Improving train links

David has been campaigning for improved train links for this area for the past two years. As a candidate he brought successive Rail Ministers to the constituency to impress upon them the need for a new station between Taunton and Castle Cary. This stretch of track is the longest without a station in the whole of the West Country and David was delighted by the reopening of the New Stations Fund announced in the Budget. David has also been pushing for a direct Frome-London service (calling at Bruton too) and after meetings with South West Trains and Network Rail, he launched the new train service on 14th December 2015.

In October 2016, two critical meetings have been held with David and Somerset County Council (SCC) bringing together local stakeholders to push forward proposals to open new a train station in the Somerton and Langport area. At County Hall, SCC and David Warburton were joined by the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership and key rail industry executives from Great Western Railways and Network Rail. Since Beeching closed countless local train stations in the 1960s, Somerset has been left with the longest stretch of railway line west of London with no station - 28 miles of station-less track between Castle Cary and Taunton.

In his campaign to reopen a local railway station, David has won the support of previous rail ministers Stephen Hammond and Claire Perry, former leader of the Lords, Lord Hill, and the last Transport Secretary, Patrick MacLoughlin. Previous Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne even specifically mentioned the proposed station in the 2016 Budget.

The first meeting at County Hall was attended by Network Rail’s David Northey, Great Western Railway’s Matt Barnes, the LEP’s Ian Harrison, Somerset County Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways & Transport David Fothergill, Mike O’Dowd Jones, Strategic Commissioning Manager-Highways and Transport at Somerset County Council and David. It was a critical next step in progressing plans to take advantage of the government’s renewed £20m New Stations Fund and investigate the feasibility and logistics of re-opening a station in the Langport/Somerton area.

This was followed by a second meeting, at South Somerset District Council’s offices in Yeovil, attended by David, Cllr David Fothergill, Mike O’Dowd Jones, and South Somerset District Council’s Executive Members for Strategic Transport Henry Hobhouse and Jo Roundell-Greene, Cllr Dean Ruddle, alongside other District and County Councillors, Parish Councillors from Langport, Somerton and other areas, the Langport Transport Group, Langport Area Business Group and Transition Langport.

David said, “There are some significant hurdles to overcome if we are to achieve what so many people have told me they want. The first major step was getting all stakeholders and main parties on board and involved. I think we’ve achieved that. Now the practical issues begin – the most important of which is, of course, funding.

“The new Rail Minister, Paul Maynard, has written to me to say that the New Stations Fund is now open, and the Government is returning 75 per cent of the costs of any feasibility study from acceptance of the proposal, which can now come at an earlier stage.”

Cllr David Fothergill said, “I am delighted that we have been able to arrange these two meetings to discuss the new station opportunity. We now have a clear plan on the next steps and I look forward to working with partner organisations to advance still further’.

The findings of the initial meeting were conveyed to the second meeting, where attendees heard about the stages of putting together such a proposal. The first step is a detailed alignment and demand study. This looks not only at local demand in terms of potential usage and ability to be profitable, but also at the knock-on effects elsewhere: how the station would affect other services and how it could, for example, cope with the problem of legacy signalling in the area.

The initial meeting had concluded that in principle a station in the Somerton/Langport area was feasible, and the next step was to bring local groups and councils on board.             

The possible new station at Wellington has been developed with around £40k from the district and £10k from the town councils, and it was agreed that a minimum of £30k would be required initially for this project, to provide the information on which to build a future proposal.  The entire Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) process could cost ten times that, but government would refund from the point of acceptance of a bid.

While SCC said they were unable to provide any funding, SSDC said that they were “in principle very much in favour” of the station, but needed to look seriously and in more detail at their own ability to provide funds.  The LEP had, at the first meeting, indicated that they would typically come on board at a later stage, but may have Growth Deal funding for such a proposal.

Small funding offers may be available from the parish councils and local groups, and it was agreed that David write to all Parish Councils to seek funds, however small, and to build stakeholder awareness and support.

It was also agreed that David liaise with the Western Gazette, whose campaign has been highlighting the issue for some months and who may have a database of supporters. He also offered to provide more information about the significant residents’ survey he carried out as a parliamentary candidate. SCC agreed to take the lead role in coordination and providing the expertise to move things forward.

David said, “With growing populations, development, investment and growth coming to our area from the Hinkley Point development and improving infrastructure – both transport and digital – as the last Transport Secretary said, ‘there are clear benefits to local people and industry in and around the area’ by having a new station.

“The area desperately needs new transport links – to maximise local investment, increase jobs and visitors, reduce traffic congestion and emissions, and bring countless benefits to families, shoppers and commuters.

The next stage of the process will be to come together again, once more clarity is obtained around potential avenues for funding and timescales.