The Minehead Railway

The Minehead station was nearing completion with the long platforms now beign paved with limestone paving slabs and the large station building being worked on with ground floor for station facilities and the upstairs as a flat for the station maser and his family. The group then added a new building on platform four for opening up four stalls for trader to sell seaside snacks and a large tea room for refreshments. These four stalls were quickly taken up with a sweet stall, ice cream stall, donut stall and a knick-knack store. This would not only bring in exta revenue for the line but also give people the atmosphere for the seaside station.

As the railway approached it opening date, trains were regularly run through to Minehead station for driver training, testing the layout and pointworks and checking the scheduling for the time tables. The season would start on the Easter bank holidayas the start of the summer running season. Barnstaple station was modified with an additional platform to handle the Minehad trains on platform three. This allowd for a much longer platform to be built around the approach curve and the pointwork for the loop line was moved further back to accomodate the longer trains.

The Grand Opening

The opening ceremony was presented by the Mayor of Minehead announcing the railway officially open for business and a safe journey for all. The station line up was impressive with the two modified tender engines with six coach rakes lined up in platform 1 & 2 and then Taw and Exe lined up in the other two plaforms each with a four rake set of carriages. At the Barnstaple station, Lyn was busy operating the Lynton train services. This was the first time the railway had all five locomotives in full steam at the same time. The first train filled up with VIP guests and headed off to Barnstaple while the other trains filled up with fare paying passenegrs. All trains will fully occupied all day offering unscheduled train services up and down the line. The station was packed with people all day and many people took several trips. 

This was a great start to the passenger services and everything ran well. For the rest of the season, the timeable was stuck to like glue with very few problems. The trains were packed all season and several trains were overcrowed with some passenger having the privillege of sitting in the guards compartment to find seats. For the next season the railway wanted to be prepared and ordered North Pilton works to build an extra rake of carriages for them to have three trains in service for the next season. They would then set about converting Exe to a tender locmotive.

The railway was now moving thousands of people a week up to Minehead in the holiday season and had a busy all week service. The winter service was also reasonably busy and the line was making significant profit. This was used to improve the track between Alcombe junction and Porlock quarry with the installation of a second dual line so that passenger services could run independant of the mineral freight from he quarry. this would improve the timetable and give them extra capacity to run more passenger services at peak times.

The Minehead Cement factory was now at peak production and the addition of the dual line through to Porlock would give them the ability to run mineral traffic without any delays. More wagons and engines were ordered from North Pilton works to add more capacity to the line. Mineral trains were now moving sand adn limestone each week day along the freight line. Each train would have twenty 10t hoppers hauling straight out of the quarry floor up into Minehead factory. The sand trains were hauling loads of sand with twenty 6t wagons in a rake as they did not need to cope with the gradients of the Barnstaple stretch. Some of the older locomoives at the West Lyn pit were in need a serviceing and one needed to be replaced, so another pair of locomotives were ordered to add to the West lyn fleet.

More Passengers

An unexpected visitor turned up at Minehead station later that year in the form of Billy Butlin, a real rail enthusiast and was given a foot plate ride down to barnstaple and back. He then let on a bomb shell of an announcment that he was opening up a new holiday camp close to the railway station and that their would now be thousands of holiday makers wanting to use the railway to get up to the camp. This would mean that the railway would need to find extra rollong stock and locomotives to add more capability to the line. The holiday camp would open in 1961 summer season. 

Billy came back to the railway some weekes later, hearing their problems of having to increase their locomotives and made a considerable contribution to the railway to help fund a new locomotive. The railway looked around for a new supplier as Manning Wardle had since gone out of business. As new manufacturer would build a pair of new locomotives on the Manning style with bogie tenders and add in many improements like large grates and boilders, better valve gear and roller bearings. The two engines would be delivered in time for the 1961 season. The railway then ordered another two rakes of carriages for the extra trains giving them five engines for the Minehead services peak weekend services.

