Britain's coastline enjoys many hundreds of miles of scenic railway, from the northeast heading up and round to the Scottish capital, to North Wales and the stretch across to Bangor and the Isle of Anglesey. But perhaps the most iconic, with favourable weather, heritage lines and a section that has seen drama and innovation in recent years are those of Devon's coastline. Though massively popular with tourists, railfans too enjoy this area of southwest England and with a selection of passenger, freight and heritage stock running, there's plenty to admire.
Photos by Joe Rogers.
What is known as the English Riviera encompasses the area of Torbay, a popular tourist destination with a more favourable climate, culinary delights like cream teas, fresh fish & chips and locally brewed ales as well as a wealth of railway heritage that ties in with the wider history of railways across Devonshire. Today, many visit the area by train, with services coming from as far as Edinburgh, via Birmingham, and London, via Bristol to Devon's capital Exeter as well as local stations at Torquay and Paignton. Most of these are provided by GWR and CrossCountry, but freight services also use the line bringing mineral trains up from Cornwall.
Though the mainline running south from the city of Exeter gets perhaps the most attention, across the Exe Estuary lies another line that offers breathtaking views and a gentle ride to the lower portion of England's Jurassic Coast. The Avocet Line takes in a novel selection of small stations along the way, including Lympstone Commando, a request stop only practically available for service personel requiring access to the Royal Marine Commando Training Centre, which the station was originally built to serve. Beyond this, the beautiful village of Lympstone itself and the bustling seaside town of Exmouth enjoy this frequently used section of railway through a variety of Diesel Multiple Units.
It's not uncommon for passengers of the Avocet Line to see trains running parallel down the west side of the Exe river on the fast and busy mainline. This brainchild of Brunel, originally planned to be an atmospheric railway, skirts the coast on its way down to Plymouth and Cornwall. Powderham Castle, still home to the Earl of Devon, effectively has the mainline as its own garden railway as it cuts along the edge of the deer park and where the Kenn River meets the larger Exe Estuary. For many years the InterCity 125s dominated this route along with local DMUs and freight services but today the more modern and sleek Class 800 units head through Starcross and Dawlish having originated from London Paddington via Reading, Bristol and Taunton.
The section between Starcross and Teignmouth offers some unique opportunities for rail photographers, with the pedestrian walkway along the top of the sea defence positioned between the railway and the sea. During mainline railtours, featuring the likes of the Flying Scotsman, Tornado and heritage diesel locomotives, photographers and onlookers can gather in their hundreds to capture iconic imagery of trains travelling mere metres from the coast. At other times, Voyagers, Pacers and freight movements have also been captured making this spot a popular one for railfans of all disciplines.
Dawlish too offers the same drama but in recent years has been notable for other reasons. In 2014, the entire line was washed away by storms hitting the south coast and services were unable to operate down to Cornwall. In the 1800s, two competing railways proposed the current coastal route and a less popular route inland heading over the bleak landscape of Dartmoor and with coastal erosion inevitable at some stage, those in favour of the latter might have benefitted today, had the line existed at the time of the disaster. Today a multi-million pound redevelopment scheme is in place to bolster efforts to hold the sea back, but with nature as relentless as it is, it might only be a matter of time before the line once again comes under threat.
After heading inland toward the town of Newton Abbot, the line splits and heads both inland, for the high speed services, and back toward the coast for locals. In both cases, passengers can link with two of the UK's most popular heritage railways and take the chance to ride behind steam traction. The South Devon Railway travels only a short distance between Buckfastleigh and Totnes but gives visitors a fabulous taste of the past in both its steam and diesel locomotives. A short walk from the heritage station at Totnes Riverside allows tourists to connect with the mainline Totnes Station on the inland route and, with it, more contemporary rolling stock. On the coastal branch from Newton Abbot, the Dartmouth Steam Railway again links with a contemporary station, this time at Paignton, where photographers can capture a mixture of modern and heritage stock mingling with one another. This heritage line continues along the coast to Kingswear Station and Dartmouth Railway Station, the latter of which has no rail connection and simply acted as a ticket office for passengers taking the ferry service across to Kingswear where the trains from Paignton terminate.
Beyond Totnes, the route heads in the direction of Plymouth through curves and gradients suited more to Brunel's failed atmospheric principles and railfanning too can meander through to empty stock movements at Laira Depot, freight from Cornwall and photogenic landscapes across the Tamar River. But for weekend revellers, recreational railfans and frolicing photographers, the area around the English Riviera offers a great deal and should be part of any bucket list for enthusiasts from within the UK and beyond.
Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) are pretty much the only things seen on the Avocet Line though the class type can vary. The Class 150 'Sprinter' (above) regularly travels along both sides of the Exe River, sometimes joined to other units. The Class 158 (below) 'Express Sprinter' is one such unit.
William Courtenay, 11th Earl of Devon was a business colleague of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and supported the building of his doomed atmospheric railway through Powderham Park in the mid-1800s. The line still remains, though now a conventional railway. CrossCountry operate 'Voyager' Class trains (above) to Scotland and the north of England whereas GWR operate their new 800 Class trains (below) from London Paddington.
The 'Pacer' Classes of DMU (140 to 144) can split opinion amongst railfans. For some, they exemplify simplicity and ecomonic transport for the masses. For others they are the epitome of awfulness, harking back to days where British Rail had a shortage of rolling stock and employed these units as a short-term fix. Today they are considered heritage by some, having been slowly withdrawn by most operators in 2019 and 2020. This example is a Class 143, seen near Dawlish.
The iconic InterCity 125 still operates occasionally along the line with its Class 800 successors. Here a CrossCountry set stops at Dawlish where in previous years the entire line had washed away through coastal erosion. The mainline to Cornwall heads inland through Totnes, where mixed units like this example can still be seen. This train is in the old First Great Western livery, since replaced by GWR green.
The South Devon Railway has run trains as a heritage operation since the late 1960s and continues to do so today, despite the difficulties posed by the global pandemic. This photograph portrays the variety of traction that can be seen in any one year. From left to right: 6412 (of 'Flockton Flyer' fame), D6501 (a Class 33) and GWR 4900 Class 4920 'Dumbleton Hall' (since sold to West Coast Railways).
The combination of contemporary services and those of the Dartmouth Steam Railway at Paignton makes for some good railfanning opportunities. D3014 'Samson', a Class 08 shunter is alongside GWR 7800 Class 7827 'Lydham Manor' (above). Across the platform, a Class 150 'Sprinter' (below) brings passengers from elsewhere in Devon. Note the lack of gangway connections on this example compared to others featured in this article.
Since the success of the virtual Warley Show in 2020, the famous Model Railway Club have continued to broadcast virtual content on Warley Wednesdays, including a chat with us at We Are Railfans!
Chetnole is one of only a selection of UK stations that requires a request to either board or alight.