Avocet Line

The Avocet Line is the railway line in England connecting Exeter with Exmouth. It was originally built by the London and South Western Railway, and was historically known as the Exmouth branch railway. The line follows the Exe Estuary for about half of its route, from just outside Topsham (on the Exmouth end) to Exmouth, giving views of the estuary. The line is named after the pied avocet, which lives in the estuary.

Avocet Line
Lympstone Commando - FGW 150233 down train
Alongside the River Exe near Lympstone
TypeHeavy rail
SystemNational Rail
TerminiExeter St Davids
50°43′44″N 3°32′37″W / 50.7290°N 3.5436°W
50°37′18″N 3°24′54″W / 50.6216°N 3.4150°W
OwnerNetwork Rail
Operator(s)Great Western Railway
Rolling stockClasses 143, 150 and 153
Line length11.25 miles (18 km)
Number of tracks1 or 2
Track gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Loading gaugeRA6 / W6A
Operating speed70 mph (110 km/h)


The line was constructed in 1861, connecting the City of Exeter and the port town of Exmouth, in England. It was built in two portions by two railway companies, but worked as a single entity.

A series of false starts

Exmouth branch 1861
Exmouth branch railways in 1861

The City of Exeter lies on the river Exe in Devon, but the river is not navigable as far as the city. Exmouth, eleven miles further south on the east bank of the river at its mouth became important before the days of railways and reliable roads as the point of arrival for goods by coastal shipping, and the harbour there grew in importance. Topsham, also on the eastern bank of the river and only four miles from Exeter, also shared in growth.

The Exeter Ship Canal had been built in the sixteenth century to alleviate this problem, but use of the canal was inconvenient and limited to small vessels.

As early as 1825, Exeter merchants held a meeting to discuss the possibility of building a railway connection from Exmouth to the city. At this date there were no other railways nearby, and there was no thought of connecting the line to a network. However the proposal — estimated to cost £50,000 — was discontinued when the Corporation of the City of Exeter agreed to extend the canal southwards to Turf, opposite Topsham, enabling 400 ton vessels to reach the head of the canal by passing a difficult reach of the river channel.[1]

In 1845 the Railway Mania was at its height, and two similar schemes for an "Exeter Topsham and Exmouth Railway" were publicised in August of that year. A few months later the Great Western Railway issued a prospectus for a "Great Western & Exeter, Topsham & Exmouth Junction Railway", and the South Devon Railway also issued a prospectus, proposing to run an atmospheric-powered[note 1] broad gauge line from the Exminster pumping station, across the canal and crossing the River Exe on a 14-span viaduct to Topsham, and thence to Exmouth.

The financial frenzy subsided and the front-running proposal was to build a standard-gauge line from about the location of the present-day Exeter Central station, following the eastern bank of the river Exe and terminating at Exmouth. Joseph Locke was appointed engineer, and parliamentary authorisation was received on 3 July 1846 for the Exeter and Exmouth Railway. However the promoters had depended upon the standard-gauge London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) building a line reaching Exeter; their intention was to lease the line to the L&SWR. The larger company had been planning a line from Dorchester to Exeter, but at this stage they found that they could not finance the long route and cancelled the project, in effect killing the prospects of the E&E company as the powers expired.

The planned route of the Exeter and Exmouth scheme was revived in December 1853, and generated considerable support in Exmouth particularly, but the broad gauge interest countered with a revival of its scheme to make a branch from Exminster, crossing the river Exe by viaduct. By this time, broad gauge railways had been in Exeter since 1844, while in 1853 the standard gauge L&SWR was no closer than Salisbury, which it reached by a branch line from Bishopstoke (Eastleigh). Local people therefore considered the broad gauge railways a better partner, and an Exeter and Exmouth Railway Act was passed on 2 July 1855, for the broad gauge line from Exminster to Exmouth, crossing the Exe.

The first stages of constructing the line were proceeding and on 1 August 1857 the directors of the company announced that they had arranged with the Bristol and Exeter Railway and the South Devon Railway to lease their line for ten years at £3,000 per annum. However at the shareholder meeting, the shareholders appointed a committee to review the cost of the construction, (estimated at £94,435) and the committee reported back rejecting the lease to the broad gauge interest, and recommending altering the route of the line to join the anticipated route of the L&SWR into Exeter. The L&SWR had by now made real progress in constructing a direct line to Exeter, and its subsidiary, the Yeovil and Exeter Railway, undertook to make a branch line between Exeter and Topsham; the Exeter and Exmouth Company would confine its endeavours to the section between Topsham and Exmouth. The L&SWR would work the entire line for 50% of the gross receipts in proportion to the mileages respectively constructed. The costs of Topsham station and the quay line there would be shared,[2][3]

A viable proposal at last

Exmouth first train 1861
The first train arrives at Exmouth, in 1861

Suddenly the Exeter and Exmouth Railway had the mileage they had to construct substantially reduced (to about 5½ miles) and avoided the river Exe bridge. Exmouth would get its railway.

A new Act of Parliament was needed to authorise the change of route and reduce the share capital, and this was obtained on 28 June 1858; the original capital had been £160,000 with authorisation for loans to £53,000 but this was now reduced to £50,000 share capital and £16,600 in loans. As the Exeter and Exmouth would now only build a line from Topsham to Exmouth, the L&SWR needed authority to build the part from Exmouth Junction to Topsham, and it obtained an Act for purpose on 12 July 1858. (The line joined the L&SWR Salisbury to Exeter main line at Exmouth Junction.) Just after opening the E&ER company raised an additional £30,000 in loans at 5% to cancel forfeited shares, and a further £25,000 was raised in June 1861.[4]

The engineer of the line was W R Galbraith and the contractor for Topsham to Exmouth was James Taylor of Exeter, for the sum of £39,000. Not without setbacks, the line was completed and inspected by Col Yolland of the Railway Inspectorate on 27 April 1861, and the line opened on 1 May 1861. The first train was pulled by the 2-2-2 Beattie well tank no 36 Comet.

Absorption of the Exeter and Exmouth Company by the L&SWR was authorised by Act of 5 July 1865, taking effect on 1 January 1865.[2]

Train services in the nineteenth century

Exmouth engraving
Exmouth station (left) at the time of opening

The branch line, operated as a single entity, was exceptionally successful, and 2,000 passengers a day used the line in the first week. Passenger trains in the early days were worked by Beattie 2-2-2 well tanks, with a varied collection of coaching stock transferred from elsewhere on the L&SWR system.

At first there were five trains each way seven days a week, increased to seven trains each way (but four on Sundays) from 1 July in the opening year.[2]

Topsham Quay

The branch to Topsham quay was 700 yards long, and was opened by the L&SWR on 23 September 1861; the purpose was to facilitate the transfer of goods, principally to Exeter, from ships too large to reach the city direct. Exmouth Dock did not exist at this time. In the early days the branch was only permitted to be worked during daylight.

The gradients were steeply falling to the quay, with sections at 1 in 38 and 1 in 44. Train movements were limited to eight wagons; there was a runaway in 1925 which ended up in the water. The main traffic in the 1930s was guano imported from South America, and destined for Odam's fertiliser factory, less than a mile away. The line closed in 1957.[2][5]

Exmouth Harbour connection

The Exmouth Dock Railway was incorporated in 1864, a 40 chain extension of the Exeter and Exmouth company. It opened in 1866 and was absorbed into the L&SWR along with the Exmouth branch line as a whole.[4]

The dock at Exmouth could take vessels up to 750 tons; most traffic was inwards, but outwards traffic included herrings for London. Wagons for the dock were propelled as there was no run-round facility there. Formal termination of the use of the dock took place in December 1967; the dock itself continued in use until December 1990.[5]

Budleigh Salterton Railway

Exmouth branch 1903
The Exmouth branch and adjacent railways in 1903

After a number of abortive attempts to get a railway to the town, the Budleigh Salterton Railway was incorporated on 20 July 1894, with powers to build a line from Tipton (later Tipton St Johns) on the Sidmouth Railway to Budleigh. The connection at Tipton gave access to the L&SWR's London to Exeter main line at Sidmouth Junction, and no direct connection towards Exmouth.

