THREE YEARS after I wrote a feature lamenting the continued absence of weekday trains to Okehampton (blog: 12 August 2018) it was a great pleasure to be able to travel on the first weekday service to and from the important Dartmoor town in over 49 years.
While I had only expected to see a handful of hardy souls aboard the 06.29 departure from Exeter St. David’s on that inaugural weekday journey (Monday, 22 November 2021), what came as a shock was the lack of custom for the 07.20 departure from Okehampton, pictured above, the commuter service that reaches Exeter Central at 08.05.
On departure from Okehampton there were just eight of us aboard the four-car train, formed of GWR units 150221/233, which were both in Dartmoor Line branding, along with a two-person television crew eagerly seeking out the five “genuine” passengers on board that first weekday trip.
Happily numbers picked up substantially later in the day, and the return to Okehampton, (08.39 from Exeter St. David’s) along with the next two departures at 09.24 and 11.25 ex-Okehampton attracted scores of passengers eager to sample the new rail link.
Having travelled the popular summer Sunday services on numerous occasions in the past, it was a real delight to see and sample the first of what we are promised will be a spate of revived rail services around the country under the Government’s Restoring Your Railway programme, and the fruits of a hefty £40m investment in upgrading the line.
On the last occasion I took a Sunday trip along the line I can recall meeting a local passenger who was making long distance journey to the north of England that was, at the time, only possible on 17 days a year, and being canvassed by a local campaigner trying to advance the tortuous process of getting daily services restored.
All too often work on the railway takes far longer than planned, and comes in way over budget, so it is good to see that re-building 11 miles of new track on the Dartmoor Line and repairs to 21 structures along the route has been achieved in just nine months since funding was approved, showing what can be achieved when there is a real will to do it.
Now that services have finally been restored it will be up to local people and incoming visitors to demonstrate demand for the service, particularly once its frequency rises from two-hourly to hourly next year, and hopefully spur on ambitions to re-build the missing link to Tavistock and Bere Alston, that will recreate an alternative to the sea-battered GWR route via Dawlish to Plymouth and into Cornwall.
As I wrote in my 2018 feature on the Dartmoor Line, its seasonal Sunday service – launched in 1997 – had already demonstrated the demand for trains to Okehampton. There were almost 6,000 journeys recorded in ORR figures for 2016/7 that represented a highly respectable total of 350 passengers a day or an average of almost 90 on each of the four Sunday round trips operated on summer Sundays five years ago.
Okehampton station has been splendidly preserved and will become a good deal more attractive a destination when facilities on the station such as its café are re-opened next year. But it is a fair hike up to the station from the town, and there is limited parking at the station, so realising the line’s full potential will probably also need development of the proposed park-and-ride station east of the town.
In a piece of enlightened integrated transport planning, Devon County Council has sponsored the Dartline-operated 118 bus service from Tavistock and Lydford to be extended to the rail station in most of the hours when a train is running, with a bargain-priced return fare of £3.00 from any destination and a flat fare of £1.00 for the journey down to the town centre stop that is temporarily free to anyone holding a valid rail ticket.
Taking the trip from Exeter, most services to Okehampton will make just one intermediate stop after ten minutes at Crediton, which boasts another delightfully preserved and Grade II Listed station, along with an 1875-vintage LSWR signal box, and gets significantly enhanced links to the Devon capital through the Dartmoor Line’s re-opening.
The Dartmoor Line then runs parallel to the Tarka Line (to Barnstaple) for over three miles, until the two routes diverge just beyond Yeoford. Reinstating the disused Dartmoor Line platform at Yeoford may not currently be justified, but making the section between Yeoford and Crediton a double track railway, by installing a junction between the two tracks here, would be a way to enhance capacity and resilience on both routes.
Such a change would require some enhancement to signalling of the two routes, which are currently controlled from the historic signal box at Crediton, where all trains pause on their journeys from and to Exeter to collect or surrender tokens for the route to Okehampton or to Eggesford on the Barnstaple line.
Initial weekday services on the Dartmoor Line comprise a total of seven round trips, operating at roughly two-hourly intervals from Okehampton at 07.20 until 15.24, then at 18.20, 20.22 and a final departure at 22.18. The 07.20, 09.24 and 18.20 continue up to Exeter Central with the remaining services terminating at St. David’s.
Services to Okehampton on weekdays begin with the 06.29 from Exeter St. David’s then are at roughly two-hourly intervals until 14.32, followed by 17.09 and 19.12, with a final service at 21.12. All Okehampton-bound services begin their journeys at Exeter Central, except the first and last trips of the day.
In the Okehampton direction the 10.37 and 21.12 services from St. David’s call on request at Newton St. Cyres before their Crediton stop, while there is also a request stop there by the 13.24 from Okehampton.
Basic fares for the 30-mile journey from Okehampton to Exeter are £4.00 single and £8.00 for an anytime day return. That reduces to just to £2.60 single for anyone with a railcard (£5.20 return) although local residents holding a Devon and Cornwall railcard, which is not valid before 08.45 on weekdays, will need to pay the full single fare to travel on the 07.20 service, but can buy a discounted ticket for their homeward journey.
Onward connections out of Okehampton services at Exeter St. David’s towards London and the north are generally good, with the exception of the 07.20 ex-Okehampton, which arrives in St. David’s at the same minute as the 08.00 service departs for Paddington, and eight minutes after the faster 07.52 has left, meaning a wait until 09.15 and an earliest possible arrival into London at 11.29.
Heading towards Okehampton from London, connections are also generally good, with the exception of the 08.39 departure from Exeter St. David’s, which misses the first daytime arrival from Paddington (06.37) by just two minutes, while most curious and ridiculous of all is the final departure of the day from St. David’s at 21.12, which leaves just three minutes before arrival of the fast 19.04 service from Paddington at 21.15.