The London & South Western Railway (LSWR)


Starting life as the London and Southampton Railway which opened in May 1840 connecting the port of Southampton with London. The original London terminus was Nine Elms, on the south bank of the river Thames, and the route took it through Wimbledon, Surbiton, Woking, Basingstoke and Winchester, using what became standard track gauge of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm).


The London and South Western Railway's network extended from London to Plymouth via Salisbury and Exeter, with branches to Ilfracombe and Padstow and via Southampton to Bournemouth and Weymouth. It also had many routes connecting towns in Hampshire and Berkshire, including Portsmouth and Reading. In the grouping of railways in 1923 the LSWR became part of the Southern Railway.


Among significant achievements of the LSWR were the electrification of suburban lines, the introduction of power signalling, the development of Southampton Docks, the rebuilding of Waterloo Station into, arguably, one of the great stations of the world


Widespread car ownership led to a rapid decline of passenger traffic in Devon and Cornwall from about 1960, and many sections of route closed, but the majority of the network nearer London continues in use.


The Great Western Railway secured access early on to Exeter and Plymouth through its allied companies, and the LSWR aspired to build its own route to reach Devon and Cornwall, which offered considerable traffic potential. It made a slow start but eventually had its own line from Basingstoke to Salisbury and Exeter, continuing by a northerly arc to Plymouth, and to North Devon and North Cornwall. Coming later to the area, it never achieved the solid prosperity there of its broad gauge neighbour.


The Southampton line had been extended to Weymouth via Ringwood, and the LSWR consolidated its home area building branches closer to London, and a direct line to Portsmouth, and to Reading. It also became joint owner, with the Midland Railway, of the Somerset and Dorset Railway, responsible for infrastructure and coaching stock on the latterly famous route. Shipping became significant also, with passenger and freight services to the Channel Islands, to St Malo in France, and to the Isle of Wight.


In the twentieth century it embarked on a programme of electrifying the suburban routes, at 600 v d.c. using a third rail. Eventually this covered the entire suburban area. Freight traffic, especially from the West Country was important, but the emphasis on suburban electrification led to weaker development of steam traction for fast passenger and goods services to Devon and Cornwall, and to Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Weymouth.


At the grouping of the railways, the LSWR was absorbed into the Southern group, which became the Southern Railway, and the independent Isle of Wight railways became regarded as part of the former LSWR group within the Southern Railway. Its enlightened and unorthodox Chief Mechanical Engineer, Oliver Bulleid, put in hand the construction of a fleet of powerful express steam locomotives, the Merchant Navy class, followed by a larger fleet of so-called light pacifics, built with lighter axle loading to give access to branch lines with weaker track and bridge strengths; this enabled radical improvements to main line passenger services, and the streamlined profile of the new fleet made an impact as a modern design, and it remained an iconic image. At the same time they revolutionised express passenger train speeds to Weymouth and the West Country, although their technical innovation incorporated a number of difficulties. Electrification of the Portsmouth line was now carried out.


Capital infrastructure works were also undertaken, including a concrete manufacturing works was established at Exmouth Junction (Exeter) producing standardised pre-cast components such as platform units, lamp posts and platelayers' huts; the designs became familiar throughout Southern Railway territory.


Nationalisation of the railways in 1948 brought relatively little immediate change to the former LSWR system, now part of the Southern Operating Area of British Railways, later the Southern Region, although national centralisation of locomotive design made Bulleid's position untenable and he retired. However in 1966 the geographical limits of the British Railways regions was rationalised, and the Devon and Cornwall lines were transferred to the Western Region. Many of the branch lines had declined in traffic in the 1950s and were considered uneconomic, and following the Beeching Report, the Reshaping of British Railways,[4] many of the branches were closed, as was the Plymouth main line.


The Bournemouth line was electrified in 1967, at first with converted steam coaching stock, later replaced by purpose built stock; the electrification was extended to Weymouth. In recent years the system has remained constant, with gradually increasing train frequency from about 1990 now forming a limitation.


When international train services from London to Paris and Brussels were initiated in 1994, they required space for very long trains, and this was provided at Waterloo: the Eurostar terminal was built on the north side of the station with the international trains using the first three miles (5 km)of the LSWR main line before diverging. The services were transferred to St Pancras International in 2007 and at (2013) the Eurostar terminal is dormant.


The railway was immediately successful, and road coaches from points further west altered their routes so as to connect with the new railway at convenient interchange points, although goods traffic was slower to develop.


Between the first proposal for a railway from London to Southampton and the construction, interested parties were considering rail connections to other, more distant, towns that might be served by extensions of the railway. Reaching Bath and Bristol via Newbury was an early objective. The Great Western Railway (GWR) also planned to reach Bath and Bristol, and it obtained its Act of Parliament on 31 August 1835, which for the time being removed those cities from the LSWR's immediate plans. There remained much attractive territory in the South West, the West of England, and even the West Midlands, and the LSWR and its allies continually fought the GWR and its allies to be the first to build a line in a new area.


The GWR was built on the broad gauge of 7 ft or 2,134 mm while the LSWR gauge was standard gauge (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in or 1,435 mm), and the allegiance of any proposed independent railway was made clear by its intended gauge. The gauge was generally specified in the authorising Act of Parliament, and bitter and protracted competition took place to secure authorisation for new lines of the preferred gauge, and to bring about parliamentary rejection of proposals from the rival faction. This rivalry between the GWR and the standard gauge companies became called the gauge wars.


