A lot has been written over the years about the ex-LSWR lines in Devon and Cornwall and the “Atlantic Coast Express” that once used them. This is my own modest account.
The story of how the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) came to operate a network of lines west of Exeter deep in what might be regarded as Great Western Railway (GWR) territory is a fascinating one. It goes to the heart of the issue of whether Britain would have been better served by a more planned railway network rather than one constructed by bitter rivals who often built lines just for the sake of competition.
The subject was perhaps best covered back in 1959 by pre-eminent railway historian, Jack Simmons in an excellent article for the Journal of Transport History entitled “South Western vs Great Western: Railway Competition in Devon and Cornwall.” I have drawn on some of what Simmons wrote in my account below.
1838 – The Great Western strikes out
The Great Western Railway (GWR) is probably the company that most people associate with Devon and Cornwall. Whether it is an image of the “Cornish Riviera Express” crossing the Royal Albert Bridge at Plymouth, “chocolate and cream” coloured trains skirting the sea wall at Dawlish or little tank engines pulling a few coaches along the branch line to St Ives, to many people the Great Western is Devon and Cornwall. To be fair, the company certainly arrived there first, and it had things to itself for quite a while.
The GWR opened its main line from London Paddington to Bristol in 1841. In contrast to most other lines at the time which were built to a gauge of (what became the standard) 4 feet 8.5 inches (1,435mm), the line was famously engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel using a broad gauge of 7 ft (2,134mm). The GWR then spread its influence westwards using alliances with other companies also using the broad gauge. These local alliance companies often built the line, whilst the GWR operated the trains; they were all eventually acquired by the GWR.
The broad-gauge empire reached Exeter St Davids in Devon in 1844 when a line built by the Bristol & Exeter Railway (acquired by the GWR in 1876) opened. In 1846 the line was extended via Dawlish to Plymouth by the South Devon Railway (also acquired in 1876). The West Cornwall Railway (acquired in 1866) had already started operating between Penzance and Truro in 1852, and a final link including Brunel’s famous Royal Albert Bridge was provided between Plymouth and Truro in 1859 by the Cornwall Railway (acquired 1888). By the mid-1860s the broad gauge stretched all the way from Paddington to Penzance with branches along the way serving places like Kingswear, Looe, Falmouth and St Ives.
1860 – The London & South Western reaches Exeter
The London and South Western Railway (LSWR) started out as the London & Southampton Railway and opened its main line between those two places via Basingstoke in 1838. It extended it to Dorchester in 1847 and moved its London terminus to Waterloo in 1848. From the start, the company had its own ambitions to serve the West Country and it soon changed its name to suit them.
In 1857 it opened a line from Basingstoke to Salisbury and after much debate over whether to head west from Dorchester or Salisbury it opted for the latter. It used its own alliance partner, the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway (acquired in 1878), to reach Exeter via Yeovil. The line included several steep gradients including the notorious Honiton Bank but avoided major areas of settlement; eventually the LSWR opened branch lines to towns on the coast at Lyme Regis (1908), Seaton (1868), Sidmouth (1871) and Exmouth (1861).
The LSWR’s trains from Waterloo began running to Exeter in 1860, finally breaking the Great Western’s 16-year monopoly. Yet, despite a shorter route, the first services along the newly opened line took more than 5 hours; the GWR responded quickly by reducing its own fastest time to 4.5 hours.
The LSWR soon fought back and over the next 40 years the two companies competed fiercely for Exeter. The need for the GWR to go via Bristol meant that the LSWR eventually won out; by 1893 its fastest trains were taking 3 hours 46 minutes, a good 20 minutes faster than its rival. It also had the advantage that its Exeter terminus, Queen Street (later Central), was much closer to the city centre than the GWR’s at St Davids.
1862 – West from Exeter
The LSWR’s arrival at Exeter coincided with the second great “railway mania”. With the basic trunk network serving the cities and large towns already in place, the big companies now began to build railways to link smaller towns. In doing so they aimed to secure their territories by constructing lines not only to increase traffic, but also to prevent rivals expanding into the same areas.
With the GWR broad gauge group already dominating much of Southern Devon and Southern Cornwall, the LSWR now looked to the north of both counties to try to expand. It had already started in Devon by purchasing shares in two independent broad-gauge lines, the Exeter and Crediton Railway (opened in 1851), and the North Devon Railway which had built a line on from Crediton via Barnstaple to Bideford (opened in 1854).
