Wendy Morton MP, meeting with executives from Network Rail, GWR, members of the Dartmoor Railway Association and Dr Michael Ireland, Chairman of Okerail 

VIP visit to celebrate hourly services between Okehampton and Exeter

Ross Tibbles
Ross Tibbles

By Mike Rego

Sunday, 15th May, saw the doubling of rail services between Okehampton and Exeter with the introduction of regular hourly services on the newly restored Dartmoor Line. To celebrate the occasion, the Rail Minister, Wendy Morton, visited the railway just before the start of the additional services, travelling by train from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton and back.

The new hourly service sees the first weekday train services departing Okehampton at 7.25am and Exeter at 6.31am, with the last trains departing Exeter at 9.15pm and Okehampton at 10.19pm, with journey times of between 36 and 40 minutes depending upon the time of day.

With completion of the recent temporary engineering works to improve drainage and harden remaining sections of the trackbed at Fatherford and Coleford ahead of schedule, allowing for more frequent services, the re-opened line to Okehampton has been a tremendous success with over 50,000 journeys made in the first 20 weeks of service, 240% ahead of forecasts – and this is before the hourly service, and with approximately 2,000 regular journeys per week. Crediton, currently the only stop en-route between Exeter and Okehampton, but convenient for changing trains for the ‘Tarka Line’ to Barnstaple, has seen a 39% increase in passenger numbers over pre-pandemic levels.

Passengers on the 10.37 to Okehampton were quite surprised on Thursday morning last week to suddenly feel like celebrities when the Rail Minister boarded the train at Exeter St Davids, unannounced, along with a retinue of civil servants and various Devon councillors and a posse of GWR and Network Rail executives. Additionally, there were several local television and radio crews and an assortment of local newspaper journalists, all vying with one another for interviews; not just with the politicians but also the passengers.

The Rail Minister, Wendy Morton, was accompanied during the journey by Councillor Andrea Davis, Cabinet Member of Devon County Council with responsibilities for Climate Change, Environment and Transport, and spent much of the journey hearing from Network Rail and GWR chiefs how the engineering work had been managed so successfully and how passenger numbers so far have exceeded expectations. Also present was Lord Faulkner, Chairman of the GWR Advisory Board, and Neil Jory, Leader of the West Devon Borough Council, along with Chris Brook, Director of Place and Enterprise there.

Neil Jory explained that Okehampton is already beginning to see benefits from the railway’s re-opening and whilst the uptake so far by regular commuters has initially been lower than hoped for, he is optimistic that the more convenient hourly service will start to attract more regular commuters. Neil stated that West Devon Borough Council is very enthusiastic and supportive of the railway, believing that it will attract more businesses into the area, by providing more opportunities to commute in both directions, as well as providing greater access to education and apprenticeship opportunities in Exeter.

Chris Brook went on to add that by integrating road access off the A30 with local rail and bus services, development of the West Devon Transport Hub at Fatherford on the eastern edge of Okehampton, previously mooted as a new ‘Okehampton Parkway’ station, would provide a local transport focus for encouraging commuting and business development.

Good friends Wendy Homeshaw and Anne Friend from Crediton were travelling together by train to Okehampton for the first time, something they had been thinking of doing for a while, and as the day’s weather forecast was promising they had decided to have an impromptu adventure and try to walk to the viaduct at Meldon and back. Both admitted that they had not travelled on local trains much at all for at least 50 years, but Wendy had occasionally travelled on the Sunday service during summer months in previous years when walking on Dartmoor, and both had fond memories of enjoying the views of bluebells and snowdrops from past train journeys.

On arrival at Okehampton the Rail Minister was introduced to further members of the engineering team that have put everything together and to the local staff who are ensuring that it is all happening, from the station management to the driver of the Dartline bus service that runs between Tavistock and Okehampton Railway Station via Lydford and is deliberately timed to provide a co-ordinated timetable with train departures and arrivals. The Minister was also shown around the station buildings that are being renovated to provide a café (that should be open by summer), as well as a Dartmoor Park Visitor Centre and a Community Association room.

The Rail Minister confessed to being: “… impressed with the number of passengers going both ways on the service today… it’s midweek but it clearly demonstrates, as indeed the usage when the line was first opened, there is a desire to use the line… What we’ve seen here on the Dartmoor to Exeter line is the way that people use it and it is about connecting people with places and opportunities”.

In a media release, the Rail Minister re-iterated that the ‘Restoring Your Railway’ Fund is focused on delivering schemes that can level up the country, reconnect cut-off communities, improve access to jobs, homes and education and boost opportunity across the country. She also stated that, after speaking with regular users of the service, “… it’s clear how central it already is to the community, residents and businesses”.

GWR and Network Rail management are justifiably proud of what has been achieved as the first railway to be restored to regular passenger services under the Government’s £500 million manifesto commitment to ‘Restore Your Railways’, with restoration of the line in just nine months and £10 million under budget.

The ‘Restoring Your Railway’ Fund was launched in January 2020 to re-instate axed local services, many of which were cut after the infamous ‘Beeching Report’ in 1963. Of the further £16 million committed to the South West, £3.1 million has been allocated for a new station at Marsh Barton, and £50,000 towards studies into re-opening the line between Tavistock and Plymouth. The question on everyone’s minds to the Rail Minister last week, and to all the other Devon Councillors, GWR and Network Rail executives in attendance, was given the success of the Dartmoor Line so far, how soon until the middle section between Okehampton and Tavistock can be restored, as the alternative route into the South West peninsula?

The following weblinks can provide more information about the Dartmoor Line and associated projects mentioned in this article:
The Dartmoor Line:
https://dartmoorline.com/

Rail Minister Wendy Morton MP:
https://www.gov.uk/government/people/wendy-morton

Councillor Andrea Davis:
https://democracy.northdevon.gov.uk/mgUserInfo.aspx?UID=133

West Devon Borough Council:
https://www.westdevon.gov.uk/

GWR website for timetables and buying tickets online:
https://www.gwr.com/

Network Rail:
https://www.networkrail.co.uk/