MOST of the West Somerset Railway’s 22 miles of track is “at the very end of its serviceable life” and in urgent need of replacement in the coming months, it was revealed this week.
Railway supporters have now launched a £250,000 fundraising campaign to help with the cost of replacing a rail system which was scrapped by the national network over 50 years ago and dates back to the mid 19th century.
The plan is to take up the existing ‘bullhead’ rails, which sit in ‘chairs’ on wooden sleepers, and install modern and cheaper ‘flat-bottomed’ rails attached to concrete sleepers. The modern system is also easier to maintain and has a 100-year life. The existing WSR rails are at the end of their 50-year life and are nearly twice as expensive to replace.
The West Somerset Railway Association (WSRA) and West Somerset Steam Railway Trust (WSSRT) are now involved in urgently raising funds to help pay for WSR’s planned track relays over the coming winter. Donations are invited for replacement equipment ranging from £1,800 for a 60ft panel of flat-bottomed track to £28 for a concrete sleeper.
A WSR spokesman said: “The railway intends to replace much of the bullhead rail with flat-bottom rail over much the line apart from in station areas and places where people like to see traditional track.
“Making much of the WSR into a flat-bottom line will fit in well with the company’s objective of making the business more sustainable for the foreseeable future and reducing renewal and maintenance costs.”
WSR plc chairman Jon JonesPratt said: “I applaud this bold, £250,000 fund-raising initiative jointly from the West Somerset Railway Association and Steam Trust to help us deal with pressing track issues this winter.
“Track work is always an expensive and ongoing project on all heritage railways, and it is a focal point for our business too as the longest heritage railway line in England.
“Exchanging most of our old bullhead rail for the more cost-effective and sustainable flat-bottom rail alternative will mean that the WSR will have an economically viable and sensible option to keep the railway going for many years to come in the next 40 years of our existence.
“With the West Somerset Railway Association and Steam Trust’s ongoing support, we will continue working together as ‘one railway’ in order to get as many of our projects completed as possible.
“If people can spare some money towards this very worthwhile cause, then we would be most grateful and I’d like to thank those who have already shown their support for the WSR by donating money to us.”
West Somerset Railway Association chairman Paul Whitehouse said: “Much of the track on the West Somerset Railway is now at the very end of its serviceable life after over 50 years and some sections must be renewed in the near future to keep the WSR going for future generations to enjoy.
“We need to raise additional funds urgently in order to keep the WSR track replacement work programme on schedule for this coming winter and we have launched a ‘Just Giving’ appeal alongside the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust to try and achieve this ambition.
“With over 53,000 sleepers and well over 40 miles of rails on the 22-mile line, the numbers are big and the bill is expensive for the WSR to fund, whether using traditional bullhead rail or the more modern flat-bottom type now used all over the mainline network.”
Chris Austin, of the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust, added that WSR would like to keep traditional bullhead rails in station areas and other places where it can be seen and understood by visitors.
The more cost-effective flat-bottom rail would be used on the largely unseen areas of the railway which not only gave a better ride but was also is easier to maintain.
Mr Austin said £3,000 would buy a 60ft panel of bullhead track including all fittings with 50-year life and £1,800 was the cost of a 60ft panel of flat-bottom track with 100 years’ life.
He said £840 would buy a single 60ft length of bullhead rail and £560 a similar length of flat-bottom rail. The sum of £52 would buy a single wooden sleeper with serviceable chairs and keys, and £28 was the price of a single concrete sleeper.
Story printed in West Somerset Free Press by Tony James