A passenger rail service to Torrington was in operation for nearly a hundred years. Built as an extension from Bideford, the line was opened in July 1872 and passenger trains ran until 1965 when the service was axed by Beeching.
Torrington station wasn’t in a terribly convenient situation being about a mile out of town at the bottom of a steep hill on the road to Bideford. However, the railway service was used by a lot of workers and schoolchildren and a ‘station bus’ operated from New Street. The initial passenger service on the North Devon line in August 1872 comprised six trains each way as far as Torrington, three from London, Waterloo, one from Yeovil and two from Exeter, with another between Barnstaple and Bideford. The 2.10pm express from Waterloo took 6 hours 51 minutes for the journey of 225 miles to Torrington. There were extra services to and from Barnstaple on Fridays which was market day.
A light, 3 ft gauge private railway was built in the early 1880s to transport bricks and clay from the Marland clay works to the Torrington goods yard. The only passengers who used this line were clay workers. This railway was in use for 44 years until the opening of the North Devon and Cornwall Junction Light Railway in 1925. Much of the trackbed of the 3 ft gauge line was used but the narrow gauge system was retained within the clay works for another 45 years until it finally closed in 1970.
In 1925 standard gauge rails finally pushed south from Torrington and connected up at Halwill Junction to the rest of the network. A new steel viaduct over the River Torridge near Torrington station was built alongside the old wooden viaduct of the Torrington and Marland Railway which was subsequently demolished. The train went through Petrockstowe, Meeth, Hatherleigh, Hole and on to Halwill Junction where it met up with the Bude, Okehampton and Padstow lines. There were three trains each way between Torrington and Halwill on weekdays but none on Sundays. This line wasn’t the success that had been hoped for and was more a tourist route than a local service.
A substantial flow of traffic from Torrington station was milk for the London market from the dairy further along the valley.
By the early 1960s the number of passengers on the trains through Torrington was declining. People were travelling in their own cars or by bus, particularly between Barnstaple and Bideford where there was a frequent service which was more convenient for both town centres. Freight traffic was also declining and goods and cattle were being transported by road. Inevitably, there were cuts to services.
In 1963 the government brought in Dr Richard Beeching to make major improvements to the rail industry and he recommended the development of freight and fast passenger services on main lines, concentrating on the profitable bulk flows of traffic and the elimination of large numbers of stations and branch lines. In North Devon passenger services were withdrawn on three of the four routes to Barnstaple, with only the Barnstaple to Exeter line being retained. The Barnstaple to Meeth section was retained for clay and milk traffic. After the 1965 summer season the passenger service between Torrington and Barnstaple was withdrawn. Freight continued to be transported – milk until 1978 and fertilizer until 1980. Clay traffic on the railway ceased completely in 1982 and was transported by road.
There were talks in the late 1970s/early 1980s about the possibility of reopening railway lines to Bideford and Torrington but the numerous proposals came to nothing because of lack of funding. The ‘Last Train to Torrington’ run by British Rail itself was on Saturday 6th November 1982 and ran from Bristol, Bridgwater, Exeter to Barnstaple. Leaving Barnstaple for Torrington the train consisted of two diesel engines (one leading, one trailing) and 15 coaches carrying 843 passengers. This was the longest and best-patronised passenger train ever to run into Torrington station.
Please see the Tarka Valley Railway Group’s website for information on current plans to redevelop part of the old railway line from Torrington towards Bideford: http://www.tarkavalleyrailway.co.uk/