West Somerset Railway is currently the longest heritage railway in the UK, running over 20 miles of standard gauge line. A further 3 miles of line is used to join to the rail network. Located in Somerset, running along the edge of the Quantock Hills between Bishops Lydeard and Watchet. The line then turns inland to Washford, and returns to the coast for the run to Minehead.
Construction started on this line in 1859, it was taken over by the Bristol and Exeter Railway, which in turn was taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1874. The original line was built to broad gauge standard, and was converted to standard gauge in one day in October 1882, some achievement. The line was mentioned in the 'Reshaping of British Railways' report or the 'Beeching Axe' review, in 1963 as a line recommended for closure. The line deteriorated and eventually closed in January 1971.
The West Somerset Railway Company was set up and planned to reopen the line as a private railway providing commuter and other services pulled by diesel locomotives from Taunton to Minehead, the plan was to also run steam tourist trains from Williten to Minehead. There were objections to this, mostly from British Rail bus drivers who were at this time running a replacement service. Eventually it reopened Easter 1976 as a steam railway. Initial services were between Minehead and Blue Anchor, but were extended to Bishops Lydeard in 1979. It was necessary to catch a bus between Taunton and Bishops Lydeard.
The main line rail connection still exists with the national rail network via Norton Fitzwarren to Taunton. In 2006 the signalling was upgraded to allow through workings from Taunton to Minehead and vice-versa. As of late 2006 several charter trains have now used this facility and a regular service from Bristol is being considered. A “Butlins Express” service was introduced for the summer of 2007 on a few days each week. This ran non-stop from Bristol Temple Meads to Taunton over the West Somerset Railway to Minehead. This has not occurred in 2008. The line is owned by Somerset County Council and leased to the West Somerset Railway, protecting the councils interest in the valuable Minehead station site.
The West Somerset Railway Association have purchased 33 acres of land at Norton Fitzwarren. The land has full access to the existing West Somerset Railway line running between Bishops Lydeard and the connection to the national network at Norton Fitzwarren Junction. Subject to planning authority approval, it is hoped that the 33-acre site will, eventually, not only provide vitally needed new railway servicing facilities, but would also lead to new engineering jobs for the area. The land provides sufficient space to install a turning triangle – to enable locomotives and rolling stock to be turned where necessary and, eventually, it is hoped would include locomotive, carriage and wagon restoration sheds, plus a possible new station serving the WSR.
Like a number of other heritage railways they have found benefits in running a PLC and non profit companies in parallel. The component parts are:
Railway stations are:-
They have installed a turntable, able to turn trains, at Minehead.
The five year plan, published in 2008, projected growth in many areas but Bishops Lydeard being the principle southern terminus. They have looked at ways to link up perhaps by providing transport links but ruled out running commuter trains or freight. They are looking at encouraging more incoming charters and perhaps speeding up some sections of their line above the normal 25mph heritage line limits. They are also looking at adding more value plus services like driver experience, wildlife and catering specials. The plan details a long list of changes and additions most connected with gaining extra capacity in one form or another, including more sidings. They have 4 company locomotives used for regular work, and hire in additional ones, in part to get variety. Historic vehicles housing and restoration is also being brought to their site. They plan increases in signalling and parking.
They run a number of events each year, and having a large number of stations they can offer a wide variety of opportunities. On one steam gala they had 12 steam engines running.
Information is available from their main website but a second website provides far more detail. For example there is a section that shows all bridges individually, and this could cut down the need for some recce trips. Similarly there is a clever tool to show the line gradient at every point. From this site you also get to the information on line passes for photographers, detailed below.
This has been and looks like it will continue to be one of the most interesting heritage railways.
The location includes countryside, towns, villages and coastal stretches. Much of it photogenic, and with good access via roads, bridges and paths to much of it for photographers. The timetables allow you to work out where trains will pass, and special events add a lot of variation making line side permits particularly valuable with many productive trips being possible. As there are quite a lot of stations on this line, you use lineside permits in combination with rover tickets to move around the line, and get a lot of variation in a day. It also means that if you go with your family or others they can ride the railway and meet up with you from time to time throughout the day.
Lineside Passes are normally issued by post from the office at Minehead on receipt of a completed application form, two passport-style photos and remittance. The price depends on the time of year, decreasing as less of the year is left. At a maximum its £23 for non members and £18.30 for members, but in most cases you will be at least part way through the year. You need to allow a few weeks for this to come through.
WSR.org.uk also provide A Selection of Photographic Locations page, which highlights those places which are accessible to the public as well as many more that you can gain access to if you have a lineside pass. When you put your cursor over a particular location a photo appears in an image box showing you what you can get at that particular location.
To get a flavour of the line take the virtual tour. You can get to an interactive map, showing every detail up close and an overall illustrative one. There is also an extensive photographic gallery. There are three live webcams you can see online, two at Bishops Lydeard station and one at the Minehead station.
This must be the best collection of information available for any heritage railway.
Further information Grid
Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.
Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.