The line was worked by the L&SWR from its opening on 15 May 1897.[2]

Exmouth and Salterton Railway

Promoters of a line to fill the gap between Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth formed the Exmouth and Salterton Railway. The L&SWR agreed to take over the scheme, and the line got parliamentary authority as part of an L&SWR Act on 25 July 1898. The contractors were Henry Lovatt & Sons and the engineer was J W Jacomb-Hood of the L&SWR, and the line was built as an integral part of the larger company. It opened on 1 June 1903, with an intermediate station at Littleham.

The L&SWR considered at this stage making the junction at Exmouth a triangle, enabling a through Exeter - Exmouth - Budleigh Salterton service, but this was dropped on grounds of cost.[2] (On some Ordnance Survey maps a pathway is indicated on the alignment that the third leg of the triangle would take, but the pathway was on the bank of a stream and there is no evidence that such a line was seriously planned. Carter Avenue now occupies part of this alignment.)

Operation after 1903

Exmouth & Sidmouth 1908
The Exmouth and Sidmouth lines in 1908

By 1903 the network was complete, with a line from Exeter to Exmouth and a line from Sidmouth Junction to Exmouth.

From 1906 the L&SWR introduced steam railmotors in the Exeter area to Honiton on the main line, as a response to the competitive threat from street tramways. A new halt was opened at Lions Holt on 26 January 1906, between Exeter Central and Blackboy Tunnel, i.e. on the main line.[5] (The halt was renamed St James' Park Halt on 6 October 1946 to emphasise the proximity to the local football ground.)

On 31 May 1908 the line between Exmouth Junction and Topsham was doubled. Two Drummond H13 class steam railcars, nos 5 and 6, had been operating local stopping services on the main line to Honiton, and from 1 June 1908 they (and presumably sister units) operated shuttle trains between Exeter Queen Street and Topsham also, with ten services each way (five on Sundays). Two additional halts were opened on the same day. Polsloe Bridge Halt was immediately on the Exmouth side of Exmouth Junction; it was extended in 1927. Clyst St Mary & Digby Halt was made of sleepers; the reference to Digby is to a hospital nearby. The halt was closed on 27 September 1948.

In 1916 the shuttle service to Topsham was discontinued and the railmotors withdrawn or transferred.[2]

After 1923 the train service throughout to Exmouth increased to 20, and the peak was in 1963 with 31 each way, eighteen on Sundays.

The branch was significantly a commuter line for Exeter, as well as carrying holiday traffic, and during the steam era non-corridor stock for the majority although corridor stock was frequently used. Services mostly ran to and from Queen Street, later Central station at Exeter, using the bay platforms there.

Woodbury Road was renamed Exton on 15 September 1958.[5]

Diesel multiple units were introduced on the branch from 15 July 1963.

In 1973 the double track section from Exmouth Junction to Topsham was singled (on 5 February), with Topsham having a crossing facility.[2]

A new station was opened on 3 May 1976 called Lympstone Commando, adjacent to the Commando Training Centre of the Royal Marines. There was already a Lympstone station and it was renamed Lympstone Village on 13 May 1991. On 23 May 1995 Digby & Sowton station was opened near the site of the earlier Clyst St Mary & Digby halt; it was funded by Devon County Council and Tesco plc.[2] Newcourt railway station opened on 4 June 2015.


The towns and cities served are:

The route follows the West of England Main Line in the suburbs of Exeter before diverging to the south.

There is a ferry service from Exmouth harbour to Starcross railway station on the opposite shore of the River Exe.


The typical daytime frequency is a train every 30 minutes with alternate trains extended beyond Exter to and from Paignton or Barnstaple. Trains only stop once an hour at St James Park, Polsloe Bridge, Exton and Lympstone Commando, the latter two being request stops. Since 2006 it has been operated by Great Western Railway, using Class 143, 150 or 153 diesel multiple units (DMUs) either singly or in multiple. Between December 2007 and December 2011 Class 142 DMUs were also used.

The section in Exeter is shared with South West Trains West of England services to London Waterloo from Exeter St Davids station as far as Exmouth Junction (between St James Park and Polsloe Bridge).


The line is double track from Exeter St. David's to Exmouth Junction, but is single thereafter except for a passing loop at Topsham, where many trains are scheduled to cross each other. All movements on the line are under the control of the signal box at Exmouth Junction, which remotely operates the level crossing at Topsham as well as the loop there.

