A SOMERSET MP says a 'frank and meaningful' conversation is needed over the future of West Somerset Railway.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, for Bridgwater and West Somerset, was reacting to the news the railway had given 43 staff members notice of potential redundancies.

The railway confirmed last week that letters had been sent out to its staff members as it considers its options during the Covid-19 crisis, which has left it unable to open this year.

Mr Liddell-Grainger says discussions need to be held to safeguard the attraction.

“The West Somerset line is regarded rightly as one of the jewels in the Somerset tourism crown and thousands of people will be saddened by the fact that they will be denied the chance to travel it this year,” he said.

“It is clear there needs to be a long and detailed look at how the railway is run and its financial state - and some frank and meaningful discussions about the future.

“At the outset a staff complement of 45 appears to represent an unfeasibly large wage bill which is always going to act as a sheet anchor on profits.

“But in the wider scheme of things everyone in West Somerset has a stake of some kind in the railway and they need to be informed precisely and clearly what its financial situation is.

“The company must come clean about the costs of the outstanding track repairs that need to be done and all its other liabilities so that everyone knows exactly where it stands. We really need to be reassured of the company’s ability to function effectively in future.

“Unless there is confidence in the future of the WSR then the owners of locomotives and rolling stock currently leased or loaned to it are likely to start removing them, which would make cranking up services again even more of a challenge.”

READ MORE: West Somerset Railway considering redundancies for most of its staff amid coronavirus donation appeal

The freehold for the railway line is owned by Somerset County Council, with WSR leasing it.

Mr Liddel-Grainger said he was 'grateful' for the the public ownership of the railway.

“No-one ever imagined that we would be in the situation where we find ourselves today but the one positive in all this is the fact that the line and stations remain firmly in public ownership,” he said.

“So should the worst come to the worst and the WSR is unable to continue operating the principle assets will be unaffected.

“All heritage railways are suffering at the moment but I am ready to offer whatever assistance I can to ensure that the West Somerset line does not become a casualty of coronavirus – but this is an issue which demands complete transparency on the part of the company and theinvolvement of the local authorities, the tourism sector and all interested parties.”

But the railway says it has tried to speak with Mr Liddell-Grainger to no avail. 

A spokesperson said: "Mr Liddell Grainger claims to support the WSR yet, despite many offers from us to met him to discuss our position, he never comes to us first to air any concerns he might have in seeking to learn the truth from the ‘horse’s mouth’, so-to-speak, and which would be the right and professional approach of an MP of course. Our Vice Chairman Mark Smith had hoped to meet Mr Liddell Grainger recently, but the lockdown out paid to that.

"Instead, he allows his press advisor and sources to seemingly add up ‘two and two’, but they invariably then get the answer of ‘seven’ by opting for media sound bites and criticising the WSR’s financial performance, but not the actual hard financial facts.

"The risk of redundancy situation is not good news from the WSR and we would not seek to deny that fact, but the CV 19 closure of our line is not of our making and Mr Liddell Grainger surely knows that as an MP? Given the scale of the Covid 19 crisis nationwide, it’s not unexpected news either as it’ll be the same situation that many other heritage lines are facing too. Tourism is facing a huge hit from this and we need help not brickbats."

The spokesperson added better news was on the horizon, as the draft accounts for the railway do show potential for a £300,000 plus profit from the last financial year, recovering from an £800,000 loss the year before. 

WSR is also hoping to raise £500,000 during its emergency appeal during the coronavirus crisis, and it has so far hit £133,000. 

To find out more or to donate visit www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk.