Oke rail UPDATE – light at the end of the tunnel?

Eric Partridge
BEFORE 1 september 2020, Tors Road Bridge Credit Network Rail

Over the course of the last few years this newspaper has, in association with all of the various action groups and other interested parties, been campaigning incessantly for the reinstatement of the Okehampton to Exeter railway line, which was axed as a result of the ‘Beeching’ cuts in 1972.

More recently run as a heritage service by Dartmoor Railway – operated by Dartmoor Railway Community Interest Company (DRCIC) – the passenger experience included summer excursions and the Polar Express Christmas specials before their whole UK business was packaged for sale by its US owners IOWA Pacific, the troubled holding company of British American Railway Services (BARS).

AFTER 6 october 2020, Tors Road Bridge Credit Network Rail

Over time, we have interviewed all the major stake-holders, and when other media were just sniffing around the periphery, in February this year, The Moorlander was the only local newspaper to exclusively reveal that unbeknown to anyone outside of government circles and GWR themselves, they had actually submitted a feasibility report to the Department for Transport (DfT) in July 2019, two years after being commissioned by then Secretary of State Chris Grayling. Campaign group OkeRail, which has fought to reintroduce a regular passenger rail service between Okehampton and Exeter for the last ten years, expressed serious concern when news that the joint lease between Devon County Council (DCC) and BARS for Okehampton Station buildings and car park was due to expire on 31st December, 2019, and would further delay their long term aspirations by putting the future of the passenger service in doubt.

Despite the impact of COVID-19, lockdown, financial concerns, falling rail passenger numbers nationwide and negotiations shrouded in secrecy due to ‘commercial sensitivity’, The Moorlander now understands that there is, at last, some light at the end of the tunnel.

Dartmoor Railway Supporters Association L-r Andrew Turner, Tom Baxter, Geoff Horner, Dave Clegg, Mike Ireland, John Coxon, Christine Horner, Sue Baxter

Although BARS operated Dartmoor Railway for 11 years, the line – as in the track and track bed – between Meldon Quarry and Coleford is owned by Aggregate Industries (AI) who also own Meldon Quarry itself, acquired from British Rail in 1994. Mr John Penny, estates manager for AI, told The Moorlander in January that his firm would be delighted to see the reintroduction of the passenger service and would be happy to work with all stakeholders to that end. We are led to believe that stone from the currently ‘mothballed’ Meldon Quarry is earmarked to be used in relation to the highly controversial HS2 rail project to replace large amounts of ballast from other quarries serving the HS2 construction between London and Birmingham.

Although AI have yet to confirm our findings, this has come from a number of trusted sources. In the unlikely event that the aggregate will be transported by road if Meldon Quarry is to reopen, then the only other viable and obvious alternative is to transport the ballast by rail. This will require a stable, safe and reliable local rail network connecting to the main line, suggesting that the reinstatement of the Oke to Exeter railway line is perhaps more certain now than previously thought.

At the beginning of this month, Tor Road over-bridge situated between Okehampton station and Meldon, was cleared of ivy to enable a thorough structural investigation. It is our belief that a similar investigation is to take place at Fatherford viaduct near the proposed new Parkway station and Klondyke Road, adjacent to Okehampton station, in the coming weeks.

There is now a keen appetite at both local and national government level, for the project to succeed as Andrea Davis, Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Development and Waste at Devon County Council confirmed exclusively to The Moorlander following the investigations and surveys mentioned above.

“Great Western Railway and Network Rail will be submitting the business case this month to the DfT. There has been a huge amount of investigation work going on the line over the last months (including during lockdown), this shows the commitment to the reporting of the line. Two weeks ago I met with the rail minister Chris Heanton-Harris in Dawlish and we talked about the reopening of the line. I emphasised the importance to the economy of not only Okehampton but also the wider area, the opportunities for all groups that come from this reopening, educationally, economically and socially.

Dartmoor Railway Supporters Association ,Okehampton Station Maintenance. John Coxon (l) and Tom Baxter.

‘With the current  situation deteriorating I wouldn’t like to predict when we will hear back from the DfT but I am hopeful as this is a well-supported, longstanding scheme. We are all very grateful to The Moorlander for your continued publicity; it helps enormously to show to government that there is community support.”

No-one is more mindful of the community support for the project than Central Devon MP Mel Stride, whose constituency runs through the entire east/west span of the line in question. He told
The Moorlander: “Having campaigned for over a decade for the introduction of a regular passenger rail service between Okehampton and Exeter via Crediton, the project remains one of my top priorities.