The LSWR eventually had a controlling interest in both (it purchased them outright in 1865) and planned to convert them to dual gauge and link them to its new line at Exeter Queen St / Central. This was easier said than done. Not only did the high elevation of the LSWR station make further extension west difficult, but the broad-gauge line terminated at St Davids, a station controlled by the Bristol & Exeter Railway, a key partner of the GWR.
Eventually a solution was reached: in 1862 the LSWR line was extended via a very steep curve down into St Davids station. An arrangement was then made with the Bristol and Exeter Railway whereby a third rail was laid between the broad-gauge ones to enable standard gauge trains to operate through the station and then for about a mile north to Cowley Bridge Junction where the line to Crediton and Barnstaple branched off.
The agreement with the Bristol and Exeter called for all the LSWR trains to stop at St Davids. It also meant that for the next 100 years express trains from Waterloo would often meet their rivals from Paddington whilst travelling in opposite directions through the station.
It is not exactly clear why the Bristol and Exeter railway, under the influence of the GWR, ever allowed its biggest rival such easy access. Simmons suggests that it probably thought that Barnstaple and Bideford would be the extent of the LSWR’s expansion, never imagining that the junction at Cowley Bridge would soon become a gateway to five different termini across Devon and Cornwall and threaten its own dominance of the west.
1870s – Expanding in Devon in stages
Having secured the line from Exeter to Bideford and linked it to Waterloo, the LSWR began to expand. The line from Bideford was extended to Great Torrington in 1872 and a branch from Barnstaple to the coastal town of Ilfracombe was opened in 1874. As a kind of revenge, the GWR group built its own broad-gauge line from Taunton to Barnstaple in 1873.
The bigger priority for the LSWR, however, was to reach Plymouth to compete with the GWR for the lucrative traffic there. It opened its new line from Crediton via Okehampton in stages and it finally reached Lydford in 1874. From there, in 1876, its trains travelled along the Launceston and South Devon Railway, another broad-gauge line with a third rail added. The LSWR trains entered Plymouth from the east, passed west through a new joint station at North Road (opened in 1878 and now Plymouth’s main station), ignored the GWR’s Millbay, and finished their journeys at a new Devonport terminus.
Whilst this arrangement finally broke the GWR monopoly in Plymouth, it was far from satisfactory for the LSWR. The GWR was already reaching Plymouth in 6 hours and 15 minutes from Paddington, the LSWR, having to use the slow connection from Lydford, could only manage 6 hours 55 minutes from Waterloo. The LSWR line as far as Lydford was doubled in 1879, but a better solution to reach Plymouth was still needed.
In 1890 a new more direct route was opened by the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway (finally part of the LSWR in 1922) between Lydford and Plymouth via Bere Alston. This new line entered Plymouth from the west and tunnelled under Devonport Park to reach the original Devonport terminus from the opposite direction. Trains from Waterloo now called first at Devonport, went east through North Road and (from 1891 onwards) curved south into a new terminus at Friary. The new route, together with enhancements east of Exeter, finally tipped the balance; by 1893 the LSWR’s express trains were reaching Plymouth in 5 hours and 23 minutes, a full 15 minutes quicker than the GWR.
1879-1899 – Heading into North Cornwall
As in Devon, the LSWR had already prepared for its eventual arrival in Cornwall. As far back as 1847 it had purchased a line between Bodmin (later Bodmin North) and Wadebridge, with a freight only branch to Wenfordbridge. This mini network, used mainly for the transport of China clay, stood isolated from the rest of the system for more than 40 years.
In 1879 the first steps to reach its Cornish outpost were taken when the LSWR opened a branch from Okehampton to Holsworthy via Halwill. The line was extended to the Cornish coastal town of Bude in 1898.
From Halwill, another branch was constructed by the North Cornwall Railway (an LSWR partner) to Launceston in 1886, where it met the old broad-gauge line from Lydford. The line was then extended on to Wadebridge in 1895 where it finally linked up with the line from Bodmin. By then the GWR had already arrived in the area itself; having built a short line to a separate Bodmin (General) station in 1888 and then linked it to the LSWR system at Boscarne Junction the following year.
In 1899 the North Cornwall line finally reached the fishing port of Padstow, 6 miles further along the estuary of the River Camel from Wadebridge. There were plans for another extension from Padstow towards Newquay and from there on towards Truro, but they came to nothing. Nevertheless, the plans were probably responsible for the GWR building its own line to Newquay from Par, effectively blocking the LSWR from benefiting from extending to that town. Padstow, 260 miles from Waterloo, was the furthest west the LSWR ever got.
