|Reading to Plymouth line|
The Reading-Plymouth line is the central part of the trunk railway line between London Paddington and Penzance railway stations in the southern United Kingdom. It is a major branch of the Great Western Main Line and diverges at Reading, running to Plymouth, from where it continues as the Cornish Main Line. It was one of the principal routes of the pre-1948 Great Western Railway which were subsequently taken over by the Western Region of British Railways and are now part of the Network Rail system.
The line only became a through route on 2 July 1906 when the Castle Cary Cut-Off line was completed. Before this, from 5 May 1848, through trains from London to Plymouth had run via Bristol: this is often called the "Great Way Round" and a few trains still take this route.
The Reading to Hungerford section was promoted as the Berks and Hants Railway; from there to Patney & Chirton by the Berks and Hants Extension Railway; and from Westbury to Castle Cary by the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway. The section from Cogload Junction to Exeter was built by the Bristol and Exeter Railway, which company's Yeovil branch became part of the new main line between Curry Rivel Junction and Athelney Junction, and including Athelney station. The section between Exeter and Plymouth was built by the South Devon Railway.
The nominally independent companies had all been amalgamated into the Great Western Railway by 1 February 1876, and the remaining 7 ft 01⁄4 in (2,140 mm) broad gauge lines were closed on 20 May 1892 and converted to 4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge over the following weekend. A series of cut-off lines were constructed during the following 15 years which saw the through route established. The Great Western was nationalised on 1 January 1948 to become a part of the new British Railways.
There have been a number of serious accidents on the line over the years, mainly in the Taunton - Norton Fitzwarren area. The most recent fatal accident was the derailment of a High Speed Train from Paddington near Newbury in 2004, following a collision with a car that had stopped on a level crossing. Some of the notable incidents were:
The route is described from Reading to Plymouth for a passenger facing the direction of travel, which will put both the White Horse at Westbury and the sea at Dawlish on their left.
As the train leaves Reading railway station the line curves to the left to follow the route of the old Berks and Hants Railway. The Great Western Main Line can be seen on the right and between the two routes is an engineering depot at a lower level, then on the same level as the running lines is Reading TMD where the DMUs used on local services out of London Paddington station are serviced. The depot is known as Triangle Sidings because of a curve that passes behind the depot allowing up trains (towards London) from the Great Western Main Line to become down trains on the Berks and Hants Line and vice versa; this curve is mainly used for freight trains to and from the South Coast.
Just beyond the depot lies Reading West, a local station that is elevated above a road at one end but is in a deep cutting at the other. At the far end of the cutting is Southcote Junction where the line to Plymouth curves sharply to the right away from the other Berks and Hants Line to Basingstoke. A third line used to curve to the left to a goods depot but this is long closed and the trackbed blocked by a footpath.
Our route, which is marketed here as the "Kennet Line", follows the River Kennet through the outer suburbs of Reading to Theale, where the stone and oil terminals in the goods yard give the station an industrial feel. Out now into the Berkshire countryside, the line passes through more local stations at Aldermaston, Midgham and Thatcham.
Newbury race course lies alongside the line on the left and has its own station a short distance east of the main Newbury railway station, where the town centre is close by on the right of the line. The station has a bay platform on the right for local terminating trains, and the through platforms are on loop lines that allow fast trains to overtake the local services that continue beyond the town. Some long distance trains also call here.
Beyond Newbury the railway follows the route of the Kennet and Avon Canal which crosses below to run on the left side of the line through Kintbury then crosses back to the right before it reaches Hungerford. The line crosses into Wiltshire and the canal crosses back to the left to run close beside the line through picturesque Little Bedwyn to reach Bedwyn railway station which is actually in Great Bedwyn. This is the outer limit of the London suburban services and a turn back siding is situated on the right just beyond the station.
