Brunel began work on the South Devon Railway in 1844. Due to the steep inclines involved in the route, he decided to adopt the new atmospheric system. This meant that the locomotives did not have to carry heavy fuel as they would be drawn along the track by the vacuum created in large pipes alongside the railway line. Pumping stations at three mile intervals create the necessary vacuum.

The system was installed as far as Totnes but was never used beyond Newton Abbot. Continual problems meant that the whole system was abandoned in 1848. The pumping house at the north end of Dawlish station remained until 1868, when the goods yard was created to ship produce such as locally grown violets to London.

The first station was a simple temporary wooden building on one side of the track only. In 1860s, fire places replaced stoves in the waiting room and a station master’s office and parcel store were built. A new station was being planned in 1872 but the wooden one was completely destroyed by fire in summer of 1873.

The new stone built station opened in April 1875. The Booking Hall had a luggage lift up to platform level. The Parcel Office was next to the Booking Hall but was inconvenient and relocated to the platform level and is now a café. There was a first class waiting room, which became the ladies’ waiting room, and a second class waiting room which became the general waiting room. In addition, there was the stationmaster’s office and a telegraph office. The “water closets” were run by Mr Pessel, who kept them clean and charged 1d for their use. On the down side there were separate lavatories for first class ladies, second class ladies, and gentlemen. Third class ladies were not catered for.

There are stairs leading up from the beach side to the down line platform but they have been bricked up. Wide canopies covered the platforms which had a bookshop and newsagent on the up line. These were replaced in 1961.

Dawlish station was built when the South Devon Railway was thriving and is subsequently one of the best that they built.