Churston Ferrers is a quiet village in Devon with a population of just over 2,000. It has a pub dating back to medieval times, a grammar school of some renown, and a railway station.
The railway station is not connected to the national network, however. It’s on the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway (PDSR) from Paignton to Kingswear.
The village is one of those places one might easily imagine the Great Western Railway (GWR) advertising on idyllic 1930s posters about bathing and rambling. It’s just down the road from where Agatha Christie had her summer house (accessible by train from Greenway Halt), and it has the steam railway to add to the atmosphere.
Back in 2009, the Association of Train Operating Companies’ Connecting Communities report suggested nearby Brixham as one of 20 towns that it would like to see considered for reconnection to Britain’s passenger network - via Churston Ferrers (RAIL 620).
At the time, Brixham mayor Graham Oliver suggested at a parish meeting that the re-opening might be worth looking into, but his idea was laughed into dismissal by locals.
Six years on, nothing much seems to have changed, and it must be noted that a succession of perhaps unsurmountable obstacles would need to be overcome.
But with support for re-opening the March-Wisbech line gathering momentum (RAIL 776), and with the Swanage Railway keen to run heritage diesel multiple units on the national network following a £3.2 million signalling upgrade completed earlier this year (RAIL 769), is the time right to look again at another of the Connecting Communities aspirations - and take the main line as far as Churston Ferrers with a bus link to Brixham?
Churston station opened in 1861 as part of the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, which ran initially from Torre to Paignton until the line to Kingswear was finished in 1864. Originally built to broad gauge for interoperability with the GWR, the line was a busy summer route until its closure.
The Brixham line closed in 1963, and the tracks were lifted the following year. Churston station was bought by the Dart Valley Light Railway in December 1972. It has been hugely renovated, with a new engine workshop on the former Brixham siding and a reinstatement of the loop lifted under British Rail. (The DVLR is now the PDSR, and the nearest main line station is now Paignton.)
After 1972 the preserved railway started operating to Goodrington, just south of Paignton, and a strange mix is now visible in the PDSR’s considerable sidings - First Great Western HSTs rubbing shoulders with ex-GWR ‘Prairie’ tanks.
At Brixham there is very little left of the railway, with only a thin line of greenery and trees giving a clue to its former route out to the west of the town. The station is long gone, replaced by an industrial estate and workshops, although the line to Brixham is actually virtually undisturbed.
Brixham station has been cleared and built over with light industrial units, and the bridges on the line have to some extent been removed. Some of the Churston end of the line has also been built over, and it now lies under an access road behind a row of houses.
This may seem a very minor obstacle in the greater railway picture, in a small town with a relatively small population, but rebuilding work here would cause significant local outcry, and would almost certainly inconvenience a high percentage of the town’s population.
Indeed, no option has been tabled for the reinstatement of the Brixham branch, as the local bus service is flexible and trains would doubtless be unable to compete.
Thankfully, the line from Kingswear in the south to Paignton in the north has been revived, and now thrives thanks to the efforts of the PDSR.
The enterprising outfit operates pleasure boat trips in Tor Bay, as well as providing heritage railway trips and hosting charters regularly from other parts of the country.
A catalyst for ATOC’s Connecting Communities report was the realisation that the average age of the UK’s population was getting higher, and that further investment in connecting ageing communities to the transport network should be considered.
Many of the communities suggested in the report were selected using demographics data from local authorities. And many options were floated, including using heritage lines to connect communities to the main line network, and the use of bus links in remote areas to new stations or re-opened lines. One example used was the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, but the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway was also suggested as one of the more practicable options.
The report suggested that very little investment would be required to re-open the line to Churston Ferrers to service trains, and also recommended using the PDSR’s tracks to extend an hourly service from Exmouth via Exeter. One benefit of doing so would be to relieve pressure from Newton Abbot, by providing relief to Paignton terminating services.
Many tourists use the main line to Paignton to alight for the PDSR, and a Churston extension would provide locals with a means of avoiding a bus journey from Paignton.
Comparisons with steam-hauled services on the Cambrian Coast line may well be evoked in the minds of some, as they proved very popular. Potential for heritage traction and steam haulage on service trains has precedents, and such services in Torbay may be feasible if the line were reconnected to the main line.
The ATOC report stated a potential catchment of 17,500 people in the local area, and that it would potentially be one of the cheaper railway re-openings in the UK if it went ahead.
As a comparitive statistic, according to the material published as part of MetroWest’s consultation on rebuilding the line from Bristol to Portishead, an estimated catchment of more than 10,000 is needed for a station to be considered for re-opening. Considering the tourist potential of the Torbay area, which is already well established, a potential service similar to the planned Swanage Railway extension might be feasible and remunerative.
The ATOC report specified that it recommended the line to Churston be reconnected, and then the use of a local bus route to Brixham. Considering the distance from Churston Ferrers to Brixham is a little under a mile and a half, the rebuilding of a standard gauge railway line to the town would almost certainly not be worth the investment and the severe disruption it would cause in the short to mid-term.
The Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway now occupies a sizeable portion of Churston station and its platforms. The former Brixham platform is occupied by PDSR’s carriage works, and with permission from the PDSR, it would be relatively simple to upgrade the line to Churston and make running main line passenger trains a possibility. The PDSR has a busy summer service, but with some flexibility and some negotiating, this could be fixed - particularly if ATOC’s idea for expanding the track at the Goodrington end were to be put into practice.
So is reconnecting the Churston line to the main railway network feasible? ATOC certainly believed so in 2009, and believed that it would be beneficial to the ageing local population of tourists and retirees. It also believed the line’s reconnection would be remunerative, despite some local scepticism regarding its potential for serving Brixham.
A good bus service, the permission of the local heritage line, and some frequent commuter trains to and from Churston may be enough to persuade the local populace that the future for their towns really does lie in the railways.
Nobody is suggesting this will be the next Borders Railway, but it is a potentially easy victory to boost Network Rail’s currently failing image and credibility.
Before anything happens on this line, however, the support of the locals must be secured. Without willing passengers, what’s the point of a passenger railway?
- This feature was published in RAIL 780 on August 5 2015