The Falmouth Branch

The Map

The Falmouth Branch is marked in black, while the mainline is in brown and closed railways are in grey.

Open stations are in red and closed ones in white. Tunnels are marked by dashes. Intact viaducts are marked in black and abolished ones in grey.

Main roads are marked in red. Minor roads are omitted as unimportant.

Water is blue; land is green.

Map approximately to scale but you may rather buy OS Landranger 204 instead of trying to use this one.

Both major schemes to get a railway to Falmouth envisaged the line as the end of a major through route from London, so it is somewhat ironic that in fact the line has never been of serious importance and is now a rural branch off a secondary mainline. Perhaps more ironic is that had all gone according to the original plan this page would have a slightly different yellow background and green text and borders. It begins with a short tale of two railway companies - the fabled Great Western Railway, with its splendid non-standard track gauge (it laid its rails 7ft¼inch apart because the engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, thought that things would work better that way), and the more notorious London and South Western Railway, with its squabbling shareholders, untidy plans and general tendency towards delay in all parts of the organisation.

Falmouth, a town towards the south-western end of Cornwall, began the 19th century as a major packet port, with its deepwater river estuary and sheltering promontries making it the ideal place to bring a ship into shore, either for repairs, restocking or to unload goods which could be better transported overland. When the London and Southampton Railway opened in 1840, this traffic shifted up the coast to Southampton and threatened Falmouth with bankruptcy.

The London and Southampton, swiftly renamed as the London and South Western when it decided to expand its horizons a bit, spent its life in a bitter feud with the Great Western Railway which finally ended in 1966 when the managers of the former GWR were passed control of the former LSWR lines in Devon and Cornwall and promptly slaughtered the network. Until then, anyone who wanted to get either railway to do anything could simply mention that the other was planning to do it instead; the response would be instantaneous and the exact plans of the other rarely checked before thousands of pounds were outlayed on arranging to head them off. Both railways were keen to get a big mainline into the open countryside west of Exeter and stake their claim to all of Devon and Cornwall - the GWR preferring coastal routes and the LSWR preferring to go in fairly straight lines over the moors.

In 1844 Falmouth made protesting noises to the LSWR about how the LSWR's prospering London to Southampton mainline was ruining Falmouth. The LSWR responded with the kind offer of supporting a mainline from London to Falmouth. The Cornwall and Devon Central Railway would run west from Exeter through Okehampton, Launceston, Bodmin and Truro to the port town. Falmouth was enthusiastic and the financial response to this railway was adequate to allow it to purchase the nearby Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway from under the noses of the GWR's local company. However, at the time there was a regulatory body to decide which railways should be allowed to be built and which ones were spoilers of no benefit; in 1844 work actually began on the GWR-backed South Devon Railway, which was to run west from Exeter to Plymouth, so the LSWR's route was deemed to be a duplicate (though it was accepted as probably being the superior route) and it was duly blocked. Ensuing attempts to revive the scheme ultimately ended up with the LSWR owning a mainline to Plymouth and a rural branchline to Padstow, on the north coast of Cornwall; neither survives today.

This left the LSWR with an obsolete railway between Bodmin and Wadebridge, unconnected to the rest of their network, and the GWR with a clear road to the Far West, nicely linked up with their broad gauge. The South Devon's arrival in Plymouth was somewhat delayed by Brunel's bright ideas about ways to abolish railway locomotives, but once the bright ideas had all been settled and trains were running into the GWR's Plymouth station it was decided to extend the network west from Plymouth into Cornwall. The Cornwall Railway, part-funded by all the companies which would be working trains from London to Plymouth, was approved by Parliament in 1846. It would build a broad gauge mainline from Plymouth to Falmouth. Work began at Truro in 1847 and progressed with due speed for all of about six weeks until the company noticed that its railway was going to be expensive and suspended work between Truro and Falmouth.

With the LSWR out of the picture - it eventually reached Cornwall, but never got to Truro - there was space for another railway to cause trouble and so one obligingly did. The West Cornwall Railway was opened from the western outskirts of Truro to Penzance in 1852, laid with a single track to the national standard gauge of 4ft8½inch and so using trains which would be incompatible with those from London. However, it promised to upgrade to broad gauge if asked nicely. After a bit it noticed that its Truro terminus - located where Penwithers Junction is now - was rather rubbish and it extended round a headland to a terminus at Newham, in Truro Docks, just to the south of where Tesco Truro is now. In May 1859 the Cornwall Railway opened to Truro after completing its bridge across the Tamar at Plymouth and the two railways arranged to link up in a new Truro station. The West Cornwall added an extra rail to its track so that London trains could run through to Penzance and everyone was happy - particularly the good folk of Penzance, who had secured a couple of daily through trains to and from London.

Work then finally began on the Falmouth branch and this was completed to single track broad gauge with passing loops in 1863, although the tunnels and bridges were built for double track. Loops and stations were provided at Perran (later Perranwell) and Penryn and the terminus was at Falmouth Docks. The rather fine route took in eight viaducts, several impressive cuttings and two tunnels. The general style of the route was that of the main Cornwall Railway (it was designed and built by the same people, except that Brunel died in 1859 of overwork and never saw the line completed), so the viaducts consisted of stone piers with timber struts holding up timber girders. Tunnels were faced with local stonework and stations were mostly small, although Falmouth was given long platforms and an overall roof to befit its status as the western end of the Great Western network. It also had a docks branch, engine shed and various sidings.