Long distance trains continue to follow the Kennet and Avon Canal which is on the left side of the line but on the right is Crofton Pumping Station where beam engines are preserved that once pumped water to the summit level of the canal; the long flight of Crofton Locks are opposite. The canal now dives beneath the line in a 500 yards (457 m) tunnel beneath the site of the closed Severnake railway station; the remains of the bridge that carried the Midland and South Western Junction Railway over our line can also be seen. There was never a station at Burbage but the siding on the right served a wharf which allowed transhipment of goods between the canal and railway.
Some trains call at Pewsey railway station, where the building on the right-hand platform is a replica of the earlier building but the building on the main platform on the left is original. The site of Patney and Chirton railway station marks the start of a cut-off line that avoided the long loop (to the right) through Devizes railway station on the Berks and Hants Extension Railway.
A white horse can be seen carved on the hillside on the left of the approach to Westbury while a cement factory lies alongside the line on the right. Non-stop trains curve to the left to pass under the Wessex Main Line and avoid the complex of junctions around the station, but trains that call here diverge to the right at Heywood Road Junction. Another line curves sharply to the right to join the Wessex Main Line towards Trowbridge at Hawkeridge Junction, a route that forms a diversionary route for the Great Western Main Line. Our train, however, curves left past the Panel Signal Box to join the Wessex Main Line in the opposite direction and enter the station.
There are sidings on both sides of the line west of the station. On the right are those used for stabling the local DMUs between services, and a Network Rail "virtual quarry" where ballast is stockpiled for distribution. The sidings on the left are mainly used by stone trains from Mendips quarries further west along the line. Our line diverges right from the Wessex Main Line (which continues towards Salisbury) and curves around behind the virtual quarry to reach Fairwood Junction where trains that avoided the station rejoin the historic route, which here was constructed by the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway.
Crossing from "Wilts" (Wiltshire) into Somerset we come to Clink Road Junction where a branch line diverges on the right to Frome railway station, where a rare wooden train shed still survives, and Whatley Quarry. Frome is served by Heart of Wessex Line local services but few long distance trains call there instead of following the avoiding line to Blatchbridge Junction.
The next junction on the right is at Witham, where the old East Somerset Railway carries stone trains from Merehead Quarry and continues to Cranmore. After passing through Bruton railway station, the line passes the remains of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway at Cole, and then arrives at the junction station at Castle Cary. Here it curves right, away from the Heart of Wessex Line which continues to Weymouth via Yeovil Pen Mill, a diversionary route that is used when the usual route to Exeter is blocked.
The main line is now on the Castle Cary Cut-Off that opened on 2 July 1906 to shorten the so-called "Great Way Round" via Bristol. After passing through Somerton Tunnel the line soon finds itself crossing the low-lying and comes onto the Somerset Levels and at to Langport and Curry Rivel Junction, where the old Yeovil branch line. used to join from the left, only to diverge right at Athelney to join the Bristol to Taunton Line at Durston. The 1906 openings saw an additional cut-off from Athelney to Cogload Junction where we join the route from Bristol, the old Bristol and Exeter Railway.
The Taunton and Bridgwater Canal now runs alongside the railway on the right. We next pass the site of Creech railway station and the junction (on the left) of the former Chard branch line. The River Tone joins us on the left and the canal passes beneath the line to join it at Firepool, which is behind the site of the old goods yard just outside Taunton railway station.
The train leaves Taunton with the abandoned engine shed on the left, and passes the engineer's depot at Fairwater Yard on the same side. The former Norton Fitzwarren railway station is an unlucky location that has seen two serious collisions and a fatal train fire over the years. The West Somerset Railway diverges on the right and work is under way to provide new facilities here for this heritage railway which includes relaying track for a short distance along the old Devon and Somerset Railway that formed a third route in between the main line and the West Somerset. On the left of the line an embankment marks the remains of the Grand Western Canal.
After passing over Victory Crossing at Bradford-on-Tone, the line starts to climb upwards. It passes through the remains of Wellington station and then under the A38 road at Beambridge, which was the site of the line's terminus while work was underway to excavate the Whiteball Tunnel at the top of Wellington Bank. It was coming down here that City of Truro became the first locomotive to exceed 100 mph (160 km/h).
