On the rugged northern edge of Dartmoor, a small army of workers in high-vis vests is readying Okehampton station to welcome the first regular passenger train since 1972. The canopies and picket fences are being repainted in the original dark greens and warm yellows of the long-departed Southern Railway.
It’s a historic moment for local campaigners, who have been fighting for decades to reconnect the Devon town to the national network and open up this lesser-visited part of the national park. “It’s quite extraordinary – almost unbelievable,” says Tom Baxter, 68, the secretary of the Dartmoor Railway Association, watching the painting from a gleaming green bench on the platform. “I used to travel on the line when it was British Rail and I was here when it closed in the 1970s. Local railways were seen as a bit of a nuisance at the time – they wanted to get rid of them.”
The Exeter to Okehampton line – known as the Dartmoor Line – is the first reopening under the government’s £500m Restoring Your Railway programme, which aims to reinstate some of the services that were lost in the aftermath of the 1963 Beeching report commissioned by the Conservative government of the time, resulting in the closure of a third of the country’s track network and more than half of all stations.
There are also plans to reopen the Northumberland line, which closed to passengers in 1964 as part of the Beeching era, when the automobile industry and roadbuilding lobby had the ear of successive governments. And there is a feasibility study on reinstating the Fleetwood-Poulton line in Lancashire. Overall, 38 schemes around the country have been given up to £50,000 to develop businesses cases, with further funding available if they are approved.
On the other side of the track, Stuart Calvert, who has overseen the Dartmoor Line restoration for Network Rail, is checking the station before its reopening this week. “This is a real community project – and people are genuinely excited and delighted. It is opening up a part of the country that has not been well served: north Dartmoor rather than south Dartmoor,” he says. “For leisure or business travellers or school or college students, it creates a world of possibilities.”
The £40m project, which has taken nine months, has involved the laying of 29,000 tonnes of ballast and 24,000 sleepers as well as the installation of five new radio masts and the clearing of miles of vegetation from the track. Although regular passenger services ended in the 1970s, freight trains continued to move stone from a quarry until 2011. Some passengers were able to travel on a limited Sunday service from the late 1990s.
Many in the town centre are eager to use the new service. The reopening is the talk of local schools as it means trips to Exeter and Bristol and further afield are suddenly much easier. “When you can’t drive, it limits your independence,” says Lyra Harrison, 17. “There’s a lot of excitement in the sixth form.”
Helen Howard, 60, says it will give Okehampton a new lease of life. “It will open up this town, which has been stagnant for quite a long time,” she says. “It will give people an opportunity to get into Exeter without sitting in queues of traffic. People will be able to use it as a commuter service. It’s all-around positive.”
The government’s plans to reopen stations are backed by public transport experts but there are reservations about the scale of the funding. Norman Baker, a former junior transport minister, who now advises the Campaign for Better Transport, points out that the sums involved are dwarfed by the £27bn for road building. “It is good news, and the government does seem to be serious about reopening lines. But the £500m government has allocated [for the programme] won’t go very far,” he says. “The government should use some of the enormous sum allocated to the roadbuilding programme to reopen railway lines. That would be much more sensible.”
Increasing passenger numbers on public transport is one of the fastest ways to reduce the country’s transport emissions, which account for more greenhouse gasses than any other sector. “We can make progress tomorrow by getting people on buses and trains,” says Baker. “And part of that is the cost of travelling by train and bus, which is going up way above inflation, whereas we’ve seen air passenger duty cut and the cost of fuel duty frozen for 12 years.”
Back in Okehampton, Baxter is in the station’s tiny museum, which he helped establish. On the nearly 150-year-old wall is a thick, woollen British Rail coat worn by the last station manager and a closure notice promising residents five buses a day.
He is glad that a new chapter is being written in the town’s history. “It became a bypassed town after the line closed,” he says. “Now Okehampton will become the railhead for the whole of west Devon and north Cornwall.”