Central or southern? Cornwall’s contested railway route

These days we tend to take the route of the current railway mainline in Cornwall from Penzance to Plymouth for granted. But from 1844 to 1846 a heated debate raged about which direction the railway in Cornwall should take. There were already two passenger railways in Cornwall. A short line from Bodmin to Wadebridge had opened in 1834 and the longer ten-mile Hayle railway linked that town with Redruth in 1838. The question remained. How should these railways link up with lines radiating out from London?

Travelling in style: third class carriage on Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway

In 1842 the Government announced that Falmouth would lose the packet service that brought mail from overseas. The packets were to move to Southampton, which the railway had reached in 1840. It was now a lot quicker for packets to land there and the mail be taken by rail to London. It was claimed in Cornwall that the packets brought £80-100,000 a year to the local economy (equal to £8-10 million nowadays). This was enough to concentrate minds on linking Falmouth to the emerging railway system as quickly as possible to get the packets back. As was stated at an earlier meeting in 1839: ‘if they had a railroad from Falmouth to Exeter nothing on earth could induce the government to change the [packet] station; but if not, Plymouth or Southampton must take it from us’.

By 1844 two separate schemes were in contention. The first – the Cornwall Railway – proposed a southern or coastal route, close to the current line, joining Falmouth and Plymouth. This was opposed by the Cornwall and Devon Railway, proposing a line from Falmouth to Bodmin and then north of Bodmin Moor via Launceston to Exeter. The advantage of a central line was argued to be its slightly shorter length and less need for tight curves and viaducts, the possibility of ‘improving’ the land and avoidance of the ‘dangers’ of crossing the Tamar at Devonport (it wasn’t clear at this stage if this was to be by bridge or ferry). Its proponents also questioned the wisdom of building a railway line right by the sea between Dawlish and Teignmouth. The supporters of the southern line pointed to the lack of traffic in the ‘desolate’ country served by the central line and the way the southern route communicated with Cornwall’s main harbours as well as joined its three main mining districts at Camborne-Redruth, St Austell and the then booming Liskeard district in the east.

The proposed central line ran from Bodmin to Launceston

Although the central line mounted the more effective public relations exercise, with support from several MPs, a majority of Cornwall’s landed gentry and enthusiastic meetings up and down Cornwall, the southern route had the backing of influential figures such as Lord Falmouth, Joseph Treffry, the mid-Cornwall industrialist, and the Tweedy banking family, plus the Royal Cornwall Gazette newspaper. Crucially, it was also backed by the Great Western Railway, which had already got permission for its South Devon line from Exeter to Plymouth in 1844 and was beginning to build that line, which was to reach Plymouth by 1848. In contrast, the alliance of the central line with the South Western Railway was more fitful and the South Western had still to reach Exeter.

In 1845 the two schemes were scrutinised in London. The Board of Trade declared in favour of the southern route. It would have more traffic, its gradients were less severe and a line was already being built to Plymouth. In addition, it preferred it for national security reasons, lying closer to the coast in case of invasion! The central railway looked doomed and its shareholders merged with the Cornwall Railway.

But then the Cornwall Railway Bill was held up in the House of Lords. Sensing a second chance, and in the midst of the ‘railway mania’ gripping the UK, supporters of a central route renewed their efforts and launched another Cornwall and Devon Central Railway Company. However, their hastily drawn-up scheme was rejected by Parliament in 1846 because of technical errors. The Act for a Cornwall Railway was then passed and by 1859 Brunel had built his bridge across the Tamar. The rest is history.

Brunel’s bridge under construction

In hindsight, the choice of the southern route looks inevitable. The sparse population north of the moors and the difficulties experienced later by the Southern Railway’s north Cornwall branch would seem to support this. Yet consider the ongoing problems of the line at Dawlish, something the climate crisis and rising sea levels will hardly lessen. And note the warning of Sir William Hussey Vivian MP in 1839: ‘if Plymouth got a line before Falmouth, the former will supersede the latter’, which is exactly what happened.