Cornish Main Line

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Cornish Main Line
Royal Albert Bridge 2009.jpg
OwnerNetwork Rail
LocaleCornwall, United Kingdom
TypeHeavy rail
SystemNational Rail
Operator(s)Great Western Railway
(Freight: DB Schenker and Freightliner)
Line length79.5 miles (128 km)
Number of tracksDouble with three single track sections
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Old gauge7 ft 14 in (2,140 mm) Brunel gauge
Operating speed75 mph (121 km/h) maximum[1]
Route map
Cornish Main Line.png
(Click to expand)

The Cornish Main Line (Cornish: Penn-hyns-horn Kernow) is a railway line in Cornwall and Devon 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. It forms the backbone for rail services in Cornwall and there are branches off it which serve St Ives, Falmouth, Newquay and Looe. The main line also carries direct trains to and from London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, the north of England and Scotland.

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


The Royal Albert Bridge under construction in 1858

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 Isles of Scilly.

To cope with the increasing traffic the line was gradually doubled between 1893 and 1930.[2]

Many branch lines were closed during the second half of the twentieth century, but in Cornwall the Looe, Newquay, Falmouth Docks and St Ives branches remain open to passengers, with service frequencies on all of them having been increased in recent times. A fifth branch starts at Plymouth in Devon but crosses the Tamar en route to serve Calstock and Gunnislake in Cornwall. During the summer, the Newquay branch is also served by intercity trains to London, the North of England and Scotland. A further branch from Lostwithiel still carries local china clay trains to Fowey docks, while there are more china clay lines from Burngullow, west of St Austell, and as spurs from the Newquay and Looe branches. The historical development of the line is more fully dealt with at Hayle Railway, West Cornwall Railway, and Cornwall Railway. [3]


The Cornwall Main Line has been a very safe railway for passengers, with only a few accidents in the 19th century. These include:


A train, travelling 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 and Penzance. In addition, there are five branch lines with passenger services:

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[4] which crosses the River Tamar at Saltash. At Truro, the viaducts give sweeping views of the city and River Fal; 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 nearly all double track and cleared for trains up to W7 and W6A gauges.[5] The 7.5-mile (12.1 km) section from Burngullow to Probus (between the current stations at St Austell and Truro) used to be double track, but was singled in 1985 due to subsidence from closed mines. It became 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.[6]

There are three remaining sections of single line, all of them 2 km or less. One of these sections is on two viaducts near Liskeard, another is between St. Budeaux Ferry Road and Saltash over the Royal Albert Bridge, and the final section is on the approach to Penzance, alongside Long Rock depot.


The number of passengers travelling on the Cornish Main Line has increased in the last few years.[7] Between 2004/05 and 2011/12, with the exception of Keyham and Menheniot, all stations have reported an increase of at least 33% while Hayle, Par, Saltash and St Budeaux Ferry road all reported calculated to be in excess of 200%. The busiest stations are Plymouth, Penzance and Truro which all handle more than one million people arriving or departing each year. St Austell, Redruth and Liskeard all had more than 300,000 people in 2011-12, increases of around 50% or 60% over 2004/05.[8]