1892 saw the abolition of Brunel's broad gauge and one May weekend converted everything in the area to standard gauge - somewhat aided by the fact that all that had to be done on the West Cornwall was lift the third rail added in the 1850s. The branch remained roughly the same until a modernisation programme in the 1920s began some upgrades, including a new station at Penmere, a realigned station at Penryn and a few slight tweaks to the route. Four of the timber viaducts were replaced with stone ones, while the other four were replaced with embankments. Curiously, two of the new viaducts were built for double track.

Another forty years passed, during which time the line was popular with tourists but lost importance as a through route (so far as a single-track branch line can ever qualify as a through route). In the 1960s a cost-cutting programme of line closures and cutbacks, based around a report written by one Dr Beeching, axed all goods facilities on the route (apart from Falmouth Docks) and saw trains reduced to diesel multiple units of various lengths, although the route is not one of those listed in the dreaded Appendix 2 as being down for closure. A new station at Falmouth Town perhaps helped keep up traffic levels. Through trains to London ceased in 1979. It was proposed for closure in all the options in the 1983 Serpell Report, but Serpell's headline option proposed closing pretty much everything apart from a few mainlines radiating from London and so the whole report was firmly stamped upon. (The other six unlucky routes which Serpell was going to kill whatever were St Erth to St Ives (which had only just dodged Beeching anyway), Yeovil to Dorchester, the Weston-Super-Mare avoiding line, Sudbury to Marks Tey, Newcastle to Carlisle and Georgemas Junction to Thurso (another narrow escape from Beeching). It's an interestingly motley band of railways to be seen dead with.)

Instead of meeting their Maker as proposed, the seven passenger lines on the closure list finally got some kind of realisation that they were going to be around for the long haul; all seven remain open today and are mostly doing quite well. For the Falmouth branch, any surviving station buildings were demolished and the western end of the mainline from London was worked as a siding under a "staff" system - there were no signals along the line (except for those protecting the junction) and a staff kept at Truro was given to drivers to permit them to work their trains along the line in the knowledge that there was only one staff so they wouldn't meet anything along the way.

This system remained in use until 2009, when a new loop was brought into use at Penryn and service levels increased to provide the line with half-hourly trains under conventional colour light signals. Perranwell, the most intact of the three original stations, was demoted to a halt. The resultant service is a little liable to fall over when things go wrong, since Penryn is not halfway along the line and trains have half an hour to do the 30 minute round trip from Penryn to Truro and back, leaving little time to cater for disruption, late traincrew or passengers who wish to get on at Perranwell. On the plus side, closure seems to be comfortably far away at the moment - not only has a broke train operator has been persuaded to improve the service, but during the infamous stock shortages at the end of 2006 the Falmouth Branch was the only Cornish branch not to be turned over to buses. (The stock shortage was entirely self-inflicted - First Great Western sent a quarter of their West Country trains off-lease, in accordance with their franchise deal, and found that they couldn't find stock for a quarter of their West Country services). However, through trains - even to Plymouth - look sadly unlikely to be resurrected in the near future.

On a more positive note, the tattered remains of the LSWR network around Exeter are on the up at the moment and various bits of line re-openings are a possibility. Through trains from Penzance through Truro to London Waterloo ran for a few years - over GWR metals as far as Exeter - but these ceased in 2009 after service upgrades between Exeter and Waterloo left the operator with no spare trains.


Truro station is not quite in original condition, since the original station was rather small and had an overall roof. A rebuilt station opened just before the turn of the 20th century with four platforms, two footbridges, long platforms with big awnings and a fine brick station building - plus waiting rooms, offices, etc.. Two signalboxes, large goods yards and an engine shed completed the station, which was to serve the city which had just regained its title of Capital of Cornwall (from Bodmin, which had been built in the wrong place and so had to make do with a couple of rather puny branch lines which were too puny to survive Beeching). To add to the general railway importance of the place, it was the Great Western locomotive City of Truro which in 1904 became the country's first steam locomotive to (allegedly) break the 100mph barrier as it descended to Taunton station with a mail train. Unfortunately Taunton station is nowhere near Truro or, indeed, in Cornwall at all (it is actually 150 miles up the line in Somerset) but you can't have everything.

This view looks from the footbridge at the east east end of the station. Platform 2 is to the left (with an unusual visitor in the form of a Spitfire Railtours train to Penzance), Platform 3 is below us and Platform 4 is out of view to the right behind the awning. Behind the camera is Truro level crossing, a former bank of sidings (now replaced by a housing estate called "The Sidings") and Truro East signal box. After the abolition of West box in 1971 the box is simply known as "Truro" or "T". How Truro laid its grubby paws on one of the 24 single-letter signalling codes for the Western Region is unclear (yes, 24 - there being few places on the railway beginning with "x" or "z").

Looking back from the west end of Truro station, we can now see Platform 1, the Falmouth branch bay, to the far right. Platforms 2 and 3 run down the centre, while the abandoned platform 4 is off to the left. The footbridge carries a public footpath over the station. Puddles form under the canopy over Platforms 1 and 2, emphasising that Cornwall's stations are not in the best condition that they could be - although at least they are still here (in the 1980s it was possible that they wouldn't be). The station used to be a junction for Newquay as well, until that link to the North Cornwall resort (via Chacewater and Perranporth) was closed in the 1960s. This loss was probably one of the reasons for the demise of the fourth platform, which remains largely intact (although most of it has now been fenced off) but will probably not return since there is no particular use for it. The blue containers off to the left sit at the west end of the station car park which, like all good station car parks, is built on the main goods yard.