Through the tunnel and into Devon, the M5 motorway comes alongside on the left and the line arrives at to Tiverton Parkway, the railhead for much of north Devon thanks to the A361 road that joins the motorway next to the station. A short distance further brings us to Tiverton Loops, the site of the former Tiverton Junction railway station.
The motorway service station on the left marks the site of Cullompton railway station, and then the line passes the remains of Hele & Bradninch and Silverton railway stations. At Silverton the old Exe Valley Railway used to join from the right, and then the railway sweeps through the valley of the River Culm to where it joins the River Exe near Cowley Bridge Junction. Here the Tarka Line from Barnstaple joins on the right and the line then passes (on the same side) Riverside Yard and an old transhipment shed. Until 20 May 1892, when the former Great Western Railway lines that we are travelling on were converted from the 7 ft 01⁄4 in (2,140 mm) broad gauge, the shed was used to transfer goods between broad gauge wagons and the 4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge wagons used by the London and South Western Railway to Yeovil and Barnstaple.
On leaving Exeter St Davids the line to Exeter Central climbs away on the left while on the right can be seen the Panel Signal Box by the entrance to the Exeter TMD where local First Great Western DMUs are maintained. Our line, the old South Devon Railway main line, crosses the River Exe and a parallel flood relief channel, and then passes above the suburbs of Exeter along a stone viaduct on which is situated Exeter St Thomas railway station. The church of St David, with its spire, and the older Exeter Cathedral can be seen on the hill above the river. Beyond this is an industrial area where two lines used to branch out. On the left a short line went down to the Exeter Canal at City Basin; on the right a longer branch ran to Heathfield on the Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead branch.
Once out in the countryside our line crosses marshes as it runs alongside the canal and river. What looks like a level crossing in the fields near Countess Wear is actually a lifting bridge across the canal. After passing the site of Exminster railway station, with its George Hennet station house on the right, the canal comes more clearly into view on the left and joins the River Exe, as does the railway, at Turf. The square pond to the left of the line is the site of Turf engine house. This stretch of the line used to have long water troughs between the rails from which steam locomotives could refill their water tanks without stopping.
From Powderham Castle the railway is right alongside the river; on the right of the line is the castle's deer park, while on the left, across the river, trains on the Avocet Line may be seen near Lympstone Commando railway station. Our train now enters the village of Starcross beyond which is the pier for the Exmouth to Starcross Ferry and, on the right, the old Starcross engine house. A little further along the river the railway crosses the mouth of Cockwood harbour. Near the shipwreck here on the left was the 1,285 feet (392 m) long Exe Bight Pier, in use from 1869 for about ten years. Dawlish Warren now comes into sight; the sand dunes are home to a nature reserve where many wading and sea birds can be seen. The railway line opens out into four lines at Dawlish Warren railway station, where the platforms are alongside loop lines that allow fast trains to overtake stopping services.
On the left is the beach and seaside amusements; on the right are some camping coaches in the old goods yard. The railway now comes onto the Sea Wall which it shares with a footpath, although it quickly enters the short and deep cutting at Langstone Rock where we see the distinctive local red sandstone cliffs for the first time. Emerging above the beach, views can be had across the sea towards Torbay.
Approaching Dawlish railway station, Coastguard's Cottage is on the right. Although now a cafe, this building was used by the railway during its construction  and then sold to the coastguard; their boat house is below the footbridge. The town can be seen off to the right from Colonnade Viaduct at the other end of the station.
The footpath along the Sea Wall now ends and the line enters its first tunnel, the 265 yards (242 m) Kennaway Tunnel beneath Lea Mount, beyond which is Coryton beach and then 227 yards (208 m) Coryton tunnel. The next beach is the private Shell Cove and then the railway passes through 49 yards (45 m) Phillot Tunnel and 58 yards (53 m) Clerk's Tunnel, emerging onto a section of sea wall at Breeches Rock before diving into 513 yards (469 m) Parson's Tunnel beneath Hole Head. The last two tunnels are named after the Parson and Clerk Rocks, two stacks in the sea off Hole Head. When the tunnel was dug the workers cut into a smugglers tunnel which ran from a hidden entrance above the cliff down to a secluded cove.
