West Somerset cancels spring gala
2019 gala scrapped as new chairman says troubled line ‘can’t compromise regulation for money’.
The West Somerset Railway will curtail its timetabled operations from January 2 until the end of March – including scrapping its keynote spring gala – following a “routine inspection” by the Office of Rail and Road.
The visit was triggered by a whistle-blower who alerted the inspectorate to what they regarded as worrying aspects of how the railway was being run. At the same time, statements criticising the railway’s operation were made on an internet forum, which were also noted by the regulator. In order to satisfy the ORR that its regimes are up to standard in five specific areas (safety, infrastructure, procedures, record-keeping and compliance, and governance), the railway – led by Chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt – has responded by taking it upon itself to cancel 17 running days, including its four-day spring steam gala, as well as conducting a full internal audit and staff restructure. The line’s Safety Management System is also being rewritten.
However, the businessman, and owner of GWR 4-6-0s Kinlet Hall and Thornbury Castle, stressed: “I want to make it 100% clear that there has never been any major safety threat or unreported dangerous occurrence.” He also emphasised that the ORR did not threaten the WSR with closure, nor did it issue an improvement notice as a result of its visit.
WSR General Manager Paul Conibeare estimates that there will be a revenue shortfall of £135,000 during the closure period, but recognises that “significant gala costs would not fall in March”.
Mr Jones-Pratt was originally drafted in as interim chairman in September in order to deal with the impending October 18/19 inspection. His appointment was made permanent in late October.
ORR spokesman Simon Belgard told Steam Railway: “We made a routine inspection and then wrote to the company regarding what we found, as we do following all routine inspections. We do not publish the results of these inspections, nor the letters we write to the companies.”
The line is traditionally closed to passengers for winter maintenance between January and February half-term, but the extended suspension of services is necessary because, says Mr Jones-Pratt: “we can’t compromise regulation for money… We need to catch up, but we can’t do that with the distraction of running trains. I wasn’t prepared to go in and hold a gala straight away [following the audit] – that would not be responsible. It’s all about accountability.
“People might think I’m hardball. Well, they’re right.
“In my perhaps biased view, the WSR has almost stagnated in recent years, and arguably lost sight of being one of the country’s premier heritage railways, partly because of the political distractions of the recent past.”
Engineering and lineside clearance trains will still run as part of the upgrade to the 23-mile line’s infrastructure which, the WSR chairman told Steam Railway, is “wearing out”.
Included in this will be repairs to a landslip at Stogumber and permanent way repairs in order to maintain the current axle loading that enables heavier engines to visit the line.
The ORR has been invited to return in March and review progress. Resumption of passenger trains is now advertised for a ‘Grand Reopening’ weekend on March 30/31.
The unprecedented move comes as the chairman conducts a major review of his board and staff in accordance with the ORR’s desire to see a more cohesive leadership and staff structure.
“We are delivering the clear message that we are in control.”
Former Tyseley Locomotive Works Managing Director Bob Meanley has filled the capacity of acting chief mechanical engineer. Furthermore, Royal Sun Alliance boiler inspector Bob Garnett has been drafted in to ensure compliance with boilers and pressure vessels.
At board level, Mark Smith, who served as the WSR’s general manager for 16 years until 2006, has been co-opted to become a Policy & Business Development director. The remainder of the board comprises Jon Jones-Pratt, Paul Conibeare, Ric Auger and Frank Courtney, although more appointments will follow to cover specific business needs.
It coincides with the resignations of directors Rodney Greenway and Ian Coleby. Finance Director Richard Maw has also stepped down for personal reasons.
Ian Coleby issued a statement indicating his intention to remain as a volunteer. He said: “I joined the board in 2015 and the last three years have been challenging as well as enjoyable. Jon Jones-Pratt is a very competent and effective chairman, so now is the right time to step away and let fresh faces take the plc forward… The railway is now in safe hands and I look forward to seeing it grow and prosper.”
Mr Coleby, who served as chairman until August 23, had
previously issued stark warnings about the line’s finances (SR484).
Mr Jones-Pratt accepts that money remains a pressing concern which, in his words, is “not good… the business needs a good kick.”
Part of the process of balancing the books will be an offer of voluntary redundancy to some staff in an effort to reduce the annual £1.25 million wage bill against an income of £3m.
“We’re now building a business model, then we’ll look at the staff structure. The exercise is not about simply shedding staff.”
Mr Jones-Pratt has praised the WSR Association’s commercial response to the closure announcement; the relationship with the plc had become, he says, “a roller-coaster of disaster… the fallouts with the association were undermining the business.”
The eye of the storm struck in 2013 when both organisations failed with competing bids to acquire the freehold of the line from Somerset County Council.
“[The association] needs to support the railway and they have listened. I’m very impressed and they are working very hard to raise funds.”
When Steam Railway asked whether this three-month closure and the associated restructuring represented the last chance to eradicate the WSR’s issues, the railway’s chairman responded: “It is the last chance. I love the railway and the people. I care about them, but we can’t go on with these shenanigans… we’re now working through the troublemakers.”
“I want to be in a position where we can say ‘we are the best railway out there’ – and a benchmark for the ORR to say to others: ‘go to the West Somerset to see how it’s done’.”
WE CAN’T GO ON WITH THESE SHENANIGANS… WE’RE NOW WORKING THROUGH THE TROUBLEMAKERS JON JONES-PRATT
A classic West Somerset gala scene: ‘7F’ No. 53808 leads ‘West Country’No. 34046 Braunton (running as No. 34052 Lord Dowding ) away from Williton with the ‘Pines Express’ for Bishops Lydeard on September 25.