Despite the loss of much of its infrastructure and the intrusion of TV display screens and modern ticket barriers, Truro still retains a certain steam-age feel. The main building is still intact (indeed, part of it has been extended) and in railway use. The waiting room on Platform 3 may no longer be warmed by a wood fire but is still open and welcoming. Standard Great Western lower-quadrant semaphore signals remain in use around the station and show no signs of tottering off this mortal coil - particularly as when Network Rail had to install a new signal at the west end of platform 3 in Easter 2009 they drew up a whole new industry standard for the design and installation of lower-quadrant semaphore signals - a form of technology for which the word "obsolete" is perhaps too kind. However, it does rather explain the company's £30,000,000,000 debts.

 For fans of signal T26, it is seen here sitting off to the right, with three rather older examples of the lower-quadrant semaphore dotted around for comparison. The signal is carefully designed to both reflect historic Great Western signalling design and comply with modern safety regulations for staff climbing up it to clean the lenses and check the lamp. Perhaps a modern colour light would have been just as in keeping.

As can be seen from the signal in the middle, which has just signalled away an express to Penzance (calling at Redruth, Cambourne, St Erth and Penzance - unlike the stoppers, which call at Redruth, Cambourne, Hayle, St Erth and Penzance), lower quadrant semaphores are so called because the arm drops to show that the line is clear. On this occasion it isn't any more, but Truro signal box never rushes to return its signals to danger. Note the rather nice little finials on the tops of the signal posts, which Network Rail has even replicated on the top of T26.

The signal to the left controls departures from the Falmouth bay, while the tall one in the distance controls trains leaving the sidings. Truro still has a couple of sidings, which are used for stabling track maintenance equipment and spare (or defective) branch trains. They used to be used for freight traffic too, until it disappeared in the mid-1990s, although the occasional freight train has run since. The warehouse behind this array of obsolete signalling equipment is built on the site of the former engine shed, which once played host to various locomotives for mainline and branch work. Branch trains are now officially allocated to Exeter St Davids depot, but sleep overnight at Penzance Long Rock or Plymouth Laira depots.

Incidentally, for really obsolete signalling equipment you want to go a few stops up the mainline to Liskeard, where London-bound trains are signalled by a rather well-used semaphore arm made of timber which would appear to have been installed some time before 1900. (It is in fact fairly recent; a conventional metal arm was fitted in the 1950s so why someone installed the current assembly - and where they got it from - is unclear.)

Newham branch, Truro

Newham station was the second to open in the Truro area and replaced Truro Road station when services from here began in 1855. It was approached down a long, steep gradient from the original station and formed the terminus of the West Cornwall Railway. It was conveniently sited for Truro's docks and so the small station, with its overall roof and basic facilities, was also equipped with various sidings and a couple of warehouses which were used for general goods to Truro and the various bits of traffic which would be going further afield by water. The creek leading up to Truro is tidal - the picture shows it in winter at low water; it is quite attractive in summer at high water - so coastal vessels could make their way into here.

The Cornwall Railway station opened in 1859 and almost all traffic was diverted to the newer, higher station on the other side of the city. Some goods workings continued to run from here and the first train of the day to Penzance began its journey under the overall roof of Newham until 1863 (with a balancing working from Penzance at the end of the day), which was probably merely a "Parliamentary" service intended to comply with statutory expectations for rail services without bothering to close the route.

After the loss of passenger trains, the station settled down to spend the next 108 years in a life of drudgery with what might count as its original finery steadily disappearing as the decades passed. The long approach line ran attractively around the hillside from Penwithers Junction, where it joined the Cornish mainline, with views out over bits of the estuary and some rather fine rocky cuttings. Upgrades to the A39 to Falmouth continued to take it into account and road vehicles entering or leaving Truro by this route still pass under a steel girder bridge which looks too modern to be disused. However, what little traffic remained ceased in 1971 and the line and its station closed that November.

Most of the railway is now a cyclepath, with the exception of the extremities - the approach to Penwithers Junction is technically not a right of way and the final approach to Newham station has been redeveloped. A road runs through the middle of the site, giving access to the beginning of the cycleway and bits of the old dock area, while flats and offices have been built on the sidings. The old stone warehouse in the centre and the worn dock walls are the only links to the past. The picture was taken from a footpath around Tesco Truro, which sadly arrived too late to have its deliveries made by rail. The loss of Newham was merely a pointer of how railfreight in Cornwall is going - the only freight train which ever uses any part of the West Cornwall network now is the fuel train to Penzance.

Penwithers Junction

Truro Road station was located round the back of Truro, well outside the city at that time (and not exactly in the centre now). The probably rather unimpressive affair opened in 1852 and was Truro's first railway station, with a few trains a day from Penzance courtesy of the West Cornwall Railway. It closed in 1855 and services were diverted to Newham.

When the Cornwall Railway arrived in 1859 at Truro station the West Cornwall proceeded to plunge through the hill on the modern alignment to access the new station and allow through trains from London. Truro Road consequently became a place of some note again, but it was now the junction where the West Cornwall line into the main Truro station branched off the West Cornwall line down to Newham. This little junction between two single track railways obtained the name of Penwithers Junction.

