THE local economy could suffer if the freehold for the West Somerset Railway is sold to a third party, councillors and traders warn.

The West Somerset Railway plc warned on Monday that the railway could be closed for an unknown length of time if the freehold is sold elsewhere.

Currently, the county council owns the freehold and leases the land to the company, which operates the attraction.

The council has said it will only go ahead with the sale if conditions over preservations are met, adding that members are committed to making sure the railway operates as normal meanwhile.

However, the company has said a sale to a third party would cause disruption.

Marcus Kravis, who owns an arcade on Minehead seafront, said: “Myself and other traders are worried about the impact if the railway has to close temporarily.

“In the 20 years I’ve worked on the seafront I’ve watched the railway go from strength to strength, and many of our visitors come because of the railway.

“It jeopardises not only the railway, but Minehead as well.”

Both the company and the West Somerset Railway Association, a support charity, have submitted bids for the freehold of the land.

At a county council scrutiny committee meeting in January a motion was passed that before a decision is made it should go to public scrutiny and then back to committee to decide who to sell the freehold to, but some councillors say this has been ignored.

Cllr Justine Baker said: “I’ve been discussing the potential sale of the freehold with the team at WSR since last year.

“The situation’s complicated and if it isn’t handled in a transparent way it could impact massively on the local economy.

“The railway brings £10million to the area and employs over 50 staff, not to mention the countless volunteers and dedicated shareholders.”

Cllr Mike Rigby said: “The purpose of scrutiny is that council decisions and policies can be subject to public opinions.

"If we make a decision without that what's the point in having scrutiny?"

The Light Railway order means currently only the council or the company have the powers to run the freehold.

If the land was sold to a third party the railway would have to close until statutory powers were obtained to run it by the new owner/operator.

A sale to the company would avoid this.

A company spokesman said: "Because objections to an application for a new order by a third party would lead to uncertainty, and with a public inquiry incurring very high costs, the report stipulates that the purchaser must pay all such resulting inquiry costs.

"We look forward to working with the county council and all our partners during the due diligence process to show how the plc option provides the solution."

A WSR Association spokesman said they did not want to comment.

Cllr David Huxtable said; "We've had 34 letters and emails in support of the proposed sale and just one against. That tells its own story.

"This council isn't in the business of running trains - it's in the business of allowing local communities and organisations to use their knowledge and expertise to improve running services such as this."

Cllr David Hall said: "The West Somerset Railway is extremely important to Somerset, attracting thousands of visitors to the area and contributing greatly to the local economy.

"We'll now sit down and work with all interested parties to do the right thing for Somerset council taxpayers and the West Somerset Railway."