A Somerset MP says restoring train services between Bishop's Lydeard and Minehead should be an "absolute priority", as delays will cause "serious problems for traders".
Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger says West Somerset Railway (WSR) and Somerset County Council (SCC) should agree an early start to the essential upgrade of Seaward Way level crossing.
The crossing no longer meets the standards required for the volume of traffic on the road and so £1million is being invested to upgrade the facility to comply with modern regulations. The work is also being undertaken because there is an increase in the number of pedestrians walking between Butlins and the sea front, as well as McDonalds and various other supermarkets. The upgrade will include improved safety systems such as new double barriers, a new CCTV system and renewed electrical and signalling systems. WSR have said the progress has been "hampered" by Covid-19, because of the need to furlough staff as well as comply with other restrictions. Both WSR and SCC are aware the works need to be complete, but say this is a "complex and technical project" which must be "correctly planned and delivered". An SCC spokesperson said: “Work on the £1 million upgrade to the Seaward Way level crossing is progressing well. The state-of-the art new control box is complete and ready to be installed and following approval of the plans by the Office of Road and Rail. The main railway network contractor is liaising with West Somerset Railway to complete the installation of the new barrier system at the earliest possible date. All parties are aware of the urgency and are working hard to ensure that the works are completed in time for the full lifting of Covid related restrictions.” Mr Liddell-Grainger says any delays beyond July will "spell some very serious problems for Minehead's traders. After the current extended lockdown tourism businesses in Minehead are going to need every last penny to see them through the rest of the year – and surviving without the income generated by the railway is merely going to add to that challenge” he said. It is regrettable that it has taken so long to resolve this issue when the inadequacy of the current crossing has been known about for so long but I would really urge both sides now to treat this matter as an absolute priority. A shuttle service from Dunster is a stopgap measure but is unlikely to attract anything like the same number of passengers who would use a service running all the way through to Minehead." WSR have said consultation with the Highways Authority is needed for the crossing, as well as a two month public consultation (which will include a firm reopening date). The railway will then open in stages: first it will be from Bishop's Lydeard to Williton; then extending to Watchet; then services to Dunster with a connecting bus to Minehead. WSR have said "it is hoped" the train service between Dunster and Minehead will resume by the start of July. “Given the mountains we have had to climb in the last 12 months, it’s unlikely that we will be operating what can be described as a ‘traditional’ WSR timetable any time this year," said WSR plc chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt. “Seats on trains will very likely have to be pre-booked only and with reserved seats or compartments. I’m really looking forward to our trains returning to Minehead again and using this superb new level crossing this summer but we have not forgotten that one of the attractions of the WSR is the capability to travel from one station to another station at will, and without pre-booking, so we are working out ways in which this experience can continue in the era of social distancing.”