1900s – “Races to the West”
By 1899 the Devon and Cornish rail network was all but complete. The LSWR and the GWR, which had finally converted its broad-gauge track to standard in 1892, were now engaged in ever fiercer competition that probably reached its climax in the early years of the new century.
They competed not just on the fastest timings between London, Exeter and Plymouth, but also on fares and comfort. From 1872 the LSWR had admitted 3rd class passengers to its express trains for the first time. 5 years later it abolished supplementary fares. The GWR had eventually been forced to do the same. The rivals then continued to try to outdo each other by offering trains with corridors, trains with electric lighting and trains with dining cars.
The race from Plymouth was intensified by the desire to capture the prestige traffic created by liners that called at the port on their return journey from North America. The need to provide a fast transit to London for the first-class passengers and mails from these ships to London led both railways to increase speeds and take risks.
Such risk taking was probably responsible for the GWR’s “City of Truro” locomotive becoming the world’s first to reach (unofficially) 100mph in 1904 whilst hauling the “Ocean Mail” from Plymouth. Sadly, risk taking was also cited as a possible cause of the LSWR’s fatal crash at Salisbury in 1906, also involving a boat train from Plymouth.
In 1907, the GWR opened its shorter route from Reading to Taunton via Westbury. The new route, avoiding Bristol, and other improvements had a dramatic effect on the timings. Trains from Paddington could now reach Exeter in 3 hours; that was a full 15 minutes faster than those from Waterloo. The time to Plymouth, 4 hours and 7 minutes, was an even more dramatic reduction and 40 minutes faster than the LSWR. The GWR had finally won the race.
1900s – “Bucket and Spade Traffic”
The late 19th and early 20th century also saw the growth of the seaside holiday. Devon and Cornwall were two of the counties that saw big increases in visitors to the coast. The competition between the two railways for this lucrative traffic was not head on like that for the cities, rather each railway promoted the resorts they served. Thus, the GWR encouraged travel to Torquay, St Ives and Falmouth; whilst the LSWR tried to nurture visits to Ilfracombe, Bideford, Bude and Padstow.
Both railways laid on direct “named” trains from London and promoted the resorts themselves with advertising. The GWR marketed itself as “the holiday line” and named its crack Penzance train “Cornish Riviera Express”; the LSWR claimed to be “the pleasant route” and introduced the “North Cornwall Express” in 1900. It later became the “North Cornwall & Bude Express” and by the start of the First World War it was serving Plymouth and Ilfracombe as well.
1910 – Regulating the competition
There was no doubt that there had been benefits to the passenger from the competition that had started with the arrival of the LSWR in Exeter back in 1860. Journey times to the largest centres served by both companies had been cut and the comfort of the trains improved dramatically.
Yet there was a down side too; the competitive line building had seen the rivals build railways that often duplicated each other and were not economic to run. The lack of planning meant the result was often clumsy and inefficient. Small towns like Tavistock, Bodmin and Barnstaple had ended up with two different railway stations on two different systems. Connections between the two companies at junctions were often poor and kept poor on purpose.
For many years shareholders of both companies had been pushing for more regulation of the competition between them. The rivalry was costly to maintain and it sapped profits. In 1910 an agreement was finally reached; the deal meant receipts from competitive routes would be pooled and shared, meanwhile both companies undertook not to operate new services (including bus routes) in each other’s territory.
The deal signed between the two companies was supposed to last for 90 years. Yet, it was not to be and within 5 years the First World War had broken out, the Government had taken both companies under its own control, and all the signs were that things would never quite be the same again.
1923 – “The Withered Arm”
In 1923 the railways of Britain, weakened by war and increasingly threatened by road competition, were grouped into 4 large companies. The GWR, alone, survived to become one of the “big 4” whilst the LSWR was merged with other companies into the Southern Railway (SR). The SR thus inherited the Devon and Cornwall lines of its predecessor, whilst ownership of the GWR lines didn’t change.
There had been three small additions to the LSWR network in the previous 25 years; a small branch from Plymouth Friary to Turnchapel (1897) the narrow-gauge line between Lynton and Barnstaple (1898), and a link to Callington (1908) from Bere Alston on the Okehampton to Plymouth Line. In 1925 the “North Devon and Cornwall Junction Light Railway” completed a line from Torrington to Halwill, which whilst remaining independent until 1947, was considered part of the Southern system.
