A COMMUNITY diesel train service between Minehead and Taunton is West Somerset Railway’s only hope of guaranteeing its future and saving jobs, rail link campaigners claimed this week.

As reported in last week’s Free Press, WSR has warned 43 out of the 45 members of its permanent staff that they risked being made redundant in the next two months due to the railway’s closure from the coronavirus.

This week, Minehead Rail Link Group chairman Alex de Mendoza said: “Without radical changes and a fresh approach there doesn’t realistically seem much hope of the line clinging on for long. Now it is unable to operate any service at all and its very survival is in question.”

The group is pressing for a ‘community’ diesel train service between Minehead and Taunton, preferably operated by First Group, which would extend some of its Cardiff, Bristol and Taunton services on to Minehead.

Mr de Mendoza added: “Only by the provision of a commercial socially-inclusive train service to Taunton will the line have a long term future.

“At the moment, because the line is not considered to be providing a public transport service, it has no protection from collapse and nor does it receive any contractual Government  support.

“In September, a new three-year local rail contract begins with the Department of Transport – this could be a wonderful opportunity to get the WSR included in some way, if it was willing to bring a community rail service onto its route.”

This week, local MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called for “frank and meaningful” discussions on the railway’s future in the light of the company’s finances and the threat of possible redundancies.

“There needs to be a long and meaningful look at how the railway is run,” he said. “This is an issue which demands complete transparency on the part of the company, the local authorities, the tourism sector and all interested parties.”

The rail group’s publicity officer, David Latimer, said: “The railway has been run as a hobby, rather than as a professional business or as a public transport service and has left itself open to failure, as recent events have shown.

“The line has to become a service to the community by seeking to incorporate commercial services from Taunton, and it has to be run professionally as a business. That means simplification of operation, and the incorporation  of modern technology to reduce the reliance on an unnecessarily large workforce, both salaried and volunteers.

“We desperately want the WSR to survive – but we don’t see how it can continue in its present form and, at the end of the day, a proper train service over the route, as part of the First Group contract, is the only way the line can have some form of statutory right to survival.”.

A WSR spokesman said this week that the redundancy notices to staff were in the event of a worst case scenario, and added: “We certainly don’t want to lose any of our skilled workforce if possible, but we have to be realistic.

“It is normal practice in crisis situations like this but has been dictated by the changed furlough regime which will carry on until October at a lower rate, with contributions expected from employers.

“We have to reduce costs to save the railway – and every other heritage line in the country is in the same boat right now. Despite all this, we remain positive that the WSR can and will survive.”