Right on track – Network Rail reaches key milestone on Dartmoor Line

Eric Partridge

The reopening of the railway line between Okehampton and Exeter is one step closer after Network Rail recently finished relaying the new track and sleepers.

Following the confirmation of government funding in March, engineers started immediately and have worked tirelessly upgrading this 14 mile stretch of track between Okehampton and Coleford Junction, where the Dartmoor Line joins the existing railway line to Exeter. As well as laying new track and sleepers, Network Rail engineers have been working day and night on drainage, fencing, preparing the ground for the new railway and much more.

Over 11 miles of new track has successfully been laid and 24,000 concrete sleepers installed using an innovative NTC (new track construction) machine, which is able to simultaneously evenly drop sleepers into position, lay the track on top and then clamp the track into place.
The concrete sleepers, which were stored at the work site adjacent to Okehampton station, have been transported along the Dartmoor Line using a Class 56 locomotive train that has pushed around a quarter-mile long set of wagons containing on average 2,430 sleepers per journey at a speed of 5mph.

The 29,000 tonnes of ballast (the stones that support the track) have also nearly all been installed and this will be followed by the process of tamping. This involves a machine travelling along the newly laid railway and inserting vibrating metal rods into the ballast to compact it so that it effectively supports the track while lifting the track so that it is level. Once complete, this process helps the train wheels to align with the track which results in a smoother ride for passengers and prevents the train wheels from causing damage to the track.

To enable engineers to work throughout the night, over four miles of lights have also been erected. These lights have been powered by silent generators to ensure residents living near to the Dartmoor Line are disturbed as little as possible. Now that the main elements of the track relay work have been completed, Network Rail will be turning its focus to other aspects of the project including upgrading several level crossings, installing new GSM-R masts (the railway’s mobile communications system) and undertaking bridge repairs as well as running engineering test trains to check the quality of the newly laid track.

Becky Tipper, Network Rail scheme project manager, said: “We are delighted with the progress the team has made and this is credit to the hard work and dedication of our engineers involved in this project. To have already laid the 11 miles of track, 24,000 sleepers and nearly completing the installation of the 29,000 tonnes of ballast is no mean feat and we are looking forward to focussing our attention on the next stage of work. It has also been really comforting to see such interest and support from the local community. We are committed to reopening this important railway line as quickly and safely as possible and look forward to the resumption of regular passenger services in the not too distant future.”

Richard Burningham MBE, Manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, added: “Hats off and many thanks to all involved in this tremendous feat. To have laid 11 miles of track already is fabulous and it’s been great to see video of the very innovative piece of kit which has helped on the Dartmoor Line. Thanks too to the Government for funding all this work.”

To fully appreciate the incredible NTC machine in action there’s a seven minute video on YouTube which brings all of the images on this spread to life. Visit

Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said: “It’s brilliant that so much progress has been made already in this project. Network Rail engineers have done an incredible job installing 11 miles of new track and 24,000 sleepers, bringing us closer to seeing regular passenger services restored later this year.”

Attending the media day at Okehampton Station recently was the outgoing Mayor of West Devon, Cllr Tony Leech who remembers the time when regular rail services were a daily occurrence in the town. “The railway brought lots of business to the area and benefitted the local economy. I think its brilliant absolutely brilliant that the railway is returning.” he said. “I can go back to 2007 when I stood on platform three with the then head of GWR Julian Crow and he said if there was the political will they could have the railway back here within two years. Thanks to the efforts of OkeRail and the hard work of many other organisations, it’s taken a little longer than that but at last here we are.”

For more information and the latest updates on the Dartmoor Line, plus more videos, please visit (Image credits: Chris Saville, Eric Partridge and Network Rail)