Go west, young man – for diesels!
By: Murray Brown
THERE are certain heritage railways renowned for their diesel operation as opposed to merely tolerating them – and the West Somerset Railway is there among the best. While the public in general may prefer steam, many enthusiasts follow diesel traction and the WSR actively encourages diesel traction.
From mid-April to the end of October, diesel traction is in use, sharing duties with the steam fleet – a total of 165 days’ operation. The line’s diesel multiple unit set shares these duties with main line traction. For the record, the operational Class 115 is formed of 51859+59678+51880, while the WSR is also home to the following DMU vehicles: 51663 (now an underframe only – used as an advertising hoarding), 51852 (sold late June – see Preservation column), 51887 (spare vehicle, out of use at present) and the following Class 117 trailers used as hauled stock: 59493, 59506 & 59515.
The 24-mile line (20 miles of passenger running) which meanders through the delightful Somerset countryside in a north westerly direction from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead offers a tempting menu for diesel aficionados in terms of choice, photographic locations and timetable, notwithstanding its renowned galas.
Opened in 1862 as far as Watchet and extended by the Minehead Railway to the resort on the Bristol Channel in 1874, the branch from Norton Fitzwarren two miles west of Taunton saw increasing amounts of traffic from the holiday trade. Originally built as broad gauge, it was standardised in 1882 and was then absorbed into the Great Western Railway. Extra passing loops were installed and additional platforms.
Following nationalisation in 1948, Minehead was a destination for thousands of holidaymakers; but, like so many resorts, the motor car was taking its toll and Dr Beeching recommended the withdrawal of passenger services under the Reshaping Report of 1963. One of the last to fall under Beeching’s infamous axe, the last train ran along the branch on January 2, 1971. A month later, the embryonic West Somerset Railway Preservation Society was in business with a goal of re-opening the line as a commuter railway to Taunton.
The line was re-opened with the backing of the Somerset County Council in stages: Minehead-Blue Anchor 28.03.76; to Williton 28.08.76; to Stogumber 07.05.78 and finally to Bishops Lydeard 09.06.79. The aspiration for a service into Taunton was dropped, although the main line connection at Norton Fitzwarren remained and has since been resignalled, allowing through workings of charter trains and visiting traction.
Enter the D&EPG
Quite simply and complimentary, the Diesel & Electric Preservation Group is the elder statesmen of the diesel preservation movement. Its origins go back to the heady days of the early 1970s when the ‘Hymeks’ were on their way out. On the final tour on September 22, 1973, a group was formed to save one of the Beyer Peacock Class 35s.
‘Hymek’ D7017 was bought in 1975 and taken to Taunton, later moving to Minehead in March 1976. A year later, sister D7018 was offered to the Diesel & Electric Group (as it was then known) and moved to Didcot, the second base of the group.
Thereafter, success followed with more locos added to the expanding fleet. In 1987, the name of the group was changed to the Diesel & Electric Preservation Group and it became a charity. All of its activities were concentrated on the WSR from 1991 when the group bade farewell to its Didcot base.
The D&EPG is, in effect, the diesel arm of the WSR and, besides its own fleet, also looks after several privately owned machines. The group has developed its own site and traction facility at Williton and has been aided by a lottery grant to do so. The depot and visitor centre is open at special events and is well worth a visit. Break your journey at Williton and, after looking round the workshop, catch the next service.
Help keep these locos running
The D&EPG warmly welcomes new members to help keep these veteran machines in running order. There are various membership fees – the ordinary member’s annual fee is £15. You can write to: Graham Perry, D&EPG Membership Secretary, 46 Rookery Road, Knowle, Bristol BS4 2DT.
Alternatively, the group maintains an excellent website (see website links panel) on which can be found a printable membership form. The official email contact is Mike Cambourne email@example.com and to whom the editor acknowledges thanks for assistance with this feature, along with Peter Slater.
Driver for a day
For those who want to have a great day out and relive their youth, the D&EPG runs driver training courses. The WSR’s main office at Minehead deals with bookings (Tel: 01643 704996). The locomotive usually rostered is ‘Crompton’ D6566.
However, bad news! Such is the popularity that all of this year’s courses are sold out. The dates for next year will be known by this September. The course costs £295 and uses freight wagons, lasts from 08.00 to 17.00 and allows the participant to learn all aspects of being a second man and a driver. At least one run along the 20-mile line to Bishops Lydeard is provided (the line is 24 miles to the actual junction at Norton Fitzwarren).
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