Railways in Devon

Railways in Devon

The first railway to enter the county was the Bristol and Exeter in 1844, which continued Brunel’s original line from Paddington to Bristol and was built to the same seven-foot (2.135 m) gauge. It was always closely connected with the Great Western, being leased to that company for the first five years and eventually amalgamated with it in 1876. The South Devon Railway continued the trunk route from Exeter to Plymouth, and part of its capital was found by the GWR and Bristol and Exeter Companies. Brunel was again the engineer, and the gauge seven feet: but Brunel, who made everything on a grand scale, including his mistakes, designed the line for the newly invented Atmospheric System instead of locomotive traction. This at first sight promised much to recommend it: trains would be noiseless and smokeless, running at high speeds and able to surmount steeper gradients than current loco motives, while working on a single line and in a way which made collisions impossible and derailments less likely. With single track, the lighter rails possi­ble without the weight of engines, and less earth­work required to reduce gradients, it should be cheaper to build. If all went well it should also be cheaper to run with stationary pumping engines than with locomotives. If it succeeded on the South Devon, as Brunel confidently expected, his Cornwall Railway would also adopt it as the only form of traction west of Exeter.

Devon - The Atmospheric Railway

The system was ingenious, and if given time to correct its teething troubles it might well have put up a much better performance than it in fact did in Devon. The major item was a fifteen-inch (38 cm) tube laid between the rails, with the joins in the ten-foot (3 m) sections carefully caulked, and having a slot at the top closed by a continuous valve of leather stiffened and weighted by iron plates and resting on some form of grease composition to make an airtight seal. Other valves closed each end of the tube, which on the South Devon was laid in sections two to three miles (3.5 km) long between pumping stations. Steam engines worked pumps to make a partial vacuum in the tube, and the front carriage of each train had a piston which passed into the tube troll2h the end vi1v 2nd w uhd 1on2 by 1h pressure of air behind it, opening and closing the leather flap by means of rollers. Expresses could be run without stopping at breaks in the tube, since the train could cover the gaps under its own momentum; and with everything functioning properly the speed could be quite as great as that of any locomotive of the time.

But proper functioning depended on efficient valves and co-ordination between trains and the pumping stations ahead, so that exhaustion of the tubes began neither too late-giving insufficient vacuum – or too early so that the leather valve in the slot was over-strained. This required the electric telegraph, but Brunel provided it only between passenger stations, so that pumping had to be done by timetable and late trains meant pumps work­ing too long and hard, waste of fuel, and valve strain.

The slot valves also gave trouble, perhaps because so much of the line ran close to the sea. This hastened the rusting of the iron plates which set up a reaction with the tannin in the leather and caused the valves to disintegrate. Given time this might have been overcome by galvanising the iron (as Brunel too late suggested) or by using rubber in place of leather, as was being tried on one section of the line just before the system was abandoned.

Further difficulties were that trains could not back (which was awkward if they overshot a station), and that shunting could be done only by manpower or locomotives; that the tube had to be broken at sidings and passing places, with danger of the piston fouling rails as it crossed them; and that level crossings were obstructed by the tube which projected above the roadway. An ingenious device for covering it with iron plates, which would auto­matically rise vertically when the tube was pumped, could not be used, since no one found an answer to what happened if the plates rose suddenly while a horse and cart was crossing! Underpass bridges were a possible, but expensive, alternative.

A regular atmospheric service opened between Exeter and Teignmouth in September 1847, and was extended four months later to Newton Abbot, reaching at first average speeds of sixty m.p.h. (96 km.p.h.) with light passenger trains and forty m.p.h. (64 km.p.h.) with goods. But difficulties soon accumulated: on fast trains the piston crashed vio­lently through the end valves of the tubes, and damaged the cup-leathers which kept them air-tight; water condensed in the pipe; and the leather of the continuous valve began to decay and allow air-leaks which forced the pumps to work three times as long and hard as intended. The promised economical working therefore did not materialise – and at times the vacuum failed altogether and left a train standing, to wait ignominiously for a locomotive to get up steam and help it out. Such a breakdown blocked the whole line, as did failure of an engine or pump. Winter cold froze the leather, and without expensive treatment with seal oil it leaked or became damaged. The air-pumps proved too small for the power of the engines, which in turn had to be overworked to run the pumps fast enough to exhaust the tube; and the tube itself was too small to work heavy trains with efficient economy. Larger tubes and pumps, working at lower vacuum and so with less strain on valves, would have given better service, but would have been much more expensive to install.

By June 1848, only nine months after running commenced, the leather valve was rotting and tear­ing from its hinges along the whole line. This extinguished all faith in the ‘Atmospheric Caper’, and Brunel and the Directors decided to cut their losses and go over, entirely to locomotive working. Tubes had by then been laid, and pumping stations erected, as far as Totnes and Torre; but these were dismantled without ever having been used, and all the atmospheric equipment was sold off for what it would fetch. The whole experiment cost the com­pany not far short of £400 000, and left it with a line designed for atmospheric working with single track, gradients of 1: 37 and 1: 42,  light viaducts, and sharp curves, such as would never have been made for locomotives. The South Devon Railway reached Plymouth in 1848 as an ordinary locomotive line: it never recovered from this bad start, and, until it was sold to the GWR in 1876, its dividend averaged only two per cent.

