Work to renew Seaward Way level crossing in Minehead has been proceeding as fast as possible over the last ten months, but progress has been hampered by Covid 19 of course due to furloughing of key staff and other restrictions in place, plus the complex nature of the new crossing works themselves.
A key factor to be considered is that the crossing is not actually a renewal of Seaward Way at all but is, in effect, going to be a completely new, different and advanced safer type of level crossing.
It includes improved safety systems such as new double barriers, a new CCTV system and, most importantly, completely renewed electrical and signalling systems to ensure safe operations.
This work is necessary now not only because of the significant increase in road traffic since the old crossing opened, but also the number of pedestrians now regularly walking between Butlins and the sea front on the one hand, and MacDonalds and the various supermarkets etc on the other.
When the crossing was first built and opened thirty years ago in 1992, neither MacDonalds nor any of the supermarkets, hotel and newer housing were built of course. But the volume of traffic now using the crossing has changed massively, so requiring a new solution for safe movements where the road, footpaths and rails meet.
Also, after 30 years in the seaside atmosphere, all of the old crossing equipment has become life expired and so obsolete and unfit for the task which is now required.
But detailed planning is now all complete, and technical teams have been busy dismantling the existing signalling equipment. A pre-fabricated electrical switch room has been constructed off site and will soon be installed at its new home.
Later this month there will be a full extensive testing of the new CCTV system. The main phase of construction will then shortly commence. All through this preparatory work, detailed discussions have been taking place with the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) who have to give official permission for the work to proceed and the crossing to re-open.
The various activities of the project have to be dovetailed with each other, but this has proved particularly difficult during the Covid restrictions period. But WSR, Somerset County Council and Contractors staff have all been working closely together, including having regular detailed technical meetings in order to maintain progress despite Covid issues. This partnership working will continue and intensify until the project is concluded.
Both the West Somerset Railway and Somerset County Council readily recognise the pressure and need to get this job completed as soon as possible, and to have the new crossing ready for when the WSR re-opens and trains can run to and from Minehead again, but this is a complex technical project which must be correctly planned and delivered.
However, due to social distancing, it will not be sensible for the railway to open the full length to Minehead in any case until the Covid restrictions are significantly relaxed. We envisage this will now be towards the summer, perhaps from mid-June onwards, by which time we expect the crossing to be fully operational.
Consultation with the County Council as Highways Authority is required about the new crossing, followed by a formal public consultation process which lasts two months, and which will include a firm date for reopening.
As a result of Covid restrictions, plus completion of the ongoing WSR infrastructure works along the line between Watchet and Minehead, the railway will reopen in stages in line with the Government’s planned roadmap in lifting Covid restrictions.
Firstly, so that drivers, firemen, guards, signalmen and other key operating staff have sufficient time to re-familiarise themselves with the line and safety procedures via practical experience on one section at a time and, Secondly, because of the need to continue social distancing for passengers.
So, the section from Bishops Lydeard to Williton will be the first to reopen, followed shortly afterwards by extending to Watchet. In May, it is hoped to extend services to Dunster, with a connecting bus to Minehead, which, it is hoped, will again be reached by trains by the start of July.
WSR plc Chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt said:
“Given the mountains we have had to climb in the last 12 months, it’s unlikely that we will be operating what can be described as a ‘traditional’ WSR timetable any time this year.
“ Seats on trains will very likely have to be pre-booked only and with reserved seats or compartments. I’m really looking forward to our trains returning to Minehead again and using this superb new level crossing this Summer.
“But we have not forgotten that one of the attractions of the WSR is the capability to travel from one station to another station at will, and without pre-booking, so we are working out ways in which this experience can continue in the era of social distancing.”