Brunel's Atmospheric Railway in South Devon - Why did it fail?

Ref: C3533117

The expansion of the railway system into the South West saw the Bristol to Exeter Railway opened in 1844. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as Engineer was then involved in the establishment of an extension to Plymouth, known as the South Devon Railway. As he was committed to technological innovation he was attracted to a new means of motive power, then in use on the Dalkey line in Ireland which used atmospheric pressure. The Irish line was short, just 1.74 miles and the atmospheric system was only used on the assent, gravity being used for the return journey. Brunel was keen to try the new system on the 53 mile route from Exeter to Plymouth. The talk will explore the attractions of the atmospheric system, how it operated, the problems experienced and the repercussions that resulted from its abandonment after less than a year. The talk will be illustrated with digital images and there will be opportunity for questions and discussion.

Course aim

To provide an understanding of what an Atmospheric Railway was. What promises it offered over steam locomotives. Why it was scraped in less than a year. What the repercussions were, both to the South Devon Railway and to Brunel's reputation.

Do I need any particular skills or experience?

  • This course is for beginners and improvers

By the end of the course I should be able to:

  • Identify what an atmospheric railway was.
  • Appreciate the advantages it offered.
  • Show skills in interpretation of the reasons why the decision was made to scrap the system in less than 12 months.
  • Show an appreciation of the repercussions of the decision to scrape the system.

How will I be taught?

What kind of feedback can I expect?

What else do I need to know?


Pre-course work, reading and information sources

What can I do next?

View full course information sheet

Brunel's Atmospheric Railway in South Devon - Why did it fail?


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