BUYING the freehold of the West Somerset Railway may not be the best way of securing its long-term future, it has been claimed.

West Somerset Railway Plc, which holds the lease and licence to operate the railway, says it is continuing discussions with existing freehold owner Somerset County Council to develop a plan to ensure the survival of the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the district’s tourist industry.

Negotiations over extending the lease from 2087 to 2163, or buying the freehold if it became available, have been underway for two years.

But last month the charity West Somerset Railway Association made an offer to buy the freehold fromthe council, saying it wanted to do so to safeguard the line’s future.

A West Somerset Railway Plc spokesperson said: “Although securing the freehold of the land might improve prospects for inward investment into the railway by other groups, this might divert priorities from railway infrastructure investments by both the Plc and its support groups, and long-term security might still be achievable through leasehold extensions with appropriate covenants.”

But the West Somerset Railway Association is maintaining its original position.

Chairman David Williams said: “We are fully committed to our offer to purchase the freehold because it would be the best option for all parties concerned.

“The Plc would continue to operate the railway as before in exactly the same way as it does now.

“Somerset County Council would receive a financial receipt to spend on important projects and would incur no risk in selling the line to the West Somerset Railway Association, which is a registered charity.

“As a charity, the association as potential owner of the freehold would be far better placed to attract grants and outside funding than any other body. Ownership of the freehold would enable the charity to invest more freely in the railway, which would be of great benefit to the ongoing viability of the line.”

All three parties involved say the most important thing is the long-term survival of the heritage railway.

Cllr David Hall, cabinet member for business inward investment, said: “Although reducing risk and potential exposure to Somerset County Council and generating capital receipts for investment into other council priority areas might be advantageous, ensuring the continued operation of the railway and increased investment and economic development for Somerset is equally important and remains one of our priorities.”

Cllr David Huxtable, cabinet member for resources, added: “This is a complex area and we haven’t made and won’t take any decisions on the future of the freehold of the West Somerset Railway until we have had discussions with all the interested parties.

“We are committed to the wellbeing of the railway and would not make any changes that would jeopardise that.”