“Tales of the West Somerset Railway”

When the former British Rail closed the once-bustling former Great Western Railway 25-mile branch line to Minehead from Taunton in 1971, a local businessman and railway enthusiasts simply refused to let it die.

They all thought the railway was well worth saving, as did many in the local community, and so they battled with both the National Union of Railwaymen and British Rail to be allowed to run their own trains again as a private line to be called the West Somerset Railway (WSR).

Crucially, the WSR lobbyists gained the support of Somerset County Council which bought the track bed from British Rail with a view to perhaps turning much of it into new roads if the embryonic line failed.

The WSR company and support organisations were set up and steam locos, coaches and diesel multiple units were gradually acquired to use on the nascent line’s planned services; staff were trained and recruited; skilled volunteers and railwaymen and women came to help from all over the country; funds were raised by whatever means possible; and the track work and signalling was slowly reinstated, often using recovered, redundant items from around the rail network. A lot of work was done in a fairly short time to get the line ready for business again.

After five years, their persistence finally succeeded and, in April 1976, the new West Somerset Railway was born and it reopened initially on just the three miles from Minehead to Blue Anchor. But it was an auspicious start!

Over the next three years, the line was steadily reopened in stages. First to Washford, Watchet and Williton, and then to Stogumber, and finally to Crowcombe and Bishops Lydeard as the line’s new southern terminus which was reached in 1979 making it the country’s longest heritage line at some 20 miles.

Now, the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust (WSSRT) is set to publish a new 40th anniversary book chronicling some personal memories and momentous events of the last four decades years on Friday 7 June 2019 compiled by three long-serving supporters who produced it.

West Somerset Steam Railway Trust Chairman Chris Austin OBE comments:

“Sadly, WSR trains could not run on to Taunton as was originally hoped for by the line’s founding pioneers. However, the two-mile line close to the former mainline junction at Norton Fitzwarren was retained as a tantalising glimpse of what might yet come to pass in years to come.

“And I’m pleased to say there is now a mainline rail connection there again and trial GWR shuttle services from Taunton to Bishops Lydeard are starting this summer!

“The last 40 years have seen the West Somerset line largely go from strength to strength, and through some rocky times too, but it is now one of the top heritage steam and diesel railways in Britain, and a powerhouse in the Somerset tourism economy.

“It’s fitting that, four decades on, three of our WSR volunteers and stalwarts for most of that whole period have joined forces to edit a lavishly illustrated historical book of ‘Personal Reminiscences’ of the railway entitled ‘Tales of the West Somerset Railway’.

“The new book is jointly authored and edited by Ian Coleby, Allan Stanistreet and Ian Tabrett who all have strong, long-standing connections to the WSR and over 111 years of experiences on the line!

“This new book, launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of trains returning to Bishops Lydeard on the weekend of 8th & 9th June and a special event on the railway, fondly recalls the efforts and memories of a few of those who worked so hard to rebuild the railway in that time and help achieve some great things which were once pipe dreams.

“All funds raised by the book sales will go towards supporting the railway which is now making rapid progress on a recovery plan to ensure the line has a sound future for the next 40 years too.

“The new book forms part of the Trust’s outreach work to encourage interest in the railway and its history, and the line’s social and economic significance.”


NOTE: The book is due to be launched at a special private evening event by invitation only on Friday 7 June in the WSSRT’s Gauge Museum at Bishops Lydeard.

Published by the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust, the 130-page book is illustrated in colour throughout, and very reasonably priced at £8.99.

It has a personal Foreword from former Bridgwater MP Tom King, now Lord King, who took a keen interest in the line.

Copies will be available from the WSRA shop on Bishops Lydeard station.




Allan was born in 1940 and had a career as a soldier and civil servant.

He joined the WSRA in July 1974 and has been a shareholder since 1976.

He volunteered prior to reopening on Permanent Way and subsequently as booking clerk and TTI.  He now assists in the WSR Association office at Bishops Lydeard and as a ‘PIC’ at Norton Fitzwarren during the annual rally. He wrote the first four editions of the guide book and, with Steve Edge, the first stations and buildings book. He is the founder editor of the Journal and now on the editorial team. He compiled “Portrait of the West Somerset Railway” (Ian Allan, 1996) and has written or co-written seven other books.  It is understood that “Portrait” was the first book to describe a railway in the preservation era.



Ian is a life-long railway enthusiast and has been a volunteer on the West Somerset since 1983 as a signalman and a director (at various times) of the WSSRT, the WSRA and the WSR PLC. During 2018, he served briefly as plc Chairman. Having taken a keen interest in railway history, Ian wrote the definitive history of the Minehead line in 2006 and has continued to study the history of the line. Ian has been the editor of the WSR Journal since 2017.



Like most small boys in the 1950s, Ian became interested in railways in general and steam in particular while travelling on the Cheddar Valley branch to and from school for seven years. He has been a member of the WSRA and a shareholder of the WSR for three decades, and is on the editorial team of the Journal and a regular contributor. Now retired, he worked as a journalist for 50 years on regional papers, BBC Points West in Bristol and finally for HTV as senior news producer.



The West Somerset Railway Association (WSRA) and West Somerset Steam Railway Trust (WSSRT) have just launched an ambitious £250,000 fundraising campaign to assist the West Somerset Railway plc (WSR plc) in urgently raising funds for the WSR’s planned track relays over the winter months of 2019.

All of the WSR’s track is currently in the process of being renewed, but some will be coming towards the end of its serviceable 50-100 year life this coming winter, hence the launch of the funding appeal.

The majority of the track on the 23-mile line is made up of traditional ‘bullhead’ rail sat in ‘chairs’ on concrete or wooden sleepers, which was the standard for much of the national railway system from the mid-19th until the mid-20th century.

