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Salisbury - Exeter Line
SR target sign The Salisbury to Exeter Line
since the 1967 singling
SR target sign
Introduction History Rationalisation 1967 Singling Signalling Recent Years The Future
Stations Descriptions Signal-Boxes Descriptions

Please Note: Since many of the relevant pages on RailWest were updated last, there have been some significant changes on the line. A new passing-loop has been opened at Axminster, with the re-built Up platform brought back into use. In 2012 all the signalling between Tisbury Loop and Pinhoe (exclusive of both places) was transferred to Basingstoke ASC, with closure of the intermediate signal-boxes and level-crossing control points. It is intended to update all the relevant pages in due course with more details of the revised arrangements. In the meantime this page will provide a brief summary of the changes.


This page deals with the former London & South Western Railway (L&SWR) (later Southern Railway (SR)) main line from Salisbury to Exeter in the south-west of England, specifically for the period since 1967 when much of the line was reduced to single-track. This page provides a general introduction and background history - other pages in RailWest provide more detail on the individual stations and signal-boxes.

These pages are based on information which was compiled originally in 1988 to mark the 21st anniversary of the singling, and then revised subsequently in 1992 (25th anniversary). Most of the major locations on the line were visited on those occasions in order to get as full a picture as possible of the contemporary arrangements. A further revision has taken place in 2013 following the transfer of control of much of the signalling on the line to the Area Signalling Centre (ASC) at Basingstoke in 2012.

Although the author tries to monitor the situation on the line from available sources of information and occasional visits, please be aware that it is neither intended nor possible to provide comprehensive and up-to-date information on the current situation. The primary intention of these pages is to record the historical situation in the years immediately following the 1967 singling.

These pages do not provide coverage of the stations at Salisbury and Exeter St Davids, both of which have been altered extensively in recent years.

Background History

The line from Salisbury to Exeter formed part of the L&SWR's main route from London (Waterloo station) to the West of England. It gave access to various coastal resorts in East Devon and to Exeter, beyond which - over a network of lines known commonly as the 'Withered Arm' - it reached out to Plymouth, Ilfracombe, Bude and Padstow. The line had its origins in an independent company, the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway (S&YR), whose line was opened in stages between those two places in 1859 and 1860. However by that time the L&SWR had realised the importance of the new route and their own extension from Yeovil to Exeter was opened later in 1860. The L&SWR leased the S&YR and eventually absorbed it in 1878, gaining control of the complete route.

The line was constructed as a single track, but doubling commenced within a year of opening and was completed throughout in 1870. Although the line took on the nature of a switchback in places it was well engineered and speeds of 80mph were common on some stretches. As originally constructed it had no branches, but in later years further lines were built to Yeovil Town, Chard, Lyme Regis, Seaton, Sidmouth, Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth. There were also connecting spurs to the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Yeovil Pen Mill and the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway (S&DJR) at Templecombe (see also the Templecombe Junction Railway). All these branch lines are closed now except for the Exmouth branch and a connecting link at Yeovil.


After nationalisation the line came under the control of British Railways (Southern Region) and life continued much as before, with freight traffic and a mixture of express and local passenger services. However in 1963 control of all the ex-L&SWR lines west of Salisbury was passed to BR Western Region. The Beeching Report had identified the duplication of routes from London to the West Country and concluded that only one was needed - not surprisingly the Western Region decided that the ex-SR route was the one to discard. There were many rumours of complete closure, but in the end it was decided to shut some of the intermediate stations and reduce most of the line to single-track, which was done in 1967. The freight traffic was withdrawn and the passenger services rationalised into a basic two-hourly service of all-station stoppers. This rationalisation was perhaps the greatest change that occurred on the line since it was doubled originally and its effects can be felt still today.

