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Starcross Pumping Station
Starcross, Devon
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  1847
era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  SX976816
ICE reference number  HEW 792
One of a chain of 11 pumping stations built to house the atmospheric system of traction used for the South Devon Railway (Exeter to Plymouth).
Brunel was appointed engineer to the South Devon Railway in 1844 after the 52 mile project was given Royal Assent. He recommended the adoption of the atmospheric system patented by Jacob and Joseph Samuda, already in use on a small length of line in Ireland.
The atmospheric system of traction involves the train being drawn along by a piston in a tube laid between the rails. Brunel used a 15in diameter tube here. Air is evacuated from the tube by a system of pumping stations along the route.
Brunel thought it suitable for this line as it did not require heavy locomotives his chosen route involves a number of steep gradients as it nears Plymouth the alternative being costly earthworks and tunnels.
The stretch of the South Devon line between Exeter and Teignmouth opened in May 1846 but the atmospheric system was not ready, so steam locomotives were used.
It was ready by mid 1847 but disadvantages were apparent from the start. The system does not lend itself to the switching of trains from one line to another, although it was an undoubtedly efficient system of traction. More seriously, mechanical failures made it unworkable in the Devon conditions. Water invaded the pipe and the seals were affected by the cold.
The system was abandoned in 1848.
Starcross pumping station consists of two sandstone buildings with a square chimney. It has been used as a church and a coal store but now houses a museum of atmospheric pressure. Only three of the 11 stations still stand: Starcross, Totnes and Torre.
reference sources   IHCECEH South
Location

Starcross Pumping Station