Regular rail services will run between Okehampton and Exeter for the first time in 50 years after confirmation that the line will reopen – and is the biggest rail news for a generation for Devon.
Communities and passengers are to benefit from the reopening of the railway between Okehampton and Exeter as a result of the Government’s ‘Restoring your Railway’ initiative.
Regular Okehampton to Exeter passenger services were withdrawn on June 5, 1972, although since 1997 a limited service has run between Okehampton and Exeter on Sundays during the summer.
And following confirmation of government funding, services are expected to restart later this year on the 14-mile stretch of railway – known as the Dartmoor Line – for the first time in almost 50 years, providing a regular, daily passenger rail service between Okehampton and Exeter.
This investment coincides with the 150 th anniversary of the railway first arriving in Okehampton in 1871 and it is expected that services will resume before the end of 2021 – with December currently pencilled in for the start of a two-hourly service – with that becoming hourly during 2022.
The move will greatly improve connectivity for people living between Okehampton and Exeter and the surrounding areas, with journey times on the train estimated to be around 30 per cent quicker than by car or bus while helping contribute towards reducing traffic congestion and associated pollution on the busy A30.
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The railway will also provide better access to and from the wider mid and west Devon and north Cornwall areas, and will greatly support school and college pupils and people who live in or near Okehampton, but who need to travel to Exeter to study or work.
Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “The return of all-year services to the picturesque Dartmoor Line for the first time in half a century is a milestone moment in our efforts to restore our railways.
“Reversing lost railway connections breathes new life into our high streets, drives tourism and investment in businesses and housing, and opens new opportunities for work and education.”
Mel Stride, MP for Central Devon, said: “I’m delighted that after many years of local campaigning Government has backed this vital scheme.
“I look forward to seeing Network Rail ready the track for the return of regular passenger services in the coming months; so we can reconnect communities, boost tourism and give many thousands of my constituents the quality of local transport infrastructure they should rightly expect.”
Dr Michael Ireland, from OkeRail, who has been campaigning for the reopening of the line, said that it was great news that it would finally come to fruition.
“This news is really important not just for Okehampton but for the whole of the region out to Holsworthy and Bude,” he said. “It is incredible news for tourism, for the economy, and for education and leisure, it is vital. It is much bigger than just the town and will be vital and become a major rail head for the sub-region.”
Cllr Andrea Davis, Devon County Council cabinet member for infrastructure and development, said: “After years of campaigning and a lot of tireless work behind the scenes by all of the partners involved in this project, the confirmation of Government backing will be well received by the local community.
“Reopening the line to regular services will be a massive benefit for the environment, tourism and the local economy, and it will attract investment to the area. I’m sure everyone will be looking forward to services resuming later this year.
“For Devon, this is the biggest rail news for a very long time. This community was cut off in 1972 so people don’t even remember it, but the reopening is fantastic news. People will have choices about how they travel and this opens up Okehampton and what a great time for it to happen.”
Since 1997, Devon County Council has helped fund the Sunday services, and Cllr Davis if they had not taken the decision to do that, then the line wouldn’t be reopening now.
“The reason Devon invested huge amounts to keep the line going was to show it could be done, that there was a demand, and to get people in the habit of getting on the train and knowing you could get to and from Exeter,” she said. Without that we wouldn’t be here today and it shows what can be achieved.
“The line is about leisure use and commuting, but about being able to connect with friends and relatives and the better the connectivity, the better their health outcomes.”
Christian Irwin, Network Rail’s industry programme director, said: “We’re thrilled to have received funding confirmation from the Government to support us in reopening the Dartmoor Line.
“We are absolutely delighted that after years of campaigning by the local community we have developed a really strong case for the line to reopen this calendar year. It will be fantastic for connectivity and to enable people from Okehampton and the wider hinterlands to have connectivity to Exeter for business and for education, but in reverse, it opens up Okehampton as a gateway to the National Park and as a tourism opportunity.
“We’re excited by the numerous benefits the reopening of this railway will bring to Okehampton and surrounding areas, and we are now fully focussed on undertaking the necessary engineering work required to prepare this line for the return of regular passenger services.
“We’re grateful to our partners and supporters who are helping make this a realisation and would like to thank local residents living near to the railway for their patience whilst we ramp up our activity to get the track ready.”
Asked about the timetables for reopening, Mr Irwin said that they have a detailed plan and in April, construction activities will commence.
He added: “We have 13,000 sleepers on site in Okehampton and six miles of rail already delivered and over the course of the next nine months, we will be constructing new track, stabilising embankments, upgrading some of the structures and providing some improved facilities at Okehampton, including a new car park.
“It is our plan that by the end of the year, we will have a two hourly passenger service connecting Okehampton with Exeter, and that will be followed up in 2022 with an increased frequency to one hourly as we get the opportunity to do some more upgrades.”
Now that the green light has been received and investigations have been completed, Network Rail engineers will start immediately to undertake a range of works including drainage, fencing and earthworks, and will lay over 11 miles of track, replace 24,000 concrete sleepers and install nearly 29,000 tonnes of ballast before running test trains on the track ahead of fully reopening the railway to passengers.
As part of these upgrades, improvements are also going to be made to Okehampton station including installing a ticket vending machine, Help Point, public address system, information screens, CCTV and free WiFi. A ‘Pay & Display’ car park will also be introduced with dedicated disabled bays, and the station building and platform will be fully accessible.
Matt Barnes, regional development manager for the West for Great Western Rail, added: “This is fantastic news and a long held ambition of ours and it will make a huge difference to communities, provide new access to jobs and education, and while Okehampton will benefit most of all, the wider area as well, and will improve access to the National Park by public transport as well and we are excited by the visitor numbers it could generate.”
GWR expects to introduce passenger service by the end of 2021 with trains running every two hours, seven day a week, and Mark Hopwood, GWR managing director, added: “We are pleased that the case we made to government for this important local line has been so compelling that this is one of the first of the Government’s Restoring Your Railway re-opening projects to get the green light. This is great news for communities surrounding Okehampton wanting to be re-connected to the national network.
“Returning regular, daily services to this line has been a long-held ambition of ours and was the most sought-after additional route in our most recent franchise consultation. We’ve already done a great deal of work with Network Rail and local partners, including Devon County Council, to support those aspirations, and have well-developed plans to have trains running on the Dartmoor Line again.
“The commitment to re-open the line will help extend the reach and social and economic benefits of the railway, further supporting the communities we serve.”
Richard Burningham MBE, manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, added: “Thanks to the Government and congratulations to all those whose hard work over, in some cases, many years has got us to today’s announcement. This year is the 150 th anniversary of the railway first arriving in Okehampton.
“Long closed, the Okehampton line will be only the third railway to open for regular passenger services in Devon and Cornwall in 100 years. All of us are going to be working hard to make it a huge success and I am very sure it will be.”
And there are still ambitions that are held to reopen the whole of the inland route and connect Okehampton with Tavistock and Plymouth.
Devon County Council has submitted two further bids as part of the Restoring Your Railway Fund to the section between Bere Alston and Tavistock, and the section between Tavistock and Okehampton, and Cllr Davis added: “We don’t know what will happen, but the aspiration is there to open up the whole line. Even just to Okehampton it has enormous benefits to the wider area, but to open the whole route up takes it even further and has a positive benefit to the residents of West Devon and Dartmoor and into Cornwall.”
Mr Barnes added: “The Peninsula Rail Task Force have it as a key aspiration to see the line reopen westwards and we support them, but the focus now is getting this railway line to reopen and services up and running.”
For more information about the Dartmoor Line, please visit www.dartmoorline.com