Passenger volume

The busiest station on the branch is Exmouth, which is the fifth busiest in Devon. The numbers of passengers using the line each year have shown an increase in particular Digby & Sowton and St James Park. Comparing all stations on the year beginning April 2002 to the Year beginning April 2010 there are a variety of trends. The biggest increases have been at Digby & Sowton by 157% and St James Park with 105%. The increases in descending order from there are Topsham by 89%, Polsloe Bridge by 82%, Exton by 60%, Lympstone Village by 31% and the smallest with Exmouth by 6%. Meanwhile, Lympstone Commando has declined by 33%.[6]


  1. ^ The South Devon company was at that time planning to use the atmospheric system to power trains; stationary engines exhausted air from a slotted pipe laid between the rails, and a carriage on the train carried a piston which ran in pipe, providing the necessary traction. The system was actually used, but was not successful and was later removed.


  1. ^ Otter, R.A. (1994). Civil Engineering Heritage: Southern England. London: Thomas Telford Limited. ISBN 07277-1971-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Phillips, Derek (2000). From Salisbury to Exeter: The Branch Lines. Shepperton: Oxford Publishing Company. ISBN 0-86093-546-9.
  3. ^ Williams, R.A. (1968). The London & South Western Railway: Volume 1: The Formative Years. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
  4. ^ a b Carter, E.F. (1959). An Historical Geography of the Railways of the British Isles. London: Cassell.
  5. ^ a b c d Mitchell, Vic; Smith, Keith (1992). Branch Lines to Exmouth. Midhurst: Middleton Press. ISBN 1-873793-006.
  6. ^ "Station Usage". Rail Statistics. Office of Rail Regulation. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 13 March 2009.

Coordinates: 50°40′46″N 3°27′08″W / 50.6795°N 3.4521°W

Digby and Sowton railway station

Digby and Sowton railway station is on the Avocet Line in Devon, England. The station is unstaffed, however a computer ticket machine is installed selling tickets for immediate travel. As a result of this, the station is part of a new Penalty Fare Zone, where passengers could be charged a £20 penalty fare if a ticket is not purchased, prior to joining the train.

Exeter Central railway station

Exeter Central railway station is the most central of the stations in the city of Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom. It is 171 miles 30 chains (275.8 km) down the line from London Waterloo. The station is smaller than Exeter St David's on the west side of the city.

Great Western Railway manage the station and operate trains on the routes to Barnstaple, Paignton, Exmouth. South Western Railway run trains between St David's and London Waterloo via Exeter Central.

From 1860, when it opened by the London and South Western Railway, until 1933, when it was rebuilt, it was known as Exeter Queen Street.

Exeter St David's railway station

Exeter St David's is the principal railway station serving the city of Exeter in Devon, England. It is 193 miles 72 chains (312.1 km) from London Paddington on the line through Bristol which continues to Plymouth and Penzance. It is also served by an alternative route to London Waterloo via Salisbury and branch lines to Exmouth and Barnstaple.

The station opened in 1844 as the terminus of the Bristol and Exeter Railway. It is currently managed by Great Western Railway and is served by trains operated by Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and CrossCountry.

Exeter St Thomas railway station

Exeter St Thomas railway station is a suburban railway station in Exeter, England, serving the suburb of St Thomas and the riverside area. The station is elevated on a low viaduct with entrances on Cowick Street. It is 74 chains (1.5 km) down the line from Exeter St David's and 194 miles 66 chains (313.5 km) measured from London Paddington via Bristol Temple Meads.

The station is unstaffed with the former station building now used for a bar and nightclub. It is mainly served by local trains operated by Great Western Railway.

It is the only station in Exeter which is listed (Grade II).


Exmouth is a port town, civil parish and seaside resort, sited on the east bank of the mouth of the River Exe and 11 miles (18 km) southeast of Exeter.

In 2011 it had a population of 34,432, making Exmouth the 5th most populous settlement in Devon.

Exmouth railway station

Exmouth railway station serves the town of Exmouth in Devon, England and is 11.25 miles (18 km) south east of Exeter St Davids. The station is the terminus of the Avocet Line from Exeter St Davids (which branches off from the West of England Main Line after Exeter Central). The station is managed by Great Western Railway, who operate all trains serving it.

