The "Little Western", also known as Duck's Branch Line, is a coastal branch line operating between Tidmouth and Arlesburgh. It is nicknamed so because the line is decorated in Great Western Railway colours and is worked by Duck and Oliver, two Great Western engines.
The branch was at first a one-line extension of the North Western Railway built after a Government order in 1916. It was intended to reach Harwick; however, by the time Arlesburgh was reached, there was no longer need for further extension. Material from the Arlesdale mines was needed for the war effort, but when the mines closed in 1947 there was not enough traffic. Permission was requested to close the line, but this was refused and thus a minimal service was operated.
In 1964 the need for a new harbour to ease congestion at Tidmouth had once again become acute, leading Sir Topham Hatt to search for a suitable site for developing a new harbour. Arlesburgh proved ideal and during the surveying of the area he noticed that while the branch, that was still open under a skeleton service, the line was noticeably overgrown, while the former track bed of the MSR was still relatively weed free. Inquiring locally he was told that this was due to the fact that the bootstrapped company resorted to using spoil from the lead mines as ballast that was free to them. After exhaustive tests were conducted and proved the spoil to be weed resistant Sir Topham met with the management of both the Culdee Fell and Skarloey railways, suggesting they join the NWR in a consortium to exploit this still freely available material. Mr Richards, Manager of the Culdee Fell suggested that given the natural beauty in the Arle valley that this venture should be expanded into that of tourism. This suggestion was seconded by Sir Handel Brown and Topham Hatt, leading to the construction of the Arlesdale Railway.
Both the branch line and narrow gauge railway were relaid and new exchange facilities were built at Arlesburgh West. With two Listers diesels assisting with the laying of the narrow gauge line on top of the MSR's former trackbed progress proceeded rapidly. The new railway was close to completion when Duck came to Arlesburgh to investigate the rumours of the small railway engines and after working well with them was put in charge of the branch line, with Donald and Douglas assisting. As a further reward Duck was given two auto coaches-Alice and Mirabel, that were repainted in GWR livery. The Arlesdale Railway passed its BoT inspection and opened with passenger services in Easter 1967. During this same year Oliver, after his rescue and restoration to GWR livery, came to work on the branch line along with his faithful coach Isabel and brake van Toad. Sir Topham Hatt also tracked down a fourth GWR auto-coach named Dulcie to allow the two engines to operate a push-pull service and the branch line soon gained the moniker "The Little Western".
Operations and Stations
There is an hourly passenger service to Tidmouth (some trains continuing to Knapford) with ballast from the Arlesdale mines also being carried. It also carries much-needed tourists to the Arlesdale Railway.
The line begins at Tidmouth, where it uses the through platform inside the station (illustrated incorrectly in recent illustrations as outside). Crossing River Tid, the line enters a tunnel. After exiting the tunnel, the line comes to Bulgy's Bridge. It follows along the coast, passing over another bridge over the road, reaching Haultraugh.
After leaving Haultraugh, the line keeps going along the coast, passing Bulgy's Field. Later it comes where presumably is the first water stop. Then the line separates from the coast and ends at Arlesburgh.
Engines and Rolling Stock
The line is staffed full-time by Duck with Alice and Mirabel and his Slip Coaches (in the television series) and Oliver with Isabel and Dulcie. Donald and Douglas (the latter and Oliver both sharing Toad) also help out here, along with their other duties on the main line and the Brendam branch. The Fat Controller is known to be investigating the possibility of acquiring an Austerity type 0-6-0ST engine to help on the branch. To this end, he borrowed Wilbert to help on the branch for a short time in the early 1990s in order to assess the capabilities of such an engine.
- The foreword of Oliver the Western Engine mentions how engines like Duck and Oliver may be seen on the Dart Valley Railway (now the South Devon Railway). This suggests that the branch may have been inspired by that railway. This railway reopened as a preserved line in 1969, the same year the book was published.