By the time the 1961 season came, the railway had just taken delivery of the two new locomotives and given them a few test runs. They performed perfectly and were much easier to keep up full steam on the service. The season would start on the easter weekend as usual. On the first day, the railway found it had platforms crammed packed with passenger all expecting to get up to Minehead and the railway had to get all engines and all carriages quickly into operation to cope with the number of people wanting to travel up the line. This trend continued each weekend with the new holiday makers wanting to get to the new holiday camp. To cope with the demand at weekends, the railway employed a pair of porters with troolies to help passengers with their cases and the guards van found its use packed full of luggage. The guards section was quickly modified on the fleet by ripping out a set of seats and putting in a cage to ensure that the guard did not get cases dropping onto his lap. 

The railway had to add in three extra trains a day at weekends to cope with the demand and having four engines in steam on saturdays with one in reserve. This was coping with thenew demand and also raising a significant income from the high number of fares. As the trend continues and it lloked like there was problems with coping with certain rush of passengers arriving at barnstaple to make their way upto the holiday camp, the railway looked at a solution to put on a longer train next year. There were certain times that the railway could do with a twn coach train, but this would require doouble heading to cope with the load. The solution came with the discovery of a South African NG-16 garratt locomotives available to buy and ship over to the UK. This would have the capacity to haul ten coaches and run the whole length of the line with plenty of spare power. The engine would need a complete service as it had been hard working and poorly maintained.

Four extra carriages were ordered so that the garrat could run with a ten coach set from Barnstaple to meet the peak saturday services. This would prove to be the smartest move as the new Garratt pulled spectacularly and allowd them to meet the London trains with plenty of seats available. The Minehead Railway was also attracting a lot of new attention with people visiting the railway to see the garratt in operation as its own attraction.

When it came to the winter services, the passenger numbers were still pretty high on average and allowed a regular service to still make a good proffit. The last train at night in each direction was replaced with a diesel engine service so that the setam engines could be put to rest earlier in the day. The move proved a great success and more services would run winter service with diesels.

New Rail Car Service

By 1968, the Minehead Railway had proved itself to be a continued gold mine with ever increasing passenger numbers and a very busy summer season. The winter services were still popular but saqw a drop off with pasenger numbers as more people were owning cars or using te bus service which was quicker. To solve the problem of winter services, diesel only services were introduced on week days for winter service with out any complaints from passengers. The steam services would still run during the weekends for visitors. 

With the move over to diesel traction, the railway put in a request to North Pilton Works to build them a new five coach diesel railr car set with proper heating and better lighting to run efficient winter services into the evening. The new railcar was delivered for the winter season and proved to be appreciated by passengers with the warm comfortable carriages and better seating. The new set had a large diesel engne and five speed gearbox creating plenty of power. The advantage of having a dedicated railcar was that the carriages were permanently linked with a bar rather than having seperate coulings between each carriage and this reduced the noise on the train significantly overall. The new set was also very fuel efficient.

Main Line BR In Trouble

While the Minehead Railway wa proving very successful, the same could not be said for the main line services and BR that was enforing record station closures and lines been cut back nearly every month. Devon was facing a mjor disruption with most of the rural lines being closed down, with the only line in North Devon beign the Exeter to Barnstaple line into Junction and then progressing up to Ilfracombe. This didn't have too much effect on summer season traffic but there was a trend for less people to use the railway in winter as they couldn't get connections into the rest of Devon.

The management of BR seems to be convincd that the only services that operated at a profit were the main lines and all the rural lines had to prove that they could pay to keep them open. This put the Exeter line at risk, even though the numbers proved that the Minehead Railway depended on the connection for its traffic. The next couple of years would be a nervous relationship with BR and the exchange of passengers at Barnstaple. 

Devastating News

In 1971, the Minehead railway faced real problems with BR as it first announced the closure of the Taunton to Minehead railway line and then announced it was closing the Ilfracombe branch line as it wasn't paying. This would now effectively cut the railway off from its prime source of exchange passengers at Barnstaple and have a major impact on the railways future. The railway tried to negotiate with BR to keep the connedction with barnstaple jinction open and this fell on death ears with BR stating that the old curved brige over the river Taw was dangerous and they would not pay for the repairs and services would terminate at Junction. Passenger would have to find their own way between the two stations. this was not acceptable by the Minehead Railway and a solution had to be found.

