It was on 4 January 1971 that the branch line from Taunton to Minehead closed; listed for closure in the Beeching report of March 1963, the line managed to hang on until the 1970s.
With the completion of the Bristol & Exeter Railway through the county in 1845, there were a number of proposals for the construction of railways to serve the north and west of the county. However, it was not until the 1850s that more concrete plans started to be developed. The West Somerset Railway, whose promoters had been advised by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was authorised by an Act of 17 August 1857 to construct a line from a junction slightly to the west of Taunton to Watchet.
Backed by the Bristol & Exeter Railway, which would operate the new line in exchange for 45% of the receipts, the railway was to be built as broad gauge with construction starting on 7 April 1859. The delay was due to problems in raising the finance to construct the line. The route’s engineer was George Furness and the line opened throughout to passenger services on 31 March 1862; freight services, however, did not commence until August of the same year. Initially there was no junction station at Norton Fitzwarren; this was only opened on 8 June 1871 with the opening of the Devon & Somerset Railway branch from the junction to Wiveliscombe.
With the opening of the line to Watchet, attention turned to extending the route to Minehead; however, it was not until the Minehead Railway was authorised on 29 June 1971 that powers for the line were given. Construction of the broad-gauge Minehead Railway commenced in 1872 with the line opening from Watchet to Minehead on 16 July 1874. Again, as a result of an agreement, the Bristol & Exeter Railway operated the new railway. In order to improve operational flexibility on the 22¾-mile long single-track branch, a passing loop was installed at Williton; a further loop, at Crowcombe, was added in 1879.
On 1 January 1876 the Bristol & Exeter became part of the Great Western. The line was to remain broad gauge until 28/29 October 1882 when, over the course of the weekend, it was converted to standard gauge. The Minehead Railway was formally absorbed by the GWR following an Act of 6 August 1887, but the original West Somerset Railway was to maintain its independent existence through to the Grouping in 1923.
During the interwar years, there was considerable improvement to the Minehead line. The changes included the provision of additional loops and the doubling of the sections from Minehead to Dunster in 1934 and that from Norton Fitzwarren to Bishops Lydeard two years later. In addition, in order to boost the tourist traffic, a number of camping coaches were installed at Blue Anchor and Stogumber.
After the war came nationalisation and the growing crisis in railway finances. Although there were efforts to try and improve the position of the Minehead branch — the closure of Washford signal box in 1952 and the engine shed at Minehead four years later — it was still a costly line to operate. Although the opening of the Butlins holiday camp at Minehead — home of the preserved ‘Princess Coronation’ No 46229 Duchess of Hamilton and the ‘Terrier’ class No 32678 Knowle until the mid-1970s —should have been, theoretically, a boost to the line, in reality it compounded the fundamental problem that the route faced: the massive imbalance in traffic between the busy summer months and the very quiet non-summer period.
Whilst slated for closure by Beeching in March 1963, efforts were made to reduce further the operational costs of the line. The loops at Leigh Bridge and Kentford were removed early 1964, whilst freight traffic along the line ceased on 6 July 1964. The signal box at Minehead closed in March 1966 whilst the turntable, effectively redundant following the use of diesel traction, was removed the following year.
Whilst closure was under investigation, further retrenchment took place, with the line being singled between Norton Fitzwarren and Bishops Lydeard on 1 March 1970 and the signal boxes at Bishops Lydeard and Norton Fitzwarren closed. Despite opposition, permission was, however, granted to close the line and passenger services succumbed on 1 January 1971.
This might have been the end of the story; however, a preservation society was set up on 5 February 1971 in order to take over the line. With the track left intact (the last through train didn’t operate until 1975 when Class 25 No 25059 — itself later preserved — made the return trip to assist in the movement of the two preserved steam locomotives from the holiday camp), Somerset County Council purchased the route in 1973 and negotiated with the preservation company for the latter to lease the railway.
Passenger services were reinstated from Minehead to Blue Anchor on 28 March 1976, from Blue Anchor to Williton on 28 August 1976, thence to Stogumber on 7 May 1978 and finally from Stogumber to Bishops Lydeard on 9 June 1979. A short extension from Bishops Lydeard to a new station at Norton Fitzwarren opened on 1 August 2009; this is slightly short of the junction with the main Bristol to Exeter line at Norton Fitzwarren.
The preservation society initially hoped that it would be possible to operate a through commuter service to Taunton. However, opposition from the trade unions — fearful of the potential loss of jobs amongst their membership working on the replacement bus services — plus the expansion of the sidings operated by the Taunton Cider Co at Norton Fitzwarren made this idea impractical.
But the maintenance of the junction at Norton Fitzwarren, allied to the creation of a turning triangle at Bishops Lydeard and the installation of a replacement turntable at Minehead, has resulted in an increased number of excursion trains operating through from the national network on to the West Somerset Railway.
With the principle of preserved operation over the national network established through the operation of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway from Grosmont to Whitby, the West Somerset Railway’s long-term aim remains the operation of services through to Taunton. Even without the link from Norton Fitzwarren to Taunton, the WSR, at some 22¾ miles in length, is the single longest preserved standard-gauge railway in Britain.