However, ‘bullhead’ rail is much more costly to buy and maintain, and also has a shorter working life by comparison to the modern and cheaper ‘flat-bottom’ rail which is now found all over Britain’s railways and the rest of the world too.

The WSR now intends to replace much of the ‘bullhead’ rail with ‘flat-bottom’ rail over much the line apart from in station areas and places where people like to see traditional track.

Making much of the WSR into a ‘flat-bottom’ line will fit in well with the WSR Company’s objective of making the business more sustainable for the foreseeable future and reducing renewal and maintenance costs.

WSR plc Chairman Jon Jones Pratt said: “I applaud this bold, £250,000 fund-raising initiative jointly from the West Somerset Railway Association and Steam Trust to help us deal with pressing track issues this winter. Track work is always an expensive and ongoing project on all heritage railways, and it is a focal point for our business too as the longest heritage railway line in England.

“Exchanging most of our old ‘bullhead’ rail for the more cost-effective and sustainable ‘flat bottom’ rail alternative will mean that the WSR will have an economically viable and sensible option to keep the railway going for many years to come in the next 40 years of our existence.

“With the West Somerset Railway Association and Steam Trust’s ongoing support, we will continue working together as ‘one railway’ in order to get as many of our projects completed as possible. If people can spare some money towards this very worth-while cause, then we would be most grateful and I’d like to thank those who have already shown their support for the WSR by donating money to us.”

West Somerset Railway Association Chairman Paul Whitehouse comments: “Much of the track on the West Somerset Railway (WSR) is now at the very end of its serviceable life after over 50 years of service and some sections must be renewed in the near future to keep the WSR going for future generations to enjoy.
“So, we need to raise additional funds urgently in order to keep the WSR track replacement work programme on schedule for this coming winter and we have just launched a £250,000 ‘Just Giving’ appeal alongside the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust to try and achieve this ambition.

“With over 53,000 sleepers and well over 40 miles of rails on the 22-mile line, the numbers are big and the bill is expensive for the WSR to fund whether using traditional ‘bullhead’ rail or the more modern ‘flat-bottom’ type now used all over the mainline network.”

West Somerset Steam Railway Trust Chris Austin comments: “As a heritage railway, the West Somerset Railway would like to keep traditional ‘bullhead’ rail in station areas and other places where it can be seen and understood by visitors, but also use the more cost-effective ‘flat-bottom’ rail on the largely unseen areas of the railway which not only gives a better ride but also is easier to maintain too.

“There are some eye watering costs for this work, but some examples of the materials that will be needed and could be could be purchased by people making donations are worth noting: £3,000 would buy a full 60ft panel of bullhead track including all fittings with 50 years life; £1,800 would buy a full 60ft panel of flat bottom track including all fittings with 100 years life; £840 would buy a single 60ft length of bullhead rail; £560 would buy a single 60ft length of flat bottom rail; £52 would buy a durable, single wooden sleeper with serviceable chairs and keys; and £28 would buy a single, concrete sleeper with new fittings.”

The joint-venture track funding project involves the WSRA, WSSRT and WSR plc. All the organisations on the railway are working together to ensure the sustainability of the West Somerset Railway.

The Just giving page for the project can be seen across social media platforms and by visiting:

Further information from: WSR plc General Manager Paul Conibeare (see details below); WSRA Chairman Paul Whitehouse Paul.Whitehouse@wsra.org.uk; and WSSRT Chairman Chris Austin on (07913 653594 austinca2@googlemail.com

West Somerset Railway supporters have shown their commitment to the Railway and determination not to be beaten by vandals by donating over £1,000 to repair the damage in less than 24 hours.

Vandals sadly struck the West Somerset Railway (WSR) on 29th April at around 9pm with an attack on a railway coach stabled overnight at Bishops Lydeard.  They smashed three large carriage windows and two door windows in the attack which it is estimated will cost £1,000 to replace and repair.  The attackers posted a video of the attack on social media which has been widely circulated and even broadcast on BBC TV’s local ‘Points West’ programme.

The WSRA, the Railway’s supporting charity, responded by launching a facebook fundraising campaign to raise the money for the repairs.  In less than 24 hours over £1,100 had been raised and the total now stands at £1,248 with more to come from the government ‘gift aid’ scheme which adds 25% to donations from UK tax payers.  The fundraising campaign was launched with the suggestion that 100 people gave £10 each, to achieve the required £1000.  To date, 76 people have donated and the value of the donations ranged from £4 to £100.  The social media campaign allowed everyone of whatever means to make a valuable contribution and reflects the inclusive nature of the West Somerset Railway.

WSR plc chairman Jonathan Jones-Pratt said:

“This attack was horrible for the Railway’s dedicated staff and volunteers who put in many hours maintaining our vintage vehicles to give visitors a taste of nostalgia on a trip to the seaside.  Local people have rallied round and helped identify the perpetrators.  We have passed our information to the Somerset Police and trust that swift action will be taken.”

WSRA chairman Paul Whitehouse said:

“It was so heartening to see how folk have responded positively to this mindless destructive act.  We have had hundreds of messages of support.  We are engaged on a refurbishment and repainting programme for the Railway’s carriages at our Williton works, and it costs around £5,000 to paint each coach.  If supporters would like to mark their displeasure at this act of vandalism and support for the Railway, the appeal remains open until the end of May and any donation would be most welcome.  It will be used to enhance the Railway’s carriages so that some good can come out of this episode.”

Facebook users can donate at https://www.facebook.com/donate/442896366465199/

Donations can also be made at https://www.justgiving.com/westsomersetrailwayassociation


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Carriage with broken windows






A recently refurbished carriage