Monthly Archive: November 2021

Part of “The Withered Arm” rises from the ashes

On Saturday November 20th, a significant railway system event will occur in North Devon. Passenger train services will resume from Okehampton through Crediton to Exeter. The route from Coleford Junction, West of Crediton, to Okehampton will be re-opened for the first time since 1972.

The line from Coleford Junction to Okehampton was part of the original LSWR railway main line from Exeter to Plymouth, the rival to the GWR line from Exter to Plymouth via Dawlish. The route was opened in 1865, when competition between different railway companies was heating up. The LSWR route ran North-West out of Exeter, through numerous towns to Crediton, and then snaked around the Northern edge of Dartmoor, through Okehampton, then on to Lydford, through Tavistock, Bere Alston and down the valley of the River Plym into Plymouth. It was a steeply graded route, rising to 1000 feet above sea level at the highest point West of Okehampton.

The route’s main engineering feature was Meldon Viaduct, constructed to carry the line over the West Oakment valley West of Meldon. Meldon Viaduct is a wrought iron pier viaduct, an impressive structure, which is in reality two sets of viaduct structure bound together. The line, like so many routes in the 1860s, was originally single track, and when it became clear that it needed to be double track, the LSWR simply erected a second set of piers in the valley next to the original single-track viaduct, and created a second track platform at the top, tying everything together with string, tape, baling wire and Mrs Smith’s underwear.

The entire route from Crediton through to Okehampton became part of the Western Region in the post-war British Railways region re-shuffle. It also was one of the many hundreds of lines that appeared in the infamous Beeching Report as being uneconomic. The Western Region already had one main line to Plymouth. Why have two?

At around this time, the entire former LSWR rail line network West of Exeter was dubbed “The Withered Arm” by…nobody knows who, and the name stuck. The Western Region stopped investing in the former LSWR lines, since most of them were uneconomic, and axed all through services, including the famous Atlantic Coast Express, a unique train that ran from Waterloo, with coaches for the many Cornwall and Devon coastal towns originally served by the Southern Railway.

The Beeching Report listed nearly all of those lines and station for closure. Crediton through Okehampton to Plymouth was in the list, partly because local traffic was sparse, and partly because if it was no longer a through route, there was no compelling rationale for it to exist except as a diversionary line for the ex-GWR main line via Dawlish.

A complicating factor was the condition of Meldon Viaduct, which had not been constructed well, and used old-generation materials. The Heath Robinson nature of the viaduct caused problems, as locomotives became heavier. The viaduct was strengthened in the 1940s, but the lack of engineer confidence in the viaduct led to a speed restriction being imposed on all traffic. By the Summer of 1966, the line over the viaduct was singled to reduce the load. At the same time, since the line was slated for closure in the Beeching report, all through services were withdrawn, and single-car diesel multiple units served the stations, many of which were located miles from the communities they purported to serve because the original line engineers had tried to save money by straight-lining sections of the line.

One factor in the line’s favour was the existence of Meldon Quarry, started in the 1930s as a source of railway ballast for the Southern Railway. The quarry was built before the Dartmoor National Park was created, which meant that its extraction license was grandfathered to the present day. The current owners can still extract rock from the quarry in perpetuity. The stone traffic from Meldon required several trains a day.

The axe fell on the section between Okehampton and Bere Alston via Tavistock in May 1968. The entire section was closed, and grass grew on the tracks and weeds filled the platform crevices. Towards the end of 1969, the demolition crews moved in and dismantled the line. Stations were sold off into private ownership or demolished. Meldon Viaduct became a headshunt for Meldon Quarry, and the line from Meldon down to Crediton was singled. A 2-hour service with bad time-keeping, plus several stone trains a day, was not going to justify double track.

After much to-and-fro, the passenger services from Okehampton to Crediton ceased in January 1972. Stone trains continued to use the line, sometimes 4 trains a day would rattle down from Meldon, through the closed Okehampton station and down the gradient to Crediton.