Exton railway station

Exton railway station is a railway station serving the village of Exton in Devon, England. It is situated on the Avocet Line which runs between Exeter St Davids and Exmouth.


Lympstone is a village and civil parish in East Devon in the English county of Devon. It has a population of 1,754. There is a harbour on the estuary of the River Exe, lying at the outlet of Wotton Brook between cliffs of red breccia. The promontory to the north of the harbour is topped by a flat pasture, Cliff Field, that is managed by the National Trust and used for football matches and other local events.

Lympstone has rail services on the Avocet Line to Exmouth and Exeter from Lympstone Village railway station.

It is known locally for Peter's Tower, an Italianate riverfront brick clock tower built around 1885 by W.H. Peters as a memorial to his wife, and for its tradition of residents drying washing on the foreshore. The riverside houses back directly on to the shore, with no continuous seawall, and the passageways between them to the beach are equipped with metal flood gates that are closed by residents when they are warned of high tides by a local alert network.Near the village is the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM), the principal military training centre for the Royal Marines. The training centre has its own dedicated railway halt, Lympstone Commando (not in public use), on the Exeter–Exmouth branch line.

Ralph Lane, equerry to Queen Elizabeth I, was born in Lympstone. He was a soldier who went with Sir Walter Raleigh on his second expedition to the New World in 1585. He founded a colony on Roanoke Island amidst great hardship and deprivation. He was later present at the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Singer and lead guitarist of The Kinks, Dave Davies, lived in Lympstone in the 1990s. Former Tottenham Hotspurs footballer Steve Perryman currently resides in Lympstone.

Lympstone Commando railway station

Lympstone Commando railway station is a railway station on the branch line from Exeter to Exmouth in Devon, England.

The station was originally private for the exclusive the use of visitors to the Royal Marine Commando Training Centre at Lympstone.Exit was originally through a locked gate into the commando base but a foot/cycle path was built between the station and the commando base enabling access to/from the station.

The Ministry of Defence accept that it is the property of Network Rail, and as such they cannot prohibit members of the public from alighting at the station.

Lympstone Village railway station

Lympstone Village railway station serves the village of Lympstone in Devon, England.

Newcourt railway station (England)

Newcourt railway station is the newest railway station on the Avocet Line, serving the Newcourt area of Exeter, United Kingdom. The station is sited between Digby and Sowton and Topsham and was opened to passenger traffic on 4 June 2015. The station is managed and operated by Great Western Railway.

Okehampton railway station

Okehampton railway station is a railway station serving the town of Okehampton in Devon, England. Heritage train services currently operate on certain weekdays, weekends and bank holidays. A service from Exeter operates on summer Sundays as part of the Dartmoor Sunday Rover network.

Pinhoe railway station

Pinhoe railway station is on the eastern edge of the city of Exeter in Devon, England, that serves the village of Pinhoe. It was opened by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) in 1871 but is now operated by South Western Railway which provides services on the West of England Main Line. It is 168 miles 44 chains (271.3 km) down the line from London Waterloo.

Polsloe Bridge railway station

Polsloe Bridge railway station is a suburban railway station in Exeter, Devon, England.

Riviera Line

The Riviera Line is a local railway line that links the city of Exeter with Dawlish, Teignmouth, and the "English Riviera" resorts of Torbay in Devon, England. It is linked with the Exeter to Plymouth Line with which it shares the route along the South Devon sea wall. It is part of the Network Rail Route 12 (Reading to Penzance).

St James Park railway station

St James Park railway station is a suburban railway station in Exeter, Devon, England. It is 170 miles 72 chains (275.0 km) down the line from London Waterloo. The station is adjacent to the Exeter City football ground. Great Western Railway manage the station and operate the train services.

Tarka Line

The Tarka Line, also known as the North Devon Line, is a local railway line in Devon, England, linking the city of Exeter with the town of Barnstaple via a number of local villages. Services on the Tarka Line are operated by the Great Western Railway, and most southbound services continue beyond Exeter on the Avocet Line to Exmouth and the Riviera Line to Paignton. In the summer, the Dartmoor Railway runs alongside the Tarka Line between Exeter and Yeoford, and the railway broadly follows the route of the A377 road and the River Taw.

