A PRIVATE investor running the UK's first independent community railway will meet the debt-ridden Weardale Railway's funders this week.

The ECT Group, which includes the successful Dartmoor Railway, in Devon, confirmed yesterday that it was in talks over the future of the County Durham line, which went into administration three months ago.

Administrator PricewaterhouseCoopers is looking for a company to run the Weardale line with support from the voluntary Weardale Railway Trust.

The Northern Echo understands that ECT's stake in the venture could be £75,000, for which it may be given a 50 per cent shareholding.

A spokeswoman for the London-based not-for-profit group said: "ECT Group is talking to Weardale Railway, but nothing has been agreed yet."

Formed in 1979 as part of the Ealing Voluntary Service Council, ECT employs 650 people and has an annual turnover of £22m through interests in community transport and recycling in London, the Midlands, the West Country and Northern Ireland.

It went into partnership with Dartmoor Railway in December and is advertising for a £40,000-a-year manager to carry out expansion plans.

ECT said it regarded Dartmoor Railway as a test-bed and showcase for ideas contained in the Government's community rail strategy.

It is keen to expand its involvement in the railway industry. Dartmoor carries freight and passengers over 15 miles of track around Okehampton and is mainly involved in leisure and tourism.

Rail experts view its possible involvement in Weardale as an ideal way of raising capital and restoring the confidence of funding organisations, which include develop- ment agency One NorthEast, Government Office North East and local authorities.

Heritage Railway Association (HRA) chairman David Morgan said: "Any fresh injection of capital can only be a good thing and if that comes from ECT, which has experience of running a railway, it would be a positive move."

Chris Smyth, a director of the Heritage Railway Association, of which the Weardale Railway Trust is a member, said: "I am quite hopeful that it will be saved and the railway will restart.

"The HRA has not yet formally discussed the situation at Weardale and we cannot interfere with the company, but if the trust asks for help, we have expertise in a number of areas, from grant applications to operating and safety.

"Dartmoor Railway is a member of the HRA and, although ECT is very much a green company, they have experience of running such a railway, and they developed passenger services and tourist specials on what was a freight line.

"If they were to get involved in Weardale, it sounds a positive thing."