Exeter St David's

Battle of the Gauges

The GWR’s lease of the B&ER expired on 30th April 1849, and the latter decided that it could better operate its own line thereafter. The companies had not been on good terms near the end, for the GWR had shown its support for the ‘’Exeter Great Western Railway’’, an alternative Broad Gauge route to the city. Vehemently opposed in Parliament by the B&ER, this was to leave the ‘’Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth Railway’’ (which had yet to be completed, and was to run from Thingley Junction, Chippenham, to Weymouth) at Yeovil, and take a southerly course to Exeter through Axminster, Honiton, Ottery St Mary, and Stoke Canon. Branches were also proposed to Sidmouth, Charmouth, Ilminster, and Crewkerne, and the GWR was empowered to subscribe part or the whole of the project’s capital (then estimated at £1,800,000, with powers to borrow an additional £600,000). No longer such good allies, the B&ER’s operational independence from the GWR required the former to possess its own fleet of locomotives and rolling stock. Additional land was purchased in the Parish of Bridgwater, Somerset, to lay out a carriage works, and new locomotives were built by the company in Bristol. The company’s Locomotive Engineer was James Pearson, formerly employed by the South Devon Railway as its Atmospheric Superintendent.

We must now turn our attention to the ‘’Exeter & Crediton Railway’’. This company was incorporated on 21st July 1845 to build a line, 5-miles 55-chains in length, from the B&ER’s line at Cowley Bridge, a mile north of St David’s station, to Crediton. Authorised capital amounted to £70,000 (£5,650,000 at 2008 prices), raised through the issue of 2,800 shares at £25 each, and a further £23,333 could be borrowed. The independent E&CR, by this Act, could lease or sell the line to the B&ER. The railway had been revived from an earlier scheme of the same name, which had received Royal Assent on 23rd June 1832 for a line emanating from Exeter City Canal Basin. £35,000 of capital was authorised, in addition to £12,000 in loans, but powers were allowed to lapse.

A short line, the E&CR had a troubled construction period, the ‘’battle of the gauges’’ coming to the fore. The railway was originally laid as a double Broad Gauge line, but before opening it was re-laid as a double narrow-gauge line. In the latter state it remained unused, until the independent company finally discussed working arrangements with the B&ER (having also conferred with the proposed Taw Vale Railway Company – more of later). This being a Broad Gauge railway, it was decided to revert the Crediton line back to the larger gauge. However, given the level of potential traffic had yet to be ascertained, the cost of converting the route back to double-track Broad Gauge could not at that time be justified. Thus emerged the peculiar arrangement whereby only one track was widened to 7-foot 0¼-inches, whilst the second remained of the narrow gauge format. After this strange period of development, the Board of Trade finally recommended, on 8th May 1851, that the railway could be opened to traffic as a single Broad Gauge line. Since the line was to be operated as a single track it was, too, advised that it should be worked on the ‘’one engine in steam’’ principle to avoid collisions. The E&CR had no rolling stock, and thus entered into agreement with the B&ER that the latter should work the line. On 12th May 1851, the E&CR opened to traffic, the B&ER leasing the line from the outset.

In the meantime the London & South Western Railway, keen to have a slice of the West Country, had started its incursion. In 1845, it took out on lease the isolated ‘’Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway’’, as the crow flies some 150-miles distant of the most westerly point on the LSWR network, Southampton. Originally opened on 4th July 1834, for decades this existed as a wholly self-contained operation which, although purchased outright by the LSWR in 1886, was not physically connected to this company’s metals until December 1895. Indeed, indecision by the LSWR’s Board over whether Exeter should be reached from Dorchester or Salisbury somewhat delayed this company’s push west.

Adding to the potpourri of independent concerns was the ‘’Taw Vale Railway & Dock Company’’, incorporated by an Act passed on 11th June 1838 to construct a line from Penhill, in the Parish of Fremington, Devon, to Barnstaple. The company was, too, authorised to build a dock in Fremington, but powers were allowed to lapse, requiring the passing of a second Act on 21st July 1845. This authorised a capital of £15,000 to be raised (£1,210,000 at 2008 prices), and an amount of £5,000 to be borrowed. Another Act, passed on 7th August 1846, allowed a lengthy extension of the proposed line from Barnstaple to Crediton, for which an additional £533,000 of capital (£38,400,000) was authorised, coupled with a further £177,666 13s 4d in loans. Finally, on 22nd July 1847, by yet another Act, branches to Bideford and South Molton, and an enlarged dock (15 acres area) at Fremington, were sanctioned. For the latter, a capital of £180,000 was authorised, and loans to the amount of £60,000. Total route mileage of the entire scheme reached 46¾.

The Taw Vale Railway (TVR) entered into a conditional agreement with the LSWR for the latter to take one fourth of the capital, and to take a perpetual lease of the railway and works. This arrangement would also apply to the E&CR, should the TVR purchase or lease that line. As a result, the lines in question were to be built to narrow gauge. However, in 1848 Parliament rejected the LSWR’s proposed lease of the TVR, and the conditional agreement was terminated between the two companies. The Board of Trade decreed that the Barnstaple to Crediton line should be laid to Broad Gauge, where at the latter it would make an end-on connection with the E&CR. The LSWR’s involvement having now disappeared, and the B&ER declining to take the TVR on any terms, the small independent concern requested a two-year extension from Parliament to purchase the necessary lands and to build the line. An Act passed on 24th July 1851 changed the name of the TVR to the ‘’North Devon Railway & Dock Company’’.

On 26th July 1854, the Board of Trade recommended that the Crediton to Barnstaple section of the North Devon Railway (NDR) be opened to traffic. This was provided that the single line was worked by electric telegraph, and that only one engine was in steam between any two telegraphic stations. The line was opened throughout to Fremington on Tuesday 1st August 1854, the NDR working its own traffic from the outset. The section between Fremington and Bideford came into use on 2nd November of the following year.

6th June 1977

Class 31 No. 31260 is seen at the head of a freight at the northern end of platform 4. In the background can be seen a Class 08 shunter fronting a line of vans straddling the level crossing. Additionally, we also see the goods shed on the left, a splendid array of semaphore signals, and Exeter Middle Box. © David Glasspool Collection


A Bristol VR bus is seen parked outside the station entrance in 1979, in service with Western National. The company was then celebrating 50 years of existence, having originally been started as a joint venture between the GWR and the National Omnibus & Transport Company. The grey brickwork is that of Brunel's station, whilst the light stone of the first floor dates from GWR building work of 1938. © David Glasspool Collection

4th August 1979

By the time of this photograph, locomotives had lost their head code boxes and, in their place, marker lights were installed. This splendid view at the southern end of Exeter St David's shows the complicated point work to good effect, as Class 47 No. 47473 trundles over the River Exe. The signal gantry on the left replaced that seen on the previous page on 23rd November 1975. The lattice pattern bridge seen here was replaced by a completely new span in October 1997. © David Glasspool Collection