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6412 boiler
GWR 0-6-0PT 6412’s boiler seen through the John Shaw pressPhoto © RJ Elliott 2010

Last August, one of the UK heritage railway movement’s most respected steam boiler repair specialists and engineering firms, R.K. Pridham Engineering of Tavistock, was acquired outright by the South Devon Railway’s then recently created engineering company (SDRE) at Buckfastleigh.

At an official opening ceremony today (Friday 10 June), representatives from many leading UK heritage lines, the heritage railway industry and other guests gathered in Devon to see what has been achieved at Buckfastleigh in under nine months in establishing a truly impressive new boiler shop facility.

After 35 years in the business, both founder Roger Pridham and his family thought it was time for him to move towards retirement. So, after talks with the nearby friendly South Devon Railway, both parties signed a formal legal agreement that would not only safeguard the Pridham family’s considerable, if not unique, boiler engineering skills and facilities for posterity, but also help the South Devon Railway repair its own 13-strong steam loco fleet into the future. A truly ‘Win,Win’ deal for all.

In a significant step for the whole heritage railway movement, all of the Tavistock-based firm’s specialist boiler repair and manufacturing equipment, including the large specialist presses and huge dies needed to make complex boiler components, were moved lock, stock and barrel across Dartmoor to the SDR.

All three of Pridham’s full-time expert staff also relocated to Buckfastleigh and immediately started work on an SDR loco boiler under temporary cover whilst a brand new boiler shop was designed by SDR volunteer and retired architect Clive Pepper to accommodate them.

And, after planning permission was given, a significant, new steel framed and clad structure was swiftly erected to house the press equipment, including the massive 700 ton John Shaw vicing press which bends boiler plates to shape and is one of only two such specialist machines in the whole of Western Europe. Several new boiler plates have been made for clients already and new dies are being made for others, including complex compound curve plates for former Southern Railway Bulleid designed locos.

Run by father and son duo Roger and Paul Pridham, the firm of R.K. Pridham Engineering was established in 1975 and they built up a pre-eminent reputation in the world of railway and traction engine boiler repairs. Roger and Paul Pridham continue to work with the South Devon Railway as consultants.

And the good name of R.K. Pridham Engineering has not disappeared either having been absorbed seamlessly into the operations of South Devon Railway Engineering (SDRE), the SDR Trust’s own engineering company which already carries out significant external contract work, such as fitting new steel tyres for both heritage railways and national Train Operating Companies.

The sale, for an undisclosed sum, involved complex legal arrangements between the two organisations and both firms used local West Country solicitors to advise them on the deal. Local firms also built and fitted out the new boiler shop, the structure of which was completed late last year, and which now has three very different boilers being worked on.

Under the skilled guidance of SDR Workshop Manager Rob Le Chevalier -- who has known Roger Pridham from when he himself first started as an apprentice at Buckfastleigh over 25 years ago -- SDR Engineering has also taken over completion of a significant contract held by Pridhams for the boiler repair of Severn Valley Railway based West Country Class loco No. 34027 ‘Taw Valley’ and which is now in the works.

As a result of the continued expansion of SDR Engineering and the creation of the new Boiler shop, two new jobs have been created already to help meet the demand for work which is also good news for the local economy.

Commenting today, Roger Pridham said: “Choosing when to retire is never an easy decision to make, especially when you want to see your life’s valuable work continue into the future. But, with the sale of our prized engineering assets and the transfer of our staff to the South Devon Railway last year, we knew that our business was in safe hands for the future.

“The South Devon Railway already had a well equipped engineering workshop to which they have added the boiler making facilities of R.K. Pridham Engineering.

“The SDR’s engineering staff are highly skilled and experienced in a range of services, from metal fabrication and presswork through to the manufacture of parts for former GWR and other steam locos, plus rolling stock, to the full restoration of steam engines.

“We will be working closely with the South Devon Railway for the foreseeable future and are confident that this development is the best way to preserve and develop the skills and facilities we have built up over the years.”

South Devon Railway General Manager Dick Wood commented: “Naturally, we were very pleased to conclude the significant, mutually beneficial deal with Roger and Paul Pridham in 2010, and delighted with the rapid progress made in completing the new boiler shop on time and which is now complete.

“Creating a new boiler shop is not only important to us for repairing our own railway engines in the future, but also for the whole heritage railway movement and traction engine sector too.

“This boiler shop safeguards both the skilled expertise of boiler making and equipment in the UK for posterity, and also has ensured that some very skilled engineering jobs have been retained and created in the West Country.

“Having successfully moved all of the equipment to Buckfastleigh where much of it is now installed, the key message from today is that it’s business as usual and we can tackle most boiler repair jobs.

“Everyone involved has worked hard to make things work, and the important benefits of the boiler shop will come in the years to follow. We have high ambitions for the future success of our expanding engineering operations, making the SDR a real beacon of railway engineering excellence.”

This coming weekend (11th & 12th June), also sees the South Devon Railway host one of its popular special events which follows a 1950’s and 60’s theme with a variety of different steam and diesel trains running to show the transition from steam to diesel power of that era.

To demonstrate the changeover period, a variety of trains will be run in authentic liveries with two steam locos — small Prairie 5526 in 1950’s BR black, and 3205 in its 1960’s BR green. On the diesel front, W55000 will no doubt prove as popular as ever to represent the diesel railcar services seen on many West Country branch lines in years past. Similarly, Sulzer Type 2 diesel D7612 represents the early 60’s in its stylish two-tone green livery, whilst the end of the 60’s when BR corporate ‘rail blue’ appeared across the national network is represented English Electric Type One D 8110.

There will be a steam ‘Auto train’ each morning too, plus a number of runs with an engineers train which will hopefully be made up of Dogfish wagons loaded with ballast, plus two Grampus wagons, a PW Mess Coach, Shark Brake Van and maybe a couple of other wagons for good measure!

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© South Devon Railway Association 2011

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