The first train services between Barnstaple and Exeter were operated in 1854 by the North Devon Railway (NDR), though the track south of Crediton was owned by the distinct Exeter and Crediton Railway (E&CR), which had the permission of the Bristol and Exeter Railway to connect to its station at Exeter St David's. The NDR was taken over by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) in 1865, and while the E&CR remained nominally independent, the majority of its shares were owned by the LSWR and the B&ER. The section south of Crediton became part of the LSWR in 1876.

Following the passage of the Railways Act 1921, the LSWR was merged into the Southern Railway, and twenty years later the line became part of the Western Region of British Rail. When British Rail was privatised the line was taken over by Wessex Trains, who gave it the name Tarka Line after the eponymous otter in Henry Williamson's book Tarka the Otter and introduced the Class 150 Sprinters and Class 143 Pacers that run today. The line was transferred to First Great Western in 2006, who rebranded as the Great Western Railway in 2015.

Topsham, Devon

Topsham (, also ) is a town in Exeter in the county of Devon, England, on the east side of the River Exe, immediately north of its confluence with the River Clyst and the former's estuary, between Exeter and Exmouth. Although village-sized, with a current population of around 5,023, increasing to 5,519 at the 2011 census for the electoral ward population which includes Countess Wear, which is its own individual settlement, Topsham was designated a town by a 1300 royal charter, until the Exeter urban district was formed. It is served by Topsham railway station on the branch line to Exmouth. In 2011 was the 150th anniversary of the railway coming to Topsham, on what is now called the Exeter–Exmouth Avocet Line.

Topsham railway station

Topsham railway station is the railway station serving the town of Topsham in the English county of Devon. It is the passing place for the otherwise single-track branch line from Exmouth Junction to Exmouth. Both the loop and adjacent level crossing are remotely worked from the signal box at Exmouth Junction.

Avocet Line
Cowley Bridge Junction
Red Cow LC
Exeter St Davids
0 mi 00 ch
0 km
Exeter St Davids Junction
St Davids Tunnel (
184 yd
168 m
Exeter Central
0 mi 78 ch
1.57 km
St James Park
1 mi 25 ch
2.11 km
Blackboy Tunnel (
262 yd
240 m
Mount Pleasant Road Halt
Exmouth Junction
1 mi 89 ch
3.4 km
Polsloe Bridge
2 mi 31 ch
3.84 km
Clyst St Mary and Digby Halt
Digby and Sowton
4 mi 14 ch
6.72 km
Topsham LC
6 mi 21 ch
10.08 km
River Clyst (
114 yd
104 m
7 mi 73 ch
12.73 km
Lympstone Commando
8 mi 18 ch
13.24 km
Lympstone Village
9 mi 24 ch
14.97 km
11 mi 29 ch
18.29 km
Station usage
Station name 2002–03 2004–05 2005–06 2006–07 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12 2012–13 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 2017–18
St James Park 27,233 27,477 27,428 31,716 36,354 43,348 46,754 55,910
Polsloe Bridge 45,879 43,788 43,773 51,264 54,094 62,722 70,038 83,598
Digby & Sowton 120,505 134,804 155,822 201,954 247,452 275,978 271,316 310,216
Topsham 105,717 127,903 138,905 156,153 172,818 183,006 186,056 199,484
Exton 12,059 10,583 10,255 11,505 12,214 14,790 15,834 19,312
Lympstone Commando 70,940 55,875 62,141 64,024 57,766 65,156 60,558 47,660
Lympstone Village 64,361 63,325 66,739 70,890 67,583 80,338 77,700 84,206
Exmouth 735,674 623,832 611,451 677,036 697,339 731,866 722,922 779,130
The annual passenger usage is based on sales of tickets in stated financial years from Office of Rail Regulation statistics. The statistics are for passengers arriving and departing from each station and cover twelve month periods that start in April. Please note that methodology may vary year on year. Note also that Barking and Blackhorse Road are affected by usage of the ticket gates for the underground and that Gospel Oak connects to the North London Line section of the London Overground and is similarly affected.

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