MOST of the staff at West Somerset Railway are at risk of redundancy as the company pleads for donations to keep it afloat during the coronavirus crisis.

A total of 43 out of 45 staff members have received a letter informing them the company is now consulting on making members of staff redundant.

The heritage railway business says the move is in reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, which has made it unlikely trains will be able to run at all this year, and potentially 'longer term'.

Chairman Jon Jones-Pratt says redundancies will be avoided 'wherever possible', and that government guidance is being monitored.

A WSR spokesperson said: “The letter to all 45 members of WSR plc staff is an initial move to put staff ‘on notice’ of being at ‘possible risk of redundancy’. It’s being done in the event of a worst case scenario for the railway, and we certainly do not wish to lose any of our skilled workforce if possible, but we have to be realistic too and protect what we have.

“It’s nothing more than that at this stage and normal practice in crisis situations like this, but been dictated by the changed Furlough regime which now ends at the end of July for payment of 80% of wages, and then carries on until October at a lower rate with contributions expected from employers.

“The WSR plc very much regrets it has had to do this, but we had no choice but to do so due to zero income coming in currently and our continuing monthly payroll costs – we have to reduce costs to save the railway. Every other heritage railway in the country is in the same boat right now and many will be doing exactly the same thing as us.

“This is the start of a possible process which will involve two-way consultation with our staff and whose ideas are being used to inform our future plans in dealing with the dire situation the WSR faces, but events are sadly out of our control with CV 19 restrictions and social distancing regulations at present. The plc wishes to be open, honest and transparent with its valued staff and the consultation process evidences that."

The employees are split into four groups: mechanical engineering; permanent way; operations; and commercial and admin. Two employees safe from redundancy lie within the latter group.

The company says it has not yet concluded how many employees will need to be made redundant.

The spokesperson added the 'worst case scenario' for the business is reopening and running trains again proving to be 'uneconomic'.

According to WSR, this could happen for a number of reasons, including:

  • the high start-up costs of getting locos, coaches, signalling and PW all checked out and working properly again
  • getting all of the competency and training right for now ‘ring rusty’ safety critical operating staff after a long break
  • implementing the current social distancing requirements, but which actually mean that trains could only carry limited numbers and not the volume of traffic they'd need
  • They could make their financial position worse by re-opening too soon with such restrictions if it costs them more money to run them than they gain

The spokesperson added there was no guarantee people would even want to return to the line if restrictions are eased in July.

Meanwhile, a huge fundraising effort has been launched to help the company make it through the pandemic.

WSR PLC and the West Somerset Railway Association hope to raise £500,000 to go towards the railway's upkeep during the time it cannot open.

So far, £124,154.26 has been raised.

WSR plc Chairman Jon Jones-Pratt said: “The West Somerset Railway is deeply indebted to all those wonderful people and supporters who have given their hard-earned cash to us already at an unbelievably hard time for us all, and especially those making repeat donations to us too. It’s all been simply brilliant and very humbling to know that we have such strong support and people are confident in what we are doing for the good of the railway.

“With help from our support groups, we’re now a quarter of the way there in raising our survival bid appeal total of £500,000, so we have to just keep going in trying to generate money from donations and maintaining interest in what we’re doing and what’s potentially at risk if we don’t hit our targets. We still have no idea when the railway might re-open, and the longer this crisis continues then the worse it will be of course."

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