A WAR of words has broken out between the local MP and West Somerset Railway this week.
Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called on West Somerset Railway chiefs to disclose the financial state of the heritage line.
Mr Liddell-Grainger said it was time for the company to make a full, honest and accurate public statement about its financial state after a further deferral in publishing its 15-month accounts to March this year.
However Jonathan Jones-Pratt, WSR plc chairman, said: "We are changing WSR plc's financial reporting period to the end of March rather than December, and so need more time year to prepare the accounts for a 15-month period this year rather than the previous system, but the usual 12 monthly cycle will carry on from here. Preparing and auditing detailed accounts takes time."
Mr Liddell-Grainger said speculation had been mounting over the railway's future after Mr Jones-Pratt previously warned the figures will detail 'significant financial losses' to the company resulting from some 'critical business failures'.
“Obviously this is initially a matter for shareholders and it may well be a plc, but the fact is that every single one of my West Somerset constituents has a stake in that railway whether they use it or not,” Mr Liddell-Grainger said.
“It is the single biggest tourist attraction we have and the economy of the district derives immense benefits from its activities. If it is in difficulties people have a right to know to what extent.
“Delaying production of accounts is an exercise which is bound, rightly or wrongly, to increase speculation that all is not well. If that is the case then the company needs to put its hand up; if it is not then, equally, it should move swiftly to reassure the public."
However Mr Jones-Pratt has accused the MP of attempting to garner headlines rather than discussing the matter with the railway first.
“Rather than supporting the WSR as a big and popular tourist attraction in Somerset which is vital to many local businesses, it's a pity our MP chooses to continue to criticise the WSR in public, invariably via the media, and make various allegations that have little substance or much to do with the reality of the situation," Mr Jones-Pratt said.
“If Mr Liddell Grainger is so concerned about the WSR, then why doesn't he come and talk to me face-to-face? I'd welcome a meeting with him and I'm easy to find!”
“The only 'growing speculation' which Mr Liddell Grainger mentions is really in his own mind, but the full accounts will be ready soon enough and then we can see where things need to be changed in future and where it went wrong in the past.
"We will not, and have never shirked from making difficult decisions and asking for help when needed.
"Last Saturday (27 July) we successfully launched the shuttle link between the national rail network at Taunton and the WSR.
"Taunton MP and Tourism Minister Rebecca Pow was there to flag off the first shuttle train, so she understands what we are doing.
“It is a shame that Mr Liddell-Grainger is not often seen at the WSR where he could have an ideal opportunity to talk to me face-to-face about our recent troubled financial position and the strong recovery programme which is now in place to get things back on track again in future."
WSR has already raised more than £57,000 towards the £250,000 fundraising target set for works to be carried out this winter.
Mr Jones-Pratt added: "I took the helm back in October 2018 and for one sole reason - to protect and safeguard the WSR, a railway I have been supporting for over 25 years now.
“It was very apparent to me that the Board and top level management had taken their eye off the ball in recent years, and this has led to us taking emergency action with sorting the dramatic losses year on year and cleansing the poor decision making that ultimately would have seen the WSR fall over.
“My job as chairman is to execute a plan that will see the railway ensure it gets back in charge of its own destiny.
"The immediate safe-guarding changes that we've made have meant that the Railway is now on target financially and performing to the business model we expected to see, all that is positive. What isn’t positive is the past, and for that reason there are some bad news stories about those periods, there is no hiding from that.
“We also have had the steady decline in our infrastructure to consider and that needs attending to now - we must do this work as professional operators and can now see a collective plan coming together to deliver a best practice railway."
Read the full story on the Somerset County Gazette website