Report slams handling of 'the disaster that befell' West Somerset Railway
The management team at West Somerset Railway (WSR) has been slammed for the shambolic way in which it dealt with damage to the tracks which caused steam engines to be taken off the rails last summer.
An investigation, carried out by the organisation's own deputy chairman and published on Wednesday, reveals a string of mistakes and public relations described as "less than deft".
And an exclusive story in the Western Daily Press is recognised by the report as the first instance that many staff and volunteers at the heritage railway heard the rail-grinding exercise had gone wrong at the beginning of 2008, causing extra wear and tear to the steam engines' steel wheels.
The report is published by David Morgan, chairman of the Heritage Railway Association and a WSR director, based on the findings of an investigation by outside civil engineering consultant, David Holmes, and interviews with WSR staff.
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Pulling few punches, Mr Morgan described the fiasco as "the disaster that befell the railway" and said it must have cost the company, which runs the 22-mile stretch from near Taunton to Minehead, a "substantial" amount of cash.
At the beginning of last year, WSR was offered free use of a rail grinding machine by Network Rail to upgrade the surface of its tracks, on the basis it would be a useful training exercise for Network Rail.
In his response to the report, WSR chairman Mark Smith said: "Although our track has been praised by the rail industry, particularly visiting main-line train crews driving charter trains, the opportunity to improve the track surface free of charge was too good for our civil engineer to turn down and the work was carried out."
But, last spring, the WSR's chief mechanical engineer was carrying out maintenance checks on the steam locomotive fleet when he noticed an increase in wear on their wheels. He then checked the track and discovered rough areas had been left by the grinding process and confusion had arisen as to how, and by whom, the state of the rails should have been checked.
As a result, most of the steam train services had to be suspended until mid-July, with the timetable being maintained by vintage diesel locomotives.
Mr Smith admitted: "Many visitors naturally expect steam engines when they come to a heritage railway such as the West Somerset and, inevitably, some became very vociferous in their complaints to our station staff and train crews."
In fact, it was not until a Daily Press story extracted the truth about what had happened that some of the staff, volunteers and visitors found out what was wrong.
In his report, Mr Morgan admitted remedial works were put in place "speedily". But he said: "It seems that management woke up rather late to the fact that there was a public relations problem at all.
"In his letter, the (then) chairman, Chris Austin, candidly admits that he took the decision not to press release the bad news of the track problems more widely 'both to protect the reputation of the railway and to protect revenue during a difficult year'.
"The lack of dissemination of the bad news resulted in many groups coming long distances to travel on a steam train to be confronted by the lack of such a service, or at worst cancellations."
He said: "Management drastically failed to grasp the bad impact this was having and therefore failed to mitigate the effect of such cancellations. The failure to release information to the staff made it all the more difficult for the staff when they read the news in the Western Daily Press for the first time on 24 June."
He also criticised WSR's general manager, Paul Conibeare. He said: "It is clear to me that Paul Conibeare was somewhat out of his depth, both to the true causes of the engineering problems, but also as to how to handle the release of information."
Mr Smith said: "The West Somerset Railway has a very large volunteer workforce whose members attend on differing dates and for different periods of time and we were not as successful in briefing them and explaining the situation to them as we should have been.
"It must be stressed that at no time was the railway in a less-than-safe condition and that advertised services have been running normally since mid-July last year, culminating in 2008 being our second-best year to date in terms of passenger numbers.
"However, many hard lessons have had to be learned by the board and management of the railway and we will be putting in place more rigorous procedures for communicating problems and the remedial steps to our staff and customers in the future."
In his recommendations, Mr Morgan said: "There should be a standing plan set up for handling emergencies such as this.
"In particular, a public relations reporting system should be in place to activate when necessary with special regard to the staff, to the media, to the customers generally.
"Lastly, this report, together with that of consultant Holmes, should be reviewed in one year's time to ensure that those recommendations accepted by the board have been implemented or if not, why not."