WSR Plc Chairman's Message 2020

The WSR Plc Chairman's Christmas Message is usually for those working on or for the Railway. However, for 2020, it is being given wider distribution and may help give folks more details on what is happening and what is planned.

From Jonathan Jones Pratt, Chairman WSR PLC, Friday 18 December 2020

All of you will know that this year has been one of the most challenging years in the history of our railway. Already in a difficult financial situation before Covid-19, the board had to act fast to try and protect the assets after it became clear that the pandemic was going to affect operations in 2020.

We took the difficult decision to suspend all operations during the main season. Some of you have questioned why we took that path. With hindsight it has proved the right way forward. We were able to furlough our key staff and hence protect the railway without being exposed to debilitating costs, which may have bankrupted the railway and for paid staff to lose their jobs.

In the end, we made it through this difficult period, largely thanks to the generosity of our supporters and the hard work that led to a successful application for a large grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund for Heritage. Unlike many other heritage railways who were faced with a similar situation, we have been able to survive the crisis without making any redundancies and jeopardising the WSR’s future prospects.

The railway is now commencing our first operations of the season with a limited re-opening to operate our Santa trains and a few extra services between Christmas and New Year. Following extensive work from our preparation teams, this has proved to be enormously successful with the first trains already run and positive feedback from our customers. It looks like the remaining trains will all be fully booked with nearly £60K already taken in revenue.

I would like to send my personal thanks to everyone who has been involved in bringing the Santa operation together. This has also been a huge motivator for our volunteers who have turned out in huge numbers to support these services. With the vaccination program now underway, we are all hopeful that things can start to return to normal next year, albeit with a likely restricted service during the first part of the season as we seek to renew the crossing at Seaward Way, Minehead.

We still have plenty of challenges ahead. The now expanded PLC board of six is working hard on many different aspects of our operation, but especially those related to safety matters. Following a helpful visit from the ORR last month, we were given the green light to go ahead with the Christmas re-opening as planned, but we have further work to complete. This is mainly around upgrading of key necessary documentation. We have a project plan in place to complete this.

I should remind you that it is only two years to the date that we uncovered the dreadful accounting situation, plus the ORR taking significant interest due to the situation at the time. The present board is working hard on a continued improvement plan to provide a well performing company, both to generate profit and safety, with aspirations to go to the next level of a professional operation.

Sometimes, it is too easy to focus on the negative PR around the railway and forget about all of the positives achieved. Yes, it is true we have been through some difficult events, especially in relation to the unfortunate situation with the S&D and the recent attempts to take over the WSSRT. The former has been especially difficult for me and I acknowledge the strong emotions on the issue.

I am genuinely saddened by both of these events and especially the external impact on people’s perception of our railway. I do not wish to dwell on them. The direct feedback to me from the great majority of volunteers and staff is supportive. It tells me that their priorities are to see the WSR running and to avoid unnecessary distractions which get in the way of this.

Instead, I believe we should focus on the positives that have been achieved by the wonderful teams of people working to make our railway successful. Some of the many good examples include:

Finance and Commercial

  • A cash balance of 300k – 400k in the bank maintained throughout the pandemic, with no loans or overdrafts used and no loss of jobs
  • An additional £1.3m in liquid funds raised to support the collective WSR groups
  • Williton Restoration is now generating a profit – a first for some time in its operational history, a great tribute to the team
  • Ballast ‘commercial’ works at NF continuing to bring in much needed revenue
  • Several successful and profitable Living Museum events held at Minehead
  • Christmas reopening in plan in full swing and selling very well online.
  • New commercial arm opened at Minehead Steam Shed

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

  • The four QB vehicles repainted and now back at Bishops Lydeard – cleaned ready and waiting.
  • Two full coach restorations completed along with a repaint
  • Several further carriages painted and revarnished, we are on target to ensure we have three sets of 7 to operate in good order for 2021.
  • Brake compartment areas now being painted to create a better staff/customer experience.
  • Several bogie detail repaints completed with a further programme plan for the whole fleet.
  • Replacement tender commissioned for Odney Manor
  • 53808 prepared and rebuilt for its time away at the Mid-Hants railway
  • 9351 and 7828, made ready for the winter season with boiler work completed
  • 7822 Foxcote Manor running contract extended and 5199 hire agreement made for 2021
  • Fitness to run exams completed across the whole operational fleet
  • 4561 restoration has recommenced and is now well underway.

Organisation, Management, Staff Competency and Training

  • Operational structure review with new roles hired including CME and Ops Manager
  • New Directors appointed to the PLC Board with strong business and professional experience
  • All staff returned to work in full in November 2020
  • New Apprentice legacy plans in discussion
  • Refresher competence training for Drivers/Guards/Signalmen done ready for re-opening
  • New heads of terms proposed with S & D – to enable a joint approach to the future
  • Positive work on the implementation of the Bailey recommendations
  • Rewriting of the full Safety Management System (SMS) in final version to conclude March 21

Infrastructure and Reated Safety Issues

  • Installation of new crossing at Seaward Way, plans underway for completion in early 2021
  • Full weeding programme across the 22 mile track bed, led by our excellent volunteer working groups
  • Permanent Way works now recommenced using funding from the CHRF and WSRA
  • S & T maintained with fully working infrastructure, despite deterioration due lack of use
  • Full line bridge and infrastructure audit completed with very positive outcomes
  • Extensive Permanent Way infrastructure plan in place for winter 20/21
  • Re-ballast work taking place and full line walk audits
  • Cutting back across the 22 mile line
  • Signal box repairs carried out in several locations
  • Shop and Office refurbishment completed at Minehead Station (Many thanks to FOMS for the £10K funding towards this project) and several station repaints completed.

The above list covers many back-ground but essential tasks and requirements which are not immediately obvious to everyone. They show what it takes to get the railway in a position to operate safely and provide a good experience for passengers.

From my perspective, the WSR is now in a good strong position despite the impact of recent events. We can now all have confidence about our future. Our volunteers and staff have put much love and effort into the railway and I believe they now deserve much quieter and happier times.

Despite the very many recent challenges, the railway community has come together. Common sense is now prevailing. I believe we have turned a corner and the future is truly bright for all of us. We know how to operate a safe and profitable railway. Our plans will support future investment.

Finally, I am delighted to announce that we have made arrangements for shareholders, volunteers and staff to have an opportunity to ride a train free of charge on a round trip non-stop service between Bishops Lydeard and Williton on 29th/30th/31st December departing BL at 1015am. The first two dates are part of our existing public services marketed as the 'Winter Steam Journey' but with specific coaches allocated for WSR teams. The final date of 31st will be exclusive to WSR people with no public access to the train. This will be the very last service of the 2020 season. To travel on these trains, please send an e-mail to to secure a seat, we are limited to appx 50% capacity due to Covid.-19. [Please note these trains will not run due to Covid restrictions introduced by HM Government after this message was penned.]

I wish all of you and your loved ones a Happy Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year. I am confident that 2021 will be a good year for all of us once the vaccination programme is in full swing and I look forward to seeing each and every one of you out on the railway next year.