Friday, 30 January 2015

Ilfracombe - I'll be back!

(Ilfracombe 1975 copyright Peter Brabham)

During the insane rail closures of the sixties culling a few uneconomic branch lines wasn't enough for the people in London and their intentions soon switched to destroying main lines. Devon suffered a great deal from this madness, losing the main Bere Alston to Okehampton line, the branch to Bude (the last couple of miles were of course in Cornwall), the Kingsbridge branch, the Taunton to Barnstaple cross-country route, and, from Barnstaple Junction south and north to Torrington and Ilfracombe.

By the time the Ilfracombe line was closed in 1970 the heart had been ripped out of Devon's railways, particularly the ex-Southern routes. The Ilfracombe line was a sad shadow of itself; once the busy terminus of two routes from London in its last years it was a long single-track siding with a DMU shuttling between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, its previous passengers forced off onto far less glamorous and efficient transport - cars, buses or, increasingly, aeroplanes taking holidaymakers off to the sun.

Even in 1970 it was clear the closure was madness and that the line needed reopening quickly. The track stayed in place for 5 more years and a preservation group was soon set up, a group that pretty much everyone assumed would easily succeed, but it wasn't to be. Financial shenanigans and outright fraud destroyed the new baby, and the line was lifted, leaving Ilfracombe stranded from modern transport. 

And that remains the situation to this day. Except of course things are stirring everywhere, people are shouting for their railways back. A Facebook group has grown enormously in recent weeks and the members are about to set up a real functioning restoration group. Forty years on from the collapse of scheme I scheme II is about to launch into a very different world, where trains have never been as busy, roads are failing and people want their communities back.

Ilfracombe is part of a much bigger thing, it can be both part of that and a leader in rail restoration. I recommend everybody join as soon as the group is launched (which will of course be announced on here!)


(Barnstaple Junction 30.8.1972 copyright Steve Sainsbury/Rail Thing)

(Barnstaple Town copyright Rail Thing)

The Ilfracombe Branch of the London & South Western Railway (LSWR), ran between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe in North Devon. The branch opened as a single-track line in 1874, but was sufficiently popular that it needed to be upgraded to double-track in 1889.

The 1-in-36 gradient between Ilfracombe and Mortehoe stations was one of the steepest sections of double track railway line in the country, and was most certainly the fiercest climb from any terminus station in the UK. In the days of steam traction, it was often necessary to double-head departing passenger trains.

'Named' trains like the Atlantic Coast Express and the Devon Belle both started and terminated at Ilfracombe.

Despite nearly a century of bringing much-needed revenue into this remote corner of the county, passenger numbers dropped dramatically in the years following the Second World War due to a massive increase in the number of cars on Britain's roads, and the line finally closed in 1970.
Much of the course of the line is still visible today, and sections of it have been converted into public cycleways.


On 20 July 1874 a railway link was opened between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. The line was originally laid as a single-track light railway, which restricted the type of trains that could use it.
Popularity led to expansion, and much of the line was converted to double track between 1889 and 1891. This was a major exercise, requiring the rebuilding of most stations, and cutting a second bore for the Slade tunnel.

The line was mentioned as a candidate for closure in the Reshaping of British Railways report (The Beeching Axe) review, in 1963, but it was not closed by British Railways until 1970. Indeed, steam-hauled passenger services and freight operations ceased on 7 September 1964 (with one special running on 3 October 1965), and the rationalisation of the line began. DMU services began, the Waterloo through services were stopped, and the line was down-graded to single track on 25 November 1967.

It was in May 1967, that the Network for Development Plans were issued by Barbara Castle, the then Labour Minister of Transport following a study. Where lines were at the remunerative end of the scale, such as the main trunk routes and some secondary lines, these would be developed. But those that failed to meet the financial criterion, but served a social need were to be retained and subsidised under the 1968 Transport Act. The problem would be for lines that were not in the above mentioned categories could be candidates for closure as they did not form part of the basic railway network. The Ilfracombe line was one of those that fell into this category. It was a line that may well have carried considerable traffic, and perhaps made a small profit, but it did not meet the Government's social, economic and commercial criteria for retention.

The line was closed on 5 October 1970 the last train being on 3 October. The final train, an 8-car Class 118 DMU, was packed to bursting point.

There was an abortive attempt at saving the line, in the early 1970s, but the preservation movement was in its infancy and the project was to founder as it could not raise the required sum to purchase the line outright. This was because BR had valued the line at £410,000 in 1974, and certainly BR was criticised for charging market values for a potential heritage railway that wanted to preserve it. It must be appreciated that the BR board was under instruction from the Ministry to fix the highest price possible in an attempt to recoup funds to offset the deficit that the line produced.

The last train was formed of a single inspection saloon hauled by a Class 25, 25 063, on Wednesday 26 February 1975. This carried engineers inspecting the condition of the track for possible reinstatement of services. However this was not to be and track lifting commenced in June 1975. The following link has a number of rare pictures of the last train on the line.

The distinctive curved steel girder bridge over the River Taw in Barnstaple was demolished in 1977, adding a significant cost to any future reopening scheme.

1 comment:

  1. Madness! It is disgraceful, shameful and pitiful that north Devon - one of the most beautiful parts of the country - should lose its vital connections to other areas, resulting in the roads becoming clogged up with tourists every summer and making any journey difficult for locals all year round.