The former Great Western branch line across Dartmoor to Princetown lost its passenger services 60 years ago on 3 March 1956, a date which was to see the circuitous and steeply graded route closed completely.
The origins of the future Great Western branch line date back to the early 19th century and the development of the Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway. This 4ft 6in gauge line was promoted by Thomas Tyrwhitt, who was later knighted, to carry freight from Dartmoor to Plymouth. Although it was initially anticipated that the bulk of the traffic would be agricultural, ultimately the horse-powered line was to prove important in the movement of granite from the quarries around Princetown to the quayside in Plymouth. The line was initially authorised by an Act of 2 July 1819 with a second Act authorising an extension to Sutton Pool in Plymouth and a branch there to Cattewater. The line opened from Sutton Pool to King Tor on 26 September 1823.
The 10½-mile long branch from Yelverton to Princetown was authorised as the Princetown Railway by an Act of 13 August 1878. Although backed by the Great Western Railway, the new line was to be built to standard rather than broad gauge. In order to construct the line, the section of the former Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway between Yelverton and Princetown was acquired for £22,000. Much of the trackbed of the older railway was reused, but there were minor deviations where the curvature of the original route was too severe for locomotive-hauled trains.
Following construction, the funding of which was partially supported by the Home Office, the new route was officially examined by Colonel Yelland of the Board of Trade on 7 July 1883. He was, however, unwilling to sanction the line’s opening at this stage; it was only opened to passenger services on 11 August 1883 following a second inspection. Initially there were four return workings per day with departures from Horrabridge — the station at Yelverton did not open until 1 May 1885 — at 8.57am, 12.4pm, 3.5pm and 6.37pm. Workings from Princetown departed at 8.12am, 10.52am, 2.17pm and 5.42pm.
When the line opened there was one intermediate station — Dousland — but additional halts were opened, from west to east, at Burrator & Sheepstor on 4 February 1924, Ingra Tor on 2 March 1936 and King Tor on 2 April 1928. Apart of the extreme curvature of much of the line, it also suffered from severe gradients; apart from a short section between Dousland and Eggworthy Siding, the locomotive crew was faced by an almost incessant climb from the junction to the branch terminus, with the first section from Yelverton being as steep as 1 in 40.
Apart from the traffic generated by Dartmoor Prison, which had its origins in the early 19th century but which had reopened as a civilian prison in 1851, granite quarried from the local quarries was also a significant part of the line’s business. There were sidings established at Foggintor (closed 1906) and Swell Tor to cater for the granite traffic.
In 1911 there were five down working on Mondays to Fridays with an additional two on Saturdays; in the up direction there were departures at 7.5am (Tuesdays only), 7.25am (except Tuesdays), 10am, 12.32pm (Saturdays only), 2.20pm, 6.42pm and 8.50pm (Saturdays only). There was one return working on Sundays; this departed from Yelverton at 2.45pm, arriving at Princetown at 3.18pm; the return journey departed the branch terminus at 6.45pm and arrived at Yelverton at 7.18pm.
In 1939 there were the following departures from Yelverton to Princetown: 8am, 11.23, 2.50pm (except Saturdays), 2.55pm (Saturdays only), 4.51pm (except Wednesdays and Saturdays), 5.12pm (Wednesdays and Saturdays only), 6.55pm and 9.47pm (Wednesdays and Saturdays only). In the up direction, there were departures from Princetown at 7.40am, 10.30am, 12.14pm (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays only), 4pm, 6pm and 8pm (Wednesdays and Saturdays only). There was no service on Sundays. In the down direction the slowest train took almost an hour with the fastest taking around 40 minutes; in the up direction the journey time varied between 36 and 41 minutes.
In 1949 the service from Yelverton to Princetown comprised three passenger and two mixed traffic trains daily from Monday to Saturday, with an additional passenger train on Saturday. The service from Princetown to Yelverton comprised four passenger trains, with an additional passenger train on Saturday. There was also a mixed traffic train (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), and a freight train (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) which stopped only at Swell Tor siding (if required), Dousland, and Yelverton, before running on to Horrabridge.
The locomotives that operated over the branch were initially 0-6-0Ts Nos 919 and 923; these were replaced by June 1892 by either 0-4-2Ts of the ‘517’ class of 0-6-0STs of the ‘850’ class until the early 20th century. Thereafter, most services were in the hands of 2-6-2Ts; initially these were the ‘3101’ class (which later became the ‘44xx’ class) until towards the end of the line’s life when they were replaced by the ‘45xx’ 2-6-2Ts. Although many of the passenger trains were often single coaches, two coaches were latterly kept for use on the line; these had to be sent regularly to Swindon for wheel turning as a result of the sharp curves on the line.
Although there had been a brief upturn in the usage of the line for prison traffic to and from Dartmoor Prison during the war, this largely ceased once peace was restored and the line’s future under British Railways (Western Region) was destined to be short-lived.
Passenger services were withdrawn as from 5 March 1956 although the actual last services operated on 3 March. The last departure from Princetown was comprised of two ‘45xxx’ 2-6-2Ts Nos 4568 and 4583 plus a rake of six coaches. Freight facilities were withdrawn at the same time from the entire branch. Demolition of the line commenced at the Princetown end on 15 October 1956; amongst the locomotives used in the work were three 2-6-2Ts: Nos 4568, 5567 and 5569. Today, the trackbed between Dousland and Princetown remains largely intact and forms the route of a footpath and cycleway. Beyond Dousland to Yelverton, the line has largely disappeared and in the years since the branch to Princetown and the main line through Yelverton have closed, the town of Yelverton has grown and evidence of the Great Western’s presence has largely disappeared.