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Cornish Main Line

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Title: Cornish Main Line  
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Subject: Exeter to Plymouth Line, Moorswater, Bristol to Exeter Line, St Austell railway station, Cornwall Minerals Railway
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Cornish Main Line

Cornish Main Line
Type Heavy rail
System National Rail
Status Operational
Locale Cornwall, United Kingdom
Termini Plymouth
Opening 1867
Owner Network Rail
Operator(s) First Great Western
(Freight: DB Schenker & Freightliner)
Line length 79.5 miles (128 km)
No. of tracks Double with two single track sections
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge
Operating speed 75 mph (121 km/h) maximum[1]

The Cornish Main Line is a railway line in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. It runs from Penzance to Plymouth, crossing from Cornwall into Devon over the famous Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash.

It directly serves Truro, St Austell, Bodmin (by a Parkway station), and Liskeard, and it forms the backbone for rail services in Cornwall, as well as providing a direct line to London. There are branches off the main line serving St Ives, Falmouth, Newquay, and Looe.

It is the southernmost railway line in the United Kingdom, and the westernmost in England.


The Cornish Main Line was originally built by two separate railway companies, the West Cornwall Railway between Truro and Penzance, opened in 1852, and the Cornwall Railway between Plymouth and a separate station in Truro, opened in 1859. The West Cornwall Railway was itself based on the Hayle Railway, opened in 1837 as a purely local mineral railway.

Rail travel from Penzance to London was possible from 1860 when the West Cornwall company was given access to the Cornwall Railway’s Truro station, but the West Cornwall trains were standard gauge and the Cornwall Railway was broad gauge, so through passengers had to change trains there and goods had to be transhipped into wagons of the other gauge at Truro.

The impecunious West Cornwall company sold its railway to the more powerful broad gauge Associated Companies, dominated by the Great Western Railway, and the new owners converted the West Cornwall line to broad gauge. Through goods trains started running in 1866 and passenger trains in 1867.

The Associated Companies merged into the Great Western Railway, and in 1892 the Great Western converted all its broad gauge track to standard gauge, a process called the gauge conversion.

Both the West Cornwall and the Cornwall railways had been built cheaply and had numerous timber trestle viaducts; these were cheap to build but very expensive to maintain, as the timber decayed, and the iconic viaducts were eventually all reconstructed in masonry or masonry and wrought iron, or in a few cases by-passed. Those on the Cornwall Railway section are described at Cornwall Railway viaducts.

The most iconic structure on the route, however, is the Royal Albert Bridge spanning the River Tamar and opened in 1859; it remains in use to the present day.

During the later decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the Great Western Railway was famous for providing transport to holiday destinations in Cornwall, and there were numerous branch lines served from the Cornish main line giving access to the resorts. The physical limitations of the steeply graded line imposed severe problems during the busiest times, not least for goods train operation. Equally famous was the line’s use for transporting vegetable produce from Cornwall, famously broccoli and cauliflower, and cut flowers from the Scilly Isles.

Many of the branch lines were closed during the second half of the twentieth century, but in Cornwall the Looe, Newquay, Falmouth and St Ives branches remain in operation, with a basic local passenger traffic in winter considerably boosted by holidaymakers in summer. The historical development of the line is more fully dealt with at Hayle Railway, West Cornwall Railway, and Cornwall Railway. [2]


The Cornwall Main Line has been a very safe railway for passengers, although a number of railwaymen have been killed and there have been some memorable accidents over the years. These include:


A train from London Paddington to Penzance crosses Moorswater Viaduct

The communities served are: Plymouth (including the suburbs of Devonport and St Budeaux); Saltash; St Germans; Menheniot; Liskeard; Bodmin; Lostwithiel; Par; St Austell; Truro; Redruth; Camborne; Hayle; St Erth; Penzance. In addition branch lines link Plymouth with Bere Alston, Calstock, and Gunnislake; Liskeard with Looe; Par with Newquay; Truro with Penryn and Falmouth; and St Erth with St Ives.

The railway stations at St Austell and Penzance are adjacent to bus stations. In addition, integrated bus services operate from Bodmin Parkway to Bodmin, Wadebridge, and Padstow; from St Austell to The Eden Project; and from Redruth to Helston and RNAS Culdrose.

The route has a large number of viaducts, but the most significant structure is the Royal Albert Bridge[3] which crosses the River Tamar at Saltash. At Truro the viaducts give sweeping views of the city and River Fal, while further west the north coast can be seen near Hayle before the line swings onto the south coast for the last mile or so along the beach at Marazion, giving a good view of St Michael's Mount.

Nominal line speed is 65 mph (105 km/h) but there are local restrictions at many places. The route is mostly double-tracked and cleared for trains up to W7 and W6A gauges.[4] The 7.5-mile (12.1 km) section of single track from Burngullow to Probus (between the stations at St Austell and Truro) used to be a major cause of delays in the region, requiring trains to wait for preceding trains to clear the singled section before proceeding. The second track was restored in August 2004. The total cost of the project was £14.3 million and was funded by Objective One, Strategic Rail Authority and Cornwall County Council.


The number of passengers travelling on the Cornish Main Line has increased in the last few years up to 2006-2007, with the exception of Keyham, Menheniot and St Erth. These three stations saw usage drop, with the biggest drop being at St Erth. During the period 2007-2008, most stations saw a general increase in usage except for most of the Plymouth stations, Saltash and Hayle. Truro in particular had nearly a million people.[5]

By the year beginning April 2010, all stations except Dockyard and Menheniot have shown an increase on the previous year. The notable jump at St Erth was due to switching from Ranger tickets to point-to-point based tickets.[5]

The statistics cover twelve month periods that start in April.

See also



  1. ^,%20permissible%20line%20speeds/table%20a_track_and_route%20miles_linespeed_western%20route.pdf
  2. ^ MacDermot, E.T. (1931). History of the Great Western Railway. Volume II 1863-1921. London:  
  3. ^ Binding, John (1997). Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge. Truro:  
  4. ^ Route 12: Reading to Penzance. Network Rail. 2007. p. 17. 
  5. ^ a b "Station Usage". Rail Statistics.  

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