Apart from Salisbury and Exeter St Davids, the stations that remained opened for passenger traffic after 1966 were Tisbury, Gillingham, Sherborne, Yeovil Junction, Crewkerne, Axminster, Honiton, Whimple and Exeter Central. (St James's Park halt at Exeter also stayed open, but that is served only by the Exmouth branch trains.) The stations that were closed in or before 1967 were Wilton South, Dinton, Semley, Templecombe, Milborne Port, Sutton Bingham, Chard Junction, Seaton Junction, Broad Clyst and Pinhoe. In later years there were a small number of re-openings, brought about by a steady increase in commuter traffic. In 1971 part of the old Sidmouth Junction station was re-opened as Feniton and in 1983 both Templecombe and Pinhoe stations were re-opened. Click here to read more details about each of the stations on the line.

1967 Singling

The reduction to single-line was done in 1967, starting with the section between Wilton South and Templecombe and finishing with the section from Chard Junction to Pinhoe. The existing double-track was retained from Salisbury as far as the former station at Wilton South. From there the line was singled as far as Templecombe, with an intermediate passing-loop at Gillingham. Double-track was retained from Templecombe to Sherborne, but there the line became single again as far as the former station of Pinhoe (on the outskirts of Exeter) with further passing-loops at Chard Junction and Honiton. At Pinhoe the double-track resumed and continued through Exeter Central to Exeter St Davids station. Within a few months it became apparent that some improved flexibility was needed for the passing of late-running trains and accordingly the double-track was re-instated westwards from Sherborne to Yeovil Junction. The basic arrangements then remained unchanged until 1986, when an additional passing-loop was opened to the east of Tisbury station. More recently another passing-loop was opened in 2009 at Axminster, where a second platform was brought into use.

As part of the singling scheme the signalling on the line was rationalised and many signal-boxes closed. Ironically some of these were little more than 10 years old, whereas a number survived that had been built in the 1870s! Signal-boxes were retained at the start/end of the various double-track sections, as well as at each of the intermediate passing-loops. Most of the old semaphore signals were replaced by colour-light signals and at most of the intermediate level-crossings automatic half-barriers replaced the traditional wooden gates and crossing-keeper. Click here for more details on the signalling changes.

Signalling Changes

The majority of the signal-boxes (SBs) on the line had been L&SWR Type 1, with Stevens-pattern lever-frames, plus a few L&SWR Type 4 (or the equivalent SR Type 11c), although in the decade preceding 1967 the Southern Region of British Railways had replaced several with Type 16 SBs containing Westinghouse 'A3' frames. Under the singling scheme ironically some of the newer SBs were closed whilst some of the older ones were retained. In all cases the existing mechanical lever-frames were retained, but most of the semaphore signals were replaced by colour-lights as part of the initial alterations. In subsequent years the few remaining semaphores were also replaced, with the exception of the 'branch' side of Yeovil Junction. At most of the intermediate level-crossings automatic half-barriers replaced the traditional wooden gates and crossing-keepers. Click here to read more details about the individual signal-boxes.

The revised layouts were signalled basically along 'traditional' lines, simply using colour-light signals instead of semaphores, so full braking distances were not provided. In general the Distant and Starting signals were two-aspect, with three-aspect Homes. Points and Facing Point Locks (FPLs) were worked mechanically, but in subsequent years a number were converted to clamp-lock operation. One feature of the new layouts was that at each of the intermediate passing-loops one line (usually the Up) was signalled for bi-directional working and the SB provided with a switch lever. Bi-directional working was introduced also on the entire length of the Up line from Yeovil Junction to Templecombe.

A new form of tokenless block working was introduced to enable trains to pass through the loops at speed if a station stop was not required. This system had been designed to work in a manner that did not require the signal-box to be manned continually, thereby enabling the signalman to perform other station duties between trains. This proposed economy measure was defeated by the simple fact that most of the surviving signal-boxes were situated either at closed stations or in situations where it was not practical for the signalman to be absent from the box!