The North Devon line, from Exeter via Crediton to Barnstaple and Bideford, began with a ‘take-over bid’ from the London and South Western Railway, which hoped to use it as a link in its schemes for pushing the standard gauge into the South-West. For a brief time Waterloo got control of the Exeter to Crediton section and narrowed the gauge before completion; but the Board of Trade intervened, and the line was leased to the Bristol and Exeter and rebroadened before opening in 1851. The rest was therefore built on the broad gauge, but the LSWR (which reached Exeter in 1860) took over the lease in 1862 and laid a third rail to give through running from Waterloo. Mixed gauge continued to Bideford till 1876, and to Crediton till its final extinction in 1892. This line gave a direct rail link between Exeter and North Devon; but much of it has remained single-track, and the through service has never been good enough to break down the isolation of the north. On the contrary, with the other lines converging on Barnstaple soon afterwards, railways helped to make that town something of a separate northern capital.

Railways in Devon

The first effective intrusion of standard gauge into the county came in 1860, with the opening to Exeter of the line from Salisbury via Yeovil and Honiton. This came fifteen years after the first LSWR plans for Exeter, which produced expensive Parliamentary battles with the Great Western but no positive result. In 1856 the LSWR got control of the Salisbury and Yeovil line, and followed this with an Act for extending it to Exeter. This gave the standard gauge access to the coast resorts eastwards from Exmouth, as the broad gauge had earlier opened up the Torbay area. In both cases branches to the coast were built, often by local funds but worked and eventually absorbed by the main-line companies.

Exeter was a springboard for further LSWR advance, at first with the North Devon line in 1862 and then round the north of Dartmoor. Progress was slow, and at first held up by Great Western op­position which obliged the LSWR to undertake not to go beyond Okehampton. After it reached that place in 1871, however, this was ignored; and the line was continued to Lydford, which had already been reached from the south by the broad gauge. In 1876 the laying of a third rail on the broad tracks allowed Waterloo trains to reach Plymouth, but not till 1890 did the South Western open its independent line via Bere Alston. Requests for a third rail on the Lydford—Launceston line were refused, to block standard gauge entry to Cornwall, and the LSWR was obliged to reach Launceston by a roundabout route through Halwill.

The spread of standard gauge lines in the South-West, with their connections to the rest of Britain, doomed the broad gauge in spite of its intrinsic merits. Many lines in the GWR system were mixed or completely converted to allow through-traffic long before the final conversion in 1892, and by that date the only unmixed broad track in Devon was the Exeter to Plymouth main line and its branches. The Paddington to Exeter line had been mixed since 1876. The nuisance of having two gauges and sets of rolling-stock on one railway system was so great that the broad gauge had to go, and the remaining track was narrowed in one hectic weekend in May 1892.

The Great Western and LSWR Companies between them came to absorb or dominate nearly all the Devon lines, but there were some interesting if financially disastrous exceptions. One was the Lyn-ton and Barnstaple, built by a local company to the 1 ‘ 1 1k” (60 cm) gauge. The cost was far greater, and the traffic far less, than had been expected, and for fifteen years after the opening in 1898 it paid no dividend at all. For another eight it managed to pay %, and then with bus competition it again ran at a loss. The company was lucky to sell out to the newly constituted Southern Railway in 1923, for a quarter of what the line had cost. The Southern in turn tried, and failed, to attract enough traffic, and the line was finally closed and dismantled in 1935. Though unpractical, it was delightful; and had it survived a little longer it would almost certainly, like similar lines, have been taken over and kept alive by volunteer enthusiasts.

The Bideford—Westward Ho!—Appledore line had a very brief existence. It was not completed to Appledore till 1908, and was a disastrous failure from the start. In 1917  the Government com­mandeered its track for use behind the battlefronts in France, and its rolling-stock was moved on to the main line (with which it had had no connection) by a temporary track laid across Bideford Bridge.

The effect of railways in Devon has been de­scribed by one authority as the greatest revolution since the Black Death, and for many smaller places the result was oddly similar. The county as a whole benefited by being brought into close touch with national life, and by the chance to develop holiday resorts, horticulture and dairy-farming to offset the decline in local industry and the slump in cereal production that came with trans-Atlantic imports. Big centres like Exeter and Plymouth grew rapidly, the latter especially as railways developed its har­bours and suburbs. Coastal places with good beaches also throve as holiday resorts as soon as they had a railway connection. But smaller inland towns, which had previously been the only accessible market and shopping-place for their area, suffered when forced to compete with the attractions of larger centres. Crediton and North Tawton, for example, declined to little over half their pre-railway population -though the former has since recovered. Ashburton lost trade to Totnes, and South Molton to Barn­staple. Chulrnleigh, by-passed by the railway, lost its market to Eggesford station. Much of the great shift of population in Devon between 1851  and 1951, with the decline of small centres and the growth of 1arge ones, was the direct result of railways.

But the railway, which put canals and turnpikes out of business, has itself not proved impervious to the massive growth of road transport since the Second World War, and the much wider ownership of private cars. The map, drawn in 1961, shows closures to that date, but since then the ‘Beeching Axe’ has eliminated all remaining lines except the old GWR main route from Paddington via Exeter and Plymouth into Cornwall (with its Paignton branch), and part of the old LSWR main line from Waterloo – now single-tracked in Devon and ending in Exeter – with its branches to Barnstaple and Exmouth.

Two other ex-GWR branches, abandoned by British Rail, still however carry trains: the Dart Valley line from Tomes to Buckfastleigh and the Kingswear line from Paignton. Both have been taken over by enthusiastic volunteers, and are run with steam power, mainly as tourist attractions.