It is 50 years since the final passenger services operated over one of Britain’s most enduringly popular lines — the Somerset & Dorset from Bournemouth to Bath.
The anniversary is being marked in a number of ways, most notably by the West Somerset Railway’s gala. Here we look back at the history of this much-mourned line.
The genesis of the Somerset & Dorset Joint lay in two earlier railways — the Somerset Central and the Dorset Central — which had merged on 1 September 1862 to create the Somerset & Dorset Railway. At that date the newly amalgamated railway operated from Burnham through to Glastonbury and Templecombe along with the Wells branch and the separate section from Blandford to Wimborne. The line linking Templecombe with Blandford opened on 31 August 1863. Through the exercise of running powers over the London & South Western from Wimborne, where services had to reverse, Somerset & Dorset Railway services reached Poole.
The impetus to head north towards Bath came with the opening of the Midland Railway’s line to Bath, which had been completed in 1869, and the access that a northern extension would offer to the railway in terms of exploiting part of the North Somerset coalfield. The line from Evercreech Junction to Bath was authorised by an Act of Parliament on 21 August 1871 and was opened throughout on 20 July 1874. At Bath, the Somerset & Dorset Railway was granted running powers over half a mile of line into the Midland Railway’s Bath station. The station was known as ‘Queens Park’ but this suffix was dropped during World War 2; it became Bath Green Park on 18 June 1951, following Nationalisation of the railways three years earlier.
The section of line north from Evercreech Junction was more demanding than the southern section, resulting in the construction of several tunnels and notable viaducts. At its maximum, the line included gradients of 1 in 50 as well as a summit at 811ft above sea level. Although built surprisingly quickly, given the engineering challenges, the cost of the route was such that it fundamentally undermined the finances of the Somerset & Dorset Railway; indeed such was the parlous state of the company’s finances that the contractor actually ceased work on the northern extension for a brief period. Having invested in the extension, the railway now required support; although having been backed by the Bristol & Exeter originally it might have been likely that the Great Western was an obvious suitor, given that the B&ER and GWR were already negotiating a merger, and indeed the S&DR approached the GWR with a view to a takeover. However, the larger company handled the possible deal in a way that alienated the S&DR with the result that negotiations commenced with the London & South Western and Midland railways. On 1 November 1875 the S&DR signed a 999-year lease with the LSWR and MR, with the transfer obtaining parliamentary approval, despite the opposition of the GWR, on 13 July 1876.
Closure of the line from Bath to Evercreech Junction came on 7 March 1966 when the entire route from Bath to Bournemouth lost its passenger services. Closed on the same day was the ex-Midland line from Mangotsfield to Bath. The section south from the Bath Coop Coal Siding to Writhington Colliery was closed completely. Writhington Colliery, by this date the last working pit in the Radstock coalfield, remained rail served, but now access from a spur opened from the ex-Great Western line at Radstock; this short section of the erstwhile Somerset & Dorset remained open until 19 November 1973 and the closure of the colliery. The section from Bath Junction to serve the Bath Coop Coal siding remained open until 30 November 1967 and the ex-Midland route from Yate remained open for freight traffic until 31 May 1971. Part of the latter route is now preserved as the Avon Valley Railway.
Although latterly treated as a branch, the route from Glastonbury to Highbridge was, historically, the first section of the future Somerset & Dorset Joint to open. Incorporated by an Act of Parliament on 17 June 1852, the Somerset Central Railway was empowered to construct a broad-gage line from Glastonbury to the Bristol Channel at Highbridge Wharf. Backed by, but independent of, the Bristol & Exeter, the new railway was designed to provide a route for manufactured goods from Glastonbury to the sea for onward shipment. The B&ER had acquired the Glastonbury Canal and, with agreement, the new railway was partially constructed along the route of the canal. The line opened on 28 August 1854 and was operated by the B&ER. There were five stations — Glastonbury, Ashcott, Shapwick, Edington and Bason Bridge — although Ashcott, Edington and Bason Bridge didn’t appear in timetables until 1856 — with services terminating at the B&ER’s Highbridge station; there were also goods facilities at Highbridge Wharf, to the west of the B&ER station. Highbridge was selected as the line’s terminus rather than Bridgwater as the terrain offered a less challenging route. The Somerset Central Railway was extended through the opening of lines to Burnham on 3 May 1858 and Wells on 15 March 1859; the only intermediate station on the line to Wells was that at Polsham which did not appear in the timetable until 1861 although was probably extant from the line’s opening. Both of the extensions were constructed as broad-gauge lines and operation by the B&ER continued until 1861.