The new Southern Railway prospered under the leadership of its General Manager, Herbert Walker. It continued a programme of 3rd rail electrification that the LSWR had begun, and it transformed its business in and around London. By 1939 electric trains had also reached Brighton, Eastbourne and Portsmouth.
Yet, whilst the main line to Exeter remained competitive, the network beyond Cowley Bridge Junction became something of a backwater. Trains were generally slow and infrequent; the line to Padstow, for example, only saw 4 or 5 trains a day. Even the line to Plymouth was neglected with no real improvement in timings, nor any serious attempt to compete with the GWR. The contrast between the developments close to London was remarkable and the system west of Exeter became known as the “Withered Arm”.
1927 – The A.C.E.
However, in contrast to its general neglect, the Southern Railway did begin to push the daily express service to North Devon and North Cornwall even harder than its predecessor. Acting on a staff suggestion, in 1927 it named the 11am service from Waterloo the “Atlantic Coast Express”. The train, which ran all year round, had five destinations: Plymouth, Ilfracombe, Torrington, Bude and Padstow. At various times it even included coaches for Lyme Regis, Seaton, Sidmouth and Exmouth too. It was Britain’s, some claimed the World’s, most portioned train.
Things changed over the years, but on weekdays the train left Waterloo at 11am and made its first stop at Salisbury. A portion for intermediate stations west of Salisbury was often detached during the stop. The train often slipped coaches (detaching them from the rear of the formation whilst still on the move) for Lyme Regis and Seaton before making another stop at Sidmouth Junction to dispense with portions for Sidmouth and Exmouth.
At Exeter Central the train was divided into two separate sections. The first section from Exeter headed up the Barnstaple line. It divided again at Barnstaple into a portion for Torrington and another one for Ilfracombe. The second section followed the first and then branched off to Okehampton. A portion to Plymouth was detached there. The remainder of the train headed to Halwill where it was split once again with one portion heading to Bude and the other to Padstow. The whole process was almost the same in reverse, with the first portion leaving Padstow after breakfast and the complete train being back in Waterloo by around 3.30pm.
On Summer Saturdays however, things were different, and the service could consist of up to five trains departing from Waterloo between 10:30 and 11:10. In 1939 there were separate trains all departing Waterloo mid-morning to Ilfracombe, Padstow, Bude and Plymouth.
By 1939 the train was reaching Exeter in just over 3 hours, still slower than the journey from Paddington but a record for the line. Nevertheless, all pretence at being “an express” was dropped after Exeter; progress was slow and timings uncompetitive. Ilfracombe, Torrington and Bude were all reached in around 5 hours, with Padstow taking 6.
1948-1962 – The Heyday
After World War Two, the SR re-introduced the A.C.E. and rostered new locomotives and rolling stock created by Chief Mechanical Engineer, Oliver Bulleid, to work it. The train was now formed of the latest Bulleid coaches and hauled from Waterloo to Exeter by powerful new air-smoothed “Merchant Navy” locomotives. West of Exeter the various portions were hauled by similar but lighter “West Country”/ “Battle of Britain” locomotives.
In 1948 the Southern Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways (BR). Yet, on the ground little changed: the Southern Region of BR inherited the territory of the old SR, including the lines west of Exeter, and kept things much as they had been before.
The 1950s, a time that saw the demand for holidays rising but mass car ownership still in its infancy, were something of a heyday for the A.C.E. The train was gradually accelerated throughout the decade and by 1961 the Waterloo to Exeter time was down below 3 hours.
1963 – Decline
By the early 1960s demand finally slowly started to decline as car ownership and foreign holidays increased. In 1963 the BR regions were reorganised along more geographical lines and the Western Region, effectively the successor of the old GWR, took over the route west of Salisbury. The arrangement was perhaps logical and it at last meant that all the lines (ex-GWR and ex-LSWR) in Devon and Cornwall were under one management system.
Yet almost at the same time as the reorganisation was being made, the infamous Beeching Report was published. The “reshaping” plan called for the closure of uneconomical lines and stations. It meant that most of the ex-LSWR lines in Devon and Cornwall would be closed. In Summer 1963 the Bude, Torrington and Plymouth portions of the A.C.E. were withdrawn on weekdays and then at the end of the summer season in 1964 the whole train itself was gone.
