“Services will be running from Exeter to Okehampton from 20 November. It’s all part of the DfT’s #RestoringYourRailway programme – reversing historic cuts like those of Dr Beeching to reopen lines for local communities once more.”
Over £40m has been spent on new track, sleepers and ballast for half of the former inland route from Exeter to Plymouth.
Knowing railway enthusiasts as I do, the initial departure from Exeter to breezy Okehampton that Saturday morning at 6.32am will be packed for the 15-mile, 38-minute run. The lovely central Devon scenery will be wasted on pioneering passengers, due to the near-total darkness as they trundle through the county at an average of 24mph.
The return to Exeter departs at the moment of sunrise, and also has a useful connection to inter-city trains to Bristol in under two hours – which is the kind of timing that could persuade some people to leave the car behind.
I will do my best to be on board there, happy to report on better connectivity for travellers in southwest England – another small but welcome step from the most pro-rail UK government we’ve seen in a lifetime,
I will not, though, tell quite the same story as the transport secretary.
Forty-nine years ago, under a Conservative government that cheerfully continued the infrastructure destruction of the previous Labour administration, the line between Exeter to Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor was closed to passenger traffic.
But thanks to the tireless work of enthusiasts, who banded together under the banner of Dartmoor Railway, trains returned to the line in 1997 (I do believe I reported on the reopening even though, as you will realise, I was exceedingly young). Unusually for a heritage railway, normal passenger trains formed the basis of a summer-only, Sunday-only service. It ran for more than 20 years, until Covid and financial unravelling put an end to it.
While it is easy to be churlish about ministerial claims, this twice-reopened line will certainly help the rail passengers – actual and potential – of Dartmoor. No longer are they imprisoned for all but a day a week in summer. The 6,000 residents of Okehampton will benefit from their small town being put on the map, as will we tourists.
But talking of maps: one glance shows the opportunity to turn the rail cul-de-sac into something rather more useful.
The link to Okehampton is part of the former inland Exeter to Plymouth line that was operated by the London and South Western Railway. It was closed in 1968, leaving the extremely coastal line via Dawlish the only link between the two cities. A storm in 2014 halted services on the line for eight weeks, disconnecting Plymouth and Cornwall from the rest of the country.
Now the transport secretary should reopen something that is definitely closed (and, in places, built over): that trans-Devon express line, bestowing resilience on a part of the UK that desperately needs more connections.
But while the Department for Transport wants a quick win to brag about before then, getting more than one train a week to stop at Teesside Airport station near Darlington would be a start.
The station opened to great celebration 50 years ago this month. But currently it is served by just one train a week – legally keeping the station open, but in a meaningless manner.
Teesside Airport station stands astride the original route of the Stockton and Darlington Railway – the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives (though, admittedly, not to get people to the airport when it opened in 1825).
At the end of the 20th century an old steam train ran from Asuncion to the airport serving the Paraguayan capital. At least that ran once a day. So please start a realistic service to Teesside Airport; just don’t pretend it’s new.
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