The Taunton Line

The railway had managed to turn around the problems on the Ilfracombe branch line with a change over to the narrow gauge and careful management along with plenty of publicity attracted new people. The distrust that the railway had for BR and the cotinued risk that they may close the main Barnstaple to Exeter line down at any time, cutting the railway off from its only source of customers, left the railway with a tough decision as to how to secure its own future. The Minehead Railway was still running to maximum summer peak capacity with high passenger numbers and the railway was seen as a vital part of the public transport network.

With the only main line route in North Devon left being the Exeter line heading south, the railway looked at securing its own connection with a more direct route across into the heart of England with a view to openeing up a line connecting into Tiverton. The plans were kept secret for a year, while the costings and route was closely looked at in detail. The plan was then revised to extend the line further to take it into he heart of Taunton, as it had  a much larger population base and would give more commuter traffic, ensuring that the line would pay back the heavy investment quicker. 

When the railway announced the plans to BR, they found a significant change in the management style and a supprising amount of support for the plans from BR. After more negotiations, the railway was offered the old goods shed at Taunton by BR as a facilty to re-build as a station for the end of the line. This was ideally located with a railway bridge crossing the road leading into the side and being close to the main line Taunton BR station. The entrance to the site before the railway bridges also had a disused rail yard that was going to be made available. This would provide a marshalling and sheds area at Taunton.

The new Taunton line was announced publically in 1977 and work started on purchaing the track bed and setting about the installation of the line. The railway needed to speed up the whole process of laying the track down. North Pilton Works was given the task of coming up with a soution and to build a new fleet of wagons to supply the track doen to the construction site and supply the ballast. After looking around Europe at various track laying solutions that were in operation, the works came up with a design to have a rake of twenty platform wagons with outisde rails and employ an gantry crane that could run along the length of the wagons to move track panels to the front wagon. Here there was a large A frame crane that could then lower the track panel down to the floor in front of the train so that it could be connected up and the train could then drop the next panel. This would then allow the construction train to moe over a hundred track panels to be joined up to build the new line.

The new track laying fleet would include the track playng wagons, two rakes of ballast wagons and a new track tamping engine that would complete the settling of the ballast and rail profiling. This would ensure that terailway could lay in the new line to schedule and fater than it had every been able to construct trackwork before. The schedule was tight, with the plans to open the Taunton line by 1982. With the first stretch of land aquired, work started with the road crew digging out the ground and leveling the trackbed with fresh ballast at a rate of a mile a week. 

The new track laying wagon fleet was rerady for use by 1978 with a new track panel manufacturing plant added to the Newport Yard. Thousands of bundles of steel rail were delivered to the yard and Minehead cement factor produced crated of pre-stressed concrete sleepers with rail chairs to ship down to the track plant. Each track panel was made to 12m in length (39ft3) with sleeprs bolted into position so that they could be stacked 10 high to a wagon. The whole track laying rake could then carry 19 wgons with 190 panels to move down to the track construction site.

Each load could then carry 1.4 miles of track to lay down at the site. The rake of wagons would be pushed down to the constrction site, where the track gang would then work with the cranes to drop each panel to the ground, connect it up with fish plated and allow the train to advance over the panel to lay the next down. The over head gantry crane worked beautifully sliding down the outside rails of the wagons to pick up track panels. and drop them on the front wagon, where the A frame crane would pick it up and lower it in front of the train.

BR added in a new siding into the south bank of Newport yard, where ballast wagons could drop their load, so that it could be loaded into the narrow gauge hoppers to move down to the construction site for ballasting over the reail and sleeprs.  The ballast trains would run down the line and drop loose ballast over the new track panels. The track tamping vehicle would then come and spend the night tamping in the ballast and aligning the rails. Over all the progress was laying in an average of 2 miles of track a week.

The line reached South Molton and the Rackenford and headed on into Tiverton where it would swing south of the city with a new station areay and marshalling yard. Work then started on aquiring the rest of the land for the track bed up through Wellington and into Norton Fitzwarren and Taunton Yard and Goods depot where the new station was going to be built.

