News that the campaign to reopen the section of line from Frome to Radstock has organised a number of meetings to outline plans for the route’s future has focused attention on this long-closed stretch of the former Great Western Railway.
The origins of the line at with the Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth Railway; this was authorised on 30 June 1845 to construct a line from Thingley Junction, on the Chippenham to Bath line, to Weymouth, with branches to Bath, Devizes and Salisbury as well as a freight-only link to Radstock (where the new railway hoped to tap into the potentially lucrative traffic generated by the Somerset coal field).
Backed by the Great Western, the new railway was to be built to the broad gauge. The first section of the route, from Thingley Junction to Westbury, was opened to the public on 5 September 1848 but problems with the line’s route and in raising funds, resulted in the decision to sell the line to the GWR in October 1849. The sale took place on 14 March 1850, with the transfer and was formally recognised by an Act of 3 July 1851.
Whilst the ownership question was being settled, the construction of the line continued with the section from Westbury to Frome being opened on 7 October 1850 and that from Westbury to Warminster on 9 September 1851. Whilst work on the branch to Radstock was also in hand, problems with land acquisition meant that construction was put into abeyance.
The GWR obtained a further Act — to authorise additional funds for the Frome, Yeovil & Weymouth Railway — on 30 June 1852. The eight-mile Radstock branch finally opened on 14 November 1854. The line from Warminster to Salisbury was opened on 30 June 1856, Frome to Yeovil on 1 September 1856 and from Yeovil to Weymouth on 20 January 1857. All lines were built to the broad gauge with the exception of the section from Dorchester to Weymouth, which was built to mixed gauge in order to accommodate the standard-gauge trains of the London & South Western Railway.
Reaching Radstock from the north was the Bristol & North Somerset Railway. This had originally been authorised as a standard-gauge line by an Act of 21 July 1863 and work commenced with the cutting of the first sod at Clutton on 7 October 1863. However, delays in construction and problems in raising the capital meant that opening of the 20-mile single-track route did not take place until 3 September 1873. Following an agreement with the GWR, the larger railway undertook operation of the line from opening and the B&NSR was vested into the GWR following an Act of 7 August 1884. The GWR constructed the branch from Hallatrow to Camerton, which opened on 1 March 1882, and thence to Limpley Stoke on 9 May 1910. Passenger services over the Hallatrow to Limpley Stoke section were withdrawn finally on 21 September 1935 but the branch was to become famous for its appearances in film: in 1935 it was the setting of The Ghost Train and, most notably, in 1951 it appeared in the classic Ealing Comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt.
As a result of the two lines, the GWR now had both broad- and standard-gauge connections into Radstock. Following the GWR’s decision to convert to standard gauge, the entire Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth network, including the Radstock branch, was converted to standard gauge by 22 June 1874. With the conversion of the branch, the possibility of operating a through passenger service from Bristol to Frome via Radstock was possible and passenger services over the Frome-Radstock line commenced on 5 July 1875.
In the summer of 1910 there were six return working per weekday from Bristol to Frome, with additional services on Thursdays and Saturdays serving the section from Bristol to Radstock. There were two return workings on Sundays, one in each direction in the morning and afternoon. The journey time for the 24¼ miles was about 75-80 minutes. By 1939, there were eight departures per weekday from Frome to Bristol (with an additional two on Saturdays); there were nine from Bristol to Frome with 10 on Saturdays. The Sunday service had improved to four per day: one in the morning in each direction and three in the afternoon.
Along with the rest of the Great Western Railway, the line from Frome to Bristol via Radstock passed to British Railways (Western Region) at Nationalisation. However, passenger services from Bristol to Frome were to withdrawn on 2 November 1959. The line remained open for freight traffic thereafter until further rationalisation in the 1960s.
The importance of the line for freight increased following the closure of the Somerset & Dorset Joint line in March 1966. A connection between the ex-S&D and ex-GWR lines was installed at Radstock to permit surviving coal traffic from the S&D route to be routed via the Frome to Bristol line. The line north from Radstock to Bristol closed completely on 11 July 1968 following damage to an embankment at Pensford that was deemed uneconomic to repair. Thereafter, the remaining coal traffic was routed south from Radstock over the line to Frome (which had effectively been moribund since 15 August 1966 when the section was officially closed but left). The final colliery traffic over the route ceased on 19 November 1973 when link to Withington Colliery closed. The line remained open from Hapsford ground frame, to the north of Frome, thereafter, until 29 June 1988, primarily to serve the Marcroft wagon works at Radstock. The line from Frome to the ground frame remains operational to serve the freight-only branch that serves the quarry at Whatley. The quarry’s railway line had originally been built as narrow gauge but, due to wartime traffic demands, was converted to standard gauge in 1943.
Although the line has now been closed for more than quarter of a century, the track is still partly still in situ although a Sustrans cyclepath has been constructed along much of the line. The Somer-Rail Trust, now a registered charity, is actively campaigning for the line from Radstock to Frome to be reopened.
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