|Dates of operation||1846–1876|
|Successor||Great Western Railway|
|Track gauge||7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm)|
|Length||52.85 mi (85.05 km)
The South Devon Railway Company built and operated the railway from Exeter to Plymouth and Torquay in Devon, England. It was a 7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm) broad gauge railway built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The line had to traverse difficult hilly terrain, and the company adopted the atmospheric system in which trains were drawn by a piston in a tube laid between the rails, a vacuum being created by stationary engines. The revolutionary system proved to have insuperable technical difficulties and was abandoned. The line continued as a conventional locomotive railway. The company promoted a number of branches, through the medium of nominally independent companies.
Its original main line between Exeter and Plymouth remains in use today as an important part of the main line between London and Plymouth.
- 1844 South Devon Railway Act passed by Parliament
- 1846 opened to Newton Abbot
- 1847 opened to Totnes, atmospheric trains start running
- 1848 atmospheric trains withdrawn, Torquay branch opened
- 1849 line completed to Plymouth
- 1876 amalgamated with the Great Western Railway
Authority having been given and the atmospheric system endorsed, construction was soon started: the line would be a broad gauge single track. Brick arch underbridges were reduced by one ring; overbridges were reduced in headroom by 18 inches (457 mm), and the rails were to be 50 lb/yd (24.8 kg/m) instead of the planned 70 (34.7 kg/m).
These were still early days for contracting large construction projects, and probably for this reason the length from Exeter to Newton was first to be started. At something less than half the full length of the line, and generally close to sea level, this was certainly where the easier engineering lay; nonetheless some engineering challenges presented themselves: chief among these was forming a line at the foot of the steep cliffs around Teignmouth. This alone involved a vast rock cutting operation by blasting, as well as six tunnels and two “covered ways”, and extensive sea wall protection. In addition an eight-span timber bridge over the River Exe immediately south of St Davids station, and a 62 arch viaduct at St Thomas were required.
Completion to Plymouth
Branches built by the South Devon company and its allies
Docks at Plymouth
In 1850 the South Devon Railway formed a rail connection at Millbay to the Millbay Pier of the Plymouth Great Western Dock Company, which was enlarging and improving the Millbay dock accommodation.
The SDR itself was making a branch from Laira to Sutton Harbour, and this opened in May 1853; horse traction only was permitted at first and the line was formed by conversion of the south-western extremity of the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway line. The branch was closed from May 1856 until October 1857, during which time it was realigned to ease some very sharp curves. From April 1869 locomotives were used.
The Cornwall Railway opened its broad gauge line on 4 May 1859, from Cornwall Junction, a short distance north of the South Devon’s Plymouth station. Cornwall Railway trains used the station, which was enlarged to handle the additional traffic. (It remained simply “Plymouth” until renamed Plymouth Millbay on 1 May 1877.)
Tavistock: and then Launceston
Tavistock was an important town lying to the north of Plymouth, and after considerable parliamentary struggles, the South Devon and Tavistock Railway was authorised in the 1854 session of Parliament to build its broad gauge line from a junction east of Laira to Tavistock. It opened that line on 22 June 1859; it was leased to, and worked by the South Devon Railway until it was purchased by them, effective from July 1865.
The gauge wars were the struggle for possession of territory between railway companies that used the broad gauge and the standard gauge respectively; the SDR used the broad gauge and was allied with (and exchanged traffic with) other broad gauge lines. In 1861 narrow gauge interests sought to penetrate into north Devon and north Cornwall, and as a defensive measure the SDR promoted an extension of the Tavistock line to Launceston. This was done through the medium of a separate company, the South Devon and Launceston Railway, which obtained Parliamentary authority in 1862. The line opened for passenger traffic on 1 July 1865 and to goods in October 1865. It was worked by the SDR and absorbed by it at the end of 1873.
As the line was promoted as an obvious attempt to frustrate narrow gauge intentions to enter the area, Parliament inserted a clause into the Launceston Act requiring narrow gauge rails to be laid if requested by an connecting Company, if so ordered by the Board of Trade. This later enabled trains of the London and South Western Railway to reach Plymouth over the South Devon lines.
Also encouraged as a tactical measure to frustrate narrow gauge incursion, the Moretonhampstead and South Devon Railway was promoted locally, the South Devon Railway subscribing £500 of the £105,000 capital. The line opened on 4 July 1866; it was 12 miles (19 km) long and climbed steadily from Newton (Abbot) to Moretonhampstead, gaining 550 feet (168 m) on the journey through Teigngrace and Bovey.
