The South Devon Railway
The SDR received strong backing from three other broad gauge railway companies. £400,000 of its authorised share capital of £1.1m came from the Great Western, Bristol and Exeter, and Bristol and Gloucester Railways. Eleven of the twenty-one directors of the SDR were appointed by those three companies.
At its very first meeting in Plymouth the SDR announced it would use the atmospheric system throughout the whole fifty nine miles from Exeter to Plymouth. In reality it was used on a little over twenty miles from Exeter to Newton Abbot.
The Great Western Railway’s visionary engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was attracted to the proposal by trials he had witnessed on a short demonstration track set up by the systems inventors and patentees near London. Depending upon which reference book you read they were either Messrs Clegg and Samuda or the brothers Jacob and Joseph Samuda.
The system was in use at that time on the Dublin and Kingstown Railway in Ireland. The London Croydon and Epsom Railway also adopted it but by 1847 it was abandoned.
Brunel believed that the atmospheric system would not only speed trains along the level sections of track between Exeter and Newton Abbot but would cope with the severe gradients west of Newton Abbot with ease. That section of mainline to this day remains a mixture of sharp curves and steep inclines. The stretch climbing to Dainton Tunnel is 1 in 36 at its steepest. Brunel feared difficulties with working them. He was visibly relieved when the first train got to Totnes on the 20th July 1847. The Great Western’s chief locomotive superintendent, Sir Daniel Gooch, a family friend of the legendary George Stephenson, is quoted as saying; “I never saw Mr Brunel so anxious”.
For more information on the atmospheric system follow this link :-
The first train to arrive in Newton Abbot at the time of opening the original station on the 30th December 1846 did not use the atmospheric system. It was worked by a steam engine hired from the GWR. Only in January 1848 did a regular atmospheric service operate to the town.
The system was dogged by endless failures. The pumping engines were unreliable but significantly it was the leather valve arrangement, the most important part of the whole system which proved to be its Achilles heel. Over a short period of time the leather simply disintegrated and was likened to tearing paper apart. A combination of the sea air on the stretch from Exminster to Teignmouth, rats and the chemical reaction between the tannin and iron oxide were behind such deterioration.
There were eleven pumping stations. The easiest to spot are the one in the village of Starcross on the A379 between Dawlish and Exeter. The building is now used by the local yacht club. Another stands on the site of the soon to be closed Dairy Crest factory at Totnes. A fourth is on the site of a wholesale greengrocer on the old Newton Abbot to Torquay road. It can be seen from the private road running down between the Lidl store and the Citroen garage.
Although all the pipework was laid to take the system on to Totnes it was never used and what became known as “the atmospheric caper” by local Devonians ended in June 1848. It was an expensive mistake. It is said to have cost the company £400,000 – perhaps as much as £20m by today’s standards. The part installed was nine times over budget. It also turned out to be triple the cost of operating normal steam locomotives.
When it worked the system gave passengers a very smooth ride. It was complimented for that, the lack of smoke and absence of the hissing of steam.
The huge debt which accrued to the SDR as a result of the atmospheric experiment meant that by the time the railway got to Plymouth on the 2nd April 1849 it had run out of money to expand. With the help of smaller local companies the network was extended. There was a branch from Totnes to Ashburton, part of which remains as the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Buckfastleigh.
Another branch was laid from Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead and a line constructed to Kingswear via Torquay and Paignton with a spur to Brixham from Churston Ferrers. It also extended into Cornwall with a branch to Launceston via Tavistock.
In 1876 the South Devon Railway was merged with the GWR.
Newton Abbot went on to become an important railway town. Devon County Library Services has a Railway Studies Collection at Newton Abbot Library.
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Newton Abbot Town & GWR Museum has a section devoted to the Great Western Railway.