Communities and passengers in Devon are to benefit from the reopening of the railway between Okehampton and Exeter as a result of the Government’s ‘Restoring your Railway’ initiative, the first to be delivered under the scheme.
Following confirmation of government £40 million 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.
The move will greatly improve connectivity for people living between Okehampton and Exeter and all surrounding areas, with journey times on the train estimated to be around 30% quicker than by car or bus while also helping to 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 plus 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 surrounding areas as well as result in greater numbers of visitors. The development of the railway and Okehampton station as a transport hub will also help boost tourism in 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. It has the potential to bring millions of pounds into the local area.
Since the beginning of 2020, working in partnership with Great Western Railway (GWR), Network Rail has been carrying out detailed investigations to understand what infrastructure and railway control system improvements are needed to bring the Dartmoor Line up to the required standards to enable GWR to operate trains safely.
Now that the green light has been received and investigations have been completed, Network Rail engineers will start immediately to undertake a range of work including drainage, fencing and earthworks, and will lay over 11 miles of new 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 publicly available WiFi. A ‘pay & display’ car park will also be introduced and the station building and platform will be fully accessible.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has welcomed the return of the Dartmoor Line.
“Restoring the connections between our communities, and building new ones, is key to unlocking our nation’s potential and levelling up across the UK.
“The massive investment we are making into the railways of the South West will quite literally lay the tracks to more jobs, tourism and opportunities across the region.”
Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, added: “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.”
This investment coincides with the 150th anniversary of the railway first arriving in Okehampton in 1871 and it is nearly 50 years since the last passenger service on this railway line was withdrawn as part of the Beeching cuts.
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 the surrounding area, 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, with the expectation it will increase to an hourly service towards the end of 2022.
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.”
Manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership Richard Burningham MBE, said: “Thanks to the Government and congratulations to all those whose hard work over, in some cases, many years has got us to this announcement. This year is the 150th 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.”
With the service benefitting students heading to colleges in Exeter, Exeter College Principal and Chief Executive John Laramy CBE believe the line will give the colleges and the city a boost.
“The return of the Okehampton to Exeter rail line full-time is great news for the region as we look to build connectivity across the South West.” He said. “As we all know, enhanced connectivity is a key driver for productivity and this development will open up new opportunities to support the growth of our economy within this area. We have students study with us from across the South West region and another rail route into the heart of Exeter can only be a good thing, not only for learners themselves, but also for the city of Exeter.”
Pamela Woods, Chair of Dartmoor National Park Authority commented,
“Opening up the line to Dartmoor with a regular train service is very much welcome as we celebrate our 70th year as a National Park. Providing a sustainable route to access Dartmoor via regular rail links supports our green travel strategy, reduces congestion and provides a more accessible way for all to enjoy the National Park.
‘We are looking forward to working with GWR to provide visitor information at Okehampton Station, to make the most of the opportunities this presents to support our tourism businesses and the local economy.”
In addition to the rail enhancements already announced in recent weeks, the Department for Transport (DfT) has now revealed that a new £53million depot in Exeter is to be built providing enhanced servicing facilities for trains and improving the availability of trains in the region, including for the Dartmoor Line.