The Torbay and Brixham Railway was built independently, and almost solely due to the efforts of a local proprietor of the fishing harbour, R W Wolston. The line opened on 28 February 1868 between Brixham Road station, on the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway line, to Brixham. Brixham Road station was renamed Churston on the same day. The line was worked by the SDR until 1876, when a dispute over charges and commission led the little company to work its own line for a period. In 1883 the line was sold to the Great Western Railway for £12,000.
The Buckfastleigh, Totnes and South Devon Railway was incorporated in 1863, taking powers to extend its proposed line to Ashburton in 1864. It opened between Totnes and Ashburton on 1 May 1872, and added a branch to Totnes Quay on 10 November 1873. At first the Totnes Quay branch was worked by horses, any mechanical power being prohibited, but this rule was removed and locomotive power used as far as the level crossing from 24 August 1874.
Exeter City Basin
The South Devon Railway added a quayside branch to the Exeter Canal at City Basin on 17 July 1867.
Progress 1849 to 1876
In 1849 the company had completed its main line to Plymouth, and the Torquay branch; it was in an alliance with the Bristol and Exeter Railway and the Great Western Railway, and the friendly Cornwall Railway was constructing its main line; the SDR therefore formed part of a broad gauge network connecting Devon, and soon Cornwall, with Bristol and London. However its main line was single track only with difficult gradients and it had expended its financial resources on the abortive atmospheric system, and very soon rapidly increasing demand became the dominant problem.
In the summer of 1850 the line was overwhelmed by the traffic offering, and some trains took six hours to run from Plymouth to Exeter due to congestion. The configuration of the passing places may have been largely responsible. A start was made on improving line capacity by doubling the line from Aller to Totnes, which including the difficult climbs to the summit at Dainton; from Newton to Aller the Torquay branch had run parallel to the main line, and the two single tracks were converted to a double line, with a new junction being formed at Aller. The double track was put into use on 29 January 1855. In the same period layout improvements were made at the crossing places at Dawlish, Teignmouth and Kingsbridge Road, and at Totnes, this work being completed in 1856, and in August 1856 the Chairman announced that it was not planned to double any further sections of the route.
The company sought powers to widen some remaining sections in the 1859 Parliamentary session, and in the period to 1865 the line was doubled from the west end of the Exe Bridge at Exeter to Starcross, and from Teignmouth west end to Newton.
A further series of capacity improvements took place from 1874 to 1875, when a third track was laid from Newton to Aller, restoring the independent access to the Torquay branch; and Starcross to Dawlish was doubled.
Following the completion of the main line, new stations were opened at Exminster and Cornwood in 1852.
The Plymouth station, at Millbay, was designed as a simple terminal for the SDR. When the Cornwall Railway was nearing completion, the Plymouth station was expanded to accommodate that company’s traffic, an apportionment of the capital and running costs being agreed. The enlargement was ready for the opening of the Cornwall line on 4 May 1859, but already the Tavistock and South Devon line was nearing completion, and would bring more traffic to Plymouth. Further extensive improvements were put in hand and substantially complete by 1863.
Amalgamation and after
The company was amalgamated with the Great Western Railway (GWR) on 1 February 1876; subsequent development of the SDR system is summarised here.
Shortly after the amalgamation the London and South Western Railway(LSWR) arrived in Plymouth and a joint station was opened at North Road. The LSWR had long wished to reach Devon and Cornwall, but its early aspirations had been frustrated, and it was not until 1860 that it reached Exeter. Gradual extensions, in some cases using nominally independent promoters, resulted in its reaching Lidford (spelt Lydford from 1897) on 12 October 1874. The Launceston and South Devon Railway had been absorbed by the South Devon Railway in 1869, but under the terms of the L&SDR authorising Act, it was required to lay narrow gauge rails when requested by any connecting narrow gauge line. Consequently, the SDR had to lay a narrow gauge rail, forming mixed gauge track, from Lidford to Plymouth, and to allow LSWR trains to run over the line. However the SDR managed to prevaricate and delay the actual running of the LSWR trains to Plymouth until 17 May 1876.