‘My Chief of Staff attended an online meeting with OkeRail only recently, which was very positive, and I have another meeting scheduled with Network Rail imminently. They have been tasked by the Department for Transport to proceed with plans for a service and are working with our county council and Great Western Railway to make this happen.

‘I doubt there will be a project of this scale anywhere in the country that hasn’t been impacted by the coronavirus  pandemic and we need to be understanding if plans aren’t proceeding as quickly as we would like. But I remain very optimistic about the introduction of the new service and that are we heading in the right direction.”

In the interest of balance, The Moorlander also solicited the view of local people most likely to be affected by the reintroduction of the rail line. Describing himself as ‘an interested Okehampton resident’ Alan Thompson has taken a keen interest in the project over the years since learning of the desire to reinstate the Okehampton to Exeter passenger service.

“I am not a politician, nor an expert on railways,” admitted Alan. “I just happened to move to Okehampton several years ago and heard about a dedicated bunch of Devonians who had been trying to get the Okehampton line daily service reinstated. Their enthusiasm was infectious despite broken promises and constant political prevarication for over 20 years.

‘Some OkeRail members gave up countless hours of their time every summer Sunday, riding back and forth with clipboards, doing passenger surveys to prove the popularity and viability of such a service.
Okehampton Cllr Dr Michael Ireland was riding the rails every week for several years giving passengers vital cheapest fare and journey options as well as proving we could reach a variety of destinations even with a basic Sunday service while former Cllr Bob Rush drew up fully costed plans in itemised detail to prove how little cash it could take to make a fully restored service and additional station on the industrial estate a reality.

‘Many others dedicated themselves to making it happen and we must not forget the staff and senior management of First Great Western who have supported the plan in so many ways. It didn’t help – the promises continued to be made then replaced with vague excuses, whilst different politicians (local as well as national) came and went.

‘Several parties were involved in ownership of the line until last Christmas. This clouded the negotiations but a service could have begun in May this year if the political will to take some forward thinking decisions had been there, but when COVID-19 arrived the proposed Summer Sunday service for 2020 hit the buffers anyway.

‘More recently, The Dartmoor Railway Supporters Association has been busy brightening up Okehampton station and the larger part of the car park has been fenced off by Network Rail for resurfacing… if rumours are correct. COVID-19 permitting and the government of the day willing, we might get some sort of daily service in May 2021, when the national railway timetables are revised. I personally feel that, if that happens, the locomotives should be named Richard Proctor and Michael Ireland – both of whom have done so much of the preparatory ‘passenger facing’ work to make the connection to the National Rail network a reality.

‘It is also imperative that GWR ensures that trains serve Exeter Central as well as St David’s station. This will reduce traffic congestion around Alphington and the city centre plus maximise the usefulness for shoppers, workers and students as well as providing connections for onward travel further afield. Planning permission should ideally be given on Exeter Industrial Estate for a nearby budget hotel and a decent size supermarket for visitors and residents alike. All bus services, and possibly National Express, need to call at the new Okehampton Parkway station to facilitate car free travel from eg: Tavistock, Launceston, Hatherleigh, Holsworthy, Bideford and Bude – thus increasing passenger numbers for bus and train operators and consequently reducing any subsidy currently required. I repeat that I am just an interested Okehampton resident but if I can see the massive potential, for what is a miniscule initial outlay, surely the politicians should have made it happen years ago.”

Okehampton’s deputy mayor Dr Michael Ireland, Chair of the respected campaign group OkeRail, explains why the reinstatement of the line matters and raises some previously undiscussed points involving the advantages to towns outside the immediate area: “Reinstatement of the Okehampton to Exeter rail service will provide the much needed additional capacity between Crediton and Exeter and will mitigate against the need for costly infrastructure improvements on the Barnstaple line. The infrastructure cost of reinstating the Okehampton line should be shared with the Barnstaple line, improving the business case in two ways. The reinstatement of the Okehampton service will provide Crediton with three trains every two hours and a subsequent hourly Okehampton service would be a further enhancement.

‘Benefits to the rural hinterland to the north and west of Okehampton will come from the construction of a new Parkway station, to the east of the town with easy access from the A30. The Parkway station would have immediate benefits to residents of the new housing estates to the east of the town, serve as a rail/road interchange for coaches and park-and-ride for car drivers from Cornwall and West Devon.”

This point has been well made by Les Whaley (Launceston resident) who said: “We need a better transport system in Launceston to Okehampton to support the new train service to Exeter, which would link up with other parts of the UK.”

