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Somerset County Council could sell heritage railway

By WMNAGreenwood  |  Posted: February 10, 2014

The West Somerset Railway passes Dunster Castle near the end of the 20-mile line at Minehead. Picture: Fran Stothard

The West Somerset Railway passes Dunster Castle near the end of the 20-mile line at Minehead. Picture: Fran Stothard

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A popular heritage railway in Somerset could be sold after a decision was reached by its local authority owners.

West Somerset Railway, which runs between Minehead and Taunton, is owned by Somerset County Council but run by a public limited company.

Councillor David Huxtable, the county council’s cabinet member for resources, has now opted dispose of the freehold – subject to necessary consents and approval by the Government.

The move is in line with the council’s policy of reducing its property portfolio to save money and reduce liabilities.

The council said the heritage railway line’s economic and social importance meant a sale would only go ahead if certain criteria are met.

Coun Huxtable said: “We have always said that the council is not in the railways business and it makes sense to consider selling the West Somerset Railway to a dedicated group who can completely focus on maintaining and improving the line.

“I’ve received a large number of letters overwhelmingly backing my decision today and in support of the West Somerset Railway Association proposals for the freehold.

“This is not a decision aimed at making money, it is to make sure that this valuable asset is preserved for generations to come.”

The 20-mile route, a branch line of the old Great Western Railway with 10 stations, was closed by British Railways in 1971 as part of the Beeching cuts and later bought by the council and leased out.

It attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year and is worth about £10 million to the local economy.

West Somerset Railway Association, a charitable group supporting the railway, has already approached Somerset County Council over the freehold.

It is distinct from West Somerset Railway plc which currently runs the line.

The council said it would now meet with any interested parties to ensure they meet the criteria for a sale and mitigate any risks.

Coun David Hall, the council’s cabinet member for business, inward investment and policy, said: “The West Somerset Railway is extremely important to Somerset, attracting thousands of visitors to the area and contributing greatly to the local economy.

“It’s important that the railway continues to operate as normal while any discussions over a sale take place, and we’re committed to making sure that happens.

“We will now sit down and work with all interested parties to do the right thing for Somerset council taxpayers and the right thing for West Somerset Railway.”

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