The gauge on all remaining lines was converted to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge on 21 May 1892. Previous to this, the line from Tavistock Junction to North Road in Plymouth had been mixed gauge to allow the London and South Western trains to travel over the broad gauge tracks. Similarly, one of the two tracks from Exeter as far as City Basin had been mixed. The conversion to standard gauge for the entire Exeter to Plymouth section was carried out after the last broad gauge train that ran to Plymouth on Friday 20 May had returned empty to Swindon depot (where it was immediately scrapped). The work was complete ready for the first standard gauge train to run on Monday 23 May.
The GWR had taken possession of a busy main line that still included single line sections from Dawlish to the Old Quay beyond Teignmouth station, and from Rattery summit to Hemerdon. In July 1884 the section from the west end of Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth Old Quay was doubled; this included opening out the 320-yard (290 m) East Cliff Tunnel at Teignmouth. The next section dealt with from Rattery to Hemerdon was more challenging, involving five large new masonry viaducts as well as Marley Tunnel; the double line was opened in stages progressively in 1893, completing on 19 November 1893. This left a short section through five tunnels west of Dawlish: this was taken on from 1902, being completed and opened on 1 October 1905.
The Great Western Railway was nationalised on 1 January 1948. From that date, the former South Devon Railway became the responsibility of British Railways, Western Region.
After leaving the former Bristol and Exeter Railway station at Exeter St Davids, the line crosses the River Exe and then passes through the southern margin of Exeter along a stone viaduct. Once out in the countryside it follows the Exe southwards down to Dawlish Warren, passing at the edge of rocky cliffs through short tunnels and the longer Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth. Here turning west it follows the north bank of the River Teignto Newton Abbot, where the company’s workshops were located.
Beyond Newton Abbot the main line climbs up a sustained two-mile (3.2 km) gradient of 1 in 36 (2.78%) at the steepest point to a summit at Dainton Tunnel, then falling for four miles (6.4 km) gradients nearly as steep to cross the River Dart at Totnes. It then climbs steeply again at up to 1 in 47 (2.13%) for three miles (4.8 km) to a summit at Rattery, then easing a little for six miles (9.7 km) of moderately steep climb to Wrangaton. From there it falls for six miles (9.7 km) on moderately steep gradients to Hemerdon, there descending at 1 in 42 (2.38%) for two miles (3.2 km) to Plympton. From there the line follows the north bank of the River Plym, passing through a tunnel near Mutley, running to the present-day Plymouth station. Beyond there, a short length of the main line to Cornwall is formed of the original main line, after which the line turned south to the original terminus at Millbay; this is no longer in existence.
The Torquay branch diverges from the main line a little south-west of Newton abbot at Aller Junction, and climbs to Torre station high on the north-west edge of Torquay itself.
Stations opened after the SDR was absorbed by the GWR in 1876 are shown in italic.
Exeter to Plymouth
- Exeter St Davids – Bristol and Exeter Railway station used by arrangement
- St Thomas (Exeter) – renamed St Thomas in April 1853; renamed Exeter St Thomas May 1897
- Exminster – opened late August 1852; closed 30 March 1964
- Warren Halt; opened 1 July 1905; renamed Warren Platform on 1 July 1907, and renamed Dawlish Warren on 1 October 1911; relocated a short distance to the north 23 September 1912
- Newton renamed Newton Abbot 1 March 1897
- Brent – opened 15 June 1848; closed 5 October 1964
- Wrangaton – renamed Kingsbridge Road May 1849 and reverted to Wrangaton 1 July 1895
- Bittaford Platform; opened 18 November 1907, closed 2 March 1959
- Ivybridge – opened 15 June 1848, closed 2 March 1959; new station opened about one mile east on 15 July 1994
- Cornwood Road opened late August 1852, renamed Cornwood April 1864
- Plympton – opened 15 June 1848, closed to passengers on 2 March 1959 and to goods traffic on 1 June 1964
- Laira – temporary terminus at Laira Green closed 2 April 1849 to passengers and 1 May 1849 to goods
- Laira Halt; opened 1 June 1904, closed 7 July 1930
- Lipson Vale Halt opened 1 June 1904, closed 22 March 1942
- Mutley – opened 1 August 1871; closed 3 July 1939
- Plymouth North Road – opened 28 March 1877, renamed Plymouth 16 September 1958
- Plymouth – joint with the Cornwall Railway; renamed Plymouth Millbay from 1 May 1877, closed to passengers 24 April 1941 and to goods traffic 20 June 1966
- Kingskerswell – opened 1 July 1853; closed 5 October 1964
- Torquay – renamed Torre 2 August 1859.
