The West Somerset Steam Railway Trust

Joint Statement on the Washford lease

Here is the Joint Statement issued by the West Somerset Railway PLC, West Somerset Railway Association and the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust. This is followed by a copy of the Position Statement issued by West Somerset Railway Plc.

West Somerset Railway & Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust

A joint statement from West Somerset Railway PLC, West Somerset Railway Association and West Somerset Railway Steam Trust

A meeting was set up between representatives of the 3 bodies, to discuss the dispute between the WSR PLC and the S & D Trust, concerning the S & D Trust’s occupation of the site at Washford. This followed representations to all three bodies by members, volunteers and others, and press comments.

The WSRA and the WSRST were invited by the PLC to understand how the dispute had arisen, and they said they wished to provide any assistance they could to find an amicable solution to the dispute.

The WSR PLC was keen to explain the reasons for their decision to terminate the S & D Trust’s lease of the Washford site, the history that had led to that decision, and their attempts to work with the S & D Trust to find a mutually acceptable solution short of terminating the lease. The PLC had been constrained up until this meeting from making this information public for legal reasons.

All three bodies confirmed their desire to find a positive outcome for everybody, as far as possible, especially given that everybody is working under the difficulties caused by the coronavirus lockdown.

The PLC’s reasons are set out in the attached statement.

Following discussion, the WSRA and the WSRST expressed their support for the PLC, while regretting the concern caused to the members of the S & D Trust, which seemed to be partly as a result of the S & D Trust’s unwillingness to engage in discussions. It was agreed that the best way to minimise those concerns was to use the services of an independent party, which is provided for in the terms of the lease. The PLC explained that it has already been in talks with the Heritage Railway Association about such an approach, and was waiting for their final agreement on assistance. It is hoped that the S & D Trust will take up this opportunity.

It was also agreed that the PLC would provide reasonable extra time for the S & D Trust to do what was needed, recognising the lockdown constraints.

Jonathan Jones-Pratt Chairman WSR PLC

Mike Sherwood Acting Chairman WSRA

Chris Austin Chairman WSRST

Position Statement: WSR PLC and Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust

Introduction

This note has been prepared to explain the West Somerset Railway PLC (WSR PLC) position with respect to its approach to the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust (the Trust), over the Trust’s occupation of the Washford site on the West Somerset Railway (WSR).

It provides some historic background, covers recent discussion between the PLC and the Trust, outlines some key funding issues and discusses the PLC plans for development of the Washford site, explains why the PLC has taken its decision to terminate the lease, acknowledges the negative publicity this has caused and sets out next steps.

Background

The Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust is based at Washford, operating under a lease which was agreed between the WSR PLC and Trust in 1991 covering part of the Washford station area; in 2018 a further tenancy agreement was agreed. The Trust promotes the education and preservation of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway.

Over the 30 years the Trust has been at Washford, it has developed a workshop and the yard at Washford, where they hold and restore a number of former S&DJR goods wagons and coaches, as well as “Kilmersdon”, a Peckett 0-4-0ST locomotive. They have developed a museum, which features a signalling display based around the small signal box from Burnham-on-Sea. The Trust has a small portion of track which connects to the WSR PLC controlled infrastructure but is physically separated.

In 2018/19 the WSR PLC found itself in considerable financial trouble, after a number of years of financial losses, leading to some significant restructuring of the WSR PLC business, including a number of redundancies, sales of equipment, appeals for funds and a fundamental review of the financial basis of existing contracts, leases and agreements.

The PLC has also been facing increased pressure from our safety regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). It is important to understand that a previously light touch from the regulator has been changing and that their expectations of the PLC have been increasing; a level of provision more in line with this century than last is being looked for.

Recent discussions between the PLC and the Trust

In June 2019 the PLC and the Trust met to discuss a concern the Trust had about the PLC plans for the future of the hire agreement of locomotive no 88. This repeated previous Trust concerns that some locomotive drivers did not like the Engine. The PLC made clear they understood the terms of the locomotives hire agreement, and wanted it to continue to operate on the WSR. It was agreed that there was need for an overhaul, and that the PLC would develop a reserve to fund that. The Trust were asked for a contribution to this work if needed, but they did not respond.

In September 2019, there was a meeting between the PLC Deputy Chair and the SDRT chairman. It was explained that the PLC financial rescue had been successful, and with almost a complete summer of trading the future looked more secure. The trust were again asked if they could consider making an appeal to purchase some identifiable part of 88 at overhaul time. It was suggested that the cost of the replacement tender tank would be a good project. Again there was no response. It was acknowledged that the £3k which had been made from the Real Ale Festival held as part of a WSRA Diesel Gala event was a real help.

The PLC discussed the income from the Shop and Station. The PLC felt that Washford ought to be an important destination for WSR passengers, but it consistently records very low numbers, even though it is open on most days for at least part of the day, the company is running a train service. It was suggested that the company would make more of Washford in its timetable brochure and other marketing activity and the SDRT should write up their ideas about how more could be developed. Nothing was received.

During the Ale festival some safety issues were highlighted and passed by visitors to the site to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), who are the Railway’s safety regulator. This led the ORR contacting the PLC to seek reassurance this would be controlled better in the future. This was raised with the Trust but as a clear commitment was not forthcoming the support for this event in the future was withdrawn by the PLC.

In the past couple of years there have been other Safety issues brought to the attention of the Trust, including non-compliant moves, movement of a carriage by hand, drivers driving without exams, Kilmersdon lit up with a gas heater. There has not been a positive response to this. The PLC has asked to conduct a safety audit on the facility as part of its own SMS compliance, but the Trust have not yet facilitated this.

