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’.”



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.


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