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Severn Valley lures gala crowds with FOUR 'guest celebrity' engines (18th March 2013)

THE SEVERN Valley Railway raises the curtain on its 43rd season of operation on Friday with its three-day 'Spring Steam Gala' spectacular - and once again it is the line-up of beautifully restored 'guest celebrity' steam locomotives which are expected to draw in the big crowds.

The railway's first 'special event' of 2013 sees no fewer than four 'guest engines' arriving by low-loader at Kidderminster from different parts of the country this week, to work trains to a timetable that is bulging at the seams.

Taking centre-stage at the gala is streamlined former Southern Railway 'West Country' class locomotive No.34007 Wadebridge - an engine type closely associated with famous expresses of the 1950s such as the 'Golden Arrow' (London Victoria to Dover) and the 'Devon Belle' (London Waterloo to Ilfracombe and Plymouth)

One of two engines making its first-ever visit to the Severn Valley, the impressive, three-cylinder Wadebridge, normally resident at the Mid-Hants Railway, creates a 'little and large' contrast with one of the most diminutive tank engines ever to work a British branch line - the Great Western Railway 'auto' tank No.1450, which arrived at Kidderminster for the gala yesterday (Sunday), from the South Devon Railway.

Newly repainted in British Railways 'lined green' livery, No.1450 will run a series of short-distance 'local' trains over the whole of the line on all three days, with the authentically matched 80-seater 'auto' coach No.W238 Chaffinch - a carriage externally restored in 2011 for its owner by SVR staff at Bewdley Carriage Works.

The combination of engine and coach re-creates to perfection a classic British branch line scene of the 1950s and early 1960s.

The second SVR debutante is another former Southern Railway locomotive, which comes on loan from the Kent & East Sussex Railway – 'USA' tank No.65, an engine which first arrived in Britain from America exactly 70 years ago, as one of a consignment of 382 locomotives of the type intended to follow British and Allied troops into Europe, in the wake of the D-Day landings of June 1944.

In fact it never went to Europe, being one of 15 engines from the consignment bought by the Southern Railway, which worked until 1967 shunting goods and passenger trains in Southampton Docks.  With its hunched-up, bulldog-like appearance, nothing remotely like it has been seen on Severn Valley metals before.

The last of the four guest engines is of a type much more familiar to regular Severn Valley Railway visitors - British Railways 'Standard Class 4' tank No.80072 – virtually the 'identical twin' of No.80079  which is on static display in the railway's 'Engine House' visitor centre at Highley.

With four engines from the SVR's 'resident fleet' also being rostered for duty - GWR tank engines Nos. 1501, 4566 and 5164 and Southern Railway 'Battle of Britain' Pacific No.34053 Sir Keith Park, gala-goers are served up eight different steam locomotives in total.

Over the three days Friday, Saturday and Sunday (March  22nd - 24th), almost 150 steam trains will depart and arrive at the six main stations on the 16-mile Kidderminster - Bridgnorth 'heritage' line, and  upwards of 5,000 visitors are forecast, many of them expected to buy two and  three-day 'rover' tickets, and stay locally in bed & breakfast hostelries or hotels for the duration.

But the gala isn't just about riding around on steam trains. In its usual way, the SVR is putting on a host of ancillary visitor attractions at stations over the whole length of the line - not least of all a beer tent at Bewdley, in support of the railway's two 'real ale' pubs - the 'King & Castle' at Kidderminster, and 'The Railwayman's Arms' at Bridgnorth.

At Kidderminster – but also dodging between other stations on the 16-mile railway, will be a rather famous old Mk. V1 Bentley, whose registration number - NHY 581 - is part of post-war railway folklore.

The 4.25-litre 1950-built car was owned for many years by the celebrated railway photographer Ivo Peters B.E.M., and appeared in scores of his photographs published in books and magazines. Present-day owner Julian Birley keeps up the tradition, 'planting' NHY 581 into numerous contemporary railway 'cameo' scenes.

Meanwhile on the cobbled station forecourt at Kidderminster, a working steam traction engine will lend further 'period feel' to the scene, while the 360-metre 7¼-inch gauge Coalyard Miniature Railway - a firm favourite with children - will be in action too, its trains starting from the terminus beside free-to-enter Kidderminster Railway Museum.

The Engine House visitor centre close to Highley Station puts on a special display recapping the story and circumstances of 'the Great Train Robbery', exactly 50 years ago on August 8th 1963, which includes admission to one of the TPO (Travelling Post Office) coaches actually involved in Britain's most infamous heist.

For those on the move, a 'Hearty Brunch' dining service (£15) will operate in the railway's GWR observation car No.80969 attached to the 09.45 train from Kidderminster and 11.35 from Bridgnorth on Friday and Saturday, and on the 09.55 from Kidderminster and 11.52 departure from Bridgnorth on Sunday.

Similarly, the observation car will offer a 'lunch and sticky pudding' option (£25) on the 13.58 from Kidderminster on Friday and Saturday, and on the 14.05 train on Sunday, while from Bridgnorth only, gala cream teas (£7.50) may be had on the 15.55 train on Friday and Saturday, and on the 16.05 departure on Sunday.

One, two and three-day 'Freedom of the Line' rover tickets start from £23 for a one-day ticket (adult), £20.50 (seniors), and £15 (children 4 - 15 years), while  family tickets (two adults and up to four children) start from £67 for the one day ticket. The railway is also offering Sunday Saver tickets at £20 (adult), £17.50 (senior) and £13 (child), and an ‘Evening Saver’ ticket allowing travel of trains from 4pm onwards, for £18 (adults and seniors) and £11 (children).

The 'auto trains' worked by GWR 0-4-2T No.1450 carry a supplementary charge of £3 per single journey in either direction.