The line which Beeching opened
By Laura Joint
A picturesque railway line in Devon celebrates the 40th anniversary of its re-opening.
When the Ashburton to Totnes passenger train pulled into the station for the last time in November 1958, it seemed this beautiful stretch of line alongside the River Dart was about to be lost forever.
Four years later, in 1962, freight services were also withdrawn - surely this would be the final nail in the coffin?
However, in the same year, the Dart Valley Railway moved into Buckfastleigh Station, two miles down the line from Ashburton and seven miles from Totnes.
Although the line was still owned by British Railways western region, the Dart Valley Railway was paving the way to buy the Buckfastleigh to Totnes stretch (the Ashburton section was lost for good) it and keep the track going.
Volunteers helped keep the track in good condition
In the meantime, a team of volunteers kept the line, buildings and stock in good working order until, in 1969, the Dart Valley Railway went ahead and bought it.
It was re-opened by, of all people, Dr Richard Beeching - who as head of British Rail in the early 1960s had been responsible for the closure of many tracks and stations up and down the country.
One of the volunteers in the 1960s was Richard Elliott. Richard is now the general manager of the line, renamed the South Devon Railway.
He remembers the re-opening day well: "Beeching had been so busy closing down stations that the Dart Valley Railway thought it would be fun to get him here and open one.
"It was a Wednesday and I took the day off work - because although I started as a volunteer at the station in 1965, I was actually working in a bank at the time. I saw Beeching, but I didn't get to speak to him."
The heritage line struggled, however, and in 1991 the Dart Valley Railway pulled out to concentrate on its Paignton to Kingswear operation.
Since 1991, the South Devon Railway line has been run as a charitable trust.
The lovely station office at Buckfastleigh
Richard has opted not to mark the 50th anniversary of the line's closure in November 2008, and will instead celebrate the 40th anniversary of its re-opening in 2009.
And South Devon Railway has a lot to celebrate at present, with business booming.
Steam train enthusiasts and day trippers keep staff busy during the summer season (the line operates from Easter to the end of October, usually with four return trips a day), and the workshop maintains not only the line's stock, but has maintenance contracts from other operators.
"Turnover has gone up from £235,000 in 1991 to £1.75 million this year," said Richard.
But he admits the line would have struggled to survive as a passenger service: "If you tried to convert this line into a commuter line, it would be totally uneconomic.
"There just aren't the number of people to use it for commuting between Buckfastleigh, Staverton and Totnes.
"The line from Ashburton to Totnes never carried many passengers, it was more of a freight line really. There were huge cattle trains, for the cattle market at Ashburton, and the trains also served the mill at Buckfastleigh.
"Those were the king pins which kept the line going."
Richard says that although Beeching's cuts were "Draconian," he got a lot of things right: "He has always been seen as the butcher of the railways, but there's no doubt the country was changing and the railways we had in the early 1960s weren't all needed.
Richard Elliott and Dumbleton Hall steam engine
"What is a pity is that the sites were sold and the track beds were ripped up so there was never any chance of re-opening them.
"And if it hadn't been for the cuts, we wouldn't have some of the steam engines we have here today. It was one of those little twists of fate that one of the major contractors which took the scrapped freight stock was Woodhams Yard in South Wales.
"They had 212 steam engines in the scrapyard in 1968-9 and people like me went up and said 'oh, we'll have that'. The yard only scrapped three between 1969 and 1990, when the last one was sold.
"In fact one of my favourite engines is Dumbleton Hall. I used to clean it at Laira depot in Plymouth when I was a lad, and it ended up at Woodham's Scrapyard.
"I went up there and bought it in 1973, and it cost £4,000.
"Lots of these lovely engines were rescued and preserved, so that's one good thing which happened."
The 40th year of the re-opening of the Buckfastleigh to Totnes track marks the end of the line for Richard. After 44 years working for the line - firstly as a volunteer and finally as its general manager - Richard has decided to call it a day in 2009.
"I think it's about time," he said. "But no doubt you'll still see me popping in here on the odd occasion!"
last updated: 08/04/2009 at 09:51