SDR Enthusiasts' Site


"The line that the infamous Dr Beeching re-opened!"

Working Timetables  Trade Stands.

Buckfastleigh yard May 2007
Buckfastleigh during a gala in May 2007

The steam operated South Devon Railway -- the oldest heritage railway line in the West Country -- is getting set to celebrate its 40th "Ruby" anniversary year after the scenic former branch line re-opened way back in 1969. Of all people, it was re-opened by Dr Richard Beeching who, as the Chairman of the British Railways Board in the early 1960's, wielded his now infamous axe and was the man responsible for the closure of many branch lines and stations up and down the country.

During the last four decades since, however, over three million passengers have travelled over the pretty seven-mile former Great Western Railway route from Totnes to Buckfastleigh, with many visitors enjoying the experience so much that they come back every season.

It's going to be a very special celebration year for the Railway's many friends and supporters kicking off with a big, nine-day Easter steam festival in April which features eight different former GWR steam locomotives, plus other events during the anniversary season.

And the anniversary comes hot on the heels of the SDR's second best ever season in 2008 when it carried 99,073 visitors, plus the recent granting of official approval to run heavier locomotives with axle weights up to 23.5 tonnes and running trains at a higher line speed of 25 miles per hour which will both come into force from 21 March.

The line is run by a small group of staff and several hundred volunteer workers who all work hard together to recreate the Golden Age of Steam and keep memories of the GWR, British Railways Western Region and historic transport alive and well.

The SDR has grown from being a purely summer season business to almost an all year round operation and the line won the prestigious accolade as "Heritage Railway of the Year" in December 2007 and carried 100,449 passengers in 2008, its best ever season.

Four visiting engines have been drafted in for the nine-day steam festival from other heritage lines in the South West, and the event is set to be one of the highlights of the railway's 137-year history from when it was first opened in May 1872.

The four visitors are:

Ex GW locos Pannier No. 6435 and Prairie No. 5552, both courtesy of Bodmin & Wenford Railway. Loco No.6435 will masquerade as engine No. 6412 (which hauled the re-opening train in 1969) on Sunday 5th April and will be used as an auto coach "Officers Special" for invited guests on the 11.15 to mark the actual anniversary;

EX GW loco 5542, courtesy of 5542 Loco Group and the Gloucestershire & Warwickshire Railway;

Ex GW loco 6695 courtesy of 6695 Locomotive Group and normally based on the Swanage Railway. It will be the first time a Class 56/66xx has visited the branch and this hopefully makes up for us not being able to secure four Prairie Class 45/55xx locos as planned which would have been a first in preservation.

The SDR home fleet will be loco Nos. 3803, 1369, 5786 (repainted in temporary BR Black for the event) and 5526. The railway has endeavoured tomatch locos to stock wherever possible in the timetables.

During Sunday 5th April, the anniversary date, there will be a goods, dining and auto train workings in a special "old friends reunited" timetable with four locos (Nos. 1369, 6435 as 6412, 5786 and 5542, hopefully disguised as 4588).

For the rest of the week (Monday to Thursday) in the run up to Easter weekend, there will be a standard but enhanced two train timetable using three different locos each day with goods train workings each morning and afternoon, afternoon auto train workings, plus one auto driver experience train in the mornings.

Monday 6th April sees Loco Nos. 6435, 5526 and 5786 in use, but we will have "Visiting Engine Day" on Tuesday 7 April with 6695, 6435 and 5542; then "Prairie Day" on Wednesday 8th April with 5552, 5542 and 5526, plus an evening dining train; and then "Pannier Day" on Thursday 9th April with 1369, 5786 and 6435.

Easter weekend itself (10th to 13th April) has special timetables each day with four ex BR liveried locos on Good Friday (5526, 5542, 5552 and 6695) then six locos on Saturday (1369, 3803, 5542, 5552, 6435 and 6695) with large goods trains of 20 wagons in the mornings pulled by 5552, 3803 and 6695, and then all eight locos in steam and in use on Sunday and Monday with, hopefully, an interesting cavalcade on one or maybe both days.

Locomotive 6412, which hauled the opening train in 1969 has just returned to the SDR, after purchase from the West Somerset railway. Visitors will be able to see the engine awaiting restoration in the yard at Buckfastleigh.


When the Ashburton to Totnes passenger train pulled into the station for the last time in November 1958, it seemed this beautiful stretch of railway line alongside the River Dart was about to be lost forever.

