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You are in: Devon > History > Local history > How Beeching's axe hit Devon

A train crosses the Taw on the Ilfracombe to Exeter line, 1961 (Robert Darlaston)

Ilfracombe-Exeter train on the Taw, 1961

How Beeching's axe hit Devon

Devon was left with a skeleton rail service following the Beeching Report in 1963. We look back at the impact of the Beeching axe, and ahead at the prospects for one of the lost lines being reopened.

Devon's railway lines are quick and easy to list.

There are two main lines to London: to Paddington via Plymouth, Totnes, Newton Abbot, Teignmouth, Dawlish, Starcross, Exeter and Tiverton Parkway; and from Exeter to London Waterloo via Honiton and Axminster.

Then there are three branch lines: Gunnislake and Bere Alston to Plymouth; Exeter to Exmouth; and Exeter to Barnstaple via 12 stations.

You can also catch a train to Torquay and Paignton on the English Riviera.

And that's about your lot.

It's a far cry from the days when a map of Devon would feature an artery of railway tracks criss-crossing the county.

Many of those arteries were cut as a result of the Beeching Report into the railways in 1963.

The Beeching map

Beeching's map: he proposed keeping the red lines

And it could have been worse, but some lines survived his report - most notably, the hugely successful Exeter to Exmouth line, which he advocated closing.

So 45 years on, what has been the impact of Beeching in Devon? And what are the chances for some of the closed lines ever re-opening?

The Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership is funded by local councils and the rail industry in the two counties, and Plymouth University. Its aim is to promote railway use - particularly the branch lines - and push for improvements to services.

Richard Burningham, manager of the partnership, believes the biggest damage was caused to the seaside resorts of North Devon.

"Ilfracombe has stuggled ever since the town lost its railway," said Richard. "The Beeching Report proposed that the line from Exeter should stop at Barnstaple and that's what happened. The service eventually came to an end in 1970.

"And the Barnstaple to Torrington line - which is now the Tarka Trail - was closed to passengers in 1965, so the North Devon coast effectively lost its railways."

A similar fate befell towns across Devon. Tiverton and Sidmouth were among those in the east whose town stations were closed.

Exmouth would have gone too, had it not been been for a successful campaign to save it. The branch line to Exeter was popular even then, and currently carries a million passengers a year.

Kingsbridge Station in 1956 (Peter Gray)

Kingsbridge Station was closed (Peter Gray)

In the south of the county, trains no longer came to several towns, including Kingsbridge and Brixham.

Tavistock was one of the losers in the west, but Bere Alston - another earmarked for closure by Beeching - was saved, enabling the service to Plymouth to continue to this day.

There are even hopes it might again become part of a Plymouth to Tavistock line. Tavistock would need a new station, but there are plans currently on the table as part of a new housing development.

Richard said: "I can't see any potential for any of the lines which were closed under Beeching ever reopening again - apart from the Tavistock line. This is the big one as far as we are concerned.

"It would offer a choice to people who commute from Tavistock to Plymouth, and I don't think it would be under-used."

In his report, entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, Beeching - as head of British Railways - envisaged people using buses instead of trains. But this didn't happen.

"This was one of the big mistakes," said Richard. "And it cost places like Ilfracombe and other seaside towns dear because people simply stopped coming.

"About a quarter of holidaymakers to Ilfracombe got there by train before 1962, so this was a large number of people."

Ilfracombe didn't just lose its train station (which is now a factory), it also lost the iron bridge which carried its branch line across the River Taw in Barnstaple. It was demolished in 1977 despite a bid by preservationists to save it - see the lovely photo at the top of the page, taken by Robert Darlaston.

Bere Alston to Gunnislake train, 1961 (Peter Gray)

The Bere Alston line in 1961 (Peter Gray)

But is there a happy ending to this story?

The immediate future for Devon's three branch lines is looking rosy, with passenger numbers rising and service improvements scheduled for December 2008.

"The railways are booming," said Richard. "They are carrying more people nationally than at any time since the war.

"Beeching didn't get it all wrong," added Richard. "And not all the closures were his doing - some were closed long before he had his say.

"Other lines weren't proposed for closure but closed anyway, like the Exeter to Okehampton line which went in 1972 - although that's re-opened, with Devon County Council chartering a service on Sundays in the summer season.

"But Beeching cut too much. I could see a network about 20% bigger today which would have been really useful.

"We'd have kept Okehampton, Tavistock and Ilfracombe - they could all be providing a good service now.

"Of course, there's nothing we can do where the lines have gone and where developments have taken place - those lines have gone forever now."

*Top photo, courtesy Robert Darlaston; bottom two photos and images on the linked gallery courtesy Peter Gray.

last updated: 16/10/2008 at 16:27
created: 09/10/2008

You are in: Devon > History > Local history > How Beeching's axe hit Devon



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