The Atmospheric Railway

Brief History     The Broad Gauge     Steam Locomotives    

The “Western” Diesel Hydraulics     Limited Edition Railway Prints of Dawlish

The Atmospheric System
The line through Dawlish was originally intended to be an “Atmospheric Railway”, mainly because the Directors of the South Devon Railway had been very impressed with such a system following a visit to a line at Dalkey, near Dublin. 
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was given the task of designing the line which was based on a relatively simple system.  A continuous pipe was laid between the rails (Broad Gauge) which had a leather valve running the length of the pipe at the top.  Air was exhausted from the pipe by engine houses located at regular intervals which basically sucked a piston along inside the pipe, which was attached to a carriage known as a “piston carriage” with other carriages attached.

The engine house at Dawlish in 1847

Although work was underway to construct the pipes, stationery engines and boilers in the spring of 1845 at Exeter, Countess Wear, Turf and Starcross, the next engine houses for Dawlish, Teignmouth, Summer House and Newton Abbott, were not started until 1846.  As a consequence, the line was not ready in time for Atmospheric working and the first trains were hauled by steam locomotives, hired from the GWR as from 30th May 1846.  Test trains for the Atmospheric system were started in February 1847 but public services did not commence until 13th September 1847.  The whole service, including freight trains, operated from February 1848.

The appearance of engineless trains must have seemed incredible to the public at the time and in general, the system well liked with no smuts, a smooth ride, rapid acceleration/quicker timings (the highest recorded speed was 68 mph with a train of 28 tons), with the same level of punctuality as everywhere else.  Unfortunately however, the whole system went badly wrong under extreme weather conditions, starting off with icy weather in the winter of 1847/48.  Icy conditions caused the valve to freeze and not close properly which affected services on several occasions.  Additional problems then occurred in the summer when hot weather caused the valve to become too dry and tear, not to mention the leather valve being eaten away by rats!  Excessive leakage of air into the pipe through the valves put more work onto the pumping engines, which were never efficient even for their normal duty, which then led to excessive fuel consumption and frequent breakdowns of the pumping engines themselves.  A lack of telegraphic communications between the engine houses meant that the boilers for the pumping engines could not be regulated for the flow of traffic, in effect working double the time actually required, often running short of steam.

End of the Atmospheric Railway
The teething problems coincided with the half year accounts for the first half of 1848 which showed a loss – something almost unheard of for a major railway company at the time.  In August 1848, infuriated shareholders voted to abandon it almost as quickly as they voted for it.  This was despite staff reducing costs to a level where the Atmospheric system would have returned a good profit in the second half of the year, including completion of the engine houses at Dainton, Totnes and Torquay.  Normal Atmospheric working continued until the last train, which worked on Saturday night, 9th September 1848.  The engine houses were then closed for good and locomotive hauled trains returned to the scene.

An Atmospheric Train at Dawlish in 1848
The leading coach was known as a "Piston Carriage" and would have been enclosed,
rather exposing the Driver to the elements!

Isambard Kingdom Brunel link..... 
Brunel Lecture