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
Locomotives and Rolling Stock
Organisation, Management, Staff Competency and Training
Infrastructure and Reated Safety Issues
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.]