The Falmouth Branch made it a three line junction; a curve was later built to allow trains to run between the two Truro stations, although it's not entirely clear that that was ever used. Although complicated to describe, there was a very nice viewing point from the A390 over Highertown Tunnel looking down on the junction which allowed lots of helpful pictures to be taken of the activity at this far west intercity junction, which is 301 miles from London Paddington (via Bristol Temple Meads).

The plan shows the layout at its peak. The black and blue lines survive, although Truro to Penzance is now the mainline and the straight-ahead line to Falmouth is the branch. The East Cord (as it is labelled here; it probably didn't have a name in reality) provides the link between the two stations. Half is now a very small nature reserve and the other half is overgrown. The red West Cornwall mainline was lifted in 1971; it is now a public footpath from Newham to the junction with the east cord, while from there to the main junction it is an occasionally used well-worn dead-end footpath. For some reason it spent most of its career connected to the Falmouth branch by the yellow chord. In the middle is a small field landlocked by railway lines.

The cutbacks to the railway infrastructure been balanced by a reduction in cutbacks to vegetation and Penwithers Junction is now hidden from the A390 by large bramble bushes. There are now two ways to get a decent photograph of the much-reduced junction. One is to stand on the West Cornwall's Newham line. The other is to hang out of the door window of an express from Penzance and wave the camera around hopefully.

While we await an opportunity to record the junction by the latter method you will have to make do with a picture taken from next to the boundary fence at the end of the West Cornwall's Newham line. The lower, nearer rail running straight across the picture the the Falmouth branch. The slightly higher one vanishing behind a shoulder of ballast is the "canted" track of the West Cornwall line to Penzance.


Perranwell station has always been the first one on the line. It opened under the name of Perran, but it was soon concluded that this was too easily confused with Penryn and the name was lengthed. The ease of this confusion is easily shown by the number of people who nowadays muddle Penryn station with Penmere.

The curved station had up and down platforms, with a goods yard to the left of Falmouth-bound (down) trains; the upper picture is looking towards Falmouth and the lower one towards Truro. It was about half a mile to the nearest centre of population (the village of Perranwell itself) so a habitation grew up around the actual station. Known as "Perranwell Station", in a most original manner, this cluster of houses has grown over the years and now the area within a half-mile radius of the station goes under this name (although it is also part of the Parish of Perranarworthal). It would have been most unfortunate had the station been closed in the Beeching cuts, but happily it survived - albeit with a fairly minimal building, no loop and the goods yard sold for other uses.

The up platform has long since lost all its buildings and what used to be a small ornamental pine tree in the station gardens is now a fully-matured pine tree surrounded by brambles. The down platform presented an increasingly decaying air for many years, although giving it a new shelter (nicely painted in green and white) in the early 1990s helped to improve its appearance. Clearance of vegetation from the old up platform at Penryn as part of the installation of a new crossing loop there acted as a reminder to someone that it was probably time to do the same at Perranwell. However, the station's rural nature counted against it and its position as the least-used station on the route (by a margin of about 60,000 users per year) meant that it was unable to put up a substantial defence to the decision to downgrade it to a request stop which only half the trains would consider stopping at. Thus branch trains leaving their starting point at about 20 minutes past the hour can be invited to call there and those leaving at about 50 minutes past the hour don't.

Perranwell, however, retains more of its original features than any almost other station in Cornwall. The large metal sign in the upper picture, although clearly not entirely original, is still one of only two on the old Cornwall Railway to survive (its sibling, on a similarly lightly-used station, is on the mainline at Lostwitheil). The goods shed is pretty much the only surviving such structure on the entire Cornwall Railway; although now in industrial use, most external features survive intact (including some sliding doors on the platform side of the building). Unlike all other Cornwall Railway stations it has also been spared modernisation projects over the years; the platform edging slabs towards the Truro end look suspiciously original and the platforms are far enough apart for two broad gauge tracks to run between them.

The signal box was once positioned between the goods shed and the down platform, where a tree can be seen growing in the lower picture. Unusually, it was held up on girders so that a siding could pass beneath. Another notable deployment of this method of providing a signal box without using up ground space was at Clapham Junction, which is somewhere towards the other end of the station importance scale.

Leaving the station for Falmouth, trains accelerate along an embankment above the road to Perranwell proper and pass a house which gets a train horn blown at it twice an hour as services announce their approach to a minor foot crossing. The line then proceeds south over Perran Viaduct and through Perran Tunnel towards Ponsanooth and Penryn.

Ponsanooth and Pascoe Viaducts

 The modernisation of the Falmouth Branch in the 1920s perhaps had the most impact around Ponsanooth. The sizeable village, located just to the west of the railway between Perranwell and Penryn, was denied a station when the line initially opened and has never been in line for one since - surprisingly, since the GWR and its successor, the Western Region of British Rail, took great delight in building halts in such notable locations as Elms Bridge (local population of about 20), Hadnock (local population of about 8) and Trouble House (no local population worth speaking of; built purely to serve the pub of the same name).

The original line from Perranwell emerged from Perran Tunnel and ran around the hillside to cross Ponsanooth Viaduct, with fine views of the village. It then ran through a slight crossing and headed over Pascoe Viaduct, which carried the line over a deep valley with a small stream at the bottom. Then it ran around the outside of the hill, under an occupation bridge and over a smaller embankment past the little village of Burnthouse (not to be confused with the larger village of Mabe Burnthouse, two miles to the south on the same road).

