1924 Swindon-built Prairie tank No 4555, the first locomotive to arrive on the then Dart Valley Railway in 1965, is the surprise star guest at the South Devon Railway’s 150th anniversary celebrations this weekend (April 30 to May 2).
The railway had planned for unique Severn Valley Railway- based 1901-built former Port Talbot Railway 0-6-0 saddle tank locomotive No.813 to take centre stage but the locomotive suffered a failure this week, sadly forcing its withdrawal.
South Devon Railway general manager Ernest Elsworth-Wilson said: “We are delighted the East Somerset Railway and the Dartmouth Steam Railway have agreed to our hire of 4555. It is very sad that 813 has failed and news that it would not be available led to a frenetic, but ultimately successful search for a replacement!”
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Today’s SDR was first opened as the Buckfastleigh, Totnes & South Devon Railway on May 1, 1872, running nine miles from Totnes station to Ashburton. The section between Buckfastleigh and Ashburton was lost when the A38 trunk road was built over the last two miles of line’s trackbed in 1971, one year short of its centenary.
Celebrations centre on an intensive train service, including auto trains, goods trains, a BR set and a GWR set operating over the three days.
The GWR set, with 4555 timetabled to haul it, includes ‘Clerestory’ saloon 9044, built in 1881 and believed to be the oldest-surviving GWR bogie coach in existence. 9044 was originally used as a family saloon; it has supposedly seen passengers including King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, and opera singer Madame Patti. In 1936 it was converted to a Civil Engineers Saloon and was travelled in by officers of the Great Western Railway and then British Railways until it was withdrawn in the 1960s. The carriage was restored to use in 2013 and has since operated on special days from its home on the Bodmin and Wenford Railway in Cornwall.
A Corsican pine (Pinus nigra), each with a commemorative plaque, is to be planted at all of the South Devon Railway’s stations – at Buckfastleigh, Staverton and Totnes Riverside. These trees are a familiar site on stations of the former Great Western Railway (GWR), which regularly planted them throughout the West Country.
Mr Elsworth-Wilson added: “This promises to be a fantastic event, celebrating 150 years since the railway opened. There will be lots happening and we are very hopeful that many visitors will be dressing up in Victorian clothing to help us celebrate this important milestone in our history.’
The 150th celebrations take place over the Bank Holiday weekend, April 30 to May 2, with an intensive service of steam trains on all days, including goods trains and push-pull ‘auto trains’. Actors in Victorian dress will also be touring the railway, storytelling and recounting the history of the line since its construction in 1872, when it was built under the guidance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
To provide cover for East Somerset Railway services, where 4555 is on long-term hire, SDR-based Pannier Tank L92 (GWR 0-6-0 5786 currently in London Transport guise), which was not planned to be in use during the 150th anniversary gala, will be heading to Cranmore for one weekend only, with thanks to the Worcester Locomotive Society for agreeing to the last minute hire of their locomotive to ensure the SDR was able to still have a guest locomotive for the event.
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