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South Devon Railway Fights back

(Andy Lock)

After more than a year of being closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the South Devon Railway has announced a programme of reopening of its line from Buckfastleigh to Totnes.

The last steam trains on the South Devon Railway ran nearly empty on Tuesday 17th March 2020 before the lockdown meant visitors left Devon the following weekend, this was straight after a popular gala for the South Devon Railway, with 4555 becoming the star visitor.

However, it is now the longest period that the former GWR line has been closed it is 52-year history of being a tourist railway. Now, the South Devon Railway will reopen in phases from Monday 12th April 2021 when restrictions are set to ease for attractions.

The Open Days will follow a format similar to those run last Summer and Autumn, which proved popular with visitors wanting to visit the gardens, workshop viewing, picnic area, tramway museum and signal box alongside the gift shop and model shop. All of these will reopen from the 12th April 2021.

A number of coaches, diesel and steam locomotives will be on display and on selected dates, both the miniature and garden railways will be in operation.

The site will be open all week from the 12th April 2021 and then on Tuesday, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays until the 16th May. Entrance to the site is free, but donations are appreciated.

From Monday 17th May 2021, steam trains will resume steaming down the Dart Valley once more. A timetable of four trains per day will run, leaving Buckfastleigh at 10.30, 12.10, 2.15 and 4.00. Tickets for trains will be available to book from Monday 12th April 2021 on the South Devon Railway booking site.

Despite being closed, the South Devon Railway has still completed a number of maintenance projects, using social distancing, ranging from work on stations and signal boxes to undergrowth removal.

Refresher courses and competence training have also been completed to make sure staff are ready to run.

Brand new rails have been bought and installed along the line using some money from the Culture Heritage Recovery Fund, with the South Devon Railway submitting a bid for a further £165,900 for round two of the funding.

The South Devon Railway has raised £1.2m from all sources to safeguard its future, with money still being brought in every week. The next target for the SDR is to try and reach £1.5m, but the railway still has an eye on the share issue launch of the railways plan to become a Charitable Community Benefit Society, but this has been delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The railway has also revealed that in 2020, 1750 passengers travelled on the line, compared to 83,527 in 2019, a drop of 98% and a revenue drop of £2m, but the SOS Appeal for donations has now raised £310,601. Grants came from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (£124,800), the Culture Heritage Recovery Fund (£332,300), and Teignbridge Borough Council (£34,000). The open days brought in income of £95,000, and insurance rebates came to £5,200.

The sale of GWR Hall No. 4920 Dumbleton Hall has also helped the appeal, bringing in an undisclosed six-figure sum.

For Christmas, The Polar Express is coming to the South Devon Railway for the first time after being cancelled in 2020. It will be a popular event, with some 17,500 tickets being 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. While 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.”

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