Cliff Edge: The future of the South Devon Railway

Posted: February 25, 2014 in Rail, Transport

The famous shot from Lea Mount of the sea front at Dawlish, with the obligatory High Speed Train about to enter the series of tunnels beneath the orange cliffs. The scene would be the same today but for the recent breach of the sea wall. Images are used in the spirit of fair use.

It would have been very difficult to miss one of the most dramatic news stories within the recent bout of storms to hit the UK in the first two months of 2014. Powerful waves destroyed part of the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon, severing the rail link between Exeter and Plymouth and isolating West and South Devon and Cornwall from the rest of the network. The line is due to be reopened, according to current estimates, in mid-April, some two-and-a-half months after the wall’s destruction.

The damage, which is just one of many incidents of a similar nature along the Devon coast, has reignited the debate about the railway and the risk it carries. With rising sea levels and increasingly turbulent weather, it is likely that the line isn’t sustainable long-term, or even reliable in the immediate future. There have been calls for alternatives, but this is nothing new, and yet there has been no progress. Is this the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

The situation in Devon is a product of the time in which the railways of the county, and Britain as a whole, were both constructed and destroyed. The bulk of Britain’s railways were built in the mid-nineteenth century, during an era where laissez-faire capitalism ruled all. Though there were some dissenting voices who suggested a nationalised system would be better, railways were seen as businesses rather than services, and companies were allowed to build railways as, when and where they saw fit. This led to variations in track gauge and a disregard for safety, both of which led to serious issues during the formation of a national network which wouldn’t be solved until the tail end of the century.

It also led to competing companies building routes through and to the same towns and cities, which would later prove an obvious target for cuts in the era of the nationalised railway. A good example of the problems this is the situation in the South Wales Valleys, where lines sprung up to serve the various collieries and industrial sites on each side of all the major valleys. These lines were then also used as passenger lines and diluted the passenger traffic from the various towns and villages, often to the detriment of both competing railways, particularly in the post-1923 era of the Big Four companies and the post-1948 era of the nationalised British Railways. A number of valleys later lost not one but two lines to cutbacks.

The routes through Devon are another valid example, although it never reached this extent and had a logic to it. The first major railway line from Exeter to the South West was the South Devon Railway. Engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to his 7-foot broad gauge, it picked up where the Bristol and Exeter Railway finished; this railway itself terminated in the north at Bristol’s Temple Meads station, the end of the Great Western Railway from London Paddington. The South Devon Railway, from Exeter St Davids to Plymouth Millbay, was thus a continuation of a route that stretched from London. The first half, from Exeter to Newton Abbot, opened in 1846, with an extension to the town of Totnes a year later and completion of the remainder to Plymouth in 1849. It was a notionally independent company but was always closely allied to the GWR, who would eventually absorb it entirely in 1876.

The South Devon Railway was notable for being the chosen site of Brunel’s experimental atmospheric railway, where trains between Exeter and Newton Abbot were powered by atmospheric pressure from tubes laid between the track. Though it would be scrapped very quickly, it did have a bearing on the course of the railway beyond Newton Abbot; being designed with atmospheric power in mind, it featured what are still some of the steepest gradients on the British railway network as it rises and falls over hills south of Dartmoor.

But the best-known feature of the route is the first section between Exeter and Newton Abbot, which first runs alongside the estuary of the River Exe, and then follows the coast south. It was originally ended that the route would head inland, tunnelling under the Haldon Hills, which today’s A380 dual carriageway go over. However, unlike with the original Great Western route, Brunel did not have the huge budget necessary for such costly earthworks, and chose to build the line along the coast, constructing a sea wall between the cliffs and the sea.

At the time, it was the cost-effective choice, and would eventually create holiday resorts at Starcross, Dawlish Warren, Dawlish and Teignmouth which would generate enormous holiday traffic, as would the branch to Torquay, Paignton and Kingswear. But over time, the disadvantage became obvious. The sea would routinely breach the sea wall, leaving the railway closed. The catastrophic damage during this winter is just one of many instances over the last 168 years. But for the Second World War, a diversionary route a couple of miles inland may have been built, but this was never completed.

But until the Beeching Era, the former SDR was not the only route south-west. In 1860, the London and South Western Railway opened its own route to Exeter. Whereas the Bristol and Exeter Railway came from the north, heading via Taunton and Bridgwater, the LSWR came from the east via the city of Salisbury.

But Exeter wasn’t meant to be the final destination; the LSWR also had eyes for Plymouth, one of the biggest and most lucrative ports in England. Their plan was not to head there via South Devon, but to head north of Dartmoor, via the towns of Crediton and Okehampton, before turning south through Tavistock and arriving in Plymouth from the west. However, this plan took many years to realise due to the difficulty of building a railway over hilly terrain.

