STAFF and volunteers on the West Somerset Railway (WSR) have been praised for averting a financial disaster for the hard-up heritage line when a landslide blocked Christmas trains this week.

The railway, which has been operating at a £1,000 a day loss, was shocked by the closure of the track at Combe Florey, a short distance from Bishops Lydeard Station.

It meant the cancellation of some of its popular Winterlight services – illuminated trains offering families a ‘magical and enchanted experience’.

And the railway’s ‘Santa specials’ had to run over three miles of little-used track to Norton Fitzwarren instead of travelling to Crowcombe Heathfield.

The problems started on Tuesday morning after heavy rainfall resulted in the collapse of the railway embankment near Tribble Bridge, alongside the A358.

The same incident also saw the A358 closed from about 6.20 am for more than hour while flooding and debris was cleared.

However, the WSR problems were more severe as it was left with a major engineering challenge resulting in experts being hired to assess the whole area near the bridge.

WSR plc chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt said there was ‘quite severe damage to our track infrastructure’ and there were ‘huge amounts of problems’ for homeowners whose back gardens were filled with tonnes of mud.

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A mudslide alongside the West Somerset Railway affecting nearby homes. (WSR)

Mr Jones-Pratt said the Winterlights service was resumed the next day and it was good news that the ‘Santa specials’ were able to keep running.

He said: “Basically, we have had a landslide slip which has caused us to suspend the services.

“Safety is always paramount in any situation running a railway.

“The danger here is that we continue operation of our trains and we cause further slippage which is an absolute no-no.”

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Mud and debris has contaminated ballast and blocked drainage channels on part of the West Somerset Railway. (WSR)

However, Mr Jones-Pratt said it was an opportunity for the WSR to operate over part of its line that it did not often use, between Bishops Lydeard and Norton Fitzwarren.

He said: “The infrastructure at the moment, it is not good news, especially at such a busy period, but the railway is doing all that we can to be able to run our services over this festive period.

“We are running the railway at full capacity, benefiting from the other part of our line which is down to Norton Fitzwarren, but the Santas and Winterlights are running on a sightly different format.

“We are also looking at adding some new opportunities for those who are travelling with us.”

Mr Jones-Pratt said the railway had contacted all passengers who were affected and he hoped customers would bear with the company while it tackled the issues.

The landslip had caused the collapse of a retaining wall, meaning the embankment at Combe Florey was continuing to slip, while there was now a huge amount of contaminated ballast and drainage channels had been filled with waste.

The WSR had initially also feared for Tribble Bridge but fortunately it was intact and did not appear to have been affected.

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West Somerset Railway plc chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt inspects landslip damage on the track. (WSR)

Mr Jones-Pratt said: “This is not the first time this has happened. We have had a huge land shift in the adjacent field here, which was known about with the potatoes that were spilling across the A358.

“Now, it is about prevention to make sure this does not happen again. Somerset County Council are involved. They are leading with the landowner at the moment.

“We also need to talk to them about how they can ensure they are not going to affect our railway in the way that they are.

“This is a message as well to the landowners across the line. We have 22 miles of our trackbed - your management of flood prevention and the management of land really needs to be thought of, because this has huge consequences not only for the homeowners but for our railway.

“We are running big trains, big engines, and big weight, and we need to make sure that the railway is safe.”

Mr Jones-Pratt expressed gratitude for the support which people had shown the railway, and thanked ‘all our staff and volunteers who have turned out and made it possible to operate again’.