After being closed for exactly one full year next Wednesday (17th March) as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the scenic South Devon Railway (SDR) has just announced its outline programme today for a Spring re-opening of the seven-mile heritage line running from Buckfastleigh to Totnes.
The last SDR steam trains ran virtually empty on Tuesday 17 March 2020 after visitors deserted Devon just ahead of the first lockdown the following weekend. This dramatic change came straight after a very popular weekend SDR steam gala event featuring former branch favourite loco No. 4555 as the star visitor. What a contrast!
It’s now the longest period that the quintessential former GWR branch line has been closed in its 52-year history after re-opening as a tourist railway in 1969 following closure by British Railways in 1962.
Now, the SDR says it will re-open to visitors in phases starting with the large Buckfastleigh site first on Monday 12 April when national CV-19 restrictions are set to ease significantly for attractions.
The site ‘Open Days’ will follow a similar format to those successfully staged last summer and autumn. Opening up the site was very popular with SDR visitors last year, and includes the gardens, workshop viewing, riverside picnic area, children’s playground, Lee Moor Tramway museum, north signal box, and the gift & model shop will be open too.
Many of the SDR’s steam and diesel locomotives and historic coaches will be on display and, on selected days, both the miniature railway and the garden railway will be in operation too.
The SDR site will be open all of the week commencing 12th April for the half-term holiday, then on every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday until 16th May. Entrance is free, but the SDR does ask for a donation at the gate. There is plenty of free car parking at Buckfastleigh station too.
And, at long last, the really good news is that SDR trains are set to start steaming down the picturesque valley of the River Dart once more from Monday 17 May, and the fantastic sight, sound and smell of them are now almost as much a natural part of the landscape as the trees, green fields, cattle and Devon’s rolling hills.
Not surprisingly, SDR staff can’t wait to welcome visitors back to the railway. A timetable of four steam trains per day will be in operation, leaving Buckfastleigh at 10.30, 12.10, 2.15 and 4.00, and arriving back about one and quarter hours later. More follows
The SDR is putting in a range of measures to ensure that customers can travel on trains in confidence and safely. This includes reduced capacity on trains, all tickets booked in advance, socially distanced passenger flow systems, hand sanitisation stations and enhanced cleaning regimes. Unless visitors are exempt on health grounds, the SDR is are asking everyone to wear face coverings on its stations and trains.
Train tickets will be available from Monday 12th April on the SDR website www.southdevonrailway.co.uk and booking website. As further restrictions on social distancing and household mixing are hopefully reduced, the SDR hopes to be able increase the number of trains it runs, so watch this space.
Getting things ready to roll……..and the money side of things!
During the enforced closure of the last 12 months, the SDR has still managed to carry out considerable, necessary planned maintenance and improvement works all along the line, but using socially distanced workers, ranging from stations, signal boxes, undergrowth removal and track repairs to signalling, coach and loco repairs, plus endless cleaning so that everything is ready for re-opening again.
And SDR staff and volunteers will also be undergoing refresher and competence training in almost all railway duties, plus a host of behind-the-scenes work has been done to get the operation ready to run, including a focus on detailed risk assessments and enhanced hygiene regimes.
Some brand new running rails have been bought, delivered and installed along the line using some of the Cultural Heritage Recovery Fund (CHRF) grant monies received from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport’s (DCMS) programme, and the SDR has submitted another six-figure bid (£165,900) for Round Two CHRF funding with a hopefully positive announcement anticipated later this month.
All told, the SDR has raised some £1.2 million from all sources so far to try and safeguard the railway’s future. All of this money is going to be needed for survival, but the appeal is still bringing in more cash every single week after running for a year! A great achievement.
The SDR’s next bold funding target is to try and reach £1.5 million if possible, but it also still has one eye on the anticipated share issue launch of the railway’s planned move to become a Charitable Community Benefit Society (CCBS) this year which has been delayed by CV-19 of course. It’s an important move with a new structure for the SDR.
