Rail passenger services on the Dartmoor line are set to return after almost 50 years, when trains begin running again on Saturday 20 November.
The new services connecting Okehampton to Exeter have been warmly welcomed by local campaigners and communities, and mark the first reopening under the government’s Restoring Your Railway programme which is exploring ways to return old lines and stations to service across the country.
The route will connect Exeter St Davids, Crediton and Okehampton providing a launchpad for visitors to explore Dartmoor and regional links for local commuters. Around half of services, including at peak times, will also carry on to Exeter Central. The reopening of the route is expected to boost local businesses, the tourism sector, and provide greater access to education and work for thousands of people who live locally.
The line between Exeter and Okehampton originally opened in October 1871. The last regular train service operated in 1972, when passenger services were withdrawn by British Rail. After 1972 the line remained in use to serve Meldon Quarry, situated west of Okehampton, a supplier of railway ballast and related materials. The line between Coleford Junction and Meldon Quarry was sold at the time of privatisation in the 1990s to the quarry owner, now known as Aggregate Industries. It was reacquired by Network Rail earlier this year.
Exeter is a key hub for the wider region and the new rail service will provide access for education, work, shopping as well as other opportunities on offer in the city. Customers will also be able to connect at Exeter St Davids for trains to a host of destinations including London, Bristol, the north of England and Scotland.
Network Rail says its engineers have worked tirelessly to deliver a huge programme of work to physically reopen the line in just nine months, including laying 11 miles of new track and installing 24,000 concrete sleepers and 29,000 tonnes of ballast in record time.
Repairs have also been made to 21 structures along the route including four bridges and a range of works including vegetation clearance, earth and drainage works and fencing are ongoing in preparation for the return of regular services.
More work will be carried out over the winter including further work on the station buildings to enable the restoration of the café and other facilities.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “The project is part of the wider campaign to reverse catastrophic cuts to the rail network primarily led by the Beeching axe. The work has been a successful collaboration between the DfT, Network Rail, GWR, Devon County Council, Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, and local campaigners and MPs.”
Mike Gallop, Network Rail’s Western route and strategic operations director, said: “We’re delighted that we’ve reopened this much needed railway line for passenger services in just nine months and ahead of schedule. Our team has worked incredibly hard alongside our project partners GWR, Devon County Council, Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership and the local community to ensure this railway is ready to open. We can’t wait to welcome passengers back to the Dartmoor Line after an absence of nearly 50 years, linking passengers to Exeter and services to the rest of the country.”
Mark Hopwood, GWR managing director, said: “This has been a key aspiration for the community and the rail industry for some time and today is a significant day for everyone who has been involved. Their support and advocacy over the years has helped deliver a fantastic new service for customers, which we hope will grow from strength to strength.”
Richard Burningham, manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, said: “What a day Saturday 20 November will be – the day Okehampton fully re-joins the national rail network. All of a sudden, a large area of west Devon and north and east Cornwall will be 30 miles nearer the railway than it is today. It’s going to make a big, very positive difference to many people’s lives.”