After reading the Coombes Report, which was purported to be “An Independent Review of the WSRA”, some question have arisen. The dictionary definition of independent is “not or in any way by other , , or things”. Let’s bear that definition in mind and have a closer look at the panel as chosen by Coombes.
Chris Austin – Chairman of the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust. He has proved to be very supportive of the Plc, not surprising as he was an ex Chairman of the Plc. He worked for BR at the same time as Coombes and they knew each other. Coombes stated in his biography in the WSR Journal that he did not have any connections with the West Somerset Railway! This evidently is not the case.
Update: We understand now that the Trust is now undergoing a bit of a renaissance and is going to become a major player in the Bright Future!
Nell Barrington – Who is this person? Does she have any knowledge of the last 40 years of support that the WSRA have given the railway?
Robin Coombes – Independent Chairman. He conveniently appeared out of nowhere offering his services, only two days after the 2015 EGM called by the reform group where the resolution was passed to hold a review. If he, as he stated in the WSRA Journal, had no connections with the WSR, how did he know only two days after the EGM that an independent reviewer was required! Who told him to contact the WSRA and offer himself as the right person to carry out this tasks. Did anyone point Coombes towards the WSRA thinking he was a safe pair of hands to deliver the aims of the 2010 report.
Andrew Foster – Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Plc. Andrew grew up in Cardiff with his brother, Graham, who just happened to spend his working life in Cardiff as an architect. Just so happens that Mr Coombes spent 25 years in Cardiff as an architect too and are similar ages. Is this just a co-incidence or did they all know each other.
Brian Fraser – He is a volunteer and works with Andrew Foster in the locomotive department as trainee fireman, so where are his alliances going to lie? He is also a member of the reform group.
Ryan Pope – WSR Youth Apprentice to WSRA. Possibly the only representative of the WSRA on this panel. His experience of the WSRA is very limited and he is the most junior panel member and some 30 years younger than most others on the panel.
Simon Stretton – Chairman of the WSRA Promotions Ltd, the commercial arm and wholly owned subsidiary of the WSRA. Apparently he informed Coombes at the outset of the review that he did not represent the WSRA Trustees or their views. He recently at the invalid EGM held on 27th February was voted on as a invalid Trustee. So it is very plain where his allegiances lie. He in no way can be regarded as representing the WSRA.
Martyn Snell – An ex-Plc employee, although this was not disclosed in the Coombes list of the panel members.
To sum up the allegiances of the people on the panel. We have Austin who is Plc. We have Barrington who has no knowledge of the history of WSRA. We have a so called independent chairman who has a prior relationship with one and possibly two people he selected. We have Foster who is Plc. We have Fraser who is plc, his line manger being Foster. We have Pope, who appears to be the only genuine WSRA representative, but he is very junior to the other panel members. We have Stretton who has shown his allegiance to the reform group. We have Snell who is an ex-Plc employee. WHERE IS THE INDEPENDENT BALANCE IN THIS PANEL? There is none.
Even the cover picture of “The Road Ahead” review seems to reflect the contents. The metals are wobbly and disappear into a murky distance and not “A Bright Future” as the reform group’s propaganda portrays. At this point in time no one knows exactly what this Bright Futre entails.
The terms of reference of the Review Panel clearly states "The Review Team shall include WSRA Trustees" no Trustees were asked to serve on the panel! David Williams, a WSRA Trustee, presented a written report to Coombes and asked if he could make a verbal presentation to the Panel, he was assured by Coombes that this would happen. But throughout the panel's investigations he was never invited to give verbal evidence nor were any other of the Trustees invited to appear. The report states that 16 indivuduals were interviewed, not one of them a Trustee. Does this give balance to a review? It certainly does not appear that way. There were 9 organisations interviewed. Who were these organisations? We are none the wiser as to their identity?
David Williams, a Trustee, states "we were repeatedly told that we would be asked to give evidence to the panel, it was only when we started pushing for a meeting that we were told the report had already been written and that no meeting with us would be held. Another Trustee was personally assured twice by Coombes that the Trustees would be asked go give evidence and this proved a false assurance." This further re-enforces the fact that Coombes had no intention of allowing the Trustees to state their case.
Coombes is in breech of his Terms of Reference by not inviting the Trustees onto the panel, it is becoming quite obvious they were not interested in anything the Trustees had to say. You can see from the panel that it was loaded with Plc, ex-Plc and pro-Plc members and only one very junior member representing the WSRA.
It does not take much digging to realise that this was not a fair and balanced report. Perhaps it was never meant to be from the beginning. So how can we trust any of the finding in the Review, when the panel had a blatent disregard for fairness. It now must be regarded as seriously flawed.
Update - 14/3/2016
Coombes states that one of the main problems between the Association and the Plc was when the Association bid for the freehold of the railway. Looking at the history of the freehold, in 2010 it was offered to the Plc for very little cost but Mark Smith, who was the chairman at the time, declined the offer. It was then offered to the Plc again around 2011, and again they declined to purchase the freehold. A few years later the Association decided it would assist their grant application if they owned the freehold of the railway, so they approached the council and started negotiations. When the Plc got wind of the this they suddenly developed a very different attitude, all of a sudden they did want the freehold after all, but only because the Association were buying it. They appeared to display classic symptoms of envy. Coombes bases his argument on this issue as being the crux of the problem between the Association and the Plc. Did the Asssociation complain that they were not involved when the freehold was first offered to the Plc. No, they did not. It is incredibly thin evidence to base any conclusion on, when it was quite obvious that it was the Plc that threw the tantrum. Another reason to distrust the finding of the Coombes report.
As David Morgan of the Herritage Railway Association stated in a recent publication, that any herritage railway freeholds should be held by a charitable organisation. This makes sense in that it will be protected for future enjoyment of railway enthusiasts and is not held by a commercial company that has a risk of takeover or sale and so disappearing and potentially being sold off for development. So why did the Plc react the way they did? Why did Coombs not take David Morgan's advice?
It does look now as if the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust may be the final recepient of the freehold of the West Somerset Railway, this charity was once recently described by a Director of a well known railway organization as being a place "where old men go to be quiet". Well, it now looks as WSSRT is about to go through a stage of metamorphosis. Will this entail new trustees? Will some of the existing Trustees be asked to quietly step aside to make way for new luminaries that seem to be proliferating the railway in recent times. Another glaringly obvious question in all of this, is where will the money come from to pay for the freehold? At this point in time the only cash rich organization on the railway just happens to be the WSRA. Potentially if the reform group get their way, it may well be that all of the WSRA's cash and assets are passed to the Steam Railway Trust and that will leave the Association as just a empty shell. The only people to stand in the way of this will be the members with their voting rights and the legally elected Trustees.
More analysis on the Coombes report to follow.
Update - 17/3/2016
We have looked at the makeup of the panel in detail and effectively it looks like a Plc driven vehicle. Anyone that was interviewed by this panel may well have been asked questions with a total Plc bias. If the panel had interviewed the Trustees, they would have effectively been questioned by the 'prosecution', so how can this be considered to be a balanced panel. Interestingly enough in the Consultation Paper produced by WSRAMAG in June 2014 it suggests a review of the Association but it suggests that any panel formed will only have one Plc representative, this would surely have been an better way forward.