Okehampton railway re-opening is an important step towards a full line re-instatement

15 November, 2021

The re-opening of the railway to Okehampton is great news. Network Rail and GWR in particular are to be congratulated for pursuing the project through to completion. Greengauge 21 was pleased to be asked to build on its earlier work and investigate on behalf of GWR the opportunity for feeder bus services to broaden the value of GWR’s new Okehampton rail services.

The Exeter-Okehampton railway is the first part of what is likely to be a three-stage programme to recreate the ‘northern route’ across Devon to Plymouth and Cornwall. The planned Tavistock-Okehampton feeder bus route will serve to help build the market for a full re-instatement of the through line in due course. And Network Rail’s acquisition of the track-bed west of Okehampton to Meldon is another step in making this possible.

The Okehampton line has been rebuilt to main line rather than branch line standards, with an operating speed of 75 mile/h.

Vulnerability

The loss of the railway 50 years ago left a huge hole in the nation’s railway map. But this wasn’t one of Dr Beeching’s branch line closures. He was also intent on closing duplicate main lines, and the route around the north side of Dartmoor via Okehampton was indeed a second main line, linking Exeter and Plymouth.

Its closure left much of Devon and all of Cornwall ‘hanging by a thread’ in rail terms, as the breach of the sea wall and related cliff falls at Dawlish and Teignmouth proved in 2014, when the railway was out of action for 2 months following storm damage. Plymouth is the largest city in England with no alternative connection to the national rail network.

Climate Change

In this month of COP 26, the importance of containing carbon emissions has become better understood, and so too has been the need for adaptations to climate change. England is not somehow immune to the effects of sea level rises.

As has been shown in detailed assessments, the low-level coastal route between Exeter and Plymouth will be increasingly susceptible to the effects of sea level rises over the decades ahead, as the polar ice caps melt. Network Rail is valiantly trying to keep the coastal route intact. But what happened in 2014 is not only likely to recur but research points to ever increasing numbers of days each year when, sadly, rail services will be disrupted.

The Network Rail resilience work programme for the coastal line extends through to the 2070s. As yet no agreed way to address the problem of cliff erosion between Dawlish and Teignmouth. With no road access to this part of the railway, there is no easy way to carry out the extensive protective works needed. The availability of a second route – the north of Dartmoor main line reinstated – is what’s needed to be able to give Network Rail the extended access periods needed to accelerate their coastal route works programme – and make it affordable.

In Devon and Cornwall, there is every need, even if it was not apparent to Dr Beeching 50 years ago, to have two railways connecting Cornwall, and South/West Devon with the rest of the country. This is the nation’s prime example of an investment in transport needed for climate change resilience – to ensure that rail can be relied on to provide a dependable alternative to long distance car and lorry use.

Many fewer lorries

Right now, the logistics sector is looking to commit to a switch to railfreight for the distribution of consumer and industrial products to/from re-established railheads in Plymouth and Cornwall. The lengthy road hauls that could then be avoided will bring major environmental gains. With serious and ongoing HGV driver shortages, a switch to rail makes great sense. But consignors need an assurance of service continuity. In other parts of England, if there is engineering work, there will be an alternative rail route available. The South West Peninsula needs the same facility.

What next?

It seems likely that the next stage in the re-creation of the northern route will be a section of line from Bere Alston to Tavistock, reconnecting that thriving town with Plymouth. Ministers have agreed an initial grant for its business case to be developed.

We understand that Network Rail has developed plans that will allow the continued operation of direct Gunnislake -Plymouth trains and the introduction of Tavistock-Plymouth services on the single-track branch. Suburban stations in Plymouth will get more services as a consequence and help policies of reducing car use into the city centre.

Over 20 years ago, this scheme was promoted by a developer (who has long since departed the scene). Agreements were put in place to help fund Tavistock line re-opening with a station provided at Callington Road on the southern outskirts of the town where a major housing development got the go-ahead. Developer finance is of course welcome (especially by HM Treasury), but in reality it can only contribute a small part of line re-instatement costs. These will no doubt include a substantial sum to replace the bio-diverse strip of land along the disused and unused railway track-bed.

There is another challenge to be faced. A station at Callington Road would serve Tavistock poorly. It is a 20-minute walk into the town centre from this location. And there is insufficient space for a major park and ride site. So thoughts will turn to a longer re-instatement that will allow the whole of Tavistock to have good access to its rail service. This might even broach the question of re-establishing the route over Tavistock viaduct.

Another approach to the second phase of the full re-instatement might be an extension west and south from Okehampton, extending from Meldon (the current line limit) to reach Tavistock.

The economics of rail operation

It is hard to operate branch lines economically. Services need to use scarce platform space at the ‘parent’ main line station (St David’s, Exeter, in this case). With services operated as shuttles, a large proportion of train in-service time is spent at turnrounds rather than getting anywhere. And the limited number of direct connections provided discourages the full take up of the longer distance travel by train that generates (disproportionately) greater revenue. Stations in South West England double revenues if they have a London as well as a local service.

In the short term, it is conceivable that Exeter-Okehampton could be operated as an extension of the Waterloo-Exeter service. The only downside is the extent of single-track operation that might put punctuality at risk.

Conclusion

As we rightly celebrate the re-opening of Okehampton, it is important to keep the long-term objective in sight. Already there is talk of adding further stations to the Okehampton line. But this would add substantial costs, extend through journey times and reduce line capacity. A better approach would be to seek to get the absolute maximum from Okehampton station, including by direct road access to the west (A30) that could accommodate, for example, a very handy bus connection for Launceston.

Two branches – Okehampton-Exeter and Tavistock-Plymouth – compound the financial weakness of branch line operation. Through service operation (Plymouth-Tavistock-Okehampton-Exeter: the long-term aim) at a stroke multiplies the revenue earning potential. It turns a cash negative railway cash positive.

And of course, it also provides the alternative route needed for cost efficient resilience works to take place on the coast line and it provides a great back-up route, with easier track gradients, for rail freight.

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