Beyond Parson's Tunnel is a short viaduct across Smugglers Lane and then the footpath resumes alongside the line for the final stretch of the Sea Wall past Sprey Point to the cutting at Teignmouth Eastcliff. On the right side of the railway near Sprey Point can be seen the remains of a lime kiln used during the construction of the line.
The railway passes through to Teignmouth railway station then continues through a cutting to emerge behind the busy Teignmouth Harbour, after which the railway resumes its course alongside the water, now the River Teign. The cuttings on both sides of the station were originally tunnels and were opened out between 1879 and 1884. The railway passes under the long Shaldon Bridge and then follows the river past the small promontories at Flow Point, Red Rock, and Summer House, opposite which can be seen the waterside inn at Coombe Cellars.
After leaving the riverside the line crosses Hackney Marshes and passes between the railway sidings at Hackney Yard (left), and the race course and former Moretonhampstead branch (right). The industrial area to the left of Newton Abbot railway station is the site of the South Devon Railway locomotive workshops – the older stone buildings are the only surviving railway buildings.
Just outside Newton Abbot a line branches off on the left but continues to run alongside the main line. This is the Riviera Line to Paignton and the two routes part company at Aller Junction when our main line curves to the right to start the climb up past Stoneycombe Quarry to Dainton Tunnel. The line from Exeter to Plymouth was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as an atmospheric railway which allowed steeper gradients, sharper curves, and lighter structures. Atmospheric trains never ran beyond Newton Abbot but the legacy of the aborted scheme means that line speeds on towards Plymouth are lower than elsewhere on the route.
Once through Dainton Tunnel the line drops down past pretty Littlehempstone and shortly the South Devon Railway, a heritage railway, can be seen on the right . Our line immediately crosses over the River Dart and arrives at Totnes railway station, which has passing loops to allow slower trains to be overtaken. Behind the right-hand platform can be seen a dairy which is built around the old atmospheric engine house.
The steep climb up Rattery Bank starts right from the end of the platform, a steep challenge in former days to trains that called at Totnes. At the top is Rattery Viaduct and the 869 yards (795 m) Marley Tunnel. The original single-track tunnel had a second bore added alongside it in 1893 when the line was doubled. The line is now running along the southern edge of Dartmoor. Brent railway station was once the junction for the Kingsbridge branch line which joined our route in the cutting just before the station. Curving to the left the line passes over the 57 yards (52 m) Brent Mill Viaduct and then the 163 yards (149 m) Glazebrook Viaduct.
After passing through the 47 yards (43 m) Wrangaton Tunnel the line passes through the remains of Wrangaton railway station; Monksmoor Siding on the right used to serve a naval stores depot. Just beyond the site of Bittaford Platform is the 132 yards (121 m) Bittaford Viaduct. The industrial buildings on the right were built as china clay dries where clay dug on Dartmoor was treated; the Redlake Tramway was built alongside the pipeline that carried the liquid clay.
The line now comes to Ivybridge railway station. The platforms here are staggered with the one on the left nearer Totnes than the one on the right. This station only opened in 1994; the original station closed in 1965 and was on the far side of the curving 229 yards (209 m) Ivybridge Viaduct where an old goods shed can be seen on the left. More curves bring us to the 309 yards (283 m) Blatchford Viaduct and then the old Cornwood railway station where George Hennet's station house can be seen in the trees on the right.
275 yards (251 m) Slade Viaduct brings us to the top of Hemerdon Bank, the steepest climb for trains heading towards Newton Abbot. A fast run down the bank brings us to the site of Plympton railway station, which is hard to spot among modern housing on the left, and then Tavistock Junction. The large goods yard here includes a maintenance shed for on-track equipment and a connection to the china clay drier at Marsh Mills. This is on the former South Devon and Tavistock Railway although the junction originally faced Plymouth.
