WEST Somerset Railway needs a new structure is peace if to be restored on the valued heritage railway.

That is the recommendation of a newly published independent report produced by John Bailey of the Heritage Railway Association, who suggests West Somerset Railway should be placed under the control of a new incorporated charity.

And, despite the clear divisions that have emerged over how the railway has been run in recent years, the proposals seem to have been broadly be welcomed by most parties within the WSR family.

Mr Bailey begins his report, titled ‘Peaceful Somerset’, by explaining some of the causes for the problems WSR has faced in recent years.

“Despite its history of factional infighting and near financial disaster the essential “One Railway” culture and unity of purpose has still to emerge,” Mr Bailey writes.

“The most recent cause of division has been the decision of the PLC operating company to serve Notice to Quit on the Somerset and Dorset Trust who have leased the railway’s Washford site for over forty years.

“Whatever the legal and operational justification it led to ill-informed, vitriolic and vindictive comment on social media.”

Mr Bailey said the Washford Station issue highlighted wider problems with the relationship between the PLC and the charities supporting the railway.

He writes that there seems to be a competitive relationship between the West Somerset Railway Association charity and the PLC, describing both sides as ‘combative’ regarding the way money raised should be spent.

“Perhaps the most important point for an interested outsider like me is that it is all very confusing,” Mr Bailey writes.

“Who am I donating to and for what? You all seem to be competing with each other for my money.”

Mr Bailey says that at its heart WSR is a tourism business and as such its product is an ‘authentic nostalgic experience of a Great Western branch line adapted for compliance with 21st century regulation’.

He argues that running this alongside a community railway would ‘not fit comfortably with the delivery of the commercial product that the railway’s viability depends on’.

Mr Bailey also suggests that while the PLC has had its critics in the railway family, ‘were it not for the current board of the PLC, the railway would in all probability already have ceased to exist’.

He concludes that there needs to be a charity set up that can act as a clear focus for the railway’s core activities, which would include benefits such as Gift Aid, charitable rate relief and exclusion for corporation tax.

The recommendation is for a new charity to be set up which owns the railway’s physical assets, but not the operating licences, and contracts with a company - in this case the PLC - to run the railway as a service.

The WSR PLC says it warmly welcomes the report’s recommendation and intends to commence a consultation process with its own shareholders.

The consultation will specifically cover the recommendation to consider the creation of a new incorporated charity with an operating company as a controlled subsidiary.

The WSRA trustees also issued a statement saying they fully endorse the potential new structure.

A WSRA spokesman said: “It is always difficult to balance the competing pressures of an enthusiast membership with the needs of the railway that is, at heart, a commercial tourist-based operation.

“We agree that the cultural change is an essential pre-requisite and are fearful that without it all else will be much like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“We firmly believe that the only role for the WSRA is to fold itself into the proposed new charitable structure.”