The West Somerset Railway is the longest heritage railway in England, running steam services between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard, with occasional special services to Norton Fitzwarren.
The rail brings an estimated £5M into the Somerset economy ever year, with hundreds of people travelling to the west Somerset coast at the height of summer.
Discussions are under way between Somerset County Council, Network Rail and the relevant train operators over the prospect of a revamped rail link between Bishops Lydeard and Taunton.
If trials prove successful, the heritage line will be connected to mainline services for the first time in nearly 50 years – making it easier than ever for residents and tourists alike to enjoy a day out at the seaside.
The line up to Minehead closed to mainline passenger services in 1971, with the current heritage services being slowly introduced from 1976 onwards.
In a joint strategy for the future of transport in Taunton, Somerset County Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council both committed to reintroducing regular passenger trains as far as Bishops Lydeard.
The strategy pledged that the councils will “support the rail industry in formulating a long-term plan for reintroduction of regular passenger train services from the national rail network at Taunton onto the West Somerset Railway to Minehead.”
The county council owns the freehold of the line, leasing it to the West Somerset Railway.
The authority asked Network Rail to look into the matter as part of its response to a recent consultation on the future of the Great Western rail franchise.
A spokesman said: “We support the principle of introducing regular passenger services on this line, but a large amount of technical work needs to be undertaken to establish the feasibility of services and to establish a commercially viable service pattern.
“In our recent response to the Great Western franchise consultation we requested that this work is undertaken by the rail industry working with the scheme promoters.
“They will need to undertake a demand and timetable study to establish a service pattern that would be sustainable commercially, and which would fit in with the mainline timetable.”
The current WSR infrastructure has speed restrictions due to the layout of the track, meaning that running contemporary trains on the heritage stretch of the line would be difficult.
Instead, national rail services would run between Taunton and Bishop’s Lydeard, where passengers would transfer to the heritage services to get further north.
This approach has been trialled in Dorset over this summer, with the Swanage Railway laying on trains between Swanage and Corfe Castle to link up with South Western Railway services between Corfe Castle and Wareham.
WSR general manager Paul Conibeare said that it was very feasible for mainline and heritage services to link up using the current infrastructure.
He said: “We fully support a sustainable reconnection with the national network at Bishops Lydeard, where the existing steam services terminate.
“A pilot scheme, running services to Bishops Lydeard in 2019 or 2020, would co-exist very easily with a timetabled WSR service.
“Bishops Lydeard provides all the facilities required for a service to run between there and Taunton, even on days when WSR steam services are not running.”
The county council said that reconnecting the WSR to the national network would not jeopardise or interfere with the plans to revamp Taunton station.
Great Western Railway (GWR), which operates services to and from Taunton, will build a new multi-storey car park at the station and make changes to the station forecourt. Both projects are due to be completed by mid-2019.
A council spokesperson added: “The redesign of Taunton station will progress as planned. It is likely that the number of people travelling to Minehead would be a relatively small component of the overall passenger numbers using Taunton station for mainline travel.”
GWR said that it was supportive of restoring services and had already built bridges with
A spokesman said : “We are committed to the communities we serve and have already spoken with the Minehead Rail Link Group to discuss the longer term options of passenger service through to Minehead.
“We have advised them to work with the West Somerset Railway to assess what work would be required, and will support them in reviewing any feasibility study if and when this has been taken forward.”
A spokeswoman for Network Rail added: “We fully support the initiative currently being undertaken by Great Western Railway, Somerset County Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council to investigate the possibility of opening up the West Somerset Railway line to passenger services in the future.”