When viaduct replacement came up it was decided to carry out some extremely substantial infrastructure works of the sort that railway companies traditionally never bothered with once they'd got their line constructed and opened. Pascoe Viaduct was completely replaced with a new embankment a few yards to the west, the spoil for which was obtained by digging a new and very deep cutting, slicing through the hillside between there and Burnthouse. This cutting required a new occupation bridge, which came in the form of a single brick arch thrusting across the cutting. It is obviously a later addition, since the blue brick construction is completely different to the local stone style of the Cornwall Railway constructions.

The old Pascoe Viaduct is now marked by two high embankments, one on each side of the valley, to the left of descending trains, with a suspicious gap between them. The original small cutting and associated occupation bridge survive today and are still counted as being on railway property (the bridge has even been allocated a location code - it is on the "FAL" line and is 307 miles and 35¾ chains from London Paddington via Bristol). The lower picture shows a train from Truro descending over the new embankment, with the old viaduct in the trees to the right, as seen from the brick occupation bridge.

The upper pictures show the viaducts at Ponsanooth. The new structure is only six arches long but truly has to be seen to be believed. The left-hand picture gives some idea of its scale with a lorry trailer parked at the bottom. The right-hand picture is from a local road, linking the A393 and the A39, which passes under its south end. From above it appears to be a double-track viaduct - it appears from below that the GWR built themselves a new single-track viaduct but retained the option of doubling it by slinging out the side walls on concrete supports. The later viaduct replacements - at Carnon and Collegewood - are unashamably single line. Note the rather fine tapering of the old supports for the original timber viaduct.


Penryn station was always the more important of the two intermediate stations on the line. Originally trains approached in a steep cutting set sharply into a hillside, which brought them out over a valley on a fine timber viaduct. Crossing a local road, they ran into a gently curving station - to the left of the upper picture, with its building adjacent to Station Road and where the entrance to the station car park is today - before swinging into another steeply falling cutting and running under another road, to emerge on Collegewood Viaduct, with fine views down the valley over Penryn.

During the 1920s modernisation it was decided to lop out the curves and build a larger station with more sidings. The first cutting was widened so that trains didn't dig so deeply into the hillside; the viaduct was replaced by a large embankment and a new, straighter station was laid out on the alignment used today. The second cutting survived with the track through it being realigned and eventually fed onto the replacement viaduct at Collegewood. The original station building - now divorced from the platforms by a dozen yards or so - remained in use, surrounded by a busy goods yard.

It didn't last forever and the 1960s cutbacks tore deeply into Penryn station. The original station building, goods shed and signal box all went; sidings disappeared and the loop was removed to leave half of the Falmouth-bound platform in use. Basic buildings became the order of the day, culminating in a bus shelter being provided in the 1980s. Tatty old diesel units were replaced with new Pacers which turned out to be incapable of getting around corners, due to their cheap construction precluding the provision of wheelsets which swiveled for curves. They had been partly intended for the five branch lines west of Plymouth, but were soon bundled off and replaced with the tatty old diesel units. The first of these to wheeze into Gunnislake after the departure of the Pacers was reported to have been greeted by cheers - hardly surprising, since the Plymouth to Gunnislake branch features curves which look too sharp for Pacers to get around.

The failure of the Pacers seems to have prompted a realisation that the Cornish branchlines could not simply be given what the Western Region could afford out of the petty cash and some investment began to come their way again. Although the Sprinters which replaced the tatty old units in 1991 were hardly up-market, they were newer, cleaner, more reliable and got around bends. Perranwell, Penryn and Penmere all got nice new buildings built with bricks and mortar. The line was also threatened with a growth in importance when the University of Exeter took over Cambourne School of Mines and, in association with University College Falmouth, began to develop a new campus at Pig Farm (known in Cornish as Tremough) about quarter of a mile away. Eventually service improvements were proposed.

The loop at Penryn was built with local authority, European Community and Network Rail money, allowing trains to pass here once more. Unfortunately modern footbridges have to be fitted with lifts, roofs and fencing which is solid enough to ensure that 70mph caterpillar-tracked mobility scooters with gun turrets and nuclear warhead protection shields don't fall off the footbridge, so providing one was too expensive and the ready-made second platform remains out of use (a foot crossing would also have been an option, but people have shown a nasty tendency to step out in front of departing or passing trains over the years so foot crossings are now discouraged). Instead the platform was lengthened, with Platform 2 (above, looking south) taking trains to Truro and Platform 1 (middle, looking north) taking trains to Falmouth. Falmouth trains use the loop line to pass Truro ones on the right. Part of the original second platform has been restored for occasional use, as can be seen in the upper picture. This bit of nicely-restored platform with high-intensity lighting is available for the driver to alight onto should he wish to phone the signaller because the signal guarding the end of the loop is at red.

Services are now provided by single-car Class 153 Super Sprinter units, as seen in the upper picture. Once upon a time these were two-car Class 155 units, until they were chopped in half on the basis that they were more useful that way. The two-car fleet was always regarded as underpowered and the single-car examples are even more so, given that one engine has to move around a full coach with two cabs and a toilet without the help of a tailing car to push it through a 75mph headwind. A vaguely interesting result of the conversion is that the units have non-matching cabs - the cab of the Truro bound unit in the middle was bodged in during the rebuild, while the cab of the unit to the right is original.

The bottom picture shows the station as it was prior to the completion of its overhaul and the introduction of the new service, with an ex-Silverlink Trains Class 150/1 (the most basic variety of Sprinter) leaving for Falmouth. The old station had more gardens and fewer lights than the refurbished one. Readers of the Wye Valley Railway section of this website may recognise the Sprinter from Llandogo. Another view of Penryn station - again before rebuilding, but in the snow and with two Class 153s pretending to be a 155 - can be seen in our February 2009 Seasonal Area page.