Devonport and the old LSWR lines in Plymouth closed in 1964, although Friary had already ceased to be a passenger terminal back in 1958. Torrington and Bideford both lost all their passenger services in 1965, Bude followed in 1966, and Padstow in 1967. Okehampton to Bere Alston on the Plymouth line closed in 1968, Barnstaple to Ilfracombe went in 1970 and finally Crediton to Okehampton was lost in 1972.
The Waterloo to Exeter line was reduced to secondary status beyond Salisbury and much of it was converted to single track. Except for Exmouth, all its old seaside branch lines were closed too. By the late 1970s trains from Paddington were reaching Exeter in just over two hours; those from Waterloo were taking much longer than three. By then all that was left of the old LSWR network was the service to Barnstaple and the line from Plymouth to Gunnislake on the old Callington branch, accessed via a reversal at Bere Alston.
2022+ – Reopening?
Over the years there have been numerous campaigns aimed at reopening some of what was lost. Recently some of them seem to be gaining traction. The route from Crediton to Okehampton was finally restored in 2021 and there are also ambitious plans to reopen other sections of the same Plymouth route. Bere Alston to Tavistock has been talked about and studied for many years as a way of serving new housing in the Tavistock area. A further link from Tavistock to Okehampton has also been muted as a way of relieving the ex-GWR Plymouth to Exeter line which is increasingly prone to weather-related closures at Dawlish.
There have also been campaigns to extend the line from Barnstaple back to Bideford and even to Ilfracombe. Parts of both these lines, as well as the old Torrington to Halwill section, are now cycle paths. The restoration of Okehampton to Bude also remains an outside possibility.
Whilst it is impossible that Halwill to Wadebridge will ever reopen, trains could eventually return to the latter town via an extension of the heritage Bodmin & Wenford Steam Railway. The line currently operates from Bodmin Parkway via Bodmin General to Boscarne Junction. The old line on from Boscarne Junction to Padstow is also now part of a cycle path; the preserved line has plans to extend alongside the path as far as Wadebridge, although reaching Padstow is probably unlikely.
Meanwhile, it is also still possible to catch some of the old magic of the A.C.E. at the various heritage railways around the country. Several of the “Merchant Navy”, “West Country and Battle of Britain” locomotives have been preserved along with some of the Bullied carriages they used to haul. There are also steam rail tours along the old Waterloo-Exeter line from time to time too.
Finally, the Atlantic Coast Express train name itself has been revived by the Great Western’s successor First Great Western (now GWR). Back in 2008 it started to use the old name for its summer service between Newquay and London Paddington.
Sources / Further Reading
- Simmons, Jack. 1959. “South Western V. Great Western: Railway Competition in Devon and Cornwall.” The Journal of Transport History 4 (1): 13–36.
All timings to Exeter and Plymouth quoted are from the table on page 34
- Allen, Cecil J (1946) Titled trains of Great Britain. Ian Allan
- Austin, Stephen (1989) Atlantic Coast Express from the footplate. Ian Allan
- Austin, Stephen (1997) Portrait of the Atlantic Coast Express. Ian Allan
- Winkworth, D.W (1988) Southern Titled Trains. David & Charles
- Wroe, D. J. (1988) The Bude Branch. Kingfisher
Other information on North Cornwall and Bude lines
- North Cornwall Railway.co.uk – A truly amazing source of information
- Cornwall Railway Society – Another really excellent source
- Launceston then / Withered Arm railway gallery – A wonderful site full of excellent photos
Other information on the “Atlantic Coast Express”
- Atlantic-Coast-Express.co.uk – Excellent site with lots of information
- Railway Wonders of the World – Detailed account of the pre-war A.C.E.
Other Website Links (Valid in 2022)
- Dartmoor Line Guide – Reopened line from Exeter to Okehampton
- Dartmoor Railway Association – Heritage railway at Okehampton
- Launceston Steam Railway – Narrow-gauge line at Launceston
- Bodmin and Wenford Railway – Heritage railway at Bodmin
YouTube Links (Valid in 2022)
- Launceston Station – Scenes between Halwill & Wadebridge – 1960s
- North Cornwall Railway – Scenes of the Padstow and Bude branches – 1960s
- Okehampton to Tavistock – Including scenes of the A.C.E. in the 1950s
- Atlantic Coast Express – Short film from the 1960s
- Okehampton to Meldon Viaduct cab ride
- “Clan Line” on Honiton Bank – Preserved “Merchant Navy” locomotive on the Salisbury to Exeter Line – 2017