Taunton Power Station

The government announced that a new power station was going to be opened up near Taunton to produce extra power feeding into the national grid to power North Devon and Somerset as a modern coal fired generating station. A new coal reserve had been found at North Molton that would be used to supply the power station. The National Coal board then looking into hauling the coal across from Molton to Taunton and asked BR to quote for the installation of a new feight line and rolling stock.  After six months, BR came back with a price tag of nearly £1b for the new line, putting the whole supply line in geopardy.

The railway then approached the power generating board and National Coal Board with a proposal to run coal trains on the narrow gauge line that they were building, as it passed through South Molton and Taunton. The railway put forward plans to build and run the coal supply line between the coal pit and the power station with rakes of 15 tonne coal wagons and new powerful Co-Co engines. At first the proposal was not taken seriously, as the small gauge was not considered by the national board as being suitable for coping with the high demand for coal shipments. The railway came back hard with figures to show how they used the railway to move thousands of tonnes of limesone from Porlock to the cement factory every week and that they were dead serious. A demonstration was arranged for the coal board and power generation management teams at Minehead.

The management team arrived at the cement factory for a guideed tour and to see the unloading stages of limestone deliveries. They then boarded he directors coach and were taken by train into the Porlock quarry where they were shown the loading stages. The directors coach was then coupled behind a mineral train and they then travelled behind a rake of 20 hoppers back to minehead while the guide talked them through the processes. The coach was then uncoupled as they watched the load being dropped off into the cemnet factory and then went back to the board room to conclude the discussion. The demonstration showed how hard working the narrow gauge line could be and its reliability. The rest was down to negotiations on pricing to put forawrd a full job costing.

The railway concluded it proposal and swong the vote in their favour to build a coal supply line into the Taunton line. This included building the fleet of locomotives and coal hoppers, providing the lines into the coal pit for loading and the supply lines through te power station for delivering the coal. The railway would provide the drivers to run the trains and the coal board the operators to handle the loading and unloading of the trains. The power station would need a large reserve of coal building up before it was fired up for warming up and trials to begine in 1981. This meant the railway had to put all its emphasis on getting the new rolling stock ready and the lines installed before this date so that shippments could move through to the power station to build up the reserves pile.

The new contract was agreed at the end of 1979 and would mean that the railways investment in the Taunton line would earn its keep with the coal supply line, paying back their investment within 5 years before passenger services would even run. The new power station was based at Bradford-on-Tone past wellington, so the rest of the track work needed to be in place in the next year to open up the North Molton pit to the power station. The investment from the coal supply line would also provide the money to double up the line all the way between Molton and Taunton.

Coal Supply Line

The Coal contract would start with the provision of eight new powerful Co-Co Diesel Electric engines, class 500 to the railway, that would have a powerful CAT 8 diesel generating plant and a series of DC traction motors driving each axle. The first demonstration locomotive was constructed and tested out at Porlock where it hauled over 40 hoppers full of limestone up the steep inclines with out any effort. The coal board ordered eight new locomotives and eight rakes of 30 hopper wagons for the first stage of the contract. These would need to be delivered in the first part of 1981 to move coacl reserves across to the power station. The seond stage for 1982 would be a repeat order for another 8 locomotives and rakes and a doubling of the supply lines running through the North Molton Coal Pit yard for loading.

Each coal supply train would have thirty 15 tonne wagons moving 450 tonnes of coal per train. To meet the power stations requirement for maximum power generation would require twenty trains a day at peak. The third stage would add another 12 rakes of hopper wagons to the fleet so that they could be loaded up ready for shipping over to Taunton. Each rake would have air braking supplied down the rake of wagons and a gaurds van to protect the rear of the train where one of the coal board operatives would sit. The other operative would sit in the cab with the driver. These two operators would then handle the unloading proceedure at the power station drop off pit. As the supply line effectively had a loop at each end, the guards van was alwasy at the rear of the train and never needed to be uncoupled. Each rake of wagons then had their number painted onto the Guards van sides and rear for identification.

The extra investment in the Taunton line paved the way to completing the line into Taunton station with the track runing four lines wide along the main route to Tiverton where the coal supply line would hang north of Tiverton with two lines for bi-directional running, while the passenger line headed off into Tiverton itself. The passenger line would the meet up again with the coal supply lines at Samford Peverell and head on up through Wellington and barton-on-Tone where the supply lines would split off to the power station.

