BOSSES at West Somerset Railway have announced a three-month closure following a safety inspection.

The Office of Rail and Road, the government body responsible for maintaining and monitoring safety standards, visited the railway and highlighted a ‘significant’ number of ‘improvements’ to be made.

It has been announced the railway will be closed from January 2 until April 1 next year and two events will be cancelled while work is carried out to improve the service.

Chairman of West Somerset Railway PLC Jonathan Jones-Pratt said work is being done to ensure its ‘long-term’ future and the closure only equates to a loss of 17 days.

He said: “We have now received a letter which outlines the steps it requires us to take.

“However, we can say that while we have been allowed to retain our licence to operate we have a significant number of important actions to take.”

The chairman said the closure is viewed as ‘essential’ - but it will mean two events are cancelled and trains won’t run during February half-term.

He added: “The board has taken the view the railway should close completely from January 2 until April 1 next year.

“This will mean the spring gala and the proposed ACE event will now not take place.

“There will also be no trains during the spring (February) half terms.

“The board consider this short period of closure as essential, both to give infrastructure teams additional time to undertake maintenance but also to allow paid and volunteer staff to focus on qualifications and effective record keeping.

“It is also clear that from a commercial point of view we need to refocus our operation and business processes. We have already begun discussions on the way forward.”

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The chairman says the eight-page letter from the ORR only highlights five areas which need improvements, such as safety and infrastructure, record keeping and staff appointments. He says many of the areas had already been recognised as weaknesses and changes are now underway.

Mr Jones-Pratt said: “Changes are needed in several fields and the board is committed to undertake this in the most sensitive and constructive way possible.

“The directors are determined to ensure the long-term future viability of the railway, and all the actions we will be taking are focussed on that objective.”

The decision to close early next year is one the board took itself. It wasn’t issued by the ORR, and it will still be open in December for many winter events.

Mr Jones-Pratt added: “For the avoidance of doubt, the ORR has not issued either an improvement or prohibition notice on the WSR, as evidenced by the fact that we are running all of our scheduled seasonal services in December.

“We are not closed.

“I am working on the specific action plan direct with the ORR about its recommendations for change, but I wish to make it 100 per cent clear there has never been any major safety threat or unreported dangerous occurrence, and that we have received no conditions from the ORR on this topic.

“This is actually all about the PLC board and new leadership recognising the changes in the modern railway industry, including heritage lines, with which we must comply.

“Yes, I accept we were always going to take some knocks in the public domain about our perhaps brave decision to close the WSR for three months in 2019, but we can now focus on what is actually happening and why, and the positive measures we are taking.”

Following the decision to close, there has been some changes to the PLC board. Two members have resigned while another is returning.

Mr Jones-Pratt says he wants to move past the ‘unnecessary conflicts, unattractive messages and bad feelings’ which have mired the railway of late.

“In my perhaps biased view, the WSR has almost stagnated in recent years and arguably lost sight of being one of the country’s premier heritage railways,” he said. “Partly because of political distractions of the recent past.

“Looking forward, we need to embrace the evident changes which are needed to tighten up our procedures to improve and enhance the heritage-based culture and vision of the WSR. I need to be very clear we all need to support these improvements in order to operate a safe, professionally-run railway which is now expected by the regulators in the modern era.”