Saturday, 12 January 2008

Thomas the Tank Engine cancelled after paedophile scare and rising costs

THOUSANDS of parents are set to be disappointed this year after a decision by the West Somerset Railway to axe the popular annual ‘Days out with Thomas’ weekend.
The weekend traditionally featured visits by the children’s favourite Thomas the Tank Engine and some of his ‘friends’.
Last year, advance tickets for the ‘Thomas’ weekend at Minehead Station sold out and around 3,000 people packed in to enjoy the event.
But now HiT Entertainment, the promotional company which owns the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine, has hiked its fees for granting the West Somerset line a licence in 2008.
In addition, the railway was faced with having to employ tougher and more expensive measures for Criminal Records Bureau checks on all its staff and volunteers.
The new CRB procedures were ordered after the cases last year of two steam railway volunteers, one in Hampshire and one in Gloucestershire, who took part in Thomas the Tank Engine festivals and were later found to be paedophiles.
One of them sexually assaulted a young ‘Thomas’ fan after being allowed to work on the trains without being properly screened first.
After that case, the Heritage Railway Association issued new guidelines to all its members, and at least one Devon railway will now not even allow staff or volunteers to help children on and off trains for fear of assault claims.
This year, the West Somerset Railway will instead organise a ‘family weekend’ to be held on July 5 and 6.
WSR general manager Paul Conibeare said the company had ‘looked long and hard at the implications’ before deciding to drop the ‘Thomas’ event.
Mr Conibeare said the ‘family weekend’ could potentially attract a wider age range to than just the ‘Thomas’ fans and could involve the whole of the 22-mile line rather than being ‘Minehead-centric’.
However, he said the railway was looking for ‘good ideas’ and suggestions as to what could be achieved at each station along the line in order for the weekend to be successful.
Ideas were needed before the end of January in order to allow sufficient time for the initiatives to be properly marketed.
Mr Conibeare said any ideas should be ‘achievable within the existing restrictions on budgets and staff availability’.
  • Another regular feature on the West Somerset line which will not go ahead in 2008 is the Sunset Specials which for many years have run on Wednesday evenings between Minehead and Blue Anchor during the high summer.
    Although passenger numbers on the railway reached a new record in 2007, the Sunset Specials failed to carry sufficient passengers to make them commercially viable.
    Commercial manager Martyn Snell said: “It is a great pity that numbers on this particular service have dropped as they have.
    “We have to be realistic, particularly bearing in mind how much time we ask our staff to give to all our train services.
    “We have identified one that is not working well and have decided to stop it. Who knows, it may return in a slightly different guise, but certainly not during 2008.”

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