Okehampton has the potential to be an important rail travel destination. There is a significant range of as yet untapped attractions in Okehampton, compared to other thriving towns on the rail network, giving the potential for the town to become an important rail hub. The attractions of the town are its castle, Museum of Dartmoor Life, Edwardian Park, Dartmoor Pony heritage, train service to Meldon and being a gateway to the Dartmoor National Park.

There exists a wide range of significant local factors that will increase the business case for reinstating the Okehampton line. The case must be seen as not just bringing benefits to Okehampton, but the wider hinterland being the most remote from the national rail network. The benefits to the hinterland would only be effective by the opening of Okehampton Parkway station. Alan Thompson mentioned the activity of the Dartmoor Railway Supporters Association (DRSA) the all-volunteer organisation dedicated to supporting the former London and South Western Railway (LSWR)/Southern Railway between Meldon Viaduct and the site of the former Coleford Junction. The DRSA volunteers work tirelessly, almost invisibly, to the general public and the world at large, maintaining, repairing, restoring and protecting the station’s fabric and heritage.

Acting Chair of the DRSA, Sue Baxter, is full of praise for the association’s team of volunteers and is optimistic about the future for the historic railway: “When Dartmoor Railway Community Interest Company (DRCIC) went into administration in February this year, resulting in the closure of Okehampton Station, the DRSA moved quickly to establish a daily rota of station security patrols.

‘This soon became a lockdown exercise, restricted to very local volunteers. As the COVID-19 restrictions relaxed, other activities became possible. Volunteers have worked extremely hard this summer painting, gardening and repairing and the station now looks as good as ever and ready for the next phase of its existence.

‘We have been hugely encouraged to observe that the railway has also been a centre of attention for engineers from Network Rail (NR), franchisee Great Western Railway (GWR), and their subcontractors. They have been assessing Okehampton station, and the Aggregate Industries-owned railway line from Coleford Junction to Meldon Quarry. In the last few months a succession of engineers has studied all aspects of the railway, ranging from drainage, to bats, to installation issues for security cameras and information terminals. There has even been a drone survey. Interestingly, some of this work was on the Meldon side of Okehampton. DRSA has been pleased to facilitate this work, providing information and, where possible, access for the workers.

‘Many of the NR and GWR engineers have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of Okehampton station. Having been sympathetically restored by Devon County Council (DCC) in the 1990s, its renowned 1950s/60s ambience has been carefully maintained since by DRSA volunteers.

‘With Okehampton’s railway approaching its 150th anniversary, it has been heartening to hear NR undertake to respect the station’s heritage in the future. Although NR and GWR are enthusiastic about the project, ultimately the decision to go ahead with reinstatement lies with the government, and the purpose of the current activity is to provide costings to inform this decision. We understand that the survey report will be submitted shortly, with a decision hoped for in a matter of months.

‘Frustratingly, the DRCIC administration process remains incomplete. The two dozen or so rail vehicles which comprise DRCIC’s assets remain on site. None are fit to travel on the national network, so they need to leave by road. With no suitable access at Okehampton, the ‘Christmas Train’ and several other vehicles first have to be moved to Meldon Quarry for onward road transport. A number of rumoured removal dates have already come and gone.

‘Although DRSA was originally formed to support heritage rail services on the Dartmoor Railway, a subsidiary objective was always support for regular rail services for Okehampton and the surrounding communities. The focus of our current activities is to maintain Okehampton’s historic station, and support its rail services, which we hope are imminent. We are assessing organisational restructuring to enable us better to meet this commitment. Nevertheless, the operation of heritage services to Meldon remains a long term aspiration.”

Sue’s husband Tom is just so glad, after so many years, to be involved at the time when it is, hopefully, to be completely re-connected back into the network.

Sue revealed. “In 1966/67 Tom was a regular at the station buffet getting beans on toast instead of having school dinners. Not only that, but he would drop by for a cup of tea during cross country runs. “Why have you been so long Baxter?” admonished the PE master. “I got lost sir!” came the reply. Even better, he spent whole art lessons up there drawing trucks.

“So many people love the station,” continued Sue. “I feel we are all tending a Sleeping Beauty. Some have fond memories of meeting family arriving there, or going daily to college in Exeter or Plymouth, or coming from villages like Bridestowe or Halwill Junction to go to school here.

‘Our station is spacious, with three platforms. The large Platform 3 is covered by a half glazed canopy which is great for relaxing under, in almost any Devon weather! Last summer there was always a happy crowd there waiting for the summer Sunday trains to Exeter.

‘Our station maintenance team is ensuring that our beauty is ready to awaken next year and welcome trains, passengers and all visitors again.”

Local Life