Railway Association members voted in a new chairman and board of trustees at a February 27 Extraordinary General Meeting. Heritage Railway Association representatives served as independent vote-counters at the EGM which had been called by WSRA members seeking change in the board of Trustees membership.

Over 1,700 votes were cast, most by proxy, with 1,674 voting in favour of a resolution which removed six Trustees from office, with 67 votes against. Six new trustees were co-opted to the Board immediately after the formal close of the EGM. The meeting was chaired by Frank Courtney, the Trustee who had been appointed Acting Chairman, and the meeting chose Paul Whitehouse (a former Chief Constable of Sussex) to become Company Secretary of the Association. Earlier in February the previous WSRA company secretary, Ms Susan Kaufman, was reported as having resigned the post for personal reasons.

Years of tensions

West Somerset Railway Association was formed in 1971 as the charitable body to support the West Somerset Railway Company in re-opening the Taunton to Minehead branchline. The company, now West Somerset Railway plc, operates today’s highly successful 23-mile heritage line between Bishops Lydeard.

Tensions have grown over the years between the Association (a significant shareholder in the WSR company) and WSR Plc. These erupted to the surface in autumn 2013 when both organisations made competing bids to buy the freehold of the railway from Somerset County Council. In the event, the Council opted not to sell the freehold and talks have continued aimed at renewing the existing lease to WSR plc with a conclusion anticipated by early summer.

No confidence in Trustees

However, the escalating row led a significant section of WSRA membership to express concern at the direction taken by the Trustees responsible for running the Association. This culminated in a vote of no confidence at a general meeting in May 2015, when the membership also passed a resolution to set up of an independent review.

The Independent Review Panel, chaired by Robin Coombes, reported its findings – officially titled ‘The Road Ahead’, but increasingly tagged ‘The Coombes Report’ - in December 2015.

The panel found significant weaknesses and areas of serious concern in the governance of the Association and expressed the unanimous view that to achieve the aims of the terms of reference of WSRA a new board of Trustees was necessary to lead and direct the process of returning the Association to its core role of supporting the West Somerset Railway. The panel felt that, “in the interests of the Association and wider WSR family the current Trustees should step down with a degree of dignity and respect intact.”

In the event, with many arguing the future of the WSRA was at stake, the trustees were removed from office at the February 27 EGM called by WSRA members.

They said:

The outcome was swiftly welcomed by West Somerset Railway PLC board, which issued a statement enthusiastically receiving the consequent appointment, “of new trustees to a board that we can work with.” “We consider this to be a definitive result which was achieved by Association members proposing and voting overwhelmingly for the resolution when given the opportunity.

It is a very positive first step for the future, demonstrating acceptance of the recommendations of the Coombes Review, the need to restore good governance to the Association, and the rebuilding of relationships not only with the PLC, but the whole West Somerset railway family,” the statement continued. “We now expect the ex-trustees to allow a smooth transition to the new board.”

PLC chairman, John Irven, commented, “I have already warmly recognised to Frank Courtney and the new board their courage and fortitude in achieving this result, and have confirmed every effort will continue to be made by myself and the PLC directors to help move things forward.”

Other news from West Somerset

Spring gala steam updates

The visiting locomotive line up for West Somerset Railway’s S&DJR theme March 5-6 and March 10-13 2016 Spring Gala ( ) has been modified. Despite the best efforts of WSR and various locomotive owners it has not been possible to finalise a gala visit by either Mid-Hants Railway’s ‘Black Five' No. 45379 or a substitute Stanier class 5 4-6-0. However, Great Central Railway came to WSR’s aid and offered ex-LMS 8F recently re-liveried as No. 48624. “Our thanks to both the GCR and the locomotive's owners for this generous offer at short notice,” commented WSR Chief Mechanical Engineer, Andy Forster.

No. 48624 will act as a direct replacement for No. 45379 in the gala brochure locomotive diagrams. “This will only be the second time that an 8F has run on the WSR and it is over 20 years since 48773 spent a summer based at Minehead, added Mr Forster.

In addition to the headline grabbing locos on the WSR main line, two ex-industrials will also be in steam. Ryan Pope’s Andrew Barclay 0-4-0ST 1219/1911 will make its steam debut shunting in the yard at Washford. The loco has been restored at West Somerset Restorations works at Williton where its young owner is an apprentice. Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust’s Peckett 0-4-0ST Kilmersdon will work at Minehead, running shuttle services out of the station offering visitors rides in 1886-built former S&D first class coach No. 4 or an LSWR road van.

Proposals for future development at Washford

The Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust, based at Washford station since the mid-1970s (when the station was derelict and the WSR revival project not yet operational), is looking at potential developments to create a significant visitor attraction at the site. Predicated on likely renewal of its lease from WSR in 2020 and a grant received from the Association of Independent Museums, a consultant has produced plans for an attraction that would secure the long-term sustainability of the site.

The proposals include constructing a pedestrian footbridge over the tracks at the Blue Anchor end of the station to give safe access to the yard side, moving the current ‘Wells’ building to the far end of the site, creation of an education centre and enhanced car parking. A bid for Heritage Lottery Fund cash will be prepared with the ambition of starting work on the project in 2018. Estimated costs are between £1.5m and £1.75m.

S&DRT currently has a museum within the station building, a sizeable restoration and storage shed in the old goods yard and owns S&DJR 7F 2-8-0 No. 88 (which runs on the WSR) together with items of S&D rolling stock including restored 1886-built former S&D first class coach No. 4. Also based at Washford is the trust’s Peckett 0-4-0ST Kilmersdon.

Bishops Lydeard – WSR’s ‘Southern Gateway’

WSR is preparing plans for developments at Bishop’s Lydeard with a project manager likely to be appointed shortly. An HLF application is likely, to be submitted after the S&DRT’s application for support of its Washford developments.

Williton developments

A Williton Site Development Group has been looking at potential future developments at this important location. A phased approach seems likely but things are presently on hold while the position concerning West Somerset Railway Association stabilises (see above). In addition to WSR itself, major stakeholders located on the Williton site include the Diesel and Electric Preservation Group (DEPG) and WSRA in the form of the associations engineering operation, West Somerset Restoration.

The station buildings at Williton are the only examples on the WSR engineered by I K Brunel, offering an opportunity to market the ‘Brunel Legend’ to promote the railway.

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