Penzance lies at the end of the main line from Paddington, London and the train has been used as a practical, efficient and sustainable way to reach this historic town since its first beginnings in 1852. Here is an article from the West Briton that conveys the momentous importance of the train to Penzance’s growth.
A vast multitude of people came into Penzance on Wednesday last, from the surrounding populous district, and from all parts of West Cornwall. The first train that came down from Redruth was a monster one for the West Cornwall Railway. It was propelled by three engines, and had forty open wagons crammed with passengers as closely as they could ride in them.
The train arrived in safety, but about an hour after its usual time. A train left Penzance for Truro in the morning, to convey some of the directors to that town, where a board meeting was held, and about twelve o’clock the chairman and directors of the company, and gentlemen connected with the Cornwall Company left Truro for Penzance. At Camborne they were detained for a long time waiting for three up trains to pass; and consequently the directors, who were expected at Penzance at half-past one o’clock, did not arrive until more than an hour afterwards. At the Camborne Station, the train passed under a very prettily decorated triumphal arch; its progress from Hayle to Penzance was at a rapid speed, and its arrival at the latter station was signalled by the firing of a cannon. The streets of Penzance were by this time crowded with thousands of people. Such numbers were never seen in the town before as assembled on this occasion to witness the demonstration and festivities on the opening of the West Cornwall Railway. The inhabitants showed their public spirit by uniting most heartily together, and the display they made to welcome the event was such as was never before produced in any other town in Cornwall. A profusion of ever¬green arches was erected, the very number of which renders it impossible to particularize the whole. These were decorated with flowers, and mounted with flags and banners, and inscribed with various mottos, such as “Success to the West Cornwall Railway” and other inscriptions.
(From the ‘West Briton’ 27th August 1852).
The ‘West Briton’ report shows that the people of Penzance were very pleased to see the opening of the West Cornwall Railway in the town. It was a great event for Penzance and everyone there knew that they were seeing something extremely important, for it marked the beginning of a whole new age in the area; a time of great change.
Although the railway had now come to Penzance, passengers could still not travel beyond Truro because the ‘Cornwall Railway’ running from Plymouth to Truro, with its tremendous bridge over the Tamar, was incomplete. Isambard Kingdom Brunel the famous engineer of the Great Western Railway was in charge of this work and it was completed in May 1859. From then onwards it was possible to travel from Penzance to London but not without changing trains at Truro. The Cornwall Railway and the route to London was built to the broad gauge of 7 feet and ¼ inch, but the standard or narrow gauge from Truro to Penzance was 4feet 8½ inches. This was changed in 1866/67 when the broad gauge was built to Penzance, whilst keeping the standard gauge also. Journey time by fast train to London was 12 hours and was far quicker than stage-coaches or steam-ship could hope to travel.
The first station at Penzance was a small wooden building with an overall roof and was tiny by comparison with the present day station. Railings still in place along the station wall mark the length and position of this first building, which barely reached the full height of the wall. In 1879-1880 the present granite-built station was opened. It cost £16,000 to construct and whilst building was in progress the lower end of Market Jew Street was widened and improved.
Trains arriving at Penzance had to run along the seashore from Marazion and finally cross a low wooden viaduct 350 yards long at Ponsandane. This viaduct was built on the beach itself and was very often attacked by rough seas and gale especially during the winter. During particularly bad weather the viaduct was closed to trains and was frequently damaged. In January l869 it was destroyed in a very fierce storm. Another viaduct replaced it, but this was removed in 1921 when the present stone embankment protected by large granite boulders was built.
The arrival of the railway at Penzance did a great deal for the fishing industry and agriculture. From the beginning of services to other parts of the country large amounts of fish and vegetables were sent away by train. The important markets were London, the Midlands and the North Country, and the railway with its fast trains could deliver this produce quickly while it was fresh. In June 1871 ‘The West Briton’ described the scene at Penzance.
”At Penzance station there has been a roaring trade for the last fortnight. Fish baskets are seen filed in immense heaps, also endless hampers of potatoes, and huge broad gauge engines puffing and snorting to and fro pulling long lines of trucks all crammed with the produce of the West.”
The Great Western Railway spent large amounts of money on books posters and general information to advertise Penzance as an important holiday resort. Cornwall became known as ‘The Cornish Riviera’ with the G.W.R. doing all it could to show Penzance as a special place not just an ordinary holiday town. In posters and prints, St Michaels Mount, Mounts Bay, Lands End, Mousehole, the beaches cliffs gardens and palm trees were all intended to make West Cornwall different from other places. ‘The Cornish Riviera Express’ began running to and from London in 1904 and became one of the most famous trains in Britain.