I travelled the line in 1978 as part of an Atlantic Coast Express special train. At the time it was a well-maintained route, still with a 60mph speed limit, and Okehampton Station was still in good repair.

For several decades, the line saw regular stone trains. So much so, that British Railways eventually sold the entire line from just past Coleford Junction to Aggregate Industries, the owner of Meldon Quarry. In turn, Aggregate Industries allowed the Dartmoor Railway, a preserved railway group, to use the line alongside the stone trains, and they restored Okehampton Station and ran tourist trains using a variety of motive power. SouthWest Trains also began to run occasional weekend trains on the line from Okehampton to Exeter. However, the trains were not popular since the deterioration of the line meant that speeds were too low for the journey times to be competitive. The line had needed investment in the years before it closed to passengers, but no money was spent, and there had been no investment in new track or infrastructure since closure.

Meldon Quarry closed in 2011, as cheaper sources of stone were found in Eastern Europe, and the line was silent except for Dartmoor Railway activity at weekends. The Dartmoor Railway services only ran from Okehamption to Meldon, since the stations East of Okehampton were all in private ownership, and the rights to use the line stopped short of Coleford Junction, beyond which the line was owned by Network Rail, who were not interested in allowing interlopers to use the section into Crediton.

After the closure of Meldon Quarry, Aggregate Industries sold the line to a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific. That sale made no sense, and Iowa Pacific later lurched into bankruptcy. The line was no longer being maintained by professionals, the Dartmoor Railway volunteers doing essential maintenance to keep it open.

However, 2 years ago a lot changed, with the creation of the Beeching Reversal Fund, an implicit admission that many of the 1960s line closures under the Beeching Report had not been at all smart. The impetus came from the massive success of the re-opened Borders Railway, using part of the old Waverley Route. The re-opened line exceeded all traffic forecasts.

One of the lines listed at or near the top of the list of lines to be re-opened was…Crediton to Okehampton. The plan was to reinstate services to Exeter. Network Rail spent 2019 and 2020 surveying the line, and estimated it would cost 45 million pounds to reinstate passenger services. Government approval was given, and in December 2020, work kicked off with large amounts of new track being brought up the hill from Exeter and deposited in Okehampton Station yard. No new track had been laid on the line since the early 1960s, apart from a section that had been replaced after a stone train derailment in the 1980s.

Network Rail bought the line back from its current owners (the receivers of Iowa Pacific) to take legal charge of the line for the first time in 20 years. A large percentage of track has been replaced with CWR (some of the track was 100 years old), bridges and other structures have been repaired or overhauled, drainage replaced, and a lot of other detail work performed. Okehampton station will be an unstaffed self-serve station initially.

There is a plan to build a new station East of Okehampton named Okehampton Parkway. The current station is not ideally placed, high on the hill overlooking the town on the South side, and more recent housing developments are to the East.

The closed section of line from Bere Alston to Tavistock has also been under review for reinstatement, the main issue there being that the site of Tavistock station is now a local government building. That project has been under discussion for years, but nothing has happened yet, mainly because until the Beeching Reversal Fund was created, everybody agreed that it was an excellent idea, but nobody really wanted to pay for it.

The key question to be answered is whether the reinstated Okehampton service will be popular enough to persuade the railway companies to invest more money in improving the line further, or even reinstating the section from Okehampton through to Bere Alston. The entire line from Crediton to Plymouth is in the Beeching Reversal Fund shortlist. There has been a lot of genuine interest in re-instating the entire Northern Route via Okehampton to Plymouth, mainly because the Southern route via Dawlish runs next to the sea for 4 miles in the Dawlish area, and that section of the line is vulnerable to storm damage. A section was washed away in 2014, and it took several months for repairs to complete. The big issue is Meldon Viaduct, which is now a Listed Building and is a cycle path. The viaduct is unlikely to be re-instated for train use, so a new bridge will have to be constructed across the West Oakment valley, and that carries a large price tag.

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