Railfuture Meeting Crediton Nov 28th 2015The first speaker was Railfuture's Gerard Duddridge, who outlined the organisation's goals for our line: a regular Okehampton - Exeter service, the Bere Alston - Tavistock link, and, more ambitious, closing the Tavistock - Meldon gap. Encouraged by other recent reopenings, other aspirations for Devon are to reinstate Barnstaple - Bideford, and to reopen some of the intermediate stations between Taunton and Exeter. Gerard discussed the possibility of park and ride stations either at Okehampton East or Sourton. The latter is Railfuture's preferred option, and could be implemented in advance of 'closing the gap' if Meldon Viaduct is OK. Intermediate stations on the DR are problematic as they are so far from the communities they serve; North Tawton being the best of a bad job as it is on a decent road and has a pub. Another improvement advocated by Railfuture is some doubling of the line between Cowley Bridge and Yeoford, to enable more frequent services between Okehampton or Barnstaple and the Waterloo line stations, in support of the Devon Metro project.
Next was DRSA member Dr Michael Ireland, the chairman of Destination Okehampton. Although the group is an Okehampton Town Council initiative, membership includes other councils in the wider region (West Devon, North Cornwall, Torridge), as well as specialists including a number of DRSA members. Their work is evidence driven, in the fields of tourism, economic regeneration and transport. Recent successes include contributions to national specialist publications, meetings with the Under Secretary of State Claire Perry and the Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin, promotion and traffic study of the 2015 Sunday Rover service and membership of the Peninsular Rail Task Force. Destination Okehampton is challenging postponement of the Northern Route to Network Rail's Control Period 7 (2024-2029).
Michael expressed concern about the rumoured Devon County Council proposal to operate a service between Okehampton and Yeoford, to connect with Tarka Line services. This has many disadvantages including the investment required at Yeoford station, the unsuitable rolling stock proposed and the potential passengers' preference for a through service to Exeter. Regrettably, none of the instigators of the scheme was at the meeting.
Vice-chairman and former chairman of the Tarka Rail Assocation, John Burch, spoke next. John pointed out the embarrassing success of the Tarka line, on which passenger numbers more than tripled between 2001 and 2014. Infrastructure limits much further growth; there is a need for longer trains and more loops, especially providing more capacity at the Cowley end and around Portsmouth Arms. John praised Network Rail's unsung improvements to the line, which is becoming more resilient. TRA is consulting on extending its domain to Honiton, in line with the Devon Metro idea and the possibility of Barnstaple (or Okehampton) services to and from the Waterloo line. Line speeds would improve with implementation of the proposal to convert Salmonpool to a automatic half barrier crossing, though it is behind schedule. The current pressure on Newton St Cyres could be relieved if Okehampton trains served it. John pointed out that we don't even know if the Sunday Rover will run in 2016 – a while ago he had been informed that DCC wanted services to run to Yeoford to connect end-on with the heritage trains on the Okehampton line. The mooted SW rail franchise could include the Okehampton line; in any event, line ownership needs to be clarified. Class 158s are expected on the Tarka Line in a year or two, though an Okehampton service will naturally put more pressure on the existing rolling stock pool. Freight is a long-term TRA ambition which could be aided by extra pathways created by the Northern route.
There were several warnings in John's talk: timetable changes affecting Exeter connections, the effect of opening intermediate Okehampton line stations on nearby Tarka station usage, proposals competing for the same funding (e.g. Bideford), the pressure that a 7 day Okehampton service will place on track maintenance and signalling, and the idea that opening a rail service could mean closure of a bus service, with no net gain to the community. John raised a laugh mentioning that, although buses stop at Crediton station, there is still no bus stop sign there several years after pointing out this omission.
The final presentation was from Chris Austin, who has an extensive railway CV and is currently involved with Railfuture, the Avocet Line Community Rail Forum and the West Somerset Railway Trust. Mr Austin's theme was how to go about making a political case for rail improvements. He identified 4 key criteria: the business case, a sponsor to lead the process, funding and partnerships. He identified a number of changes which make the present political environment very different than in the days of rail closures: demographic change, economic growth, rail demand growth, road congestion, parking constraints, railhead constraints and internet access which encourages young rail users. Had the Okehampton route survived closure, it might now be as successful as the Tarka line, and we can look for lessons which can be transferred from the latter.
A business case can be developed from PRTF's work, the Greengauge report, the business case for Tavistock and analysis of the Tarka line. SWOT analysis identifies negative issues of good road access to Okehampton and Tiverton Parkway, whilst positives are Exeter city congestion and parking, and rail reliability. Significant stages in a development strategy would be Bere Alston – Tavistock, Tarka line improvements, the Devon Metro initiative, Okehampton reopening (to Yeoford or Exeter), closing the Meldon – Tavistock gap and then expanding capacity. Funding partners could be Local Enterprise Partnerships, Devon County Council, District Councils, Okehampton Town Council, other developers, Network Rail, GWR, BARS/DR and others. The line is unlikely to be funded by government alone.
To wrap up, Chris Irwin ran a Q&A session which raised the interesting suggestion that the 6-car class 158 which currently lays over at Exeter could work to Crediton, then split, with half running to Barnstaple and half running to Okehampton. Devon County Councillor Richard Westlake observed that proposals for transport funding should be made to LEPs as early as possible. Mr Irwin enjoined delegates to seize the opportunity, and to speak with one voice.
[Afterthought: it's interesting how, during the course of 2015, perception of the Northern route proposal seems to have shifted from being a faint possibility to an eventual inevitability. Let's hope this is realistic. JK]