Although today’s railway in the South West is principally a passenger operation, an exception is china clay traffic, which has been a feature of the area’s railways for much of their history and today is the main reason for railfreight managing to retain a toehold in the peninsula.
This wide-ranging survey of the history of freight traffic in the two counties commences with a brief look into the past, when the railway was a ‘common carrier’ hauling all manner of goods, largely by the wagonload. It then chronicles the ultimately unsuccessful 50-year-long fight to retain at least a portion of such traffic on the railway, including the initial development and final demise of the ‘Speedlink’ and ‘Enterprise’ services. Other commodities that have been handled over the last 40 or 50 years are then considered in more detail, particularly where there is or has been a trainload operation, and more detailed consideration is given to traffic that is especially distinctive to the area.
In the era of the privatised railway system, today’s railfreight companies have to be nimble in their dealings with customers and quick to respond to both opportunities and problems, something that British Railways often had a reputation for being poor at - it is quite probable that there would be even less freight on rail today if we still had a nationalised system.
Nonetheless, railfreight activity in the South West appears to be hanging on by a thread, but it is still doing what it is good at and hauling commodities such as china clay, aggregates and cement in bulk, although increasingly freight operators are having to pin their hopes on a continued growth in intermodal traffic.