160 Years of a West Somerset Railway



March 24th, 2022

We love a celebration at We Are Railfans, whether its Amtrak's 50 or the birth of London's Elizabeth Line. This month (March 2022), the original section of what is now England's longest heritage railway crosses the 160 years mark, demonstrating the effect that longevity can have in the railway world. Below we take a look at the first section of the Minehead Branch Line which, from 1862 to 1874, ferried passengers and freight between the Somerset county town of Taunton, to the seaside port of Watchet.

We previously mentioned the origins of the West Somerset Railway during an interview with them in one of the first ever We Are Railfans articles and this involved Isambard Kingdom Brunel and a debate about the route, with Watchet as the end point. After a vote, it was decided that the line would branch off at Taunton, passing through the foothills of the Quantocks, near the quarries at Crowcombe and Triscombe, the village of Stogumber and onto the Bristol Channel and Watchet via Williton.

On 27th March 1862, the first train left Taunton for Watchet. This train was a Director's Special and it was not until a few days later on 31st March 1862 that passengers were able to use this line for the first time. Though today the West Somerset Railway does not run from Taunton (though mainline charters, ballast trains and the occasional shuttles do) the section from Bishops Lydeard to Watchet can still be enjoyed by tourists and railfans after 160 years. The line begins its season at the end of March, with a number of railway galas and special events lined up for the rest of 2022.

Besides the switch to Standard Gauge, little has changed in terms of scenery in this part of Somerset and the biggest difference is at Watchet itself, where a new development exists at East Quay. The town maintains its historic harbour and the railway line continues on to Minehead after its extension to the seaside town in 1874. WSR-Broad-Gauge-Watchet When this section was complete in 1862, the line was of course Broad Gauge like much of the rest of the region's network and locomotives and stock were required that looked very different to those used after the gauge's abolition in 1892. This photograph, taken in July 1874 by James Date, shows a Bristol & Exeter Railway 4-4-0ST locomotive 'Minehead Engine No.68' at Watchet. (Photo: WSRHT Collection) WSR-Watchet-Chapel-Old Two contrasting shots of the Methodist Chapel show the area peppered with railway waggons (above) and tourists' vehicles (below). The photographs date from between 1871-1874 and 2018. The landmark is still clearly visible from the train. (Photos by WSRHT Collection / Joe Rogers) WSR-Watchet-Chapel-New WSR-Watchet-Turntable It's boats, rather than cars that have replaced the trains in this area of the historic harbour. The East Quay development has since been built near this location, depicted in 2018 (below), further changing the landscape of the town. The locomotive on the turntable (above) is B&ER Engine no.74. (Photos by WSRHT Collection / Joe Rogers) WSR-Watchet-Harbour MB-Watchet-harbour-B-ER-N In 1876, the Bristol and Exeter Railway was absorbed by the Great Western Railway, which presided over the Minehead Branch for a significant part of its existence. Today, GWR Manors, Panniers and Prairies are mainstays on the line but 2022 brings 9466 to the roster, owned by Chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt. Scenes like that below, taken at Watchet in March 2018, will be seen again this year. (Photos: WSRHT Collection / © Bob Woodland, CC-BY NC 3.0) 9466-wsrorg D1010Williton Diesel traction has been a feature on this line both when connected to the national network and in preservation. Here, D1010 'Western Campaigner' is seen at Williton where the spacing between 'Up' and 'Down' lines still offers a glimpse as to what Broad Gauge was like. Williton lies on the original, 160-year-old part of the line. (Photo ©Tom Courtney CC-BY NC 3.0)

Today D1010 'Western Campaigner' is undergoing significant overhaul, via a fundraising effort by the DEPG. Click here for further information.

The West Somerset Railway is available for simulator players through Train Sim World by Dovetail Games.

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