TRAINS owned by passengers and staff could be running on the mainline track in Somerset by summer next year, according to a new train operator.
The proposals from rail user co-operative GO-OP would see a "significant addition" to the current timetables for a Somerset and Wiltshire link.
GO-OP's plans include connecting mainline rail with Bishops Lydeard on the independent West Somerset Railway line.
A GO-OP spokesperson said: "By starting a not-for-profit business owned by those who travel on its trains and work for it, GO-OP’s ambition is to establish a new rail corridor between Taunton and Swindon.
"Several stations in Somerset and Wiltshire that have limited levels of service such as Castle Cary, Frome, and Melksham will see significant increases in the number of departures, and connecting services will open up rail journeys that are currently impractical such as Taunton to Yeovil and Frome to Swindon."
Discussions between GO-OP and the West Somerset Railway could lead to a scheduled daily service linking the national rail network, via Taunton, to the heritage railway at Bishops Lydeard for the first time in 50 years.
The proposals may also see an increase in bus services so that more people in West Somerset and North Devon can access the railway.
A West Somerset Railway spokesperson said: "The WSR has always encouraged train operators to run trains to connect with the very popular heritage steam trains that run from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead.
“We are at an early stage and will continue discussions as GO-OP resolves the many issues involved in running on the national network."
Network Rail has undertaken tests, which have established that there is capacity on the network to introduce GO-OP’s services.
The next step will be a performance analysis to ensure that as the trains approach Swindon there will be no risk to the punctuality of other operators.
A Network Rail spokesperson said: "GO-OP has been engaged with the Aspirant Open Access team at Network Rail for some years now, most recently asking their train planners to assess whether capacity existed in the timetable for GO-OP's additional services.
"Further work, including performance analysis and evidence of rolling stock suitability, will be needed before Network Rail can decide whether the planned track access application can secure their support."
GO-OP's operations director Alex Lawrie said: "We have been working towards this point for many years since we first began meeting as a group of frustrated rail travellers and for a while it looked like the pandemic might be one challenge too many.
"We are very grateful to the volunteers and staff of the West Somerset Railway, and to the many rail industry experts, who have enabled us to bring forward proposals that actually exceed our original ambitions in many ways.”
Content published on Somerset County Gazette 26/04/2021