Plymouth to Exeter via Okehampton

Tavistock North
Line reopening examined
Published Mon, 2015-06-22 17:01

At Nationalisation in 1948 the line became part of British Railways (Southern Region) and initially little changed under the new ownership.




The restored station at Tavistock North. © Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License

However, the Southern’s ‘Withered Arm’ routes eventually passed to Western Region management as part of the revised regional  boundaries of the late 1950s. By this date the economics of the railway industry were increasingly suspect and duplicate routes were often those that were at risk. The entire route from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton was slated for closure under the Beeching report of March 1963.
Rationalisation of the route began on 7 September 1964 with the closure of Devonport station and the transfer of services to the ex-Great Western route between Plymouth and St Budeaux. At St Budeaux, the ex-Southern railway metals were regained via the connection opened as a wartime diversionary route on 2 March 1941. Passenger services were withdrawn between Okehampton and Bere Alston on 6 May 1968, at which stage the line from Bere Alston to the ballast quarry at Meldon was closed completely. Passenger services remained between St Budeaux and Bere Alston as permission to withdrawn services over the branch from Bere Alston to Gunnislake was refused. Passenger services from Okehampton eastwards to Coleford Junction were withdrawn on 5 June 1972. The section between Yeoford and Exeter remained open, however, as the section was used by services onwards to Barnstaple; whilst these had also been threatened by Beeching, closure of the route did not occur.
Following closure, the line from Meldon continued to carry stone until the quarry was mothballed in 2011, and from 1997 there have been, most summers, a Sundays-only service from Okehampton to Exeter. More recently, these have been linked into the heritage services operated by the Dartmoor Railway.
The retention of the section as far north as Bere Alston has, in recent years, been seen as the possible springboard for the reopening of the route as far as Tavistock for commuter services into Plymouth, but the failure of the ex-GWR main along the Dawlish sea wall in early 2014 has highlighted the lack of an alternative through route from Cornwall and west Devon to the rest of the railway network. The CPRE report is the latest document to back the reopening; however, other work has indicated that the likely return from the significant investment required to return the route to form part of the national network is not sufficient to justify it.
Whether this long lost part of the ‘Withered Arm’ will again see passenger trains seems on a knife edge; there is an undoubted benefit in providing the far south-west with an alternative link to the rest of the network but the cost involved, as against the potential risk to the sea-wall route, is great. Ultimately it may be that politics — rather than economics — may have more impact than economics; after all, the Conservatives now hold the vast bulk of the parliamentary seats in the region and no doubt will be keen to retain them in 2020….