Four years later, in 1962, freight services were also withdrawn and many people thought this would be the final nail in the coffin. However, soon afterwards, a group of local businessmen set up the embryonic Dart Valley Railway and moved into Buckfastleigh Station, two miles down the line from Ashburton and seven miles from Totnes.

Although the line was still owned by British Railways Western Region, the Dart Valley Railway was paving the way to buy the Buckfastleigh to Totnes stretch (the Ashburton section was lost for good due to the building of the A38 trunk road) and keep the route alive.

In the meantime, a team of volunteers set about restoring the line, and getting the buildings and stock in good working order until one day, in 1969, the Dart Valley Railway went ahead and bought it and the rest is history! One of the early volunteers during the 1960's was Richard Elliott. He is the general manager of the line, which is now renamed the South Devon Railway.

Richard recalls the re-opening day well: "Dr Beeching had been busy closing down so many stations and lines around the country that the Dart Valley Railway thought it would be fun to get him here and re-open one instead.

"It was a Wednesday and I took the day off work because, although I started as a volunteer at the station in 1965, I was actually working in a bank at the time. I saw and heard Beeching's speech and also worked on the first train."

But, after a good initial start, the heritage line then struggled to maintain the numbers of visitors seen in the 1970's and, by 1990, the Dart Valley Railway plc finally pulled out to concentrate on its Paignton to Kingswear operation instead and then leased the Buckfastleigh line back to the volunteers who set about saving the branch once again!

Since 1991, the South Devon Railway line has been run as a charitable trust but grown steadily from having virtually no locos or rolling stock to become one of the West Country's top visitor attractions.

The South Devon Railway opted not to mark the 50th anniversary of the line's closure in November 2008, but instead will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its re-opening in 2009 as a notable milestone.

And the South Devon Railway has a great deal to celebrate at present, with business booming across the board. Steam train lovers and day trippers keep staff busy during the summer season (the line operates daily from Easter to the end of October, usually with four return trips a day), and the workshop maintains not only the line's stock, but has maintenance contracts from other operators.

"Our turnover has gone up from £235,000 in 1991 to around £1.75 million in 2008," said Richard Elliott.

But he readily admits the line would have struggled to survive as a passenger service: "The line from Ashburton to Totnes never ever carried many passengers and it was more of a freight line really. There were huge cattle trains, for the cattle market at Ashburton, and the trains also served the mill at Buckfastleigh. Freight was the king pin which kept the line going."

Richard says that although Beeching's railway cuts were harsh, he also got a lot of things right: "He has always been seen as the butcher of the railways, but there's no doubt the country was changing and the railways we had in the early 1960's weren't all needed.

"What is a pity is that the sites were sold and the track beds were ripped up so there was never any chance of re-opening them.

"And if it hadn't been for Beeching's cuts, we wouldn't have some of the steam engines we have here today. It was one of those little twists of fate that one of the major contractors which took scrapped railway stock was Woodham's Yard in Barry, South Wales.

"They had 212 different steam engines in the scrap yard in 1968-9 and people like me launched loco appeals and went up to say: 'Oh, we'll have that one'. As a result, Dai Woodham only scrapped three engines between 1969 and 1990, when the last one was sold.

"In fact, one of my favourite engines is Dumbleton Hall. I used to clean it at Laira depot in Plymouth when I was a lad, and it ended up at Woodham's Scrapyard.

"I went up to Barry and bought it for 4,000 in 1973! I hope to see it steam again on this line one day. Lots of these lovely engines were rescued and preserved, so that's one good thing which happened."

The 40th year of the re-opening of the Buckfastleigh to Totnes route also marks the end of the line for Richard. After 44 years working for the line - firstly as a volunteer and finally as its general manager - Richard has decided to call it a day in 2009 and will be handing over the reins to Dick Wood, another volunteer worker with links to the line dating back to the early 1970's.

"I think it's about time," Richard said. "But no doubt I'll still be popping in here on the odd occasion and doing things, such as Dumbleton Hall!

Incoming General Manager Dick Wood said: "The South Devon Railway is really going from strength to strength every year now, and our supporters have recreated a living country branch line that exudes much of the charm and character once seen on the old Great Western Railway system. The 40th anniversary year is going to be one that will be savoured and remembered by many people!"

Download the 40th Anniversary Brochure.

Working Timetables for downloading and local printing.

The South Devon Railway is making available pitches for Trade Stands. For details click here.


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© South Devon Railway Trust 2009