Okehampton to Exeter rail line – public demand transparency

It’s been over two years since the former Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling declared in a letter to ‘colleagues’ that the government had commissioned rail operator Great Western Railway (GWR) to investigate the reinstatement of a passenger service between Exeter and Okehampton.

The definitive, albeit penultimate paragraph, in the three page correspondence dated 30th January, 2018 (pictured on page 10) – which also covers a number of other rail-related issues concerning the South West – reads: ‘In addition, we have instructed GWR to prepare plans to introduce regular train services to Okehampton, with the objective of securing a credible and costed plan for delivering an all-week, all-year train service between Exeter and Okehampton as soon as is reasonably practicable.’

The final paragraph also states. ‘I will continue to update you on the progress as we continue to invest in this vital part of our rail infrastructure.’

Up until now this publicly-stated commitment and encouraging rhetoric had been largely met with a wall of

Only last week the i newspaper, reporting on the failure of the Northern Rail franchise, headlined that ‘Other troubled rail operators could be under threat’ and then poured fuel on the fire by claiming that: ‘The South Western franchise is also under the spotlight while the South Eastern and Great Western franchises are due to end on 1 April.’

GWR’s lease actually expires on 31st March, but it is widely accepted that the license to operate for another two years – with a further two year option – will be granted without let or hindrance and that the whole process is a mere formality.

Expressing the mounting local frustration following the lack of any salient information or transparency since, The Moorlander contacted GWR for clarification regarding the future of the line and the current progress of the plan as commissioned by the-then Secretary of State in January 2018.

GWR have, this week, issued the following statement: “We can confirm that following a request by the DfT, GWR provided a response on the potential to provide regular services between Exeter and Okehampton, and how some of the challenges to such a project could be overcome, for their consideration last summer.

‘While our response is confidential we recognise the present feeling and local aspirations around the future of regular weekday rail services to Okehampton, which was the most sought after additional route in the most recent GW franchise consultation.

‘The DfT’s February 2019 “Investing in the South West” report recognised this and we are continuing to work with stakeholders to explore future opportunities for the route.”

This is extremely encouraging news not only for the future of the Exeter to Okehampton line but for the regeneration of the Bere Alston to Tavistock link too. It would, however, be too much to expect that the remaining gap, which would complete the ‘Dawlish-avoiding or northern route’ between Okehampton and Bere Alston via Meldon, will be re-established any time soon.

‘Or for the rural connection from Okehampton to Bude via Halwill Junction and Holsworthy, which closed in 1966 as a result of ‘The Beeching Axe’, to be reintroduced either. That is not to say that reopening these lines, which would be of immense benefit to their respective communities and businesses, will never happen at all.

Mel Stride, MP for Central Devon, whose constituency embraces the Exeter to Okehampton rail link, has been stoic in his support for the reintroduction of the new service for many years.

“I have campaigned for over a decade to bring a regular rail service back between Okehampton and Exeter via Crediton.

‘I have held dozens of meetings with local campaigners, Government ministers and the different agencies involved to progress this huge project, for example playing a key role in securing the go ahead for the route’s government backed feasibility study, which is now nearing completion. I remain confident that we are close to achieving what we have long set out to do and that within the next two years this valuable service should be up and running.”

Dr Michael Ireland, Chairman of the OkeRail Forum – the local action group who has been campaigning for the reintroduction of the defunct line for over ten years – appealed to the key stakeholders for transparency.

“All we ask is that we are kept informed of developments,” he told The Moorlander, “the whole affair has been shrouded in secrecy for far too long and it’s about time some progress was made.”

Now that GWR have publicly admitted that they did indeed deliver the commissioned report to the DfT some six months ago we trust that Dr Ireland’s message will not go unheeded and that the public are kept better informed in the future.

silence from both the Department for Transport (DfT) and GWR and has led to various action groups, concerned members of the general public – who have been closely monitoring events – and The Moorlander, demanding answers from the key agencies and stakeholders involved.

As reported here last month, the news that Dartmoor Railway and associated infrastructure was for sale and that miscellaneous
leases had been allowed to lapse set alarm bells ringing as to the future of the promised reintroduction of a regular daily service between Exeter and Okehampton.

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Author: Eric Partridge

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