Following discussions with County Councillors, the West Somerset Railway Association has made an offer to secure the future of the West Somerset Railway by purchasing the freehold of the Railway from Somerset County Council.
This will result in the Association, a Registered Charity which has been involved in the preservation and development of the Railway since the early 1970s, becoming the owners of the freehold of the line. The current leaseholders, West Somerset Railway PLC, would continue to operate the Railway on a day-to-day basis. The purchase will effectively relieve Somerset County Council and local taxpayers of any possible future financial obligations to support the Railway. The council would also receive a substantial sum of money to spend on important public projects, safe in the knowledge that the Railway was being transferred to a body that was fully committed both to retaining the Railway as a heritage attraction and encouraging its use as a vital part of the local transport network.
Speaking of the decision, Association Chairman David Williams said, “The trustees are delighted to be in a position to make this offer for the freehold of the line. We are able to offer a risk free option that benefits all parties. The taxpayer will benefit in two ways. Firstly, a large sum of money will be available to the County Council to spend on other projects at a time when money is extremely tight. It is no secret that the Railway’s infrastructure will need a huge amount of investment in the years ahead and some of the sums required will have to be funded by the County Council in its capacity as landlord. This purchase would allow the council and taxpayers to both gain financially and at the same time relieve them of any potential obligation to contribute to the major repairs that will inevitably be necessary in the years ahead.
“Secondly, the charity is able to agree to covenants as part of the sale that a commercial operation could not. The West Somerset Railway Association is a Registered Charity rather than a commercial organisation. Our aim is to safeguard the heritage line for the future. To this end, we are prepared to state as part of the deal that, in the unlikely event that the charity should ever cease to exist, the freehold of the line would revert to Somerset County Council or its successor in title for the sum of just one pound. This realistically means that the only organisation other than the charity that could own the freehold would be the County Council. It is a win-win situation for the council and the taxpayers of Somerset.
“The current PLC will continue to be the leaseholders and to run the trains on a daily basis, so there will be no visible change from the point of view of travelling passengers and visiting enthusiasts. The only change will be a positive one, in that the line will now be owned by a charity rather than by the county council, relieving the public body of any obligations to support the Railway financially in the future.
“The Association has worked long and hard over the past forty years to help develop the Railway and, as a charity with a remit to help preserve heritage railways in the West Country, is the ideal body to take on the freehold of the line. We have over 4500 members, many of whom work as volunteers on the Railway. It is their input that has enabled the Railway to survive and operate, as the line could not survive as a viable business without the countless hours of volunteer labour freely given each year. The purchase of the freehold would be just reward for the many thousands of Association members, railway enthusiasts, the current leaseholder and operator, and the general public who have supported the re-opening and continued success of the West Somerset Railway over the last 42 years.
“The charity is aware of the desire locally for a cycle path into Taunton, and is prepared to talk with all of the interested parties who are attempting to ascertain a sensible and viable way forward to see what can be achieved.
“The County Council purchased the freehold of the line many years ago in order to ensure that the Railway survived as a heritage line and tourist attraction. The Council also ensured that the Railway did not fall into private or company ownership. The Association is fully committed to that same objective and will ensure, through a covenant with the Council, that the Railway never falls into private or company hands, whilst relieving the council and its taxpayers of any potential financial burdens in the future. Our proposal would benefit everyone involved, and secure the West Somerset Railway for future generations without the need to call on public funds – a win-win situation for everybody!”