It was ‘standing-room only’ as 320 supporters of the West Somerset Railway (WSR) attended a packed, three-hour meeting for stakeholders at the Oake Manor Golf Club, near Taunton on Saturday 2nd March.
WSR plc Chairman, Jonathan Jones-Pratt, and a number of other directors and senior figures from the railway addressed those present and they all set out a very open and honest appraisal of the various financial, governance, regulatory, compliance, mechanical and infrastructure difficulties which the WSR has faced over the winter months.
The various far-reaching steps and fund raising measures that have been taken so far and will be implemented soon were outlined to the audience, the aim of which is to put the railway onto a firm footing for the future.
Commenting after the meeting, Jonathan Jones-Pratt said: “It was heartening to see so many committed railway staff, volunteers and supporters at the packed and professionally run meeting. So many people wanted to attend that we had struggled to find a local venue big enough to accommodate everyone, such is the strong support for the WSR! Over the last six months, we have had to take some very tough and painful decisions to safeguard the railway’s future after a significant £500,000 funding gap became obvious, and also in the light of various recommendations made by the Office of Rail & Road ORR) regulators following an inspection in October 2018.
We have had to cut rapidly our costs and staffing, quickly sell some of our assets such as unrestored steam loco No. 4110, introduce new safety, training, competence and operating systems, totally overhaul our finances, and invest in and improve our infrastructure significantly at a considerable cost of £140,000, with even more spending on it needed every year from now on just to stand still.
But I was very pleased to tell everyone present that the WSR has been pulled back from the precipice of potential insolvency by our firm and decisive actions so far, and we can now face the 2019 season, and our 40th anniversary of running to Bishops Lydeard, with much more confidence and a much brighter future too.
I was particularly glad to have the Chairman of the West Somerset Railway Association, Paul Whitehouse, and the Chairman of the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust, Chris Austin, speaking alongside me and fellow directors today to share our ‘One Railway’ vision. We will all now put the difficulties and squabbles of the past few years firmly behind us and move forward as one railway acting in unison.”
Many of the people who asked questions at the end of the meeting also complimented all of the speakers for giving the audience such an open, honest and frank appraisal of the situation which faced the WSR in terms of improving regulatory compliance, strengthening the Board and management via new appointments, completely overhauling the finances, and investment in infrastructure .
This was evidenced by the fact that a cash collection after the meeting raised £3,250 towards work on GWR locomotive 9351 (which is due to return to traffic in July) and further sums towards infrastructure work on the line.
And another £6,200 was raised in new plc Shares showing solid support from existing shareholders that were at the meeting, plus another £1,000 promised by email, so over £10,000 was raised in just one afternoon. All 4,000 WSR plc shareholders will also be contacted shortly to seek further necessary investment which is expected to be at least £500,000 a year.
Jonathan Jones Pratt continued: “After we decided to extend the usual winter shut down period from January this year to carry out essential infrastructure works, the West Somerset Railway is now expected to re-open partially again on Saturday 30 March after a follow up inspection by the ORR in late March.”
So, our steam services will run initially from Bishops Lydeard to Williton, with a Diesel unit shuttle to and from Watchet so we reach the seaside, but the full line should re-open to Minehead on Saturday 6 April following completion of major track works at Blue Anchor which have proven to be more extensive than first thought sadly.
I know this phased reopening will disappoint everyone at the Minehead end of the line, especially those in the local accommodation, retail and catering sectors, who have been looking forward to our steam trains returning, but we will be running to and from Minehead in good time for Easter, and our teams are working very hard to get everything ready in time.”
In June this year, the WSR will be celebrating 40 years of running heritage services between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, and a special celebration is planned to mark the significant date.
A more detailed note of the stakeholder meeting on Saturday 2 March will be posted onto the WSR websites shortly.
Photo: Jonathan Jones-Pratt speaking to the assembled supporters at Saturday’s meeting.