The West Somerset Railway (WSR) is a 23-mile long steam heritage railway running through the heart of West Somerset – the longest in fact in England. Started in 1871, the railway is one of the largest tourist attractions in the area bringing around 200,000 visitors each year. The organisation has become an integral part of the wider local community, providing employment and volunteering opportunities and boosting the local economy through tourism.
The West Somerset Railway Association (WSRA) is a community led, member driven, charitable association. Our aim is to preserve and restore the heritage of the WSR, to fundraise, promote education, ensure community involvement, and to leave a legacy for future generations. The heritage railway operates steam trains along its line as its core activity, however, it also has a large number of other activities including educational visits, heritage restoration, museums, local events like the 1940’s weekend, an annual steam gala, and even Santa trains for the younger generation!
The project – Full Steam Ahead
The Small Prairie 4561 Steam locomotive is owned by the WSRA and is in need of urgent repair. It is a smaller locomotive than some of the others we run which makes it ideally suited to our railway, which mainly transports visitors and tourists along the 23-mile line.
Designed by G J Churchward and built at Swindon Works in 1924, Small Prairie 4561 is typical of the steam locomotives that would have run in the West Country and beyond between the 1920s and the mid-1960s. It spent 32 years of its working life on branch lines in Devon and Cornwall, before finally being withdrawn from service in May 1962, having notched up 997,635 miles. The next 13 years were spent languishing at Woodham Bros scrap yard in Barry, South Wales. In 1975 it was purchased by a group from the West Somerset Railway and transported by road to the WSR. After some repair work, the 4561 became a regular feature on the West Somerset railway between 1989-1998, and it was a popular part of the locomotive fleet. Since this time, it has been stationed in our restorative workshops awaiting repair. In 2018, a small group of WSR engineers, including the Head of Mechanical Engineering and the WS Restoration Engineering Foreman, met with a group of trustees and they all confirmed their agreement that Small Prairie 4561 was the right locomotive to prioritise for restoration. That decision was endorsed by the full board of WSRA Trustees and it was agreed to re-start the restoration project in earnest, especially as 4561 was only one of three of these engines to be preserved. The bulk of repair work will be completed at our Restoration works in Williton by our team of trained staff (all of whom began as apprentices) and our 300 engineer / restoration based volunteers (4561 in the workshop is pictured above). The Small Prairie offers a more efficient alternative to some of the larger steam locomotives we run particularly during the shoulder of the season, when we run shorter trains (those with less carriages).
The total cost of this project is £220,000 – to date, £159,440 has been secured towards this goal leaving us with £60,559 to still secure. We are seeking funding for the final stages of the restoration project including: undercoat and painting, rubbing down, varnishing, priming - all of which will be undertaken by our amazing team of volunteers. Any funding towards this project would be greatly appreciated and take us a step closer to our goal, help us go full steam ahead with this exciting and worthwhile project.
The Small Prairie 4561 (as seen above in the 1980’s) offers the unique opportunity to go back in time, to experience the nostalgic beauty of the steam train, as it winds its leisurely way along West Somerset's beautiful heritage railway, through the stunning Quantock Hills, past the ancient port of Watchet, along the Jurassic coastline to Blue Anchor Bay, until reaching the Promenade at Minehead. The aim of this project is to give 4561 a new life working on our heritage railway and give pleasure to the thousands of passengers who each year enjoy the sight, sounds and smell of steam power. When not in use the engine will be available for viewing by the general public and will play a key role in our work with schools and educational based visits. We hope you will feel able to support this project with a grant and enable the WSRA to go full steam ahead by bringing West Somerset’s transport history back to life. A regular blog covering the restoration project can be found at: https://www.wsra.org.uk/category/lrf/4561-blog/