grouping into the Southern Railway

Southern Railway Days

The uncomfortable alliance between Halliday and Newnes ended when the line was purchased by the present operators, Southern Railway, in 1922.

The Harbour and Porlock branches remained privately owned by the Glenthorne Estate. The Glenthorne Harbour Authority maintained running rights for trains between County Gate and Wootton Courteney although, on many occasions, they do run further afield.

Many improvements have been made, including the building of three new locomotives; 'Lew' and two revolutionary Mallets designs ('River Avon' and 'River Brue') to work the heavier goods traffic and summer tourist specials. At first glance it seems strange that a further Manning Wardle was ordered as the North British locomotives have been far more successful. I understand that North British were unable to supply another locomotive in the time frame required. The Mallets are a new departure for the line, using as they do, super heating, compounding and articulation, conceived after the successful use of this type of locomotive on several narrow gauge lines in Europe. They are the only Mallet locomotives working in Great Britain.

Baldwin 'Lyn' with a typical train

At first the prototype 'River Avon' suffered from a number of design flaws and bad-luck; and was viewed with great suspicion by the loco crews It was also involved in a serious accident a year after delivery.

Report of accident here

 'River Brue', delivered some months after this unhappy accident, is a slightly expanded design with the addition of leading and trailing pony trucks which considerably improve the ride qualities. As a result of this experience, 'River Avon' was returned to Eastleigh and upgraded to near the same specification as 'River Brue', taming the worst of her behaviour, but not saving her from an ill reputation as ‘The Beast’, a situation unfortunately reinforced by her SR number, E666!

The Mallets just fit within the L&B loading gauge and by and large perform well. Their low pressure cylinders have however required the removal of some platform masonry along the line; indeed there have been a number of locations where the locos have done it themselves! Likewise they are banned from some sidings following several derailments due to spreading rails. These issues aside, the introduction of these powerful locomotives have done much to mitigate the extreme shortage of traction and an aging fleet.

Mallet 'River Avon' at Barnstaple, circa 1931  (photo: Tate Stripnor)

Four new semi open coaches were also supplied with a mind to the Minehead summer tourist trade. These were promptly nicknamed 'Monsoons' by the railway staff as their deployment so often are a harbinger of torrential rain! One magnificent Pullman coach was also provided and this has become popular. If the railway had not begun to use railcars, I suspect that several more Pullmans would have been built.

By this time however the line had begun to lose passenger and goods traffic to improved road services. Coal traffic and general freight from the harbour had now become the mainstay of the entire railway, though the line remained very popular with tourists during the summer with summer specials benefiting from the power of the Mallets.

In 1930, Southern finally closed the short branch between Barbrook and Lynton, replacing it with a coach service which took passengers from Barbrook to the centre of Lynton. This simplified the train service considerably as now the line could be operated as a ‘through line’ from Minehead to Barnstaple. In practice, as before, it is usual to change trains at Barbrook. Local protestations over the closure were met with a robust response from Eastleigh who pointed out that as Lynton station was a considerable distance from the centre of Lynton and had been the subject of public complaint for many years, a further short distance by charabanc which ran to the centre of Lynton, was a considerable improvement. Nevertheless, plans have at last been laid to build a new station at Lynton.

Despite the cessation of services, the track and station remain. As nature has begun to reclaim the right of way, Lynton station is used as a repository for rolling stock awaiting attention. The engine and goods sheds and station building are rented to local Lynton businesses.

In January 1933, a very heavy storm caused flooding at County Gate. The spring and pond which supplied water for the locomotives overflowed and washed out part of the platform. This has still not been fully repaired but work is due to start shortly.

By 1930, profitability was in decline and rumours abounded that there were plans to close the line. A reduction in the labour force was made which quickly resulted in the railway wearing a slightly 'care-worn' look. By early 1931 the situation had further deteriorated and an attempt to close the line was made. Southern Railway was thwarted by agreements that had been previously made between the Glenthorne Harbour Authority and the extended railway which would have resulted in potentially expensive litigation unlikely to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

A moody scene at Minehead as 'Taw' comes to a standstill.

Southern, as a consequence, began to experiment with railcars in order to reduce costs during low traffic periods. Eastleigh, who wanted to promote their 'modern' image, have decided to use the railway as a 'guinea pig' to develop a new generation of diesel electric railcars. A French engineer, Jehan du Pontivice, who had gained considerable experience in railcar design while working at the Bugatti factory in France was employed as consultant.

