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The North Devon Railway was a British railway company which operated a line from Cowley Bridge Junction, near Exeter, to Bideford in Devon, later becoming part of the London and South Western Railway's system.
Originally planned as a 7 ft 0¼ in broad gauge feeder to the Bristol and Exeter Railway, it became part of a battle between the broad gauge Great Western Railway group and the narrow gauge (4 ft 8½ in) railway interests.
The term "North Devon Railway" is often extended to include a number of other railways connected with that company, including the Exeter and Crediton Railway which it leased, the Bideford Extension Railway which it operated, and the London and South Western Railway's later extension to Torrington.
The original construction in the middle of the nineteenth century was significant in giving rail connection to the important, but remote towns of North Devon that had hitherto relied on the packhorse and coastal shipping. The Exeter to Barnstaple section followed the rivers Yeo and Taw. It remains open and passenger trains on the route are branded the Tarka Line for marketing purposes.
The northern extremities, turning south to Bideford and Torrington followed the coast of the Bristol Channel before turning inland. Part of this section is now a cycleway.
In the early nineteenth century, Barnstaple was an important commercial town. Its position on the River Taw gave it a strategic advantage for coastal shipping, but the upper reaches of the river were difficult and hampered navigation. In 1838 a group of Barnstaple merchants obtained an Act of Parliament authorising them to construct a railway from Penhill, at Fremington, to Barnstaple, a distance of less than three miles. The company was called the "Taw Vale Railway and Dock Company". However they did not proceed with construction for some years, and the Taw Vale Extension Railway Company was authorised to purchase it and construct the line.
In 1845, a company called the Exeter and Crediton Railway got its parliamentary Act to build a 5¾ mile broad gauge line from the Bristol and Exeter Railway main line at Cowley Bridge (a short distance north of Exeter) to Crediton.
By 1847 the line was substantially complete, excepting only the actual junction at Cowley Bridge. However, opening to traffic did not take place for some time.
On 7th August 1846 the Taw Vale Extension Railway obtained an Act of Parliament to build a 31 mile line from Crediton to Barnstaple, and a branch from Fremington to Bideford. The promoters were friendly to the broad gauge Bristol & Exeter Railway, but critically, the Extension line's Act left the question of the track gauge to be determined by the Board of Trade.
At this time the issue of a national rail network was still vague, and there was no assumption that purely local railways ought to be built to any particular standard. However as railway empires became larger, the issue of gauge polarised allegiances: a broad gauge railway was in the Great Western Railway camp; a narrow gauge railway was against it. The London and South Western Railway was still no closer than 90 miles away at Salisbury, but it wished to build a network in the West Country, and the track gauge was to become a key issue.
During the preparations for getting these parliamentary powers for other railways, the original Taw Vale Railway and Dock Company proprietors now realised that they might be able to sell their (unconstructed) line to the Taw Vale Extension, and this was authorised by parliamentary acts. The line was opened to goods traffic in August 1848.
The London and South Western Railway saw that these local railways in Devon were useful to their own aspirations to penetrate into, and through, the district. The company bought up a majority shareholding in the Exeter and Crediton Railway, which was not yet opened, and had the track gauge changed to the L&SWR's narrow gauge. They also gained considerable support among the Taw Vale Extension proprietors, and on 26th February 1847 they got agreement to lease the Taw Vale Extension line. The Exeter & Crediton line's act permitted its lease to any contiguous railway; the L&SWR was still no closer then Salisbury, but the Taw Vale Extension connected, so the L&SWR arranged for the TVE to conclude a lease of the Exeter & Crediton, finalised on 12th April 1847.
The LS&WR had assumed that operating these lines on their own gauge would be permitted, but on 8 February 1848 the Board of Trade's nominees announced that the Taw Vale Extension must be built as a broad gauge line. With their plans to reach Barnstaple apparently frustrated, the L&SWR refused to allow the Exeter & Crediton to open at all for some time, but failing to get their way they eventually opened as a single line reconverted to the broad gauge; the other track was left narrow, and for the time being disused. The opening day was the 12 May 1851 and the line was rented to and worked by the Bristol and Exeter Railway.
The Taw Vale Extension Railway completed construction of its line on the broad gauge and on 1 August 1854 it opened its line from Crediton to Fremington, on the broad gauge. It also changed its name to the North Devon Railway and completed the take over of the original Taw Vale company.
As an isolated line, it leased operation to the railway contractor Thomas Brassey, who hired rolling stock from the Bristol & Exeter company but provided his own locomotives.
The L&SWR was now reluctant to complete the line to Bideford that had been authorised in the TVE's act, and commercial interests at Bideford formed the Bideford Extension Railway themselves, getting powers on 4th August 1853 and opening on the broad gauge on 2nd November 1855, worked by the North Devon company.
