Doubts over bid to see mainline trains back on branch line

The Dartmouth Steam Railway, left, and Paignton Station, right.

The Dartmouth Steam Railway, left, and Paignton Station, right. - Credit: Google Maps

A proposal to see mainline trains back running between Paignton and Kingswear could be derailed due to concerns over the impact on the steam railway already using the track.

The idea to restore mainline services to the branch line which was officially closed by British Rail in 1972 has been put forward by Totnes and Torbay MPs Anthony Mangnall and Kevin Foster.

But doubts have been raised by the company running steam services on the line, and the Liberal Democrat leader of Torbay Council has written to the Transport Secretary to set out his concerns.

The seven-mile former Great Western Railway route through Goodrington and Churston shut following the Beeching cuts, named after British Rail chairman Richard Beeching whose report in the 1960s led to the closure of large parts of the loss-making network.

The Paignton to Kingswear line was sold to the Dart Valley Railway and the line is now run by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company, with stops at Goodrington and Churston stations.

Track and station at Goodrington, Paignton, on the heritage line operated by Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company

Track and station at Goodrington, Paignton, on the heritage line operated by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company. - Credit: Ed Oldfield

It is popular with rail heritage enthusiasts and tourists, and links to a ferry crossing the River Dart to from Kingswear to Dartmouth.

Mr Mangnall, whose constituency includes Churston and Brixham, backed by neighbouring Torbay MP Mr Foster, has applied for Government funding from the Restoring Your Railway scheme to carry out studies and prepare a business case for the restoration of mainline services with access from Goodrington and Churston stations. 

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He has also submitted a bid for the reopening of Brent station on the line between Plymouth and Exeter, backed by local councillors. The station at South Brent closed in 1964, after the closure a year earlier of the Primose Line to Kingsbridge.

Mr Mangnall says the proposals to restore public rail links are an opportunity to improve the transport network in South Devon in an environmentally friendly way, reducing pollution and congestion on the roads and supporting the local economy with better links for commuters and visitors.

Almost nine out of 10 people - 87 per cent - who responded to Mr Mangnall’s online survey supported reopening Churston and Goodrington stations for mainline services, with large majorities saying it would relieve congestion at Churston Grammar School, boost tourism and benefit businesses.

Mr Mangnall has said that his proposed scheme would work alongside the steam railway, which he described as part of the fabric of the community.

He said: “Its future is in no doubt and these plans are not designed to impinge on its existence. In fact, the steam railway is sacrosanct and any development and improvement to our rail links should be done alongside the steam railway as opposed to in place of it.”

But the Dartmouth Steam Railway which runs steam-hauled services on the Paignton to Kingswear line has serious concerns about the plan.

There are fears that returning the route to mainline standards, which could mean doubling the track to increase capacity, could cost millions.

The company would need to give permission for access to the privately owned line, and  would not agree to anything that would jeopardise its future.

Obstacles to restoring service include the limited capacity on the single track which has steam trains every 35 minutes in July and August, a six-week annual closure for maintenance, and limited access and parking at Churston station.

Torbay Council leader Steve Darling has now written to the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps setting out his own doubts, warning that the company felt the restoration of mainline services was a ‘non-starter’.

Cllr Darling wrote: “The Dartmouth Steam Railway is a significant attraction in Torbay valued both by visitors and residents alike.

“The Steam Railway fear that it will only take a marginal number of passengers to switch from the heritage trains to mainline trains for their financial model to be unviable.

“At a time of significant economic uncertainty, now is not the time to create additional stress to an attraction in Torbay when they will be fighting for survival in a post-pandemic world.”

Cllr Darling said the company and the council would be interested in looking into the development of a park and ride site at Goodrington Station on the heritage line, and the council had raised the possibility of cross-ticketing between mainline services and the heritage railway, which he hoped would be followed up.

He said: “The future of the steam railway is our key concern. It is a significant asset for Torbay. It is something that makes Paignton special, and to lose it because of what some people may see as progress would be absolutely criminal.”

The council has been given a copy of a letter sent to Mr Mangnall in early February from John Jones, managing director of the Dartmouth Steam Railway, outlining the 'significant hurdles' in the way of restoring mainline services.

Mr Jones wrote: “We view ourselves as custodians of this incredible business and, as I’m sure you will understand, we will not agree to any proposals that put the business at risk.”

Mr Mangnall has said he was 'deeply disappointed' that the proposals to reopen Goodrington and Churston stations for mainline services were not supported by the partnership of Liberal Democrats and Independents running Torbay Council.

He said it was a 'fantastic opportunity' to improve local infrastructure in an area facing pressure from housing development.

The scheme would attract more investment, enhance the environment and reduce congestion, and would 'continue to preserve the beauty of South Devon'.

He said he had spoken to the Dartmouth Steam Railway and rail providers about the possibility of through-ticketing between the services.

Mr Foster has said he wanted to see if it would be feasible to create a parkway-style station at Goodrington as an alternative to the station in Paignton town centre, which would give commuters and leisure users easier access to the Riviera Line rail link to Torquay, Newton Abbot and Exeter.

The station is close to the beaches at Goodrington North and South, and the Splashdown Quaywest water park, near a large public car park.

A decision on which schemes will receive funding of up to £50,000 to cover three-quarters of the cost of developing proposals is expected in May.