The company hired locomotives from the Great Western Railway to haul their trains until the atmospheric system was ready for operation. In the event, locomotives were needed on a more permanent basis and so a series of contracts were entered into with contractors to provide the power for the trains. From 1867 the company bought the locomotives and operated them.
The South Devon Railway also operated all the connecting branches in Devon and so their locomotives operated on these. The Cornwall Railway also contracted their motive power from the same company as the South Devon Railway. From 1867 the South Devon Railway also bought the Cornwall Railway locomotives and operated them as a single fleet with their own, and also the ones now purchased for the West Cornwall Railway.
Most of the locomotives were 4-4-0 tank engines for passenger trains and 0-6-0 tank engines for goods trains. Later some smaller locomotives were purchased for branch lines and the dock branches.
Accidents and incidents
- On 27 June 1849, the boiler of Great Western Railway Hercules class locomotive Goliah exploded whilst it was hauling a freight train at Plympton. One person was killed.
- South Devon Railway (heritage railway)
- Exeter to Plymouth Line
- South Devon Banks
- South Devon Railway sea wall
- ^ It was converted in 2010 to student accommodation; a letting agency advertisement at http://www.studylets.co.uk/property.jsp?h=357&y=7 in January 2014 claimed: “The No Place Inn: The third oldest pub in Plymouth it was converted to high quality student accommodation in 2010. The building is not one of those cookie cutter student houses but has a unique character and was awarded Grade A by the University.”
- ^ Some of these were opened out when the line was later doubled.
- ^ Sekon says 3 May 1846.
- ^ It is remarkable that the company possessed this number of carriages at such an early date.
- ^ As well as Newton Abbot there was a community called Newton Bushel, a short distance to the west; in early days the station was called simply Newton, to serve both communities. Twentieth century development has long since engulfed both the original settlements.
- ^ Gregory, page 15; MacDermot says 30 December in volume II, page 210
- ^ Kay quotes Margary’s diary, but is clearly dubious; and “when the Starcross – Dawlish tube was similarly cleared of water on 22nd March, Margary says that a locomotive towed the piston carriage. Debris was known to have been drawn into the tube during test pumping and it would hardly have been prudent to assume that the atmospheric system could draw the piston carriage before clearing the tube. (Margary was an engineering assistant to Brunel.)” Gregory, writing in 1982 says that the 25 February trip was “the experimental first run to Turf” (page 20).
- ^ The South Devon was the only railway that ran goods trains on the atmospheric system, according to Kay, page 29.
- ^ From a contemporary illustration in Kay, page 22; the open truck with a sprung, but exposed, seat often seen in illustrations comes from Samuda’s earlier treatise and is indicative only.
- ^ Hudson was a director of the Midland Railway, which had a substantial shareholding. When the SDR was created the Bristol and Gloucester Railway was a member of the broad gauge group and had subscribed; the B&GR later passed into Midland hands, and the shareholding with it.
- ^ From the map in Gregory, page 120; and the mileage of the station was 244m 40c; the later Laira signal box was at 244m 42c; see MacDermot vol II and Cooke.
- ^ This seems to have been limited to forming a connection with the PGWD company’s own lines; no mileage increment is shown in MacDermot’s table of mileages,at page 620 of volume II.
- ^ Narrow gauge, now called standard gauge. At the time there was no “standard” and the term narrow gauge was in general use.
- ^ Oakley says “on about 1 August 1905.