Situated on the northern edge of Dartmoor to the west of Okehampton, Meldon Viaduct is one of the few high girder viaducts to survive in Britain, though it hasn’t seen a train pass over it since 1968.

Okehampton wasn’t reached until 1871, and it wouldn’t be for further years that they made a connection with an already-existing line from Launceston to Plymouth at Lydford. This line, though, was part of the GWR family, and the LSWR needed to build their own route to Plymouth to avoid paying fees for using the track; their own route, which ran parallel to the GWR line before branching off after Tavistock and heading down the estuary of the River Tamar, wouldn’t be opened until 1890. The railway used its own terminus, Plymouth Friary, but a shared station was built in the city centre on North Road, which remains Plymouth’s main station today.

There was also another aspect to this which would prove enormously advantageous in the years to come, though. A line through Crediton to the north Devon towns of Barnstaple and Bideford had already been built prior to the LSWR’s arrival in Devon by the North Devon Railway, which would eventually be absorbed by the LSWR. North Devon and North Cornwall had been virtually untapped by significant railway lines, and the LSWR would develop a total monopoly on the area, with branch lines to Bude, Padstow and Ilfracombe. Not only would these establish the towns as popular holiday destinations, giving the LSWR and later the Southern Railway huge revenues in the summer months, but the lines also served many towns and villages which had previously been totally isolated. The network became known as ‘The Withered Arm’ due to its sprawling shape.

As a result of this, the GWR and LSWR, succeeded by the Southern Railway in 1923, were set up as rivals, the powerhouse railways in Devon and Cornwall. The GWR would eventually have a complete route through to Penzance via the Cornish towns of Liskeard, St Austell, Camborne and the city of Truro. It also had its own network of branches to holiday destinations such as Torbay, Looe, Newquay and St Ives, as well as access to the tin mining and china clay areas of Cornwall. But where they dominated the south, the LSWR dominated the north, as well as providing access to the East Devon and Dorset resorts of Lyme Regis, Seaton and Exmouth. The GWR’s Cornish Riviera Express and the Southern’s Atlantic Coast Express became household names.

Between the two juggernauts, a third route emerged. In 1903, the Exeter Railway was opened between a junction on the former SDR just outside Exeter and the village of Christow at the head of the scenic Teign Valley, on the edge of what is today the Dartmoor National Park. It ran via the villages of Longdown and Ide, neither of which were particularly significant. However, what was significant is that at Christow, it joined another line, the Teign Valley Railway, which had opened in 1882 between Christow and Heathfield, where it met the branch line from Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead, now part of the GWR. Running up the Teign Valley, it served a series of small villages, plus the small town of Chudleigh. The 1903 section thus completed a route from Newton Abbot to Exeter which avoided the coast, albeit one built to a basic standard meant only for slow stopping trains rather than heavy mainline expresses.

Competition was considered to be healthy at this stage, and by the twentieth century, the railways were considered to be a service, particularly those serving small rural villages, of which there were many being served by the various lines. By the 1960s, however, the culture had changed. Since nationalisation in 1948, losses had gradually grown, and the idealistic notion that the railways should serve virtually everyone everywhere was replaced by the idea that British Railways, though a nationalised system, should be run like a business and be forced to become far more efficient and cost-effective. This led to the arrival of Dr Richard Beeching, who would become famed for overseeing the sweeping cuts which would slash the network, leaving thousands of people unemployed and many towns and villages isolated from the national network. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that Beeching was just part of a wider culture within government at that time, and was brought in from ICI to find unnecessary costs to cut; his superior, the Conservative Minister of Transport Ernest Marples, was the owner of a road construction company.

The Teign Valley route was an obvious candidate for closure in this period, as it served no major towns and was considered to be a ‘duplicate route’, thus serving no purpose. Passenger services were withdrawn as early as 1958, before Beeching had even arrived on the scene. The line was retained from Heathfield to Christow for goods services until 1961. The last trains of any kind saw part of the line in 1968, after which it was closed entirely. Part of the route around Chudleigh was buried beneath the A38 dual carriageway in the years after.

However, the old LSWR route was never intended to be closed; even Beeching himself understood this. Instead, one by one, small changes would be made which would eventually run it into redundancy and inevitable closure. First, it switched to the Western Region of BR from the Southern Region, putting it under the same rule as the former GWR lines. The old LSWR terminus at Plymouth Friary was closed to passengers in 1958. After this, the rest of the line and its facilities were gradually scaled back, with stations run down and double track reduced to single.

