THE BUCKFASTLEIGH, TOTNES & SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY
GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY
BR WESTERN REGION
DART VALLEY RAILWAY
SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY
Another branch line built by the South Devon Railway in conjunction with locals who did not want to lose out by the railway passing them by, once they saw the huge benefits felt by towns that were served. Due to their agreements with the GWR it was initially built broad gauge from a junction at Totnes to Buckfastleigh and Ashburton.
In the first early nineteenth century, Ashburton was an important stannary and woollen town, while Buckfastleigh had established woollen mills as well as other manufacturing industries. Both towns were on the coaching road from Plymouth to Exeter, and this transport link was important to their success so they were somewhat aghast when the South Devon route was picked over the others, including a proposal for a line through Buckfastleigh and Ashburton. It opening in 1847, and Buckfastleigh and Ashburton were not close to the new railway. They quickly found that other towns that were railway-connected gained in importance as their transport costs were reduced, and Buckfastleigh and Ashburton declined rapidly due to the competitive disadvantage.
Totnes was concerned too, for on 14 June 1845 a public meeting there resolved that "it is most essential to the interest and welfare of this town to be connected by railway with the towns of Buckfastleigh and Ashburton as leading to develop the resources of this important town and agricultural district."
The enthusiasm to vote for the motion seems not to have been carried into urgent action, but on 27 July 1848 that a Totnes Buckfastleigh and Ashburton Railway obtained its authorising Act of Parliament; authorised capital was £130,000, and the engineer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At this time getting money was extremely difficult, and it proved impossible to raise the required capital; in 1851 the Company was dissolved, with nothing done.
A viable scheme
Decline had been predicted for the industries of Buckfastleigh and Ashburton if they were isolated from the railway network, and the gloomy forecast proved true. In 1863 interested men of affairs promoted a new railway, this time to connect to the South Devon Railway (SDR) at Totnes, and to extend to the quayside on the River Dart. In due course on 25 June 1864[note 2] the Buckfastleigh, Totnes and South Devon Railway Company obtained an authorising Act of Parliament.
The main line was to be not quite ten miles (16 km) long. The short branch, a "railway or tramway", to the Quays at Totnes was on the south side of the SDR main line, and was to be horse-worked. The use of locomotives, stationary engines and ropes, or "atmospheric agency" (i.e. the now discredited atmospheric traction system), were all forbidden.
Raising the money was a little easier now than in 1848, but Ashburton's omission from the scheme cut off a large section of potential financial support, and the following year a further Act was obtained, on 26 May 1845, authorising an extension of the line to Ashburton; however the town remained absent from the Company name.
Due to difficulty in raising money construction was exacerbatingly slowly . Some work had been done in 1867, but in 1868 work was at a standstill, and a Parliamentary authority of an extension of time was applied for. Being obtained in 1869 allowing some money to be raised by the issue of 5% preference shares, and certain debenture loans.
Opening—of the main line
At length the construction of the line was completed, and amid much rejoicing and festivity the line from Ashburton to Totnes SDR station opened for passenger and goods traffic Finally it was finished. And on 1 May 1872 it opened with much fanfair. it was worked from the outset by the South Devon Railway. The traditional industries of the district in general had further declined, but the woollen mills of Buckfastleigh had resisted the trend, and they provided much of the goods traffic on the line: manufactured articles outwards and coal for the plant inwards. Passenger traffic on the line was significant, but not dominant.
The first half year accounts (to 31 March 1873) showed gross receipts of £1893 10s 0d, and net profit of £1055 12s 7d after deduction of the SDR charges for working the line. 45,336 passenger journeys had been made, and over 12,000 tons of goods had been carried.