The Bideford station was at East the Water, somewhat north of the town bridge and on the opposite side of the River Torridge from the town.
In 1860 the L&SWR reached Exeter with its main line from Yeovil, terminating at its own Queen Street station. That station was much more convenient for the city than the Bristol & Exeter company's St Davids station, but the LS&WR saw itself now as the owner of the Exeter & Crediton and North Devon lines, it obtained parliamentary powers to extend its line from Queen Street to St Davids, and to provide mixed gauge track along the B&ER from there to Cowley Bridge Junction. Brassey's lease of the Exeter & Crediton expired in July 1862; the L&SWR had taken over the E&C and laid mixed gauge on it. It ran narrow gauge passenger trains from Exeter to Crediton, from 1st February 1862, using the Bristol & Exeter line for the first part of the journey. The B&E continued to run broad gauge goods trains to Crediton until 20 May 1892.
Next the L&SWR took a lease of the North Devon Railway and from 1st March 1863 it started to run narrow gauge trains from Crediton to Bideford on mixed gauge track – in 1876 it was converted to narrow gauge only .
As part of the tactics of gaining control of parts of the West Country, the L&SWR had given a parliamentary undertaking to extend the line from Bideford to Torrington. It tried to evade this responsibility, calculating that the declining importance of the town of Great Torrington did not justify the expense of the line, but it was forced to comply with its obligations and opened the Torrington extension on 18 July 1872.
A new passenger station was built at Bideford, immediately south of the town bridge, and more convenient for the town. The goods handling area of the former terminus was retained, as Bideford Goods station.
Having acquired the North Devon lines, the L&SWR did not use its energy to develop the lines much. It seemed to have its attention on further westward developments and battles with the broad gauge interests in South Devon. The south-eastern stem of the line provided the launching point for a move towards the hugely important city of Plymouth, and on 1 November 1865 the first phase of this was launched, from a junction at Coleford, a little to the west of Crediton, as far as North Tawton. The constructing company was the Devon and Cornwall Railway, supported by the L&SWR and taken over but it in 1872. Plymouth was reached, by a circuitous route skirting the northern margins of Dartmoor, in 1876, and that destination effectively became the main line.
More closely integrated with the North Devon core route was an extension to Ilfracombe, crossing the River Taw by a serpentine bridge there and providing a "Town" station – the original station was on the south side of Barnstaple Bridge. The Ilfracombe line was opened on 20 July 1874.
In 1873 the broad gauge interest had reached Barnstaple by the Devon and Somerset Railway, (D&SR) from a junction near Taunton to a separate station at Barnstaple, and for some years connecting road coaches conveyed passengers between the D&SR station and Ilfracombe, but on 1 June 1887 the GWR built a spur to connect their station with the original North Devon station, and ran through trains to Ilfracombe.
As a rural railway, the North Devon group originally had the light train service that was normal. Development of the North Devon seaside towns as holiday resorts took place towards the end of the nineteenth century, although they remained far less important than their southern counterparts.
As the rural manufacturing and shipping importance of the area declined, the significance of Crediton, Fremington and Bideford waned also; china clay however gained importance at Torrington. Barnstaple became the most significant market town in the region, and Ilfracombe became the dominant holiday destination on the North Devon network
The train service in 1938 was eight trains each way daily, calling at all or most stations. In addition there were two through trains from London Waterloo, the Atlantic Coast Express and an unnamed train. The local trains took 80 minutes or so for the journey from Exeter to Barnstaple. The expresses were portions of multiple portion trains; the front portion was detached at Exeter Central and ran non-stop from Exeter St Davids to Barnstaple Junction, dividing there with portions for Ilfracombe and Torrington. Journey time from Waterloo to Barnstaple was typically 4 hours 20 mins, for 211 miles. The best time from Exeter St Davids to Barnstaple Junction in 1938 was 57 minutes for the 39 miles. On Sundays there were two local trains and the two expresses.
Barnstaple to Torrington had 13 daily trains calling at both intermediate stations, and 7 each way on Sundays.
In addition, the original Exeter and Crediton section and the short length to Coleford Junction, carried all the Plymouth traffic.
Economic stagnation in North Devon meant that the train service failed to develop, and the North Devon lines remained single track. The through London services disappeared with the rationalisation of West Country operations, and in 1964 there were ten stopping trains each way daily from Exeter to Ilfracombe. Barnstaple Junction to Bideford kept nine trains daily, and both routes retained a Sunday service. The Beeching Axe started to impose its cuts, and in 1965 the Torrington branch closed to passengers, in 1970 the Ilfracombe line was closed, and the freight-only Barnstaple to Torrington and Meeth section in 1982.
Currently (2007) there are 11 daily trains each way between Exeter St Davids and Barnstaple, calling at all or most stations and taking typically 60 - 70 minutes. There are six trains on Sundays.