A decade ago, I sat down with a number of key local figures in Okehampton, including Dartmoor Railway’s Operations Manager, to put a campaign plan in place for a regular passenger rail service between Okehampton and Exeter. It was an optimistic discussion to say the least, given that our economy was still recovering from the financial crash and securing funding was going to be the single biggest challenge. We also didn’t just need to make a strong case but a stronger case than many other worthy parts of the country. But I remember the clarity we had on why the new service was so important and this has never dimmed.
The first reason is the most obvious – that thousands of residents in and around Okehampton are up to an hour away from their nearest station. It has meant that those who depend on public transport, including many students, are reliant on bus services which can function well at times but can be busy or slow at others. Even for drivers, not having a rail station nearby is still a significant inconvenience. Hundreds of thousands of journeys a year, to work, to study, to go shopping, to see family and friends, to go on holiday, would be quicker and easier by train.
The second reason was to take cars off the road. Having driven along the A30 more times than I can count I know that traffic on the outskirts of Exeter, such as the Alphington Road roundabout can be a nightmare. If more people travelled into Exeter by train, we could reduce congestion at a major bottle neck. This would bring significant environmental benefits; fewer cars travelling along the A30 plus, fewer cars sat idling in traffic would reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality for communities along the A30.
The third reason was economic. All too often our part of Devon is thought of as an idyllic place to live with Dartmoor on our doorstep, market towns with our independent shops and friendly communities where people look after one another. This isn’t wrong – it’s just not the whole picture. There is significant rural poverty in counties like Devon, larger businesses are too often stifled by a lack of skilled labour and for every small independent shop that is doing well there is another only just getting by. A rail service will deliver a massive economic boost through increased tourism and better access to jobs, education and training opportunities.
After lobbying the directors of the American company which owned much of the railway track, I started to press the case in Westminster. I persuaded the Government to commission a study by Network Rail to identify options for a resilient rail route west of Exeter and organised two key ministerial visits to Okehampton in 2014. The first was from Rail Minister Claire Perry and the second was from Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin. It was essential for them to see first-hand how much of the infrastructure needed for the service was already in place. It wasn’t a pie in the sky idea but a genuinely achievable goal.
With the practical argument for the service on a firm footing I sat down with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in February 2016 and made the case for the service on economic grounds. I also raised specific concerns over funding for a vital Peninsula Rail Task Force Report that would shape the future of rail development in the South West and this was subsequently made available.
During the next couple of years progress was slow but I kept working closely with local campaigners through OkeRail to highlight the demand for the service. This included joining residents on board the first Pullman train in almost half a century to travel directly from Okehampton to London. The special one-off event sold out, demonstrating the commercial demand for rail services from Okehampton. I organised for Rail Minister Paul Maynard to welcome the train at Paddington.
In January, 2018, I secured the first official commitment from the Government to introduce the service when Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling instructed Great Western Railway to prepare plans for ‘an all-week, all-year train service as soon as reasonably practicable’. Despite this major milestone, the next couple of years were frustrating as progress stalled. An important GWR feasibility study was delayed and for the first time I feared that valuable momentum could be lost. I organised several meetings with ministers, including the Secretary for State for Transport Grant Shapps, to keep the project on the Government’s radar and to ensure the Government was primed to respond to the feasibility study when it was completed so further time would not be lost.
During 2020 my fears subsided. The Government gave the official go ahead by releasing a National Infrastructure Strategy document that included investment in an Okehampton to Exeter service. Chancellor Rishi Sunak later confirmed this would be £40 million – a significant share of a £500 million Restoring Your Railway programme that the Government launched as part of its levelling-up agenda to ensure investment reaches all corners of our country.
GWR and Network Rail have since done an extraordinary job, particularly with the challenges associated with the pandemic, in delivering the project on time and on budget. I joined them earlier this year for a briefing on the progress they were making and to discuss the need for a second station on the eastern edge of town to reduce congestion and improve access.
Too many people have played their part in this success story to name them all, but I am especially grateful to the Dartmoor Railway Association and to Dr Michael Ireland, Councillor Mike Davies, Councillor Kevin Ball and everyone involved with OkeRail. It has been the ultimate team effort to get us to where we are today – the first Restoring Your Railway project to be delivered. It has been a very long journey but one that has been absolutely worth it.