The Quay line
The construction of the tramway to the Quays had not been carried out with the main line, but by October 1873 it was reported that it was completed, but could not be opened because of required alterations to the signalling on the SDR at the junction with that company's main line at Totnes. However this was soon rectified and the Quay line opened 10 November 1873; it was for goods traffic only, and was horse-operated.[note 5]
An appeal against SDR charges
At the October 1873 Shareholders' Meeting the directors reported that the charges from the SDR for operating the line were higher than expected and were not in accordance with the agreement for working the line. £1,055 operating profit in a half year was small on capital of £130,000 when debenture interest was to be paid first, and it would "leave nothing for Dividend". At the May 1874 meeting, the directors congratulated the shareholders on a successful outcome of the dispute; however the full year (1873) accounts now showed £4147 12s 10d gross profit, £2127 4s 0d net. The first half year SDR charge before the dispute, and doubled to equate to a full year, were £1676 (44%), and the actual post-dispute charge was £2020 (49%).
It is difficult to follow how this was an improvement; however the Directors, on this and subsequent occasions, urged consignors to specify Totnes Quay as a destination in preference to Totnes SDR station, where terminal charges would be levied against the smaller Company.
The Great Western Railway
The South Devon Railway Company was working the Buckfastleigh line. On 1 February 1876 the SDR amalgamated with the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the Bristol and Exeter Railway (B&ER); the combined company was named the Great Western Railway. The GWR now assumed the role of working the Buckfastleigh line.
Change of gauge
The line was re-gauged over the weekend 20-23 May 1892, from which time the Buckfastleigh line was a standard gauge line in line with the GWR who had absorbed the SDR. By 1896 it was obvious that the Company was in financial trouble. The liquidator appointed sold to the only possible buyer, the GWR on 1 July 1897 the shareholders received £22,450 for their £130,000 investment.
Newton Abbot became increasingly the commercial centre in the locality, and Totnes lost importance. As road transport—for passengers as well as goods—became available the short road journey to Newton Abbot was decisive for most purposes and the line's traffic declined. The small-scale traditional industries of Buckfastleigh and Ashburton were now obsolescent and their potential railway traffic declined with them. Passenger tickets issued at Ashburton decliend from 24,688 in 1903 to 13,851 in 1923 and 4,843 in 1933.
The Transport Act 1947 brought most of the railways of Great Britain into national ownership under British Railways. This had little impact on the operational circumstances of the line, but the decline in usage became increasingly obvious. The decision was taken to close the line to passengers, and the last ordinary passenger train ran on 3 November 1958. Goods traffic on the line continued until Friday 7 September 1962. The following day the final revenue train ran, an enthusiasts' special passenger train. The main line was now closed.
However the Quay line served numerous industrial premises and remained in occasional use; it closed for general goods on 14 June 1965, and the service to the private sidings finished after 4 December 1967.
It was re-opened as the "Dart Valley Railway", a heritage railway, on 5 April 1969, the opening ceremony being performed by Dr Richard Beeching.[note 8] In 1971 the line beyond Buckfastleigh was again closed and the A38 road was built on the route of the railway. The South Devon Railway Trust took over the running of the line on 1 January 1991.
Ashburton; the terminus had an all-over train shed, covering the passenger platform and the run-round road, which in the twentieth century had a platform face for goods and cattle. Ashburton had an engine shed and a turntable until 1900.
Totnes; branch trains used the main line platforms, no bay platform ever having been constructed.
Since the line re-opened as a heritage railway, a new Totnes (Littlehempston) railway station has been opened to avoid the need for trains to run into the Network Rail station. A footbridge over the river links the two stations. Staverton station was named Staverton Bridge when it reopened in April 1969, but the suffix "fell into disuse" in the 1980s.
Passenger trains arriving from Ashburton used the down platform at Totnes, and departing passenger trains to Ashburton used the up platform. In post-war operation, the first auto-train from Totnes to Ashburton started from the Down platform at Totnes, but could not convey passengers as there was no locking on the crossover from that platform.
The 1954 Service Timetable shows eight daily return passenger trips, and a goods train each way.
Buckfastleigh had a crossing loop, but the loop line was for goods trains only and was not a running line. Staverton was an intermediate block post but not a staff station.