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Gregory, R H, The South Devon Railway, Oakwood Press, Salisbury, 1982, ISBN 0-85361-286-2
- ^ a b c Paul Garnsworthy, Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway, published by the Broad Gauge Society, 2013, ISBN 978-1847850379
- ^ Howard Clayton, The Atmospheric Railways, self-published by Howard Clayton, Lichfield, 1966
- ^ a b c d e Peter Kay, Exeter – Newton Abbot: A Railway History, Platform 5 Publishing, 1991, Sheffield, ISBN 1-872524-42-7
- ^ Gregory, pages 9 and 10
- ^ a b Gregory, page 10
- ^ Quoted on page 169 of Adrian Vaughan, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Engineering Knight Errant, John Murray (Publishers) Limited, ISBN 0 7195 5282 6
- ^ Quoted in Vaughan, Knight Errant, page 172
- ^ Quoted in Vaughan, Knight Errant, page 173
- ^ Alan Hayward, The Construction of Railway Bridges Then and Now, in The International Journal for the History of Engineering and Technology, volume 84 number 1, Maney Publishing, 2014, ISSN 1758-1206
- ^ a b MacDermot, volume II, page 208
- ^ Kay, page 27 and footnote
- ^ Sekon, page 210
- ^ Sekon, pages 210 – 212
- ^ Gregory, pages 20 to 23
- ^ a b MacDermot volume II, page 213
- ^ Gregory, page 22
- ^ MacDermot volume II, page 215
- ^ Specification, part reproduced in Garnsworthy
- ^ Kay, pages 23 to 35
- ^ Railway Chronicle (periodical) 10 May 1847 stated that this was announced “last Tuesday”; quoted in Howard Clayton, The Atmospheric Railways, self-published by Howard Clayton, Lichfield, 1966
- ^ MacDemot volume II, page 217
- ^ H G Kendall, The Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway, The Oakwood Press, Lingfield, 1968
- ^ Eric R Shepherd, The Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway and The Lee Moor Tramway, ARK Publications (Railways), Newton Abbot, 1997, ISBN 1-873029-06-3
- ^ G A Sekon, A History of the Great Western Railway, Digby Long & Co, London, second edition 1895, page 206
- ^ MacDermot volume II, page 227
- ^ MacDermot volume II, pages 239 – 240
- ^ POTTS, C R (1998). THE NEWTON ABBOT TO KINGSWEAR RAILWAY (1844–1988). OXFORD: OAKWOOD PRESS. ISBN 0-85361-387-7.
- ^ a b MACDERMOT, E T (1931). HISTORY OF THE GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY, VOLUME II 1863–1921. LONDON: GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY.
- ^ ANTHONY, GH; JENKINS, SC (1997). THE LAUNCESTON BRANCH. HEADINGTON: OAKWOOD PRESS. ISBN 978-0-85361-491-3.
- ^ MacDermot, volume II, pages 237 to 241
- ^ a b c David St John Thomas, A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Volume 1: The West Country, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1960, reprinted 1966
- ^ John Nicholas, The North Devon Line, Oxford Publishing Company, Sparkford, 1992, ISBN 0-86093-461-6
- ^ MacDermot, 209 and 295-396
- ^ a b R A Cooke, Atlas of the Great Western Railway, 1947, Wild Swan Publications Ltd, Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0 906867 65 7
- ^ Mike Oakley, Devon Railway Stations, The Dovecote Press, Wimborne, 2007, ISBN 978-1-904-34955-6
- ^ R V J Butt, The Directory of Railway Stations, 1995, Patrick Stephens Ltd, Sparkford, ISBN 1-8526-0508-1
- ^ REED, P.J.T. (FEBRUARY 1953). WHITE, D.E. (ED.). THE LOCOMOTIVES OF THE GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY, PART 2: BROAD GAUGE. KENILWORTH: THE RAILWAY CORRESPONDENCE AND TRAVEL SOCIETY. ISBN 0-901115-32-0. OCLC 650490992.
- ^ WATERS, LAURENCE (1999). THE GREAT WESTERN BROAD GAUGE. HERSHAM: IAN ALLAN PUBLISHING. ISBN 0-7110-2634-3.
- ^ HEWISON, CHRISTIAN H. (1983). LOCOMOTIVE BOILER EXPLOSIONS. NEWTON ABBOT: DAVID & CHARLES. PP. 30–31. ISBN 0 7153 8305 1.
- R A Cooke, Atlas of the Great Western Railway 1947, Wild Swan Publications Limited, Didcot, 2nd edition 1997, ISBN 1 8741 03 38 0
- BECK, KEITH; COPSEY, JOHN (1990). THE GREAT WESTERN IN SOUTH DEVON. DIDCOT: WILD SWAN PUBLICATION. ISBN 0-906867-90-8.
- MOSLEY, BRIAN. “SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY”. ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PLYMOUTH HISTORY. PLYMOUTH DATA. ARCHIVED FROM THE ORIGINAL ON 25 FEBRUARY 2008. RETRIEVED 22 JULY 2008.
- Records of the South Devon Railway and its successors can be consulted at The National Archives
South Devon Railway Association
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