DIDCOT Railway Centre is launching a £125,000 fundraising drive so it can steam ahead with development plans.

The centre wants to buy a 50-year, £125,000 lease from Network Rail so it can pursue long-term plans including an extension, an engine house, a visitor centre, a larger shop and better catering facilities.

It has to raise £62,500 by May and the remaining £62,500 the following May. The lease will expire in 2019.

Manager Roger Orchard said: “We have a lot of support from people who are not members of the society but still care a lot about railway preservation.

“There are also visitors who have enjoyed numerous trips with their children over the years and we would urge them to support us as well.

“To lose the site at some point would be a blow to railway preservation.”

The centre would also get better rent rates under the new lease — £1,000 a year compared to £13,800 now.

Adrian Knowles, a spokesman for the Great Western Society, which runs the attraction, said: “We need to fundraise to raise the cash because we don’t have sufficient money to pay the price.

“There are 4,000 members in the Great Western Society and if each member was prepared to donate the price of a meal out we would get close to our target.

“Buying the lease will give us the security of tenure to develop the site and apply for grant funding to do so.”

He said the new lease could allow Network Rail to demand some land from the centre to widen the main line’s so-called North curve.

However, he said: “We no longer think that it’s a likelihood but if it did happen we would have to move our demonstration line across by about 12ft.”

Network Rail would be obliged to offer the society a new lease after the 50-year lease expired, he said.

Didcot Chamber of Commerce spokesman Jeanette Howse said: “This agreement is a real breakthrough for the centre.

“If a new lease wasn’t agreed there was a danger that the collection might have had to move somewhere else eventually.

“We wouldn’t want that to happen because the railway centre gives Didcot a real economic boost.”

Network Rail spokesman Russell Spink said: “Discussions have taken place with the Great Western Society with a view to securing the long-term future of a facility that continues to preserve that proud heritage, and we hope to have an agreement in place soon.”

The society celebrates its 50th birthday this year and 2011 also marks 44 years of its use of the centre housed in a former GWR engine shed.

Contributions are welcomed by cheque, payable to Great Western Society and sent to: Richard Croucher, chairman, Great Western Society Ltd, Didcot Railway Centre, Didcot, OX11 7NJ.