Station usage
Station name 2002–03 2004–05 2005–06 2006–07 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12 2012–13 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 2017–18 2018–19 2019–20 2020-21 2021-22
Plymouth 1,431,674 1,519,011 1,629,011 1,845,958 2,026,851 2,249,849 2,278,718 2,401,082 2,487,562 2,509,452 2,449,000 2,416,000 2,372,000 699,268
Devonport 39,742 41,404 45,492 39,464 43,046 16,150
Dockyard 4,070 5,088 4,895 5,335 4,924 5,274 5,524 5,406 4,160 4,728 4,432 4,406 10,368
Keyham 8,957 6,374 7,594 7,976 5,055 5,600 5,016 6,330 7,338 9,122 7,198 7,156 7,808
St Budeaux Ferry Road 987 969 1,015 1,037 1,199 1,132 1,540 2,326 2,980 3,976 2,980 3,976 2,348
Saltash 27,197 35,349 32,186 34,266 32,062 47,244 49,578 59,240 67,174 78,198 82,398 83,574 85,396
St Germans 25,681 24,926 28,228 29,540 29,073 37,718 38,258 44,758 58,676 60,320 57,066 56,698 58,254
Menheniot 6,554 5,782 4,453 4,206 3,610 4,598 3,844 2,690 5,096 5,858 4,140 3,696 2,482
Liskeard 209,875 232,269 237,113 267,864 274,090 294,638 289,276 309,162 351,394 358,324 355,000 351,000 359,000
Bodmin Parkway 144,146 158,172 166,743 185,498 203,061 225,140 221,616 235,876 234,792 236,190 241,000 234,000 243,000
Lostwithiel 40,701 42,602 46,172 46,645 51,695 61,716 68,336 73,584 67,472 72,530 70,348 66,624 67,706
Par 78,175 95,475 111,912 119,859 139,688 160,832 162,872 179,100 190,168 195,732 191,000 195,000 200,000
St Austell 266,676 275,056 281,545 314,613 360,484 388,878 395,222 436,440 464,000 472,538 461,000 460,000 459,000
Truro 638,727 714,954 772,674 856,474 917,184 997,368 1,042,412 1,161,138 1,201,010 1,202,942 1,205,000 1,187,000 1,211,000
Redruth 186,977 219,013 228,511 258,384 277,853 292,940 284,462 308,444 334,194 340,356 338,000 328,000 342,000
Camborne 109,628 146,595 157,026 181,671 193,948 215,600 224,950 247,360 269,034 262,070 255,000 266,000 278,000
Hayle 34,802 43,467 51,299 63,593 60,174 73,868 77,172 85,508 81,732 79,198 82,714 83,446 92,084
St Erth 71,406 90,541 88,341 67,004 68,230 75,026 75,248 120,770 257,802 251,858 262,000 271,000 291,000
Penzance 392,008 403,000 413,905 461,764 498,290 526,132 520,982 556,546 543,036 560,338 568,836 570,098 574,000
The annual passenger usage is based on sales of tickets in stated financial years from Office of Rail and Road estimates of station usage. The statistics are for passengers arriving and departing from each station and cover twelve-month periods that start in April. Methodology may vary year on year. Usage from the periods 2019-20 and especially 2020-21 onwards have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 October 2013. Retrieved 16 August 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ Railway Magazine October 1963 p. 747
  3. ^ MacDermot, E.T. (1931). History of the Great Western Railway. Vol. II 1863-1921. London: Great Western Railway.
  4. ^ Binding, John (1997). Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge. Truro: Twelveheads Press. ISBN 0-906294-39-8.
  5. ^ Route 12: Reading to Penzance (PDF). Network Rail. 2007. p. 17. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 September 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2013.
  6. ^ SRA confirms £14.3 million funding for Cornish Mainline Double Tracking
  7. ^ Kessell, Clive (15 January 2018). "Cornwall's Capacity Challenge". Rail Engineer. Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  8. ^ "Station Usage". Rail Statistics. Office of Rail Regulation.

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Bennett, Alan (1990). The Great Western Railway in East Cornwall. Cheltenham: Runpast Publishing. ISBN 1-870754-11-5.
  • Bennett, Alan (1988). The Great Western Railway in Mid Cornwall. Southampton: Kingfisher Railway Publications. ISBN 0-946184-53-4.
  • Bennett, Alan (1988). The Great Western Railway in West Cornwall. Cheltenham: Runpast Publishing. ISBN 1-870754-12-3.
  • Binding, John (1993). Brunel's Cornish Viaducts. Penryn: Atlantic Transport Publishing for Historical Model Railway Society. ISBN 0-906899-56-7.
  • Central Publicity Unit (Winter 1979). Railway Electrification. British Railways Board. pp. 0–2, 8.
  • Hesp, Martin (7 July 2008). "My magnificent rail journey". Western Morning News. Archived from the original on 25 November 2010. Retrieved 14 July 2008.