On the 24 th March 1997, EWS (English Welsh and Scottish Railways) began to operate one of their largest 'short term' flows through Taunton. This unique service was to originate from the Mendip Quarries (Merehead and Whatley) and deliver in excess of 105,000 tonnes of stone to Minehead for use in the 'Sea Defence' scheme. The sheer size of the task undertaken on the sea defences required large amounts of hard wearing, non-porous rock to prevent further breeches of the sea wall in future years, by the often violent winter storms which batter this coast each year.
The West Somerset Railway played a key role in delivering this large quantity of rock to Minehead. Both Whatley (ARC) and Merehead (Yeoman) Quarries had rail hubs used for the loading and delivering stone all over the country on a daily basis. With this contract, the WSR were able to provide the missing rail link, making it possible to keep a potential 4250 lorry loads of stone off Somerset's roads in particular the twisting A358 between Taunton and Minehead.
The working, known as the 'Minehead Stones', was operated mainly by a single EWS 'heavyweight' Class 37 hauling a rake of open 'Turbot' wagons which had been specially refurbished for the service. Much of the stone carried we boulders although some smaller material was also carried in mineral wagons as required. The large rocks were unloaded on specially cleared land near Minehead Station. This job fell to a mechanical grab which stock piled the stone into various grades and sizes, before then loading it into lorries for the short trip to the sea front.
Initially, the service from either quarry operated on an 'as required' basis depending on the daily demand for the stone. A few weeks into the contract, the train operated on a daily basis and, very occasionally two loaded trains arrived on the Branch on the same day. Average tonnages delivered each day varied between 500 and 1050 tonnes.
The services operated between two separate periods – 24th March – 17th December 1997 and 6 th January to 16th June 1998. The first train onto the Branch was hauled by 37711. A total of 48 different Class 37s visited the Branch together with two Class 47s and two Class 33s (which appeared double-headed on 1 st October 1997). Heritage traction also played its part when, for example, D1010 'Western Campaigner' took the opportunity to pilot the train from Bishops Lydeard on 27 th March 1998 and steam locos 1450 and 4160 were also used to pilot trains along the branch. Full details of all the locomotives that worked a loaded stone train and other running information are shown in the WSR LOG.
The last loaded train ran on 16 th June 1998 hauled by 37264 carrying a small commemorative headboard. In total, the WSR handled 239 loaded trains (and also a corresponding number of empty workings back off the Branch). This is a remarkable success story and much credit goes to all involved particularly when Stone trains were running on the Branch as well as normal passenger services and also during the winter months of 1997.
Early in 2000 urgent action was necessary to reinforce the cliffs at Doniford which were eroding and threatening the railway line itself. A project to stabilise this was proposed and this also involved bringing more material to site to do this. In March 2000, 7 trains ran bringing 131 wagon loads of material. Whilst not the same scale of operation of the original Minehead Stone contract, it did keep a further batch of lorries off the roads of Somerset. Unloading took place on the curve close to Doniford Halt station situated next to the cliffs and backing onto the Bristol Channel.
The traction was again provided by EWS. However, by now the traction scene had changed and this time the WSR would play host to a handful of General Motors Class 59s (owned and operated by Mendip Rail) and the new much hated (by some!) Class 66s. The first trainload arrived behind 59001 on 6 th March 2000, and the final train departing behind 59203 on the 17 th March 2000. Wagons used for the service were a conversion from an older wagon type, to form the versatile 'MEA' open box wagon. The contract was completed on time and once again the WSR had proved its worth. The whole rail delivery project was completed in two weeks!
The 4 year lull in stone carrying activity on the Branch came to an end in October 2004 when it was announced that the WSR would be working with EWS and Somerset Highways to supply further stone trains for road repairs. A stretch of road which had collapsed a year previously during flooding near Stogumber was due for repair. It would require a large amount of stone in order to complete the task. Once again, EWS operated three separate trains to the West Somerset Railway each comprising of 9 loaded MBA (Monster Box Wagons) loaded with ballast/stone.
The first train of stone arrived on the line with 66027 on the 8 th October 2004. The trains operated on WSR 'non operational' days so as to avoid any disruption to their normal service trains. Arriving on the line early in the morning, the loco hauled the 9 loaded wagons to Leigh Bridge on the curve just before Stogumber and a mechanical grab (especially bought in for the operation) would then unload each wagon until the train was empty. Once unloading had been completed the loco would then work onto Williton for a run round before heading back to Westbury. The train generally left WSR metals around lunch time on each day it ran. Only three locomotives featured in this small contact but once again the WSR had made full use of keeping further lorry loads of stone away from the local, narrow, steep and very unsuitable roads in the area.
The first of seventeen stone trains commenced operating from the Mendip Hills to the West Somerset Railway on Tuesday 9th November 2010. Former National Power Class 59/2 No.59205 had the task of hauling the first train from Merehead Quarry to Minehead in connection with local sea defence work on the Somerset Coast.
Oddly the flow of large mendip boulders in ZCA 'Sea Urchin' wagons uses two headcodes/ paths in each direction owing to the train sharing the current Mendip Rail stone path from Westbury to Exeter (which operates as required).
7C27 0433 Whatley Quarry– Taunton, 6Z24 0645 Taunton – Minehead
6Z25 1200 Minehead - Taunton, 6Z28 1310 Taunton – Whatley Quarry
Trains first ran to Minehead where the locomotive would run round, the train would then pull forward to an unloading site situated between Minehead and Dunster. Once unloaded the train would return along the WSR to Taunton and Whatley Quarry.
The sheer variety of traction used on these services, together with the attraction of seeing freight trains in a Branch line setting, was a big draw for photographers. There are likely to be plenty of photos of these trains as there were many opportunities to see them. The aim of this Taunton Trains Archive is twofold:
To host the WSR Stone Log . This has been researched by Jeff Treece with the full cooperation of Mark Smith and Steve Martin from the WSR, and also assistance from many other enthusiasts who have supplied details of sightings and other information. This assistance is gratefully acknowledged.
To build the largest collections of images recording these trains on their working turns on the WSR. This will be done in a similar format to those already held on the 6V62 LOG which is still an ongoing project. If you would like to help with the WSR project, then please dig out your slides and photographs and contact Taunton Trains. We can scan slides and photographs and return them to you quickly. Images can also be accepted in a digital format via Email.