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Before railways, transport was principally by horse-drawn vehicles and canal boats. The key advantage of railways before motor cars was the ability to transport people and particularly goods much more speedily and in bulk over considerable distances.

A navigable waterway had been opened in 1833 from Highbridge, a mile inland from the North Somerset coast on the River Brue, to Glastonbury on the Somerset Levels, using the river in conjunction with a newly-cut canal. Glastonbury was the location of the slipper, shoe and sheepskin rug manufacturers, the brothers Cyrus and James Clark.

They saw the advantage of replacing the canal by a railway, to connect directly with the existing Bristol to Exeter main line at Highbridge. In 1854, the Somerset Central railway line was opened between Glastonbury and Highbridge. With business expansion in mind, in 1858 the railway was extended to from Highbridge to Burnham-on-Sea and in the following year from Glastonbury to Wells.

It was believed that a railway line directly linking the Bristol and English Channels would provide a safer and more rapid transport of goods from South Wales to the South Coast than the treacherous sea route around Land’s End. Consequently, the Somerset Central Railway was extended south-eastwards from Glastonbury to Cole (near Bruton) in 1862.

In 1860, the Dorset Central Railway company, which shared essentially the same management team as the Somerset Central, opened a railway line between Blandford and Wimborne, where it connected with the Southampton to Dorchester line; and then another between Templecombe and Cole in 1862. In that same year the two companies amalgamated to become the Somerset & Dorset Railway. The missing link between Templecombe and Blandford was opened in 1863, resulting in a coast to coast route between Burnham and Hamworthy in Poole Harbour.Later, a line was opened from Broadstone to Poole in 1872, and on to Bournemouth West station in 1874, which then became the southern terminus for the Somerset & Dorset trains.

The relative lack of business over this rural route resulted in the need for further expansion to achieve financial security. It was decided to extend the line from a junction near the village of Evercreech to Bath, where it would link up with existing railways to Bristol, the Midlands and the North; at Templecombe, it would link up with the route from London Waterloo to Devon and Cornwall. Thus, it would provide a through route from the North and Midlands to the South West.

This line over the Mendip hills was opened in 1874, but had been expensive to build, with steep gradients, and numerous tunnels and viaducts. Together with the sudden volume of traffic which swamped the available rolling stock and track capacity, the Somerset & Dorset Railway was financially broken. In 1875, it was leased to the Midland Railway and the London & South Western Railway. The fragility of the system was underlined in 1876 when 13 people were killed in a head-on collision near Radstock.