In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Buckfastleigh and Ashburton were important towns in the region. Ashburton was an important stannary and woollen town, while Buckfastleigh had established woollen mills as well as other manufacturing industries. Both towns were on the coaching road from Plymouth to Exeter, and this transport link was important to their success.
When railways in the area began to be proposed, a number of alternative routes between Plymouth and Exeter were put forward, and a line through Buckfastleigh and Ashburton was considered. However the line actually adopted was the South Devon Railway which followed a more southerly course through Teignmouth, Newton Abbot and Totnes. This line opened in 1847, and Buckfastleigh and Ashburton were not close to the new railway. They quickly found that other towns that were railway-connected gained in importance as their transport costs were reduced, and Buckfastleigh and Ashburton declined rapidly due to the competitive disadvantage.
It was clear to local people that the impact on the towns would be seriously negative, as the coach traffic would cease, and Buckfastleigh and Ashburton would be off the contemporary transport network. It appears that Totnes was concerned too, for on 14 June 1845 a public meeting there resolved that "it is most essential to the interest and welfare of this town to be connected by railway with the towns of Buckfastleigh and Ashburton as leading to develop the resources of this important town and agricultural district."
The enthusiasm to vote for the motion seems not to have been carried into urgent action, but on 27 July 1848 that a Totnes Buckfastleigh and Ashburton Railway obtained its authorising Act of Parliament; authorised capital was £130, 000, and the engineer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At this time getting money was extremely difficult, and it proved impossible to raise the required capital; in 1851 the Company was dissolved, with nothing done.
A viable scheme
Decline had been predicted for the industries of Buckfastleigh and Ashburton if they were isolated from the railway network, and the gloomy forecast proved true. In 1863 interested men of affairs promoted a new railway, this time to connect to the South Devon Railway (SDR) at Totnes, and to extend to the quayside on the River Dart. In due course on 25 June 1864 the Company obtained an authorising Act of Parliament.
The main line was to be not quite ten miles (16 km) long. The short branch, a "railway or tramway", to the Quays at Totnes was on the south side of the SDR main line, and was to be horse-worked. The use of locomotives, stationary engines and ropes, or "atmospheric agency" (i.e. the now discredited atmospheric traction system), were all forbidden. The line was to be on the broad gauge.
Raising the money was a little easier now than in 1848, but Ashburton's omission from the scheme cut off a large section of potential financial support, and the following year a further Act was obtained, on 26 May 1845, authorising an extension of the line to Ashburton; however the town remained absent from the Company name.
Construction and opening
Construction of the line was exceedingly slow due to difficulty in raising money. Although some work had been done in 1867, in 1868 it was reported that work was at a standstill, and that Parliamentary authority of an extension of time needed to be applied for.
In 1869 authority was obtained to raise some money by the issue of 5% preference shares, and certain debenture loans.
Opening—of the main line
At length the construction of the line was completed, and amid much rejoicing and festivity the line from Ashburton to Totnes SDR station opened for passenger and goods traffic on 1 May 1872; it was worked from the outset by the South Devon Railway. The traditional industries of the district in general had further declined, but the woollen mills of Buckfastleigh had resisted the trend, and they provided much of the goods traffic on the line: manufactured articles outwards and coal for the plant inwards. Passenger traffic on the line was significant, but not dominant.
The first half year accounts (to 31 March 1873) showed gross receipts of £1893 10s 0d, and net profit of £1055 12s 7d after deduction of the SDR charges for working the line. 45, 336 passenger journeys had been made, and over 12, 000 tons of goods had been carried.