After a large battle, the only solution was for the narrow gauge to buy the station building at Barnstaple from BR and lay in a new line around the north bank of the River Taw to then cross over the old iron bridge leading into the back of the Junction station. The railway would then use the aboandoned platform at Junction to pick up its exchange passengers to run them into Barnstaple town and on up to Minehead. This proposal was accepted by BR and the railway set about buying the route and laying in the new line. The Ilfracombe line was closed at the end of the summer season and work commenced on the link up line to Junction.

Ilfracombe Branch Line

Many people called for the Ilfracombe branch line to be saved and launched sevral campaigns to raise money to try and keep it open. They then applied pressure on the Minehead Railway to take over the running of the line. BR then took out the line over the curved bridge and all seemed to be final with the Ilfracombe line set to close and bew removed. 

With the Minehead Railway having been such a success over the years, it came to an agreement with BR to take over the running of the Ilfracombe branch line to keep passenger services operational. The only thing that was available to them was an old DMU set which had to be transported on the back of a lorry as the line had been disconnected. Th erailway then set about getting it operational to run summer services to Ilfracombe for the 1972 season. Running standard gauge was new to the railway and after some teething problems, the railcar service managed to run the summer timetable. The massive out cry of people wanting the line to remain open did not transalate into passengers and the railway found that the line had a problem with low passenger numbers.

The next season saw many techincal problems with the railcar failing and needing a mjor overhaul. They also found major repair work on the line that needed investment and the ppor passenger levels were a major concern. It lloked like they had brough a white elephant and been sold a dead duck. Something had to be done with the Ilfracombe line to get more passengers using the line or they railway would be sinking money into the line to provide a service at a loss. This was not something tat the railway could face. They wanted to try and get a live steam service on the line to attract new visitors, but the price of steam engines and carriages was out of their league. facing record losses the next year, something f#drastic had to be done to change the fate of the Ilfracombe lines future or they would have to face shutting the line down.

The decision in 1974 was that they could no longer maintain the standard gauge on the Ilfracombe line as the costs were far too expensive and the railcar unit was unreliable. Buying secondahand standard gauge equipment was far too xostly to make a viable service. As the old Ilfracombe line used the old shallow light rail, which was considered with in profile of the narrow gauge rail, the decision was made to convert the whole line over to the narrow gauge. They could use their own locomotives and rolling stock to run cheaper services and attract new people with live steam summer specials.

The railway lauched a campaign to get the Tourism Board onboard to help promote the Ilfracombe area and get the Hotel trdaers involved. In the mean tme five large teams of volunteers were organised to make the transition over to narrow gauge by working from each station up to the next and removing all the rail cair and bolts on one rail so that the rail could be moved over to the narrower gauge to get the line operational. All the points were ripped out and the new line would run single line straight up into Ilfracombe station.

The other problem was the height of the platforms along the route, so in the stations, the line was moved over to the outside rail and a slope added to the front of the platforms to bring them down to the right level. The conversion was finally completed ready for the middle of the 1975 summer season when the first test trains ran up the route to check the line. The narrow gauge engines managed the steep climbs up the Morthoe cliff and the climb into Ilfracombe stations with a five coach train using the larger boilered tender manning engines. The diesel railcar had absolutly no problem managing the grades. This allowed services to resume up the line and a significant better result was found with people beng attracted to the line once again.

To revitalise the new line, the railway put out plenty of marketing and orgainsied summer special trains including running the garrat as a special to attract people to use the Ilfracombe line. With a large amount of effort, it looked like the change over to narrow gauge could make the line a succes again and at the end of the year, the line had just about broken even, which was not bad for a late start.

To meet the winter timetable the railway had ordered another five coach railcar to be built so that it could run all the winter timetables. This new railcar kept the costs down significantly and even the low mumber of passengers over the winter season showed a small profit. Careful budgeting and a massive investment in time and effort was paying off. For the next summer season, the railway had ordered a new rake of six carriages to be painted in their own livery for the Ilfracombe Branch line and it was officially now part of the railways network with summer live steam services to attract visitors.