Wednesday 24th November 2021
Let’s get something straight from the outset. It’s great to see daily passenger trains running again between Exeter and Okehampton after all the “restoring your railway” and “reversing the Beeching cuts” rhetoric from Government, so very well done to everyone involved in this project.
But to be pedantic Network Rail Western, it’s not true to say the “railway opens to passengers after 50 years!”.
That would be to ignore Devon County Council’s worthy actions of funding a summer Sunday timetable on the line since 1997 which attracted many happy passengers including myself, most recently taking a circular tour from Exeter to Okehampton on the Dartmoor Line, the much welcome return of Sunday bus 279 between Okehampton and Gunnislake, the Tamar Valley Line to Plymouth and the train back to Exeter (including a write up in June 2019).
The other much welcome news is the project has been completed ahead of time and below its budget of £40 million thanks to a small army of high viz clad engineers and support staff.
That’s excellent to hear when so many rail projects have a tendency to overrun on both time and cost. But £40 million is a huge investment to enable an initial eight return journeys a day, two-hourly train service to run, before taking into account the not insignificant operating costs.
However there are plans to increase the frequency to hourly next Spring, as well as make further improvements to the 40 minute journey time which will be good, as it currently doesn’t offer much of a ‘world beating’ saving over the 50 minute journey time achieved by Stagecoach’s bus route 6 (to Exeter St Davids) which also runs approximately hourly and with little, if any, public funding, and certainly not £40 million of track investment.
It’s hoped to get the Dartmoor Line journey time to Exeter St Davids down to ‘around 35 minutes’ by next Spring when I understand a final speed restriction is removed with the completion of some bridge reconstruction work.
Line speed from Coleford Junction (where the Dartmoor Line leaves the Tarka Line to Barnstaple) is initially 55 mph then on the straight stretch towards Okehampton, through the former station at Bow, top speed is as high as 70 mph before reducing to 55 mph through Sampford Courtenay (the delightful isolated station that’s been served on Summer Sunday journeys but not reopening now) then back up to 60 mph before reducing to 40 mph on the approach to Okehampton.
These speed limits are much improved on what was possible on the old track some of which dates back to the early 1900s. They’ve been achieved following a huge amount of work carried out by Network Rail and its contractors over the last eight months.
As soon as the funding got the green light in March engineers began beavering away relaying 11 miles of track using 24,000 concrete sleepers and 29,000 tonnes of ballast. Level crossings were upgraded, bridges repaired and GSM-R masts installed to improve communications. A token system still applies for the single line stretch from Crediton signal box to Okehampton.
Okehampton station, already well looked after and cared for by volunteers on the Dartmoor Railway heritage line to Meldon Viaduct, has now received a ticket machine, information screens, help point and PA system for the reopened service. In the new year it’s planned to reopen the revamped station building with its friendly cafe and visitor information.
Target date for the restored service was originally the mid December timetable change date but with work and test running largely complete ahead of schedule it began last Saturday to much rejoicing from local residents, train enthusiasts and the active and supportive Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership.
I took a ride up and down the line on Monday morning to see whether the first two journeys from Okehampton into Exeter would already be attracting commuters and students either modal shifting from Stagecoach’s route 6 or leaving their cars behind.
The first journey leaves Okehampton at 07:20 having arrived from Exeter St Davids at 07:07 (it leaves there at 06:29). It continues beyond Exeter St Davids to Exeter Central, which as its name implies is more central, arriving at 08:05.
Stagecoach route 6 leaves Okehampton’s West Street, which is a bit more central to the town than the station, at 07:30 arriving at Exeter St Davids at 08:20 and the bus station at 08:28. So depending whereabouts in Okehampton you live the bus could still be the mode of choice for you. It’s a bit cheaper too.
The next train departure from Okehampton is currently at 09:24 with an Exeter Central arrival at 10:07 which I can see being very popular with shoppers especially as there’s a long gap on Stagecoach’s route 6 with its next journey not leaving Okehampton until 09:45 reaching the bus station in Exeter at 10:44.
The 11:25 train from Okehampton and two evening departures at 20:22 and 22:18 only go as far as Exeter St Davids but the others at 13:24, 15:24 and 18:20 continue to Central.