The second key railway in the development of the Somerset & Dorset was the Dorset Central Railway. This was incorporated on 29 July 1856 and opened between Wimborne and Blandford on 1 November 1860. It opened from Templecombe to Cole, where it connected with the Somerset Central Railway, on 18 January 1862. The line was built to standard gauge and was operated from opening by the London & South Western and there were two intermediate stations — Spetisbury and Sturminster Marshall — that opened with the line; the latter was renamed Bailey Gate in 1863. The Dorset Central and the Somerset Central railways merged under an Act of 7 August 1862 to form the Somerset & Dorset Railway.
Under the aegis of the Somerset & Dorset Railway the 18-mile link between Templecombe and Blandford was officially opened on 31 August 1863 and to traffic on 14 September 1863
The final section of the Somerset & Dorset to open was the line from Edington Road — later renamed Edington Junction — to Bridgwater. The independent Bridgewater [sic] Railway opened its seven-mile line on 21 July 1890 having been authorised to construct the line by Act of Parliament on 18 August 1882. At the time of opening there was one intermediate station — Cossington — but a second —Bawdrip Halt — opened on 9 July 1923. The line was operated by the S&DJR as part of a working arrangement that the smaller company had with the LSWR; at the Grouping in 1923 ownership of the line passed to the Southern.
From the mid-1880s onwards sections of the main line were doubled to increase capacity; in terms of the route from Evercreech Junction to Broadstone, the line remained single track from Templecombe through to Blandford, with passing loops at Stalbridge and Shillingstone, and from Corfe Mullen to Creekmoor Junction.
With the Grouping of the railways from 1 January 1923, the Somerset & Dorset passed to the control of the LMS and Southern railways. By this date the section of line from Corfe Mullen Junction through to Wimborne had already lost its passenger services — on 11 July 1920 — but remained opened for freight traffic only. The section between Carter’s Siding and Wimborne was, however, to close completely on 17 June 1933.
Nationalisation came on 1 January 1948 when, along with the rest of the lines owned and operated by the LMS and Southern, the Somerset & Dorset Joint passed to the newly created British Transport Commission. Initially management of the route was handled by the Southern Region but, in 1958, operation of the line north of Templecombe passed to the Western Region. This was the start of a five-year period in which many of the through services, such as the famous ‘Pines Express’, were diverted away from the Somerset & Dorset as the inexorable run down of the line towards final closure progressed. The line’s death sentence was effectively announced by Dr Richard Beeching in March 1963 with the publication of his report The Reshaping of British Railways. Both the main line from Bournemouth to Bath, along with the associated ex-Midland line, and the branch to Highbridge were listed for closure. There were those that campaigned against closure, such as the future Poet Laureate John Betjeman (who made an impassioned plea for the line’s retention in a BBC documentary called Branch Line Railway), but these appeals came to naught.
Closure of the southern section of the Somerset & Dorset had started relatively early. The branch from Glastonbury & Street to Wells was to lose its passenger service and close completely on 29 October 1951; the same day saw the withdrawal of scheduled passenger services on the extension from Highbridge to Burnham on Sea (although specials continued to operate over the extension until 1962). This was followed on 1 December 1952 by the withdrawal of passenger services from Edington Junction to Bridgwater; freight traffic over the route survived until 1 October 1954. On 17 September passenger services were withdrawn from Charlton Marshall, Corfe Mullen, Spetisbury and Stoupaine & Durweston. The stub of the line from Corfe Mullen Junction to Carter’s Siding closed on 19 September 1959.
Freight traffic over the southern section of the main line were withdrawn between Blandford and Wincanton on 14 June 1965 and between Radstock and Wincanton on 3 January with the exception of coal traffic to Midsomer Norton that survived until 19 February 1966. Bournemouth West terminus was closed on 4 October 1965 with the result that passenger services were diverted to Bournemouth Central for the last few months of the line’s existence.
Passenger services over the main line from Evercreech Junction to Bournemouth and from the Junction to Highbridge were withdrawn on 7 March 1966. With the closure to passenger services, the sections from Evercreech Junction to the United Dairies Siding at Bason Bridge, from Templecombe No 3 Junction to Templecombe Lower and from Templecombe Junction to Templecombe were closed completely. After the closure, there remained two short sections of line open for freight traffic: Bason Bridge to Highbridge, for milk traffic, and Blandford to Broadstone for milk and freight. These sections of line closed on 2 October 1972 (except for a brief reprieve at the northern end for use of flyash trains during the construction of the M5) and 6 January 1969 respectively.
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