West Devon is set for an early Christmas present if Network Rail’s plans remain on course,
The Withered Arm is about to regain some movement. In March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in his Budget that he was making £40.5 million available for the proposal to reopen the former London & South Western Railway main line between Exeter and Okehampton. Network Rail has taken the idea and run with it, with a bold timetable under the Project Speed initiative to restore regular passenger services to the line this year – most probably with the December 2021 timetable change. The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said: ‘The return of all-year services to the picturesque Dartmoor line for the first time in half a century is a milestone moment in our efforts to restore our railways’.
The route is being restored almost exactly half a century after it was shut: passenger services were withdrawn at Okehampton in 1972, having persisted a few years beyond closure of the LSWR network in North Cornwall. The line to Okehampton was retained for freight services to Meldon quarry, a short distance beyond the station, a site which for many years supplied ballast to the railways but was mothballed a few years ago. The retention of the line for freight has made the reopening proposal simpler, in that all the structures and the right of way have remained intact, but one complicating factor has been that the freight line was sold to the quarry owner at the time of railway privatisation in the 1990s. In an ironic twist for a route that is a flagship for the Conservative Government’s Project Speed, the line is being brought into national ownership once again and will become like any other branch on the Network Rail system.