Collegewood Viaduct

Collegewood Viaduct is the last viaduct on the Falmouth Branch. Having descended sharply out of Penryn station in a deep cutting, trains suddenly emerge onto its high stone arches and sail over a valley with fine views down on the Fal Estuary and the harbour at Penryn. Once over the viaduct, a high embankment carries the line around the hillside before it cuts through a ridge of land to run out into a large valley, home of a small stream, around the back of Falmouth.

Like all viaducts on the line, Collegewood Viaduct initially consisted of stone piers supporting timber fans, which in turn supported the timber floor of the viaduct. This design of viaduct was a cost-cutting measure devised by Brunel for his railways west of Exeter, which came with the general idea that at some point they would be replaced by a more permanent viaduct which was less susceptible to rot.

Most of these viaducts had therefore been rebuilt with extended piers and steel girders or replaced outright with stone structures by 1900, but the Falmouth Branch had been downgraded by then and so the money to replace its collection of eight timber viaducts was not forthcoming. Instead, this project had to wait until the 1920s modernisation, which saw four of the viaducts completely abolished and replaced with embankments.

The other four were progressively dealt with over a seven-year period. Perran's new four-arch stone viaduct came in 1927; Ponsanooth was replaced in 1930 and Carnon went in 1933. Collegewood held the status of Last of Brunel's Timber Viaducts for about a year before the new stone and concrete structure was opened in 1934 as the storm clouds gathered once more over Europe for the run-up to the Second World War. (Strictly speaking Llanelli in South Wales is still reached over a Brunelian timber viaduct, but this was the last of the ones built on stone piers.)

The old viaduct had survived for some 71 years; the new viaduct was finally able to claim that it had been in use for longer when it passed its own 71st birthday in 2005. The old piers remain largely intact; with only a few exceptions, most of the piers for the replaced timber viaducts on the Falmouth Branch still stand today in remarkably good condition.

Penmere Platform

The fourth station to open on the branch, Penmere Platform was one of the 1920s improvements. It is located on a road called Penmere Hill, which was the centre of some considerable development in the inter-war period and so was deemed to justify the expenditure involved in building a single platform with a couple of waiting huts and appropriate signage and lighting. The resultant station opened on the first day of June 1925. The pictures show it in high summer from the access path, on the same day looking north at the old overbridge at the top end of the site and in late autumn from the platform, in all three cases looking towards Truro.

A "platform" has two definitions in the GWR dictionary. Option 1 is where passengers stand or sit while waiting for their train. Option 2 is a staffed request stop (unstaffed request stops being called "halts" in line with the terminology used by the three other big railway companies of the time). "Platforms" generate enough business to justify staff and a nice waiting room but not enough to bother promising to always stop the train at them. This is odd, since Penmere Platform is on the inside of a curve on a steep down grade towards Falmouth and descending trains will have had to slow fairly considerably anyway if they were to pick up any possible waiting passengers. Perhaps the idea was to avoid forcing all ascending trains to stop when there was a possibility that there would be nobody waiting (in 1925 much of the surrounding land was still fields). Perhaps it was on the basis that if the GWR built a full station here they would feel obliged to provide decent buildings and goods facilities.

Penmere was located between two bridges - a derelict overbridge at the north end of the site and a well-used underbridge at the south end. This gave it a pleasantly enclosed and personal air. Its importance grew when the War Department decided to open an oil depot at the south end of the site in 1940, with a large area being built up on the south side of the lower overbridge (to the right of Falmouth trains) to take four sidings. These were surrounded by a (still intact) pallisade fence and linked to by a spur off a loop line. This gave the overbridge at the north end of the station the accolade of being the only overbridge on the entire branch to span two tracks and seems to have required the underbridge at the south end to be widened, since the main running line is laid on a standard Cornwall Railway arch but the loop was laid on a girder.

After the oil depot was officially closed in 1967 the bulldozer moved in and Penmere entered a state of decline. The attractive signage, lighting and gardens with the nicely-painted station huts vanished to be replaced by a prefabricated cardboard box designed like the toilet block in the back yard of a terraced town house (and which no doubt smelt a bit like one too). The 1990s upgrade removed this structure and replaced it with the current brick affair, beginning a remarkable transformation. Taken in hand by the Friends of Penmere Station, the stop de facto regained the name of Penmere Platform (although all trains are booked to stop here now and there are always passengers) and the gardens began to reappear. GWR station signage was provided and soon it was winning awards. The large running-in board seen in the pictures at the south end of the station was joined by a similar one at the north end.

The only downside came in November 2009, when during a week-long track possession over the line Network Rail (among other sundry jobs) removed the overbridge at the north end of the station. Its loss was rapidly noticed, making the local press, and it has somewhat changed the character of the station. However, it is unlikely (given how easy it was to find access routes to it) that the bridge had been seriously used during the lifespan of the station anyway.

The southern, surviving overbridge can be seen late at night in our November 2009 Seasonal Area page.

Falmouth Town

Perranporth Beach Halt opened in 1937. It was a basic concrete kit platform on the Chacewater to Newquay line and gave slightly less than thirty years moderately good service before the winding branch line on which it was located closed in 1963.

