The railway between Okehampton and Exeter in Devon should reopen for regular passenger services by the end of 2021 after the department for Transport announced funding worth over £40 million to restore and reopen the line.
The 14-mile stretch of railway – known as the Dartmoor Line – will carry a regular, daily service for the first time in almost 50 years as a result of the government’s ‘Restoring your Railway’ initiative.
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% quicker than by car or bus. Moving passengers from road to train will also contribute towards reducing traffic congestion and associated pollution on the busy A30.
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.
Economically, the reopening of the railway is expected to attract inward investment to Okehampton and the surrounding areas, bringing millions of pounds into the local area as well as a greater numbers of visitors. The development of the railway and Okehampton station as a transport hub will help boost tourism to the area by providing greater access to the town and nearby attractions including Dartmoor National Park – which is celebrating its 70th anniversary – and the Granite Way cycle route, itself a former railway line.
Working in partnership with Great Western Railway (GWR), Network Rail has been carrying out detailed investigations since the beginning of 2020 to understand what infrastructure and railway control system improvements are needed to bring the line up to the required standards to enable GWR to operate trains safely.
The Dartmoor line stretches for 14 miles from Okehampton to Coleford junction, where it joins the existing Tarka line (North Devon line) between Exeter and Barnstaple. Strictly speaking, Coleford is no longer a junction. The former twin-track railways, and their junction at Coleford, have been replaced. The Tarka line is now a single-track railway running on one of the former two tracks, while the Dartmoor line runs parallel to it along the line of the second track before curving off towards Okehampton, with no actual ‘junction’ necessary.
Now that the green light has been received and investigations have been completed, Network Rail engineers will start to undertake a range of works including drainage, fencing and earthworks. They will relay 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.
The former intermediate stations at Bow, North Tawton and Sampford Courtenay will not be reopened, but there are plans for a possible future Parkway station just outside Okehampton, if the demand warrants it.
However, upgrades will be made to Okehampton station, including installing a ticket vending machine, Help Point, public address system, information screens, CCTV and free Wi-Fi. A ‘Pay & Display’ car park will also be introduced with dedicated disabled bays, and the station building and platform will be fully accessible.
Speaking of the government’s investment, 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.”
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’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.”
GWR expects to introduce passenger service by the end of 2021 with trains running every two hours, seven day a week.
Campaigners are also pressing for the reopening of the former London and South Western Railway line from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton. The Dartmoor line forms part of that route, as does the existing but disused freight connection to Meldon quarry – a further three miles. The next 20 miles to Bere Alston, where it joins the Tamar line between Plymouth and Gunnislake in Cornwall, has been lifted, but the spectacular viaducts remain, four of them used by the Granite Way footpath.
Reopening this route, supporters claim, would provide an alternative route to Cornwall if the former Great Western Railway, which runs through Dawlish and is sandwiched between the sea and high cliffs, should ever have further problems.