After a long period of conflict, the LSWR's route to the West of England was clear; the earlier connection to Milford station at Salisbury from Bishopstoke had been opened on 17 January 1847. The route from London was shortened by the route from Basingstoke via Andover on 2 May 1859, with a more convenient station at Salisbury Fisherton Street. The conflict had centred around the best route to reach Exeter, and Devon and Cornwall, and this had finally been agreed to be the so-called "central route" via Yeovil. The Salisbury and Yeovil Railway opened its line, from Salisbury to Gillingham on 1 May 1859; from there to Sherborne on 7 May 1860, and finally to Yeovil on 1 June 1860.


The controversy over the route to Exeter having been resolved, the LSWR itself had obtained authority to extend from Yeovil to Exeter, and constructing it swiftly, it opened on 19 July 1860 to its Queen Street station there.


Exeter to Barnstaple

Local railways towards North Devon had already opened: the Exeter and Crediton Railway opened on 12 May 1851, and the North Devon Railway from Crediton to Bideford opened on 1 August 1854. Both lines were constructed on the broad gauge. The LSWR acquired an interest in these lines in the years in 1862-1863 and then bought them in 1865. The Bristol and Exeter railway had reached Exeter at St Davids station on 1 May 1844[18] and the South Devon Railway had extended southwards in 1846. The LSWR Queen Street station was high above St Davids station, and a westward extension required the line to descend and cross the other lines.


The LSWR built a connecting line that descended to St Davids station by a steep falling gradient at 1 in 37 (2.7%). The authorising Act required the Bristol and Exeter Railway to lay narrow gauge rails as far as Cowley Bridge Junction, a short distance north of St Davids where the North Devon line diverged. Under the terms of this concession, all LSWR passenger trains were required to make calls at St Davids station. LSWR trains to London ran south through St Davids station, while broad gauge trains to London ran northwards.


The North Devon line formed a convenient launching point for an independent LSWR line to Plymouth. The LSWR encouraged local interests, and the Devon and Cornwall Railway opened from Coleford Junction to North Tawton on 1 November 1865, and in stages from there to Lidford (later Lydford) on 12 October 1874. The LSWR obtained running powers over the South Devon and Launceston Railway, giving it access to Plymouth over that line.


Another nominally independent company, the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway built a line from Lidford to Devonport, and the LSWR leased and operated the line, gaining independent access to Devonport, and its own passenger terminal at Plymouth Friary.


The line from Okehampton to Lidford itself provided a good starting point for a branch to Holsworthy, in north-west Devon, and this opened on 20 January 1879, and was extended to Bude in Cornwall on 10 August 1898.


The line to Holsworthy itself provided a further starting point for a branch to what became the LSWR's most westerly point at Padstow, 260 miles (418 km) from Waterloo). The line was promoted by the North Cornwall Railway, and opened in stages, finally being completed on 27 March 1899.


North Cornwall Railway

The topography of the line from Salisbury to Exeter is such that the main line passed by many significant communities. Local communities were disappointed by the omission of their town from railway connection, and, in many cases encouraged by the LSWR, they promoted independent branch lines. These lines were worked, and sooner or later absorbed, by the LSWR, so that in time the main line had a series of connecting branches.


West of Salisbury there were branch lines to:

Lyme Regis; the branch line from Axminster opened on 24 August 1903;

Seaton; a branch line from Seaton Junction to Seaton opened on 16 March 1868;

Sidmouth and Exmouth; a line opened from Feniton, later Sidmouth Junction, to Sidmouth on 6 July 1874; a branch was constructed from Tipton St Johns to Budleigh Salterton, opening on 15 May 1897, and extended from there to Exmouth, opening on 1 June 1903;

Exmouth; this branch opened from Exmouth Junction on 1 May 1861.


In the early years of the twentieth century electric traction was adopted by a number of urban railways in the United States of America. The London and North Western Railway adopted a four-rail system and started operating electric trains to Richmond over the LSWR from Gunnersbury, and soon the Metropolitan District was doing so as well. In the face of declining suburban passenger income, for some time the LSWR failed to respond, but in 1913 Herbert Walker was appointed Chairman, and he soon implemented an electrification scheme in the LSWR suburban area.


A third rail system was used, with a line voltage of 600 v d.c. The rolling stock consisted of 84 three-car units, all formed from converted steam stock, and the system was an immediate success when it opened in 1915 - 1916. In fact overcrowding was experienced in busy periods and trains were augmented by a number of two-car non driving trailer units from 1919, also converted from steam stock, which were formed between two of the three-car units, forming an eight-car train. All the electric trains provided first and third class accommodation only.


The routes electrified were in the inner suburban area — a second stage scheme had been prepared but was frustrated by the First World War — but extended as far as Claygate on the Guildford New Line; this was operated at first as an interchange point, but the section was discontinued as an electrified route when overcrowding nearer London occurred, the electric stock being used there and the Claygate line reverting to steam operation.


Concomitant with the electrification, the route between Vauxhall and Nine Elms was widened to eight tracks, and a flyover for the Hampton Court line was constructed, opening for traffic on 4 July 1915.[25]


LSWR infrastructure


South Western Main Line

West of England Main Line

Exeter to Plymouth railway of the LSWR

Tarka Line



Accidents and incidents[edit]

On 11 September 1880, a passenger train collided with a light engine at Nine Elms Locomotive Junction, London due to errors by signalmen and the fireman of the light engine. Seven people were killed.[29]

On 6 August 1888, a light engine and a passenger train were in a head-on collision at Hampton Wick station, Middlesex due to a signalman's error. Four people were killed and fifteen were injured.[30]


Salisbury rail crash

On 1 July 1906, an express passenger train was derailed at Salisbury, Wiltshire due to excessive speed on a curve. Twenty-eight people were killed and eleven were injured.

Shipping services


As the London and South Western Railway served Portsmouth, Southampton and Weymouth, it developed a number of shipping routes, operating them with its own vessels.