To illustrate the scale of the massive financial hit taken by the SDR over the last year, the railway has now revealed that just 1,750 passengers travelled on the line in 2020 compared to 83,527) in 2019, a staggering drop of 98%, and it has lost around £2 million in revenue overall.
This impressive £1.2 million approximate funding total includes the SDR’s own ‘SOS’ appeal for donations, which now stands at a very creditable £310,601.08.
It also features sizeable grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF – £124,800); the CHRF from DCMS (£332,300); and Teignbridge Borough Council (@£34,000); 2020 site open days donations and income (£95,000); an insurance rebate (£5,200), plus the sale of an asset in the form of valuable steam engine, former GWR Hall Class loco No. 4920 for an undisclosed, six-figure sum.
Despite the massive losses incurred so far, the SDR family community of staff, volunteer workers, supporters, enthusiasts and local people alike is optimistic that it can run profitably again in 2021, albeit with a much shorter season than usual from late May onwards.
Upcoming in 2021
Looking ahead to Christmas, ‘The Polar Express™’ is coming to the South Devon Railway for the very first time after the event sadly had to be cancelled last year. People are advised to keep an eye on the SDR website and social media feeds for more news, and tickets are due to go on sale in June. It will be popular, and some 17,500 tickets were booked last year!
South Devon Railway Marketing Director Peter Treglown said: “It has been such a long time with no visitors to the South Devon Railway, but the whole SDR team is getting very excited to be able to welcome people back and it’s the news we have eagerly been waiting for. We are now on the rails to recovery.
“Whilst the re-opening is later than we had hoped and it misses Easter of course, it’s vitally important that CV-19 restrictions are eased cautiously and safely as the national vaccination programme is rolled out.
“This means our visitors and volunteers will still need to wear masks while on our station platforms and when on the trains, unless in their own social bubble in a closed compartment, and we expect these restrictions to continue until late June, depending on further Government guidance.
“So, we’re delighted to announce our outline phased re-opening plans today for the railway. The safety and wellbeing of our visitors, volunteers and staff is paramount.
“We have Visit England’s “We’re Good To Go” accreditation in place and are working on other accreditations, plus we will continue with the adaptations implemented on site last year to allow us to welcome visitors safely and provide the reassurance they need.
“Feedback from visitors in 2020 about the measures we adopted to welcome people safely was very positive and we will again re-open gradually, in line with government guidance.
“We have a lot for visitors to discover at Buckfastleigh and we’re making use of the whole 12-acre site to ensure there is plenty of room for them to relax and enjoy a gentle stroll as they explore. And then, we’ll have the steam trains back running again soon in May which will be a real red letter day for the whole railway!
“Each stage of lockdown easing may change of course, as the Government regularly highlights in their briefings, so our planned opening dates may change too, but we’ll be keeping everyone up-to-date if that happens.”
“We are aware that some other heritage railways are planning to start train services earlier than 17th May, many of whom use compartment coaches. However, after much careful consideration of the Government’s roadmap, we cannot justify an earlier opening date as our train rides are a predominantly indoors attraction that sees different households within the same indoor space.”
No fewer than seven of the Devon Association of Tourist Attractions (DATA) 36 members were named as finalists in the prestigious 2020 Devon Tourism Awards organised on behalf of the county’s destination marketing organisation ‘Visit Devon’, and the winners announced on 12 March.
One of them was the SDR’s PR & Business Development Manager Dick Wood who was a losing finalist for the ‘Business Leader of the Year’ category for his dedicated work for the SDR and DATA over the last year. He has also promised to finally shave off his now luxuriant, long white beard – grown over the last year to help the SDR raise funds – for when trains run again, and he can’t wait to see the barber!
The tourism awards comes as welcome news for us and Devon as the local and national tourism and hospitality industries navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, with most West Country businesses facing the worst financial crisis they have ever had to endure.
For more information about the Devon Tourism Awards see here.
For more information about South Devon Railway see here