Thomas the Tank Engine™ character ‘Oliver’ may return to steam again to celebrate South Devon Railway’s 150th anniversary year

No 1420, AKA ‘Oliver’ pictured in 2006 at South Devon Railway on a Sunday ‘Milk Train’ run

The six-week long, nationwide ‘Love Your Railway’ campaign which ran from 26th July to 6th September, saw the South Devon Railway (SDR) actively involved in many family-themed events.

The overhaul of ‘Oliver’, one of the classic steam loco characters from the late Rev Wilbert Awdry’s now world-famous Thomas the Tank Engine™ series of children’s books is fitting as the engine is hopefully getting closer to completion of a 15-year overhaul this year at the SDR in time for the line’s 150th anniversary in 2022.

The overhaul has been accelerated thanks to a recent grant of £5,000 from the Veronica Awdry Charitable Trust towards new boiler stays for the final restoration of former GWR Collett designed auto-tank 0-4-2 No. 1420, AKA ‘Oliver’ in the Thomas the Tank Engine™ children’s books.

Veronica Awdry, daughter of the late Rev W Awdry and her charitable trust, regularly distribute royalty funds for appropriate heritage railway projects, which has been vital during the COVID-19 lockdown times with limited income and big losses suffered by all heritage railways.

Veronica said: “Steam loco No 1420 is a truly iconic engine for the South Devon Railway because members of the class were seen in use on the quintessential GWR branch line from the 1930’s right up until its closure as a freight railway in 1962, and then under the Dart Valley and South Devon Railway’s 52-year operation of the scenic seven-mile line from 1969 to date.

Featuring as ‘Oliver’ in the Thomas series of books, I know he was one of my late father’s favourite characters.

‘And, with the SDR celebrating its 150th anniversary year in 2022 having first opened in 1872, there is a concerted effort underway to complete the overhaul. SDR supporters are hoping to see ‘Oliver’ finished in time for service next year, although quite a lot of work is still needed. The popular engine is owned by the SDR Association and it last ran on the SDR in 2006 when it was stopped for a protracted overhaul mainly due to a leaking boiler foundation ring and other faults.”

Last year, a further £22,180 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) was made towards moving the overhaul of No 1420 forward to cover the manufacture of the remaining vital firebox boiler plates and a new foundation ring, which was critical to enable the SDR to re-build the new boiler using its own skilled staff and to keep the loco restoration timeline on track to maintain future operations.

The South Devon Railway is the oldest heritage railway in the West Country having re-opened in 1969 and usually welcomes up to 100,000 visitors every year. Last year, it carried only 1,750 passengers prior to March and incurred losses of some £2 million, offset by government and council grants and an ‘SOS’ fund-raising campaign which raised almost £1.4 million.

It is a registered charity, has a small number of some 26 paid staff and over 600 volunteers who usually run the railway every day from March to October, plus at Christmas and New Year too.

The SDR has an extensive, well-equipped workshop which repairs the line’s own locomotives in addition to undertaking complex, contract engineering jobs for other heritage railways and owners, as well as main-line train operating companies.

As a result, it is well placed to complete the largely new boiler for GWR loco No 1420 and help bring the popular steam engine back to life again soon.

Author: Eric Partridge

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