The mid-1960s saw the LSWR’s branch lines in North Devon and Cornwall gradually reduced in number. The last through services from London to Plymouth using the route was in 1967. A year later, the line was closed beyond Okehampton, before the final blow in 1972, with passenger services between Crediton and Okehampton being withdrawn. The line was retained as far as Meldon to serve a quarry. Of all the ex-LSWR lines west of Exeter, only the branches from Exeter to Barnstaple and Plymouth to Gunnislake (including the last part of the old through route from Exeter) survived, and even then on a very basic level.

Yeoford station was once on the LSWR/Southern mainline, but is now only served by branch line services on the Tarka Line to Barnstaple, with the second track retained for the occasional train to Okehampton. The lack of facilities highlights the stripped-down nature of the former LSWR lines since the 1950s and 1960s.

It was a decision that, in hindsight, made little sense. Not only did it leave the South Devon route, with its known hazards, without an alternative route, but it also left the towns of Okehampton and Tavistock without a railway service. But it is worth bearing in mind that these decisions were made at a time where Britain’s railways were not expected to survive much longer. Beeching’s cuts were considered to be the first step in a large scale reduction of BR to a set of core routes serving the major cities. Survival of rail transport wasn’t considered possible due to the hype surrounding Britain’s rapidly expanding motorway network. The car was king, and it was presumed this would always be the case. Climate change was not on the agenda.

It is often considered that the most damaging aspect of the railway closures of the 1950s and 1960s was that all the abandoned railway land was immediately sold off, with much of it being redeveloped very quickly. Former town stations were buried under supermarkets and housing developments, while bypasses took over the routes. This is why the reconstruction of the Teign Valley route is considered almost impossible; a new route would have to be forged due to the loss of the old one.

However, one ray of hope for those campaigning for an alternative route to the troubled South Devon line is that the former LSWR route has largely remained intact. Large viaducts like that at Meldon were preserved and the trackbed was not encroached upon. Even Okehampton station survived, and was eventually restored to its former glory. The line from Crediton and Meldon Quarry survives in the hands of the Dartmoor Railway, which runs heritage services over the route, while on summer Sundays, mainline trains run from Exeter to Okehampton, with hopes that this will be expanded in the future.

There is also a local campaign established to rebuild a section of line from Bere Alston on the Gunnislake branch to Tavistock, in order to restore rail services to the town. However, railway restoration bureaucracy is dragging the process out and it is unlikely this will happen any time soon.

But the storms of this winter may begin to generate some urgency, not only to rebuild the line to Tavistock but beyond to Meldon to create a through route to Exeter once again. While considering it a ‘replacement’ route for the South Devon line would be controversial, as towns like Torquay, Newton Abbot, Teignmouth and Totnes require rail services, it could certainly supplement it, and would mean that the whole of West Devon and Cornwall would not be cut off from the rest of the network if the track was to be breached along the coast.

It would be an enormous undertaking, one of the biggest reopening projects since the 1960s, comparable only with the currently ongoing reconstruction of the northern part of the Waverley Line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank near Galashiels, another former mainline which should never have been closed. Many of the viaducts along the route would need to be totally refurbished in order to take rail traffic once again. However, it is certainly possible if the government was to commit to it.

The problem is that while there is certainly demand for it in Devon, the government will continue to drag its feet because the route is located in a ‘marginal’ area. While a project like HS2 get money thrown at it despite many substantial, reasoned cases being made against it, cases on the ‘periphery’ like this will get ignored because of the perceived lack of benefits to ‘the nation as a whole’. The Conservative and Labour governments of the 1950s and 1960s were quick to axe these lines to save money, at a time when there were calls to save many of them, but today’s governments are slow to respond to calls to reopen them; both are because the national need is put above the local need. I do wonder if we would be talking about this in the same way if it was much closer to London…

Until the mentality of British government changes to put the rail network at the heart of its policy, as a way of trying to get people out of their cars and onto public transport on a genuinely local level to try and reduce pollution, this situation will not change, and the people in these many towns and villages isolated from the network will be left with no choice but to use cars. For all the bluster, rhetoric and promises of reports that we have seen since this year’s storms, it seems highly unlikely that an alternative route to the troubled South Devon Railway will be built soon, and so, with the number of storms like this projected to increase and sea levels predicted to rise, the people of Devon and Cornwall must be prepared for more disruption and more isolation in the years to come.

How long until the railway through Dawlish is as much of a historical relic as steam power? BR Standard Class 7 70000 ‘Britannia’ leads an excursion away from the seaside town.


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