Retired RMT rep and Minehead Rail Link Group press officer David Latimer says it is time to re-open lost West Somerset rail routes.
Ever since British Rail closed the Minehead branch line in the 1960s under ‘Beeching’s Axe’, locals have been calling for the line to be re-opened right through from Taunton.
Shortly after closure, a local railway association was established and one of the aims was to reopen a rail service to Taunton.
However it became apparent that it would take some years to get the line fully operational as far as Bishops Lydiard, the first station out of Taunton on the Minehead branch line, let alone establish a commuter service through to Taunton.
So the line ended up as a steam railway heritage line between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, although the section of track linking it to the Great Western main line and Taunton remained in situ for the purposes of stock movements, occasional excursions and periodic freight trains bringing in stone for sea-defence work.
The dream of many local people as well as railway staff - of linking the line to the national network by way of commuter services to Taunton and Bristol - never died, and a number of attempts to get things moving again were made over the years, but to no avail.
Then in 2015 Minehead Chamber of Commerce Chairman Alex de Mendoza and myself got together to form the Minehead Rail Link Group (MRLG) and very quickly a number of local councillors became involved.
The aim was to work with local authorities to see if ways could be found to extend some of Great Western Railway’s Cardiff/Bristol to Taunton services over the West Somerset heritage line to Minehead.
MRLG became part of national rail promotional group Railfuture, which has been hugely influential in getting lines or stations reopened across the country. Contact was soon made with the West Somerset Railway, Great Western Railway and local authorities and informal and friendly meetings were held to establish lines of communication and exchange ideas, without any commitments being made at this stage, by any parties.
Following considerable media coverage and support from local businesses and residents of West Somerset, the Minehead Rail Link Group grew and a robust management committee was formed to take the group forward.
Sponsorship was secured from many local firms and a covered marketing stand was created to mount displays in commercial centres across the area. Leaflets were distributed across the district, bringing in
yet more support.
Train planning diagrams have been produced that prove there is capacity on most days to run at least seven GWR services off the main line through to Minehead, whilst still retaining capacity for a steam train service between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, although it is accepted that there would have to be some adjustments to the steam train timetable in order for steam and GWR diesel trains to pass each other at the passing loops on the single track line.
It is also hoped that following the appropriate agreements with the Office of Road and Rail, the customary 25-mph speed restriction applied to heritage train services, could be raised on sections of the West Somerset Railway, where it is safe to do so.
In addition, MRLG has a vision of an inclusive and genuinely co-ordinated public transport system for West Somerset. This would involve working with bus operators to ensure that bus and rail would complement each other and link up to offer a genuine alternative to reliance on the car and to entice as many motorists as possible out of their cars and onto trains and buses.
Alex de Mendoza said that, until recently, many people didn’t realise that we had a fully serviceable line between Minehead and Taunton with trackwork, signalling and stations maintained to very high standards. “It is ridiculous in this age of worsening traffic jams and increasing awareness of green issues and inclusion, that the section of line linking Bishops Lydeard to the main line is only used for occasional excursion trains and rolling-stock movements,” he added.
The group realise that at present it would be impractical to extend the Minehead - Bishops Lydeard steam trains into Taunton, but believe some of the Great Western Railway’s hourly Cardiff/Bristol to Taunton trains could be extended to Minehead, giving West Somerset regular through trains to Taunton, Westonsuper-Mare, Bristol and Cardiff.
The group believes such a service would reduce traffic congestion and parking problems as well as giving a realistic alternative means of travel to commuters, holidaymakers and the business community alike. In addition the service is the best practical way of reviving Minehead’s waning holiday trade.
A fact-finding report and business-case study on a commuter service potential, has been produced by students from Susquehanna University in the United States. MRLG say the next step is to raise funding from local industry, regional development groups and councils for a professional feasibility study to be completed, then they can get down to serious talks with all parties, including trades unions, to see how the dream can become reality.
It is hoped that, with the cooperation of the local authorities, a feasibility study can be carried out into the proposal and then more detailed discussions can take place with the rail operators towards achieving the long-held ambition of through services operating from Cardiff, Bristol and Taunton into Minehead.