Local transport links for new decade still on track

Eric Partridge
© Network Rail

Following the government’s controversial support of crisis airline Flybe, the Department for Transport have announced that they will be conducting a review of all regional transport services across the country. This will include airports, rail services, and other key transport links.

So how will the government plans affect the south west, in particular Dartmoor and wider Devon? Surely long-established plans and strategies were already in place weren’t they? What happened to the Devon Metro proposals launched in 2011 or the South West Peninsula Rail Task Force’s plan that followed five years later?

Aware of reports and media coverage that both initiatives were over-ambitious, over-schedule and over-budget, The Moorlander approached Devon County Council (DCC) and The Peninsula Rail Task Force (PRTF) for comment and were encouraged by the response. Both long-term projects are alive and kicking and both it seems are still on track.”

‘Closing the Gap’ is The South West Peninsula Rail Task Force’s plan for investment into the South West Peninsula’s strategic rail network.

© Network Rail

The plan defines the Task Force’s ambition of a 21st century rail network underpinned by three priorities: 1. Resilience and reliability; 2. Faster journey times; 3. Improved connectivity with sufficient capacity.

The PRTF had this to say. “The Peninsula Rail Task Force Blueprint was developed in response to an invitation from Government to set out our
ambitions for the South West and specifically look at the strategic routes that would require Government investment (Penzance to Paddington / Midlands). As you will appreciate, since the invitation and its publication in 2016, there has been significant political flux, which has impacted on just about every aspect of the domestic agenda, including transport investment. Our role, as PRTF, is to lobby and inform Government to make the case for strategic investment in the South West, and in doing so, we have been successful in many ways, particularly at Dawlish where work is underway to protect the coast and the rail line.

‘Post the storms of 2014 that caused widespread damage, most notably on the Dawlish section of the line, the task force was formed with the remit of making a case for investment. As a result, the work has resulted in positive action to improve both local and strategic rail connectivity in Devon and the wider peninsula. It is worth highlighting that this work was achieved by collaboration between PRTF, Network Rail and the various Train Operating Companies. Through effective liaison with government, and government representatives, much has been achieved to improve the reliability and resilience, journey time and connectivity, as well as capacity and comfort of Devon services.

‘By working together, and creating a single, clear narrative, we have achieved:

•     +£50m works carried out on mainline north of Cowley Bridge
•     Rollout of Hitachi trains, increasing capacity and enabling faster journeys (maximised through Dec 19 GWR timetable changes) as well as increased services
•     £15m funding secured to develop plans for awlish mainline resilience  improvements
•     £80m Dawlish mainline works commenced in Spring 2019
•     £30m Cornwall resignalling works completed

‘We are also focused on our commitments to completing the Dawlish to Teignmouth mainline, improved mobile connectivity ‘working office’ on journeys between the peninsula and major cities, as well as decarbonisation of rail. PRTF representatives recently met with Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, on 23rd October 2019 to express concerns that the Peninsula rail network is currently entirely powered by diesel and that the South West wants to be at the forefront of change, in light of the current climate emergency.

Specifically, a case was presented for discrete electrification of the South Devon banks – between Plymouth and Newton Abbot – as well as the potential to explore options for non-fossil fuel solutions for rail services in the future.

‘Securing funding for transport is, however, a slow – and competitive process and of course, the Task Force has been focused on the strategic routes – not the branch routes that are involved in the Devon Metro.

‘Each element of our plans has to have its own business case – and the budgets that we forecast in the blueprint were exactly that – not an exact sum, but a prediction based on industry and sectoral guidance, and of course, this does not guarantee an allocation.

‘Despite many of these obstacles, by working in conjunction with local authorities, there have been significant advances on the branch lines too, but these have been undertaken by the local authorities.”

Devon Metro’ launched in 2011, as a proposal from Devon County Council, aimed to develop the existing railway network based around Exeter into a county-wide Metro ‘turn up and go’ service. Although primarily focusing on the area around Exeter, the Plymouth region was also set to benefit from more regular local services between the two cities and the proposed extension of the Tamar Valley line to Tavistock.

The strategy included seven new rail stations, regular services from Okehampton to Exeter, and the reinstatement of the former railway between Bere Alston and Tavistock. A statement from Devon County Councillor Andrea Davis, DCC Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Development and Waste highlighted the progress that DCC had made since the plans were launched.

“From 2015 up to now, the region County Council has delivered two new rail stations, with a third on the way, which is exceptional progress compared to most other regions.

A new station at Cranbrook near Exeter opened in 2015 as did Newcourt station on the Avocet Line midway between Digby & Sowton and Topsham stations, while Marsh Barton is due for planning in Summer 2020 and delivery by Winter 2021/22.

Preliminary designs have been prepared and land has been safeguarded for the development of a new station at Okehampton East. Proposals to reintroduce services between Okehampton and Exeter were included in the PRTF’s 20-year plan and in response to the report, the Government tasked GWR with developing proposals to trial regular services on the Okehampton line and we await the outcomes of these investigations.

With regards to the Tavistock to Bere Alston rail corridor, work has been continuing to investigate potential options, with the reintroduction of a sustainable travel option between Tavistock and Plymouth remaining an aspiration of DCC and PRTF. The difficulty of delivering heavy rail, in light of escalating costs, has been highlighted, with the possibility for alternative solutions suggested. However, there remains strong support for rail to be reinstated – but to do so, significant funds need to be secured.

The Prime Minister has recently announced his intention to introduce a £500m Beeching Reversal fund to reopen lines closed during the 1960s, which presents an opportunity to encourage Government to invest in reintroducing rail services to Tavistock. In light of this announcement, Devon County Council will be approaching the Department for Transport to discuss the necessary funds required to enable heavy rail to be delivered.”

As projected costs for the potential white elephant aka HS2 spiral out of control, what a difference it could make to the infrastructure here in the South West if just a fraction of one percent of that exorbitant budget was redirected. Just a thought?

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