Recent Years

The Salisbury to Exeter line has undergone considerable change within the last four decades and to a lesser extent this situation is continuing. At the time of the centenary of the line in 1960 there was much optimism (perhaps short-sighted) and talk even of electrification, yet within 5 years the mood had spread to one of impending doom and talk of closure. The reduction in services, and alteration to single-track, did help to keep the line going for a few more vital years. During that time though there were considerable problems with the reliability of the 'Warship' class diesel locomotives then used as motive power and this contributed to the general frustration and decline in passenger traffic. Fortunately the situation began to improve, to the extent that eventually it became one of the more profitable passenger routes on BR and a few stations were re-opened. Then there arose the irony that the traffic threatened to exceed the capacity of the line and it became necessary to increase the facilities, which resulted in the provision of a new passing-loop near Tisbury.

Further substantial changes have taken place in the new millennium to meet ever-increasing demands for more frequent services, especially with growing commuter traffic to/from Exeter. Also the increasing use of the line west of Yeovil Junction for trains off the former GWR route between Taunton and Exeter diverted via Yeovil Pen Mill for various reasons (engineering works, flooding etc) has strained its existing capacity. One result was the opening in 2009 of a new loop at Axminster, although at some 3 miles long this is not so much a conventional passing-loop as a section of double-track, where trains can pass at speed when approaching or leaving the station. This loop was controlled remotely from the signal-box at Chard Junction.

In 2012 signalling control of much of the line was transferred to the Area Signalling Centre at Basingstoke. The existing signal-boxes at Templecombe, Yeovil Junction, Chard Junction and Honiton were closed, as were the level-crossing control-points at Sherborne and Feniton. (The signal-box at Gillingham was reduced to ground-frame status to control access to the goods siding.) All the signals were renewed (in some cases just new heads on the existing posts) and a few additional ones added, but in essence the general track layouts remained unchanged apart from the removal of a few redundant sidings. Any remaining mechanically-worked points were converted to power operation. However the extremities of the line are still controlled from the signal-boxes at Salisbury, Exmouth Junction and Exeter.

One interesting development has been the establishment of the private South West Main Line Steam railway centre at Yeovil Junction, aimed at the servicing of main-line steam locomotives on rail-tours. This is situated in the old Down yard and includes the original turntable, which (fortunately) had been retained by BR for turning Engineer's rolling-stock. This centre has been the site of a number of enthusiasts events, as well as being a calling-point for many steam-hauled excursions. Additional historical information and contemporary photographs of Yeovil Junction can be found on the website of the Southern E-Mail Group.

The Future?

Various rumours have been heard at different times about plans for further improvements to the line, but most of the ideas have failed to materialise. In practice the most significant event was the opening of the new passing-loop at Axminster, which increased the capacity of the line west of Yeovil Junction. Transfer of signalling control to Basingstoke ASC provided scope for some further capacity improvement.

There have been proposals also to improve the poor interchange facilities at Yeovil. The link line between the Junction and Pen Mill stations has no scheduled passenger service and, although there appears to have been an improvement to the local bus link, on occasions the only options are an expensive taxi ride or a long walk. Various ideas have been proposed, but the favourite solution seems to be the construction of a new west-to-south spur from the Junction station to the Castle Cary - Weymouth line, enabling trains to run from Pen Mill to the Junction and thence direct to Weymouth (and vice-versa). Ironically this would bring into use an embankment built when the station was first opened, but upon which no track was ever laid. The situation is complicated by the fact that future of the Castle Cary - Weymouth line itself has been in doubt for many years because of poor patronage, but there are signs here also that the position is improving.

Even the subject of electrification is mentioned occasionally (as an extension onwards from Salisbury) and perhaps it may have a serious chance now, although it likely still to be a long way off. The ultimate 'complete circle' of events would be for the line to be re-doubled throughout, but that is probably merely wishful thinking. Nevertheless it would seem that the line has now a future far brighter than at any time since BR(WR) took control and reduced so much of it to single-track.

Chris Osment 1988 & 2013

Stations Descriptions Signal-Boxes Descriptions
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