The line swings left under the Marsh Mills Viaduct of the A38 road and then runs alongside the tidal estuary of the River Plym on the left, with the grounds of Saltram House at Plymstock on the far bank. Underneath the Embankment Road bridge which carries the A38 over the line again and Laira TMD is seen, also on the left. Laira maintains First Great Western's High Speed Trains in Devon. A triangle of lines takes a freight route down to the Plymouth waterfront via the closed Friary station, which was the terminus for trains on the rival route from London Waterloo station.
Passing through the short Mutley Tunnel, trains emerge past the Royal Eye Infirmary (right) into Plymouth railway station. This was originally known as North Road Station as trains continued beyond it to Plymouth Millbay.
The route is double track throughout with passing loops at certain locations. The maximum speed is 125 mph to Exeter, 60 mph between Exeter - Newton Abbot and 100 mph between Newton Abbot - Penzance. The route has a gauge clearance of W7 except Reading to Westbury and Taunton to Exeter which are the larger W8, and is open to rolling stock up to Route Availability 8. Signalling requires 4 minutes between trains on most of the route, but 8 minutes approaching Cogload Junction and 6 minutes west of Newton Abbot. Signalling is by multiple-aspect signals controlled from Reading, Westbury, Exeter, and Plymouth. Most of these are three aspect, but some sections of two- or four- aspect signalling also exist.
The Network Rail Business Plan recognises that the heaviest traffic flows are on the section through Newbury where there is a large commuter traffic to London. The main pinch point is between Reading West and Southcote Junction where the route is shared with trains to and from Basingstoke and south coast ports. It is forecast that demand for journeys towards London can be met up to 2016 by increased service levels; three trains each hour will be needed to the west of England. By 2026 seating demand is forecast to be in excess of capacity from as far west as Westbury, and by as much as 14%. There are also significant current traffic levels and predicted growth on local services around Exeter.
The section between Reading and Newbury has been earmarked for electrification by 2016 as part of a scheme to electrify the Great Western Mainline. This would allow Intercity services to the South West currently operated by HSTs to be operated by bi-mode versions of the Hitachi Super Express using electric power as far as Newbury instead of Reading. The electrification of the line to Newbury would allow commuter services to using electrically powered trains to run the entire distance from London Paddington to Newbury. These could be the 5-car version of the Super Express but the DfT white paper calls for electric services beyond Reading to be operated by cascaded and completely modernised Thameslink commuter trains from the end of 2016. This would allow the existing DMUs that operate on this section to be cascaded to the Bristol area, the South West and Northern England. However, since electrification will not extend to Bedwyn, commuter services west of Newbury would have to be operated by DMUs or the bi-mode version of the 5-car Super Express.
In addition to the electrification of the line to Newbury there are to be significant changes to the layout of Reading station. These include the building of a bridge to carry the fast lines of the Great Western Main Line over the Reading to Plymouth Line. There will also be an additional four platforms built on the north side of Reading station to be used for the relief lines whilst the existing platforms will be used exclusively by fast trains to London and the West.
Additional plans for the route include the reduction of the distances between signals west of Newton Abbot; making the down loop at Newbury Racecourse reversible to improve train handling on race days; the extension of the turnback siding at Bedwyn to accommodate six-car DMUs; increase line speed as far as Cogload Junction; a third track from there and direct access to the northern bay platform at Taunton; allow tilting trains to operate in tilting mode west of Newton Abbot where the curvature severely restricts speeds for conventional trains.
The majority of services on the route are operated by First Great Western. These services include the high speed trains from London Paddington to Penzance, Plymouth or Paignton. Some of these services travel through Reading and Bristol to join the line at Taunton. Other HST services operate from Paddington to Exeter, although some terminate at Westbury or Frome. The operator also provides local services along much of the line, including those between Reading and Bedwyn; Westbury and Castle Cary; and Exeter to Plymouth.
CrossCountry services operate between Taunton and Plymouth. These services travel north from Taunton through Bristol Temple Meads to either North East England/Scotland or North West England; some continue westwards beyond Plymouth.
South West Trains operate some services between Exeter and Plymouth. Reading and Westbury are also served by this operator on other routes.