The new four line route would ensure that oassenger and coal freight services could now run in both directions independantly of each other and ensure the smooth running of both services.

Completion of the Taunton Line

The coal supply lines were completed in time for the power station to start its operation in 1981 and the railway continued its last stage of laying the lines through to Taunton Yard and across the bridges into the Taunton Station. The old goods shed and been completely knocked through to a shell and work was now progressing to put in the new roof with girders and frosted glass panels. The new station would then extend with a curves glass roof covering four long platforms for the new station. Work would be completed on the new station building in the sprig of 1982 so that the line could be opened to traffic by March 82.

The new station at Tiverton was completed by the end of 1981 with a simple two platform station and a large station building for facilities. The station area at wellington was the last station to be worked on with a simple two platform station area and a station building. The two coal supply lines would run through the back of the station. The final stage of completing the station areas was provide the foot bridges connecting the platforms together. All the signalling works and new signal boxes were in place and the line was ready to openeing.

Launch of The Taunton Line

For the new passenger services on the Taunton line, the railway wanted to use modern five coach railcar sets and have them run as diesel electric following the designs of the latest locomotives. The success of the earlier rail car sets proved that they woul be more reliable and give quicker and more cost effective services. The problem was the average running speed and the noise the units had betwen the carriages with the couplings. The new railcar sets would need to be quicker and quieter. North Pilton Works was set the task of designing a new fleet of ultra modern rail cars with all the facilities that people expected on the standard railway. 

After various discussions and plenty of research the design team came up with a radical new idea. The new railcars would be designed as articulated five car sets, where the coaches would have a central bogie between the carriages ends and have room for a passenger cparridor between the carriages. The advantage would be a reduced number of wheel sets reducing friction, less movement between the carriage ends negotiating curves and point work and no noisy couplings between the cars. A new powerful diesel electric generator unit was sourced that would fit under the floor of the power carriage allowing a level floor throiughout the length of the train. As the designs progressed, they work out the seating arangement and worked in the provision of two toilet cubicals. The centre car would have a buffet bar refreshment area for servce drinks and snacks. The next feature was to make the second coach an easy access coach with a large central double sliding door and and areas with fold up seats to make it easier for wheel chair and push chair users.

To power the new articulated rail car sets, the first two carriages would have motor bogies, with the first three bogies having traction motors. This would effectively make 50% of the wheel driven axles, increasing the acceleration. A large scale model was made to run on a 5 inch gauge test track and compare it to the running of five seperae carriages. The results were spectacular with the new set proving to be more stable and be able to negotitate curves much beter with out so much over hand of the carriages, keeping the centre of gravity within the 2ft track.

The model was then completed with the interior seating arangement to show the detailed layout. Behind the driver cab would be a parcels deaprtment that would have space for luggage and have the power supply cabinates. The second carriage would have five compartments for standard seating with a toilet cubical. The centre coach would have four compartments for seating and a large buffet serice bar, the fourth coach would have five compartments with two of them with fold up seats around the large central sliding doors for easy access and a disabled toilet cubical. The last trailer coach would have three compartments for standard seating and two compartments for first classe sating with a glass door seperating the compartments.

The front of the trains would have a curved slopped front to make them stylish with a large drivers window. The new livery would be yellow for the front driving face and a royal blue down the bottom half of the carriages and white upper band down the coaches for the windows. The new sets looked very impressive compared to the old style coaches, making them look like a smaller version of the main line High Speed Train (HST). The other new feature that was incorporate was the control system connections allowing two units to be joined together and run as a multiple unit for a ten coach train.

The final station fittings were cmpleted at Taunton in the first few months of 1982 and trails of the new fleet of railcrs were testing out the route. A large railcar shed was erected in the Taunton yard for servicing the railcar sets and everything was set to open the line in April. 

Opening Ceremony

The Taunton Line was officially opened in April 82 on time and had the Mayor fo Taunton perform the ritual ribbon cutting ceremony. The new lon platforms allowed for all eight railcar sets to be in the four platforms as an impresive view of the railway commitment to provifing a modern rail service. The first two trains ran out of the station full of VIP guests travellng right up to Minehead. The next two trains departed with fare paying passenger for Barnstaple Junction. The South African garratt then pulled up in the platform with a rake of ten carriages for a seaside special heading off to Ilfracombe with pre-booking passengers. 

