Brunel’s Ambitious Experiment


Dawlish January
The coastal railway line near Dawlish


For many people the railway journey west from Exeter towards Plymouth and Cornwall is one of the most beautiful in the UK. After leaving the city of Exeter and its Cathedral, the train speeds southwards keeping the river Exe on its left side with ever changing views of the estuary, its boats and the birds feeding on the mudflats. Near the river’s mouth the train turns west, now hugging the coast and its rust-red cliffs. Sometimes the tracks seem perilously close to the beach, sometimes they thread through tunnels punched in the red sandstone by Victorian engineers. On a good day there are fine views of the beach, the sun-sparkling sea and the coastal towns such as Dawlish. On a stormy high-tide day, I have seen fellow passengers drenched having opened a window just as a wave hits the sea wall.

This February, a succession of severe storms hit the south and south west of the UK causing significant damage and disruption. Part of this included the destruction of this railway line at Dawlish where the sea wall was breached and the tracks were left hanging in the air. Devon and Cornwall were no longer accessible by rail and this significantly affected the local economy and way of life.

Network Rail responded with a huge and sustained engineering effort to rebuild the line which opens again today, Friday April 4th. They have certainly pulled out all the stops and are to be congratulated on their achievement. To mark the reopening, I wrote a piece about the Atmospheric Railway, an an ambitious experiment in railway technology performed at and around Dawlish more than 150 years ago by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The photo was taken by Hazel Strange

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