The halt platform was still in fairly good nick, however, and was quite easy to dismantle. Apparently British Rail therefore decided to recycle it and the platform was taken apart and moved to Falmouth in 1970. It was duly opened as a nice new station which was rather closer to the town centre than Falmouth Docks and so was expected to do rather better business. Substantial cost savings and the potential to drastically improve journey times were also expected as a result of the decision to close the Docks station at the same time.

Unfortunately the new Falmouth station is built on a steep gradient and some very nice rules say that, due to the fact that trains without people in their cabs sat on steep hills with parking brakes on are rather likely to run away (more likely than the same train with a driver in the cab and the parking brake off, apparently), it is illegal for drivers to change ends on steep gradients. Therefore trains, having deposited their passengers at the new Falmouth station, had to run down to the bottom of the hill to the old one anyway so the driver could change ends.

Since the Falmouth branch is a long way from London and officialdom, it is probably quite likely that the train was also carrying passengers down to the old station as well. The fact that officialdom is a long way away was nicely shown by the fact that it took five years for anyone to notice that the rails at the old Falmouth station looked suspiciously well used and that consequently nothing was being gained by abandoning the station. Reopening took place on the 5th of May 1975 and the new Falmouth station became Falmouth Dell. In 1988 it became Falmouth Town, in line with the old Great Western idea that if there were multiple minor stations in a town the closest to the town centre should be known as the "Town" station (major stations were Generals). Over twenty years on, this situation seems to have settled in nicely. The original cab of 153305 is seen leading the 13:23 arrival from Falmouth Docks (ultimately aiming for Truro, though with '305 you never know if it'll get there) on 19th December 2009.

Falmouth Docks

Falmouth Docks station is slightly intriguing in that trains pointing towards the bufferstops are pointing towards London, while trains pointing away from the bufferstops are indicating somewhere more in the direction of Florida, USA. However, trying to take a short cut to London would merely result in the Class 153 having a rather bumpy ride of a few hundred yards before toppling over a cliff into the Fal estuary, so it is probably well advised to stick to tradition and depart south-west.

Once upon a time Falmouth station had three long platforms, plenty of goods facilities and a fine overall roof with views over a reasonably large port, while Penzance station had one short platform, squashed goods facilities and a rather small overall roof overlooking an unimpressive quay. Slowly the relative positions of the two places swapped and so, while Falmouth still leads with the port (Penzance's quay has now become a marina with occasional ferries from the Scilly Isles), Penzance now has an impressive overall roof, four long platforms and all the goods facilities which one can expect of a station post-Beeching (i.e. none) and Falmouth has one short platform with no overall roof and no sidings worth speaking of.

Both places used to have engine sheds as well. Falmouth's is now marked by an expanse of overgrown land to the right of arriving trains (or behind the train in the lower picture), which enter at 15mph. Penzance's Long Rock depot is still important enough to have a shunter and tends to have on shed each night two IC125s, two Sprinters and two Voyagers. The Night Riveria Sleeper spends the day there and a fortnightly oil train visits to drop off fuel. Trains pass at something more in the order of 50mph.

Falmouth's rail service is half hourly, while Penzance's is closer to hourly, but Falmouth no longer has through trains to London. It has some sidings and a docks connection, (on the right of the lower picture) but they clearly haven't been used in many years. The few loco-hauled trains which visit - mostly for track maintenance - have a loco at each end, eliminating the need to run around. Penzance, since it is served by sleeper trains, still has locomotive servicing facilities and sees frequent railtours. Overall, it seems that the West Cornwall Railway has won.

The unusual arched awning is not original. The original station only featured its overall roof. That section of the station was where the block of flats (Maritime Studios - student accommodation) now stands. The surviving platform used to be the arrivals platform; at some point it was granted this extension to its roof. Around 1960 the overall roof came out, to be replaced by some rather 1960s shelters around the bay into which the two platform tracks and centre stabling road ran (with the second, shorter platform running up to the end of the stone wall in the upper picture). The area over which the roof had once stood was completely removed in the late 1960s, leaving a derelict area and a truncated station. Even after reopening in 1975, the station spent many years pretending to be dead. By the late 1980s it looked like it had been borrowed from a 1940s scene of one of those North Welsh narrow-gauge lines which officialdom thought had closed in the First World War but were actually clinging on by not very much at all. The 1990s saw some tidying; subsequent redevelopment around the surviving fragment has helped it look better than it has done for a long time, with a handsome mural on one wall.

The milepost records that we are 312½ miles from London Paddington via Bristol Temple Meads. It has not been possible to do all 312½ miles on one train for many years, but a couple of daily trains from Penzance run to London via Bristol (most use the Berks and Hants route between Taunton and Reading) allowing passengers to cover the entire Great Western route and the many changes of scenery without a single change of train.

The branch is currently worked, with varying degrees of comfort, success and reliability, by three small fleets of trains (none of them larger than 20 units). They are all operated by First Great Western and nowadays all carry a First Great Western livery of some form or another. Some Arriva Trains Wales 150/2s also used to drop by occasionally; after the 150/1s began arriving en masse these went home again.
First's stock shortages after the December 2006 timetable change initially merely looked like they would get First the sack, but after a while they began to look like they might get some ministers the sack as well and additional stock was drafted in. The end of the Silverlink franchise in October 2007 brought two Class 150/1 Sprinters to the West Country, which was new territory for the then 23-year-old units and attracted some interest. In autumn 2010 the remainder of the North London fleet was displaced by new Class 172 units and they also found themselves in the South West - sounding good, but looking awful inside and out. More 150/1s will arrive eventually from London Midland. It is rumoured that in due course they will become the standard fleet for the Falmouth Branch. In December 2010 No. 150127 became the first of the batch to receive the Purple; it looks rather plain, but is currently nice and glossy; in any event, the early Sprinter units never were noted for their design features and it comes with a round of internal refreshment.