The station was crammed packed with visitors checking out the new station and rail services. Every train departing was full of pasengers giving a real feel for the new service. The next day resumed with standard timetable services and found that the trains were full of people travelling the new line. This was a great start to the new services and the trend of full trains continued all summer.

After several months, the passenger numbers had steadied out and the railway surveyed the passenger numbers on each train and re-scheduled several trains to run as ten coach sets to meet peak demand. The buffet service on board was much appreciated by passengers and was a good part of the trains revenue with many customers enjoying several drinks on the journey. Overall the new railcar sets were proved to be faster over all, cutting down the journey times by 25% of what the old train would have run the length of the line and were more more stable with less rocking and noise, giving the pasengers the comfort expected of a modern system. A further four railcar sets were ordered to meet the peak demands and keep several sets running as ten coach sets. Four sets were then modified to have a new cab front with a through coridor between the two sets.

The Taunton line proved to be very successful with passenger numbers continuing to increase season on season providing a vital transport route from North Devon through to Somerset and joining up vital towns that had being missing from the railway map for years. The number of commuters increased significantly between Tiverton, wellington and Taunton. 

Tiverton Parkway

When BR took the steps of closing down the station at Tiverton and opening up the new station Tiverton Parkwayin May 1986, the railway already ran close to the new station site and set about adding platforms to the line to form Parkway as a new station for an exchange with the main line. The two stations were then linked with a short pathway covered over with a glazed roof providing shelter for people walking between the two stations. Parkway did not have  a station building, just a pair of shelters and a ticket booth on each platform. The railway picked up more of the regualr commuters from Tiverton to Taunton and Wellington as a result as the Parkway station was 6 miles outside of Tiverton.

Increased Goods Traffic

The railway started looking at more parcels and freight services in 1986 with the introduction of a parcels service between stations. This was helped by the fast delivery of packages between stations as each railcar had a parcels compartment, so bags of freight could be quickly booked in and dropped on the next train. Several companies used the service and it linked with the main parcels depot at Taunton for shipping across the country. With the promose of regular parcels paying off as a service, the railway looked at other opportunities to move more goods around.

West Lyn Corp had been busy expanding its business over the past decade and had opened up a successful DIY store in Minehead supplying the builing trade and had just opened it up to the public. The store was very popoular with the new fashion of Do It Yoursel enthusiasts and West Lyn was keen to capitalise on the opportunity in other areas. West Lyn Corp announced plans to build a new DIY store over in Taunton and ordered a complete rake of bogie box vans from Pilton Works to run shipments from Minehead cement factory, Porlock Quarry and West Lyn sand pits to supply the new store. It also laid in plans to build a marshalling goods yard it Tiverton where lorries could load up supplies for other depatments in the store.

The new fleet of twenty box vans were made to be 32ft long by 6ft6 by 7ft6 with a slight apex roof and large 9ft sliding doors each side for loading. They had a new heavy plate frame bogie design to wope with loads in excess of 15tonne. With the new store opening up at Taunton, West Lyn added a set of sidings into the yard of the taunton DIY store yard for moving in freight by rail. In 1987, the first shipments of freight were moved over to stock the new store. The freight service was successful at moving over hundres of tonnes to the new store in one go. West Lyn were so confident in their new stores being a great success that they started building one in Tiverton at the back of the marshalling yard and another store at wellington.

With the new bogie box vans proving to be perfect for moving large loads of general freight around, West Lyn added a set of ten bogie platform wagons and ten bogie open wagons for moving other loads over to the new stores, with the limestone paving slabs and stones loaded up at Porlock quarry. With the extra freight shipments moving around the network, West Lyn ordered a pair of new Co-Co diesels to be built up with a cab each end based on the class 400 used on the coal supply contract. These were then supplied in a maroon livery with the West Lyn logo painted in the middle in white making a striking contrast. As the new Wellington store come online for stocking up, a further ten box vans were ordered.