Those evening train departures may prove popular as there’s not much of an evening service on the bus with the last departure back from Exeter at 20:15 although the train isn’t too much better at 21:12 from St Davids (20:52 from Central via a connection).
There’s an evening peak departure from Exeter Central at 17:04 which will be popular with commuters and students whereas the bus leaves the bus station at 16:40 and 17:50.
Once the hourly train service gets going I can see it proving popular and all the more so if plans for a new “West Devon Transport Hub” (aka a new Parkway station) on the eastern side of Okehampton by Hameldown Business Park on the A30 junction at Stockley Hamlet get the go ahead providing ample parking for commuting motorists from a wide catchment area in west Devon. West Devon Borough Council is bidding for £12 million of ‘levelling up’ funding to pay for it.
In the meantime there’s quite a few car parking spaces alongside Okehampton station itself for commuters wanting to switch mode now, and it’ll be interesting to see how many try out the new service.
ITV South West’s local reporter Richard Lawrence and cameraman also had an early start on Monday to record the first commuter journey leaving at 07:20 and interview passengers.
In the event there were just six ‘genuine’ passengers in addition to myself, my Twitter friend Hugo and another train enthusiast giving the journey a try out.
One commuter already committed to the new service complete with folding bike told me he would be travelling at least two days a week and warmly welcomed the service. Sadly despite persuasion from Richard he wouldn’t appear on camera.
However a couple of others did and made the case for the new rail service as a positive alternative to driving into Exeter and Hugo also featured with a great quote in the clip screened on ITV’s regional news for the South West on Monday evening.
It was noteworthy a couple of the passengers were probably students attending the buoyant Further Education economy in Exeter.
Indeed I was astounded how many students alighted from a four coach train arriving into Exeter St Davids from Exmouth at 08:29 on Monday. It must have been absolutely rammed if the crowds leaving the station are anything to go by.
If the new Okehampton service can get a slice of the student market from west Devon into Exeter it’ll soon do very well indeed.
GWR had sensibly taken the precaution of doubling up what will be the normal two-car Class 150 when the hourly service starts, to a four car unit on Saturday to cope with first day crowds which was also the allocation on Monday.
On Saturday it had a commemorative headboard too. A nice touch.
While the capacity wasn’t needed for the 07:20 departure on Monday when I returned for the 09:24 journey, Okehampton was truly bustling with passengers all eager to have a ride into Exeter which was very heartening to see, and almost all looked to be non rucksack carrying, camera wielding passengers too. I understand yesterday morning, Weekday Day 2, sixty passengers boarded that journey – if usage grows at this rate they’ll definitely need the four coach unit.
Awareness of the additional departures from Crediton station may take longer to establish and no one boarded there on the first journey into Exeter on Monday but once the hourly service begins it will offer a half hourly frequency into Exeter in conjunction with the hourly Barnstaple trains on the Tarka Line which will be very attractive and give Stagecoach’s routes 5/5A/5B/5C with their rather disjointed frequency a bit of competition.
I was delighted to see a splendid display of printed timetables in Exeter St Davids including a colourful leaflet promoting the restored Dartmoor Line.
This excellent brochure contains the timetable and fares information as well as ‘Reasons to travel’ including visiting Dartmoor National Park and other towns served by the rail network now Okehampton is plugged back in.
Well done to GWR for producing this in an age of “it’s all on line” cop outs from most other train companies.
There are aspirations – some might say pipe dreams – to extend the line beyond Okehampton and restore the track down to Tavistock and then reconnect with the Gunnislake branch (Tamar Valley Line) at Bere Alston for Plymouth as the line once did before closing in 1968. This was mooted at the time of the track collapse at Dawlish in the storms of 2014 with PM David Cameron making pledges of full appraisals and the like but things have gone quieter in recent years as fortifications to the wall are advancing and you get the idea despite local enthusiasm it’ll be a “restoring your railway” step too far even for our “loves to promise anything and everything” current PM.
I took a ride around that circuit on Monday morning including the new ‘integrated’ bus route 118 newly extended to Okehampton station to Tavistock then on to Bere Alston and the train to Plymouth and I’ll tell you about that ride in the next post on Friday.
Meantime good luck to the newly restored Okehampton branch – the omens look good. Just don’t let the Treasury see the finances.