rail link trial between Taunton and Bishops Lydeard
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A TRIAL of railway services that will link Minehead and Taunton is set to leave the station next month.

The Exmoor Gateway Project will provide a seasonal main-line link between the West Somerset Railway and the National Rail network during the summer of 2019.

The trial comes after a £60,000 funding boost from the Great Western Railway's Customer and Communities Improvement Fund.

Although no set timetables have been announced, it is thought the scheme will get rolling in June.

The trains will run from Taunton to Bishops Lydeard, where travellers can then use the West Somerset Railway.

Why do the trains not go through to Minehead?

This is a trial project to test what the market might be like for regular trains between the West Somerset Railway and the national network. Our single line with passing loops means that there is simply not enough capacity for through trains to Minehead as well as the very successful steam services already run by the WSR, which brings so many visitors to West Somerset. This trial will provide easy, level access for travellers between the GWR and the WSR steam trains at Bishops Lydeard.

Who pays for the project?

This is a partnership between the WSR and GWR. WSR provides the track access and staff to look after the trains while on the WSR. GWR is providing the grant (£60,000) to meet the anticipated difference between the costs of providing the service and the likely fares income from passengers using it.

What is the cost of providing the service?

The estimated cost of the service for this summer is £160,000. Some £60,000 of this is expected will come from fares from passengers using the link, another £60,000 from the grant provided by GWR and £40,000 of the cost will be met by WSR which will be waiving the track access charge and providing staff for the service, some of whom will be volunteers of course. Both the WSR and GWR will also be working to market the service, also using the support and services of volunteers.

Will the service run next year in 2020 and beyond so that it’s better publicised and known about?

That will depend, of course, on how successful the trial service is this summer and whether it will be able to cover its costs. We hope it will do so, but have to test the market first.

Why can’t we have regular trains all year round like Barnstaple and Exmouth?

Our line was closed by BR in 1971 and without the WSR, whose volunteers carefully restored it and have run it over the following 43 years, it would have been torn up. The WSR has run without operational public subsidy during that period and there is no regular subsidy available to us. This trial is a way of testing whether a summer market could be served by the two railways working together and covering costs from passenger fares. It’s worth remembering too that, after Exeter, Torbay and Plymouth, both Barnstaple and Exmouth are the largest towns in Devon with 40,000 residents each generating a lot of traffic, and those railway links never closed of course.

Why is the WSR spending money on this when they are appealing for funds to keep the railway going and are short of cash? Isn’t this a distraction to the WSR’s core services and primary purpose as a tourist attraction?

This is a carefully structured plan and it will not be a financial burden on us with most of the WSR input being benefits in kind (such as waiving the track access charge) rather than as a cash injection as such. The new service will encourage new passengers to the railway, who perhaps would not have come to us without the rail link, and we expect to generate more income than that spent by the WSR in running this trial service. As a business, we have to look at new markets and opportunities as they present themselves to us, especially those in partnership with bigger organisations, such as GWR.

GWR is a privatised commercial company. What is in it for them?

As part of their franchise agreement, GWR provides a fund to support rail improvements for customers and communities. This is a good practical example providing real benefits for both parties.

How is this a ‘trailblazing’ project, when Swanage, North York Moors and Dartmouth Steam Railway already run onto Network Rail lines?

This is the first time that a national rail operator will run a regular, scheduled passenger service onto a heritage railway in this country. It really is a first in that regard and a pioneering exercise. Throughout our history from the earliest days, the WSR has always been keen to have better and regular passenger rail links with the national Network via Taunton, and this is arguably the best and easiest way of hopefully achieving it.

Why do the trains only run on a few days each week and at inconvenient times for commuters? Surely running on other days would be busier? Is this not a way of ensuring the trial fails if it’s strangled at birth?

The days chosen are those known to be busy or designed to attract new business. They include Fridays and Saturdays to assist both day trip visitors and those travelling to and from Butlins by public transport. Bank holidays and gala days are included, as are Wednesdays, which has been recorded by the WSR over many years as being the busiest weekday. Relatively few Sundays are included, reflecting the effects of engineering work on the main line. This is not intended to be a commuter service and we simply cannot resource running trains in the early morning and evenings for commuters in terms of both staffing and operational costs.

How will you know whether or not the experiment has been successful? Isn’t this just a bit of a smokescreen to give the illusion of providing a proper, modern and fast rail link to and from Minehead when, in reality, people will have to travel on old, slow heritage era coaches at 25 mph maximum from Bishops Lydeard with a journey time of over an hour from there?

Passenger numbers will be counted and an in-depth survey will be undertaken to see where passengers are coming from, whether they might use a more regular service and what they would like to see in future. We expect that many people will actually enjoy the novelty of being travel on both modern, air conditioned and fast trains and our bygone era heritage coaches pulled by steam engines through beautiful countryside.

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