The prototype unit, no. 200 was delivered in January 1932 and entered service that March to positive response, despite teething troubles. The railcar was delivered without first class compartments, and as a consequence, was always attached to a combo coach.

Accordingly a further unit, no. 201, much improved and restyled, was delivered in Spring the following year from Short Brothers of Rochester. For the first time in many years, the railway became the fastest way to travel in the area and local traffic began to return. From making a substantial loss during winter months, passenger returns actually showed a small profit. Steam traction continued to be employed during the tourist season when long trains were required and of course continued with goods traffic. Nevertheless, it was quickly discovered that the railcars could easily haul further coaches if it was necessary to strengthen the train.

In 1934, Eastleigh delivered the first production railcars designed for main-line operations, which could potentially be expanded to five coaches. Numbered 301, 302 and 303. One is painted in a dashing aqua green livery while the others are presented in polished metal with a green waistline. Even the interiors are avant-garde with fabric and floor coverings specially made for each railcar set.

The four coach set numbered 304 was presented at the 1934 Paris Salon prior to delivery to Barnstaple. Much to the delight of Eastleigh, it won the coveted first prize for transport innovation and design.

the prestigious white gold trophy from the Paris Salon

The new units have quickly become the pride of the operating staff and are very popular with passengers. One can sense that those working on the line have a new spring to their step! Railcar no 302 has recently been sold to the Glenthorne Harbour branch to strengthen the passenger service  which is increasing quickly and now brings extra traffic to the railway.

The track layout at County Gate was changed during the 1932 winter season as the harbour passenger traffic was rapidly increasing. There is now a direct line from the harbour to the bay platform at County Gate. This has much simplified operations.

The success of these railcars in bringing back passenger traffic has prompted the Southern to again consider relocating the Lynton station buildings down the hill to the site near the Glenlyn viaduct where Newnes had first demanded a new station be built, providing a more convenient service for Lynton and removing the cost of operating the charabanc service from Barbrook. While no decision has been made by 1935, many locals feel that if the Southern choose to carry this plan through, it would demonstrate a long-term commitment to the line’s survival.


In May of this year, the two further railcars have been delivered from Eastleigh; nos. 304 and 305. At the time of writing, they have just been fully commissioned and their modernity has delighted all who use the line. The prototype railcars 200 and 201 have just been acquired by the GHA for their passenger services. It appears that steam traction on this line will be a thing of the past within a few short years.

A new railcar servicing facility has been constructed at Glenlyn Yard, previously nicknamed 'Little Pilton', it is now referred to as the 'Tram depot'.

'Yeo', 'Lew', 'Axe', 'Lyd', and 'River Brue' have been recently completely overhauled, but 'Taw', 'Exe', 'Lyn' and 'River Avon' are near the end of their service lives. It is certain that steam locomotives will be withdrawn when major repairs are required. They may be replaced by sisters of the new Armstrong Whitworth diesel electric unit, currently on trials or by the experimental diesel electric locomotives being developed at Eastleigh.

'River Avill' is an articulated locomotive; effectively two engines back to back. Each employs a 330hp LV Sulzer engine, connected to the driving wheels by electric transmission to one axle with the remaining wheels coupled with rods. Initial results are very promising and I understand that footplate crews are enthusiastic. The locomotive does has the disadvantage of having two diesels so it is only economic to operate on long trains. The coupling rods to the remaining driving wheels could also be a long term source of maintenance costs.

One the 330 hp Sulzer engines supplied by Armstrong Whitworth installed in 'River Avill'

I suspect that the Eastleigh built locomotive, 'River Aller' will actually outshine 'River Avill'. Time will tell. This has the more modern 400 hp Sulzer LD engine with traction motors fitted to all four axles.  As the driving wheels are fitted in bogies, damage to track will be minimised. I understand that Eastleigh are investigating the possibility of being able to link two of these units together when required and operating both of them from a single driving position.

The Eastleigh design is certainly very modern in its appearance.

The railway comes of age. Diesel electric 'River Avill' on trials at Dunster - photo L.T.Catchpole

the Eastleigh designed locomotive. drawing - courtesy of Southern Railway

The East in ascendancy

There has always been some rivalry between those operating Pilton Yard and those at Glenlyn Yard, often called 'Little Pilton. Staff at Pilton have been slow to embrace the gradual conversion to diesel traction. This has resulted in diesel maintenance and shedding at Glenlyn.

click here and here to see recent film of the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway

A GWR map of 1933 showing the rail network (Barnstaple/Minehead in green and Glenthorne branches in red)


bring 'Lyn' back to life