The Class 150/2 Sprinter features various developments on the 150/1 - most notably a door in the cab end so crews and passengers can pass between sets when they are working in multiple. The bulk of First Great Western's Sprinter fleet consists of these utilitarian go-anywhere 75mph units, which are moderately reliable - if rather basic and often filthy. At the time this picture was taken (early 2009) they made a habit of occasionally cropping up on Falmouth branch trains, particularly at weekends, with their large double-doors and big picture windows. After the service improvements they became a regular sight whenever a 153 was giving grief; in Autumn 2010 they became a regular sight on the second of the two weekday diagrams. They also seem to have been bought a washing plant for Christmas and look much healthier.

The swirly livery carried by the 150/2 and 153 fleets is made up of all-over vinyls. Water gets behind these and causes serious rusting, so they are now being discouraged in favour of basic paint-based liveries.

For many years the workhorse of the branch, the Class 153 SuperSprinter is now being displaced to other workings by two-car Sprinter units due to rising traffic levels. Like all members of the Sprinter family, they are also much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. Unlike Sprinters, SuperSprinters have "single leaf" doors at each end of the coach, providing a more pleasant passenger compartment - particularly when the units are heading downhill with a following wind (about the only time that a 153 can coast). This has the downside that loading and unloading in peak periods is a long and slow process. Here we see the original of the non-matching cabs; the doors at this end provide access to the area for disabled passengers and pushchairs, while the newer, smaller cab with the much smaller vestible at the other end provides access to the end with the luggage rack, bike space and toilet.

The future of the line is quite optimistic, with growing ridership and the stations now working at capacity (try getting out of one of them - other than Perranwell - during the evening peak and you'll understand how important a good station entrance is). Suggestions have been made about a new stop at Ponsanooth, which is a sizeable village and very close to the railway but has never had a railway station. However, since trains barely have time to stop at Perranwell now, a new station between Penryn and Truro would not get a very good service (perhaps two-hourly each way, alternating with Perranwell so that it would be quicker to walk between the two than catch the train). Some very considerable investment could arrange a workable service to Ponsanooth and give Perranwell its station status back, but this would either take the form of massive speed limit increases (tricky, since the schedule is much the same as in the 1960s so that option was probably exhausted long ago), moving the loop to Ponsanooth (which would be possible, particularly since the adjacent viaduct is double track, but a trifle expensive) or doubling the line between Penryn and Ponsanooth (an option for which most of the structures are ready, but which would still prove slightly tricky and massively expensive).

The line also used to see a lot of freight traffic a long time ago. Wagonload trains have gone and will not return as long as the A39 exists; larger loads went as Falmouth Docks was reduced to a ship repair base. The connection remains but is largely unused. Three or four maintenance trains work the line each year; otherwise Sprinters and Super Sprinters hold sway.

The current timetable leaves little room for freight traffic anyway and the line has had its modernisation money for this generation. With the railways looking likely to face substantial cutbacks don't expect to see any further development until the late 2030s (by which point the Super Sprinters will be 50, having been on their last legs for about 20 years). However, the prosperous route looks likely to be safe from any new murmurings about the expense of rural railways with four big viaducts in 12 miles.

Maybe one day someone will notice that revenue would go up substantially if Penmere and Penryn regained their ticket offices. Schoolchildren and students can commute on busy peak services with a good chance of not being charged (this author has a season ticket unfortunately) and being able to buy a ticket before boarding would remedy this. Penryn could also offer students the sort of travel advice which the Internet does not always make available to the degree that students notice (like "your railcard has expired" - the sort of thing that those unfamiliar with rail only find out at the beginning of the holiday when they're on the crowded train to Truro with a tight change for the London express. Happily on that occasion the London express was cancelled, so that student had plenty of time to get another). A decent ticket office tends to come with some kind of waiting room too (although not always) and that would also be good for business.

Background picture: Pink flowers and green ferns predominate on Falmouth Branch cuttings these days since someone was good enough to chop down the trees which used to envelope the line, rather spoiling its scenic qualities (except perhaps when you were on a viaduct). Nowadays the south portal of Sparnock Tunnel, seen here with a single Class 153 heading for Truro in June 2010, is about as attractive as double track tunnel portals ever get. The fact that only a single line has ever run through it is highlighted by the width of the approach cutting. The tunnel is rather noisy inside; its fellow tunnel at Perran is somewhat quieter. 

For more information and "past" pictures, try reading Branch lines to Falmouth, Helston and St. Ives (Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith, Middleton Press, 2001) or An Illustrated History of the Cornish Main Line (John Vaughan, Oxford Publishing Company, 2009). Video 125 visited the line in 1991 to record part of their Cornish Branches Driver's Eye View, which is jolly interesting - if rather well cut down and a tad historic. Since 1991 most of the stations have received new buildings, Penryn has gained a second platform, the sign at Perranwell has been moved and the Class 101 which operated the service has been scrapped. The tale of the London and South Western Railway's endeavours is drawn from The London and South Western Railway - Volume 1: The Formative Years (R. A. Williams, David and Charles, 1968).

<<<Railways Department<<<


Last modified 06/04/11

© The Order of the Bed