Rebirth of the line: Devon joy as rail link reopens after 50-year hiatus

In 1972, the people of Okehampton turned out in force to wish a fond farewell to the Devon moorland town’s regular passenger rail service.

The mayor, Walter John Passmore, carried a funeral wreath and his wife, Daisy, waved the green flag to signal the final train’s departure, just about managing a sad smile for the cameras.

Almost half a century on, the Dartmoor line is being reopened, and the first 40-minute service was due to arrive in Okehampton from Exeter St David’s shortly after first light on Saturday.

“It’s great news for the town and for the whole area,” said Dennis Le Worthy, a retired police officer, who was among the lucky ones treated to a trial trip on the revamped branch line this week.

“The town has been crying out for this. It will bring more visitors in and make it easier for Okehampton people to get into Exeter for work, college, shopping, the hospital whatever.” He disembarked the trial train beaming. “It was exceedingly smooth.”

Dennis Le Worthy at Okehampton station
Dennis Le Worthy: ‘It’s great news for the town and for the whole area.’ Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

While there is gnashing of teeth in northern England at Boris Johnson’s announcement that major rail projects have been shelved, there was at least some train joy in west Devon.

Okehampton businesses reckon it will be a financial boost for the town. “It’s going to be amazing,” said Paul Elston, who manages the youth hostel and bike hire store next to the station. He is anticipating carriages full of cyclists and hikers heading to Okehampton and the moor.

The estate agents are seeing an increase in interest in the town. Miller Town & Country has a sign in its window announcing: “Home buyers from Exeter are coming.” Sales negotiator Helena Thomas said people would be able to buy in Okehampton and commute far and wide – even as far as London. “We’re selling everything as soon as it comes on the market,” she said.

Kevin Ball, a borough councillor, said it was not just about people making a fast buck. “When the railway first came here 150 years ago it helped tackle rural isolation,” he said. “The closure of the line brought that back. This new train service will make people feel more connected.”

Cllr Andrea Davis (centre)
Cllr Andrea Davis (centre): ‘It’s giving people greener choices.’ Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Andrea Davis, Devon county council’s cabinet member for climate change, environment and transport, hopes more people would leave their cars at home and use the branch line to reach Dartmoor. “It’s giving people greener choices,” she said. And it will also, hopefully, ease pressure on the A30, the main route into Devon and Cornwall.

Although the line was closed as part of the Beeching cuts, the track was not ripped up. Volunteers helped run a heritage service on the line, including children’s Christmas specials, and since the late 90s the county council has subsidised limited Sunday Great Western Railway services between Okehampton and Exeter.

Earlier this year the Dartmoor line was awarded £40m through the Department for Transport’s Restoring Your Railway Fund. The project to reopen the line took just nine months and came in under budget.

Network Rail praised its engineers who had worked so quickly but also emphasised it had been an effort by the whole community, who had worked alongside professionals, doing jobs ranging from helping hack back vegetation at the side of the line to sprucing up the station.

Sue Baxter
Sue Baxter: ‘It’s wonderful to see the trains back.’ Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Among the volunteers were wife and husband Sue and Tom Baxter, stalwarts of the Dartmoor Railway Association, which has campaigned for the return of the Dartmoor line.

“It’s wonderful to see the trains back,” said Sue, who was to be found fussing over bunting on the station before the reopening and is about to go on a GWR customer services course so she can work as a volunteer station helper.

Network Rail and its partners say that if the Dartmoor Line is well used, it will help build the case that other closed branch routes should be reopened. Many would like a rail line to the town of Tavistock and then on to Plymouth restored.

But the glory days of rail travel when you could whizz from London to the resorts of north Cornwall are still far away.

Malcolm and Amanda Mitchell, from Bude in north Cornwall, had made the winding 30-mile road journey to reach Okehampton to view the last-minute preparations.

They are supporters of the pressure group Connect Bude, which is campaigning to bring the line back to their town. “We’ve still some way to go before we get our route back,” said Malcolm. “This is great for Okehampton but we may not see our line in our lifetime, which is a sad thought.”


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