Devon ‘Green Main Line’ reopening will transform transport across the South West

Reopening the ‘Northern Route’ throughout from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock will provide transformative transport links to large parts of Devon and Cornwall, including direct trains to London, says the group examining a reopened electrified main line railway between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock.

Tavistock Okehampton Reopening Scheme (TORS) says the full reopening of the route will improve access to Plymouth, Exeter and beyond for communities in West, Mid and North Devon and North Cornwall in addition to Exeter and Tavistock, improving access to education and jobs, as well as serving the growing leisure and tourism market. It will also improve transport connectivity in Dorset. By extending existing Waterloo-Exeter trains over the reopened railway to Plymouth, TORS argues that the connectivity and benefits would be higher than any previous proposals. The existing services from Plymouth to Gunnislake and Exeter to Barnstaple would be retained and enhanced, while express bus links to Torrington, Holsworthy, Launceston/Bude and Wadebridge/Padstow from the railway could provide faster public transport links in those areas than ever before.

The ‘Northern Route’ – or ‘Dartmoor Line’ as the section to Okehampton is being formally named – could also act as a diversionary route when the coastal main line is closed by extreme weather or for maintenance – and by enabling longer closures of this route for engineering works to take place, make Network Rail’s wider resilience programme cheaper, easier and more effective.

There is also considerable potential, says TORS, for freight trains to take long-distance lorries off the roads by providing an all-weather route. Trains of supermarket products already run to Inverness, and the distances from distribution hubs to Devon and Cornwall mean similar trains could cut lorry miles and reduce carbon emissions in the South West.

TORS envisages that the existing Exeter to Okehampton and Bere Alston to Plymouth railways would be upgraded with double track and in cab signalling, with a rebuilt railway through Dartmoor and Tavistock. The route would be electrified throughout. Costs are still being determined, but TORS expects full reopening and route upgrades to be comparable with or less than other major transport schemes on a cost-per-mile basis. In 2014, Network Rail estimated the cost of a full double-track railway at £875m, with a 66% contingency.

A two-stop journey time of 65 minutes is achievable on the electrified railway, with non-stop journey times of 59 minutes between Exeter and Plymouth. Journey times from Okehampton to Exeter of 22 minutes, Tavistock to Plymouth of 22 minutes and non-stop of 59 minutes between Plymouth and Exeter will boost a huge area of Devon and Cornwall, improve social inclusion, provide wide-ranging environmental benefits and many new jobs, says.

TORS director Jim Collins – who was also Strategic Rail Authority Head of Franchise Planning, Managing Director of Thameslink and Manager of Plymouth and Cornish railways – says: “While there is further work to be done on the fine detail of the timings, we are confident in our analysis. The strategic impact of the full route reopening would be very significant under our proposals, and would actually help Network Rail’s long-term resilience programme for the coastal main line, which remains the region’s overwhelming transport priority.”

Fellow TORS director Andrew Roden – a Cornwall-based railway journalist who led 2005’s campaign to save the ‘Night Riviera’ sleeper train from closure – added: “Reopening of this route has been examined for many years but has always foundered on the grounds of operating costs and revenues or journey times. This proposal developed by rail industry experts is based on solid and proven engineering and operating experience – and while much work needs to be done in a Strategic Outline Business Case, this railway has the potential to transform the economies of huge parts of Devon and Cornwall, with diversionary capability for the main line a very welcome bonus.”

Jon Shaw, Professor of Transport Geography at Plymouth University and TORS’ third director, has studied the impact of climate change on the coastal main line at Dawlish, and concluded that by 2080, under current low emissions scenarios the coastal railway could be disrupted for up to 84 days per year. Scientific opinion is increasingly of the view that the high emissions scenario is more likely, with a total of 120 days of disruption per year by 2080. He said: “We do not believe there is another single scheme in the UK which offers a better transport response to climate change caused by global warming: this is where sea level rises are biting hardest on our transport network.”

TORS is now seeking funding for development of a Strategic Outline Business Case, which will enable outstanding work on route options, service plans, environmental and social benefits and community and stakeholder engagement to take place.

Ends

Notes to editors

The Exeter-Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock railway closed as a through route in 1968, with stubs retained from Exeter to Meldon and Plymouth to Bere Alston (for the Gunnislake branch) to serve local communities and businesses. The passenger service from Okehampton to Exeter is expected to be reinstated next year.

Tavistock Okehampton Reopening Scheme CIC (TORS) is a formal body set up by members of the expert Northern Route Working Group, which has spent the last year examining the case. All work has been done on a pro bono basis to develop the case for a Strategic Outline Business Case and further work.

Summary of scheme benefits

  • A huge boost in transport connectivity to Mid, West, and North Devon and North Cornwall, leading to major improvement in social inclusion and access to work and education for those unable to drive or without a car.
  • A permanent and coherent response to the challenge of climate change.
  • Gives Network Rail the ability to close the coastal main line for longer to undertake its long-term resilience programme by diverting trains onto the reopened railway. This capability will make the interventions necessary cheaper, quicker and more effective, providing South Devon and Torbay with a more reliable railway far quicker than if the ‘Northern Route’ was not open.
  • Reduced road congestion and accidents on the A386 road between Tavistock and Plymouth, lower road traffic in and around Dartmoor and fewer lorry movements with potential for freight trains
  • Lower CO2 emissions from transport by operation of electric trains.
  • Opening the full through route will be much more viable economically than operating separate stubs from Exeter to Okehampton and Tavistock to Plymouth. It is the only way the full benefits of serving Tavistock and Okehampton by rail can be realised.

Summary of the scheme

  • Core hourly daytime service to be provided by extension of South Western Railway London Waterloo-Exeter services to run to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock to maximise passenger benefits and reduce additional rolling stock requirements; extra peak time trains possible if needed.
  • Route to be electrified throughout with in cab signalling and engineered to accommodate potential freight traffic which is currently deterred by perceived fragility of the coastal main line and steep gradients west of Newton Abbot.
  • Non-stop journey time from Exeter to Plymouth of 59 minutes; Exeter to Okehampton journey times of c22 minutes; Okehampton to Tavistock of c19 minutes, and Tavistock to Plymouth of c22 minutes.
  • Surge capacity in diversionary mode by ‘flighting’ trains of 3-4 trains per hour max.
  • Double-track railway from Exeter to Okehampton/Meldon, single track (extent to be confirmed in SOBC) through parts of Dartmoor to limit environmental impact; double track from Tavistock to Plymouth.
  • Potential for express connecting bus links from Okehampton serving Torrington, Holsworthy, Launceston/Bude, and Wadebridge/Padstow to provide faster East-West journeys from Exeter and beyond to those places than is currently possible by public transport.
  • Existing Gunnislake and Barnstaple branch services retained in full and enhanced.
  • Potential east-west chord line at Cowley Bridge Junction providing a direct connection from the Great Western Main Line from Taunton to Exeter, allowing trains to avoid congestion at Exeter St David’s station, and opening significant new through journey opportunities.

Illustrative timetable and connections of TORS scheme

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