Funding

SDRT currently pays a little over £1249 pa rent for the site, which has only been increase by RPI from the time of the first lease in 1991. At that time the PLC agreed the original lease it was trading profitably and could afford to be more generous than now; the level set is also an indication of the historic weak financial management which has been part the PLC’s current financial situation. No contribution to rates is made.

This rent is considerably below what the PLC feel is its value, and as a reference the rent for Williton/Sherrings Yard is £17000 pa; WSRA at Bishops Lydeard (BL) pay a rent of £4,500.00 pa for their office space; the WSSRT pay a rent for the BL Museum of £100.00 pa paid in 4 instalments and for the Blue Anchor Museum it is £741.60 pa paid in 4 instalments, however this has been waived until Oct 21 to assist the refurbishment. Quantock House at BL was set at £22,000 pa, but then withdrawn by the landlord. 5542Ltd pay £10 per foot of siding space pa.

The PLC met the Trust and made clear it needed to increase its income wherever possible. It was suggested that the Trust should review its finances, that a rent increase was needed and that as this would take some time to manage, the PLC would accept a staged increase over time, but that an increase was needed. This was not responded to by the Trust.

The reformed PLC Board asked all the WSR family to support an emergency appeal. All other groups on the line have responded positively. Only SDRT declined the request.

Potential further development of the Washford Site

The WSRA has developed and sourced funding for an imaginative plan for the development of Dunster yard, which would set out what a country station goods yard looked like. This will displace the present PW depot, and after consideration the PLC concluded that the PW group would be much better housed at WD

Following discussions with the ORR, it became even clearer that the Railway needed to increase its capacity to undertake maintenance works, store vehicles and provide better accommodation for its staff. In looking at how we would meet this we realised that from a commercial perspective we needed to make much better use of the capacity of our existing estate, and this included changes to Washford.

The PLC’s wants to develop further the Washford site, as part of its Ten Year Plan. This includes additional storage for permanent way vehicles, equipment storage closer to the middle of our 22 mile railway, which will improve efficiency of future track work programmes, develop the workshops for restoration works, develop some covered winter accommodation, and develop the museum and visitor facilities. The PLC wants to attract a new station master to the Washford Station, which will itself be developed further, including a repaint the station to be consistent with the WSR livery. Some of these ideas were put to the trust, and they were asked to supply their own, but they have failed provide anything.

The S & D Trust has suggested they might seek a change to the WSR Light Railway Order at the Washford site and so operate the rail lines there as a separate entity. This would not only be expensive for them, but is not acceptable to the WSR because of the development it wishes to make on its land for the greater benefit of the railway, and because of the perceived negative impact on the PLC Safety Management System.

As a railway, the PLC is committed to the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway 7F Class No. 88 (53808), and the PLC hope to continue to operate this popular engine, in line with its separate and free-standing hire agreement. The PLC has worked to build some financial provision to look after the engine, we have shared this with the S & D Trust, but noted we cannot fund this alone.

While a number of Trust members live in the area there has been a long running internal concern by some Trust members about the Trust being at Washford, and that they resist further attempts to invest in the site. They believe that a Somerset and Dorset Railway charity should be based on the Somerset and Dorset Railway.

Position taken by PLC

The PLC had been looking at how it can raise greater funds as part of the necessary development of the railway, including looking at how all sites could be developed and potentially raise greater income to help fund the railway and ease operational pressures. Requests from the PLC to the Trust to contribute some funds to the development of the site have been raised during their long occupation of the site, but when the more urgent requests during 2019 were again rejected, and the Trust indicated they were not prepared to consider any two-way deals to benefit both parties, the PLC decided with regret that it was now time to give the S & D Trust a 12-month notice of termination on their lease, so the site could be better developed. The PLC discussed again whether the Trust would increase its rent for the site to a more financially sensible level. The Trust refused. To be clear other parties occupying WSR land did agree to rent increases.

The PLC has tried to develop a more appropriate rent for the land use. It has sought support for the development ideas from the Trust. Neither has been forthcoming. The PLC therefore took legal advice on what was required in line with the Landlord and Tenant Act to execute the lease end, this has led to a professional drawn up exit. The PLC briefed the Chairs of the WSRA and Steam Trust on the direction we were taking before the legal statutory notice was served. They were both aligned at the time with the PLC action.

Publicity of the dispute

The PLC issued a press release which explained that it felt that the trust was not making a fair contribution to the PLC funds in a time of financial crisis, and that the S and D were only pursuing their own charitable aims.

The PLC did find this lack of support unacceptable, but accepts that the characterisation of the Trust as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ was inappropriate, failed to acknowledge the work that the Trust has contributed over the years to the development and protection of the line, and has led to people regarding the PLC action as not being fair. The PLC acknowledges this has caused some bad publicity and upset, and some withdrawal of support for the PLC. However we have been shocked at how un-factual some of the stories and social media posts have become. The PLC hopes that this note sets the record straight.

Next steps

We wish to help the Trust exit in a friendly manner and we do thank them for their involvement on the WSR. We will offer some storage to assist the move at the year end. We also suggest they speak with the Steam Trust if they wish to have a place at BL to display and promote their heritage exhibition, which we would like them to do. We will also continue to offer the running days for members of the Trust to enjoy.

The PLC would be prepared to discuss some delays in the lease termination due the current situation, but will have to make clear that the PLC can’t fund the locomotive’s overhaul, given the current financial position. The original and extension leases have arrangements for arbitration – and that may also provide a way forward.

Martin Brown

For the WSR PLC Board

Posted on 2 May 2020 by Admin