At 23 miles, it is the longest privately owned passenger rail line in the UK. It operates using heritage steam and diesel locomotives, and provides transport for the community as well as a leisure attraction for visitors. In the first respect however the WSR's ability to provide a true public transport alternative to the car is limited by its having to stop short of the major town of Taunton (see below).
Two meetings then took place in 1856. The first in Williton was attended by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It originally debated connecting Watchet with Bridgwater via a tunnel under the Quantock Hills - but Brunel suggested that although there may be coal under the hills, the tunnel was too long and costly compared to a direct route following the Quantocks and accessing the Bristol & Exeter railway at Taunton. The second meeting was held in Taunton, which proposed a route which cut closer to the Quantocks, and then meandered down to Minehead. However, the first group had Brunel survey the route, and plans for broad gauge railway were submitted in November 1856.
The West Somerset Railway Company was incorporated on 17 August 1857 by way of Act of Parliament, and a prospectus issued to raise the required £120,000 - but share holders failed to take any interest. After a considerable delay, Furness of London started construction on 7 April 1859 at Crowcombe Heathfield.
The line was mentioned in the Reshaping of British Railways report or the Beeching Axe review, in 1963 as a line recommended for closure. However, the line lingered on, in an increasingly decrepit state until it was closed by British Railways in January 1971. At the closure inquiry in 1968, the local bus company had informed the Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC) that six buses would be needed in the winter months and some twenty buses in the summer to cope with the influx of holidaymakers. Not to mention the congestion that this was likely to cause on the Taunton to Minehead road. When closed, negotiations were entered in to between a new embryo West Somerset Railway Company, headed by a local business man, Douglas Fear, whose intention was to reopen it as a diesel commuter line to Taunton. However, Somerset County Council were wary of the lucrative Minehead station site falling into private hands and withdrew their support from the company. The only option remaining was for the council to purchase the line and lease back the operational to the West Somerset Railway Company with the idea of providing the daily year round rail service.
The railway was reopened by a new West Somerset Railway company, headed by Douglas Fear. His intention was to run a diesel commuter service linking Minehead to Taunton. It was purely a commercial operation, but in order to supplement income, it was intended to run a summer steam service for Tourists between Minehead and Williton. However, the commercial service never started as it was objected to by British Rail whose drivers were now running the replacement bus services. So when it reopened Easter 1976, it was as a steam railway. Initial services were between Minehead and Blue Anchor, but were extended to Bishops Lydeard in 1979. It was necessary to catch a bus between Taunton and Bishops Lydeard.
The main line rail connection still exists with the national rail network via Norton Fitzwarren to Taunton. In 2006 the signalling was upgraded to allow through workings from Taunton to Minehead and vice-versa. As of late 2006 several charter trains have now used this facility and a regular service from Bristol is being considered. A “Butlins Express” service was introduced for the summer of 2007 on a few days each week. This ran non-stop from Bristol Temple Meads to Taunton over the West Somerset Railway to Minehead. operated on Network Rail by Victa Westlink Rail but was not resumed in 2008.
The West Somerset Steam Railway Trust is concerned with the historical aspects of the line and runs a museum at Blue Anchor.
The West Somerset Railway Association provides an army of volunteers who carry out a wide range of tasks to support the Railway, from booking clerks to gardeners to engine drivers.
The railway has nine stations and one halt for normal operations. Stations are listed in the down direction (in increasing distance from London)