The Department for Transport has confirmed that regular passenger rail services will be reinstated on the Okehampton to Exeter line at the end of this year.
The new service will initially run every two hours, and is expected to increase to hourly towards the end of 2022, subject to further upgrades. Eight 130-seat trains will run each day in either direction between 7am and 10pm. Journey time from Okehampton to Exeter will be 40 minutes.
Regular passenger services on the newly-branded Dartmoor Line were withdrawn in June 1972. From 1972 the line was used to transport railway ballast from Meldon Quarry and for occasional freight traffic and charter trains. There has been a Sunday service on the line during the summer since 1997.
Funding for the £40 million reinstatement was announced in the budget on 3 March. The money will be used to purchase the line from its current owner and for upgrade and maintenance works.
It will be the first project delivered under the Department for Transport Restoring Your Railway scheme which aims to reinstate some of the services and stations that were axed following the 1963 Reshaping of British Railways report. Its author, British Railways chairman Richard Beeching, called for the closure of most of the network in Devon and north east Cornwall.
Reinstatement works will involve drainage, fencing and bridge repairs, the replacement of 24,000 concrete sleepers and the installation of 29,000 tonnes of ballast. A total of eleven miles of track will be replaced.
Improvements will also be made to Okehampton station, which will not be staffed. These include the installation of a ticket vending machine, help point, public address system, information screens and CCTV. The station car park will have dedicated disabled bays and the station building and platform will be fully accessible.
All services will run to Exeter St Davids with around half the weekday services extending to Exeter Central. Weekend services will be extended to Exeter Central where possible at a later date. All trains will also stop at Crediton and some services will stop at Newton St Cyres.
The new service will mark the 150th anniversary of the railway arriving in Okehampton in 1871. Trains will not run on the Dartmoor Line during reinstatement works.
In 1994, as part of the privatisation of British Rail, the line from Okehampton to Coleford Junction (where it meets the Exeter to Barnstaple Tarka Line), Meldon Quarry and Okehampton station were all sold to an aggregates company.
The station, which had fallen into disrepair since the 1972 passenger services withdrawal, was sold on to Devon County Council and restoration began.
Dartmoor Railway, a Community Interest Company, was founded in 1997 to operate the line as a heritage service which included summer excursions and Christmas special railway rides.
Great Western Railway also ran a passenger service on summer Sundays with financial support from Devon County Council via the Sunday Rover ticket.
The ticket was withdrawn in 2015 but a similar combined bus and train offer was reintroduced in 2019. However services on the line were withdrawn in December 2019 and Dartmoor Railway CIC entered administration in February last year.
Meanwhile the OkeRail Forum and Community Interest Company was formed in 2014 to campaign for the restoration of passenger services on the line, and Central Devon MP Mel Stride facilitated numerous meetings with government ministers, local councillors, campaigners and representatives from Great Western Railways and Network Rail.
The combined efforts of stakeholders led to Chris Grayling, then Secretary of State for Transport, asking Great Western Railways to draw up a reopening plan in January 2018.
Preliminary work started on the ground in 2020, when Network Rail and Great Western Railway began assessing the infrastructure and control system improvements necessary to bring the line up to the required safety standards.
The plan to reopen the line finally appeared in the National Infrastructure Strategy alongside the Chancellor’s Autumn Spending Review in November last year.
The aspiration to reopen the line further westwards remains. The vision is to connect Exeter to Plymouth by rail without travelling via Dawlish, where parts of the sea wall were breached in 2014 during a storm, undermining the track and forcing its closure for two months.
Peninsula Rail Task Force, which was formed in 2013 following a series of severe weather events, published a South West Peninsula strategic rail blueprint to address this and other regional rail infrastructure issues in 2016.
It proposed long term investment in south west transport resilience to address the region’s vulnerability to increasing numbers of climate change-related severe weather incidents.