Passenger services are to return to a line in South West England after nearly 50 years thanks to a £40.5m investment, the Government has announced.
The Department for Transport, Network Rail and Great Western Railway will work together to open the 14-mile Dartmoor Line between Exeter and Okehampton.
Since 1997, the line has been open during the summer only after a regular service was withdrawn in 1972.
Services every two hours will begin to operate later this year, with the increase to one train per hour coming in 2022.
Connectivity for people between Okehampton and Exeter will be greatly improved, according to Network Rail, with rail journey times set to be 30% quicker than car or bus.
This is the first project to see train services restored as part of the Restoring Your Railway fund, launched in January 2020.
Network Rail also says that the reopening of the line will help towards investment in Okehampton and boost tourism to the area by connecting people to the nearby Dartmoor National Park and the Granite Way cycle route.
Engineers will start immediately to complete work on the line, including drainage, fencing and earthworks along with laying 11 miles of track, replacing 24,000 sleepers and 29,000 tonnes of ballast before test trains operate and passengers can use the line.
Okehampton station will also receive improvements, including a new ticket vending machine, help point, information screens, WiFi and CCTV as well as a Pay and Display car park.
This new investment comes with the 150th anniversary of the railway first arriving into Okehampton in 1871.
Meanwhile, the Government has also announced funding worth £37.4m for the third phase of works to improve the railway between Holcombe and Dawlish.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Restoring the connections between our communities, and building new ones, is key to unlocking our nation’s potential and levelling up across the UK.
“The massive investment we are making into the railways of the South West will quite literally lay the tracks to more jobs, tourism and opportunities across the region.”
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.
“Reversing lost railway connections breathes new life into our high streets, drives tourism and investment in businesses and housing, and opens new opportunities for work and education.”
Christian Irwin, Network Rail’s Industry Programme Director, said: “We’re thrilled to have received funding confirmation from the Government to support us in reopening the Dartmoor Line.
“We’re excited by the numerous benefits the reopening of this railway will bring to Okehampton and surrounding areas, and we are now fully focussed on undertaking the necessary engineering work required to prepare this line for the return of regular passenger services.
“We’re grateful to our partners and supporters who are helping make this a realisation and would like to thank local residents living near to the railway for their patience whilst we ramp up our activity to get the track ready.”
Mark Hopwood, GWR Managing Director, said: “We are pleased that the case we made to government for this important local line has been so compelling that this is one of the first of the Government’s Restoring Your Railway re-opening projects to get the green light. This is great news for communities surrounding Okehampton wanting to be re-connected to the national network.
“Returning regular, daily services to this line has been a long-held ambition of ours and was the most sought-after additional routes in our most recent franchise consultation. We’ve already done a great deal of work with Network Rail and local partners, including Devon County Council, to support those aspirations, and have well-developed plans to have trains running on the Dartmoor Line again.
“The commitment to re-open the line will help extend the reach and social and economic benefits of the railway, further supporting the communities we serve.”
Richard Burningham MBE, Manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, said: “Thanks to the Government and congratulations to all those whose hard work over, in some cases, many years has got us to today’s announcement. This year is the 150th anniversary of the railway first arriving in Okehampton.
“Long closed, the Okehampton line will be only the third railway to open for regular passenger services in Devon and Cornwall in 100 years. All of us are going to be working hard to make it a huge success and I am very sure it will be.”
Councillor Andrea Davis, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Infrastructure and Development, said: “After years of campaigning and a lot of tireless work behind the scenes by all of the partners involved in this project, the confirmation of Government backing will be well received by the local community.
“Reopening the line to regular services will be a massive benefit for the environment, tourism and the local economy, and it will attract investment to the area. I’m sure everyone will be looking forward to services resuming later this year.”
Mel Stride, MP for Central Devon, said: “I’m delighted that after many years of local campaigning Government has backed this vital scheme.
“I look forward to seeing Network Rail ready the track for the return of regular passenger services in the coming months; so we can reconnect communities, boost tourism and give many thousands of my constituents the quality of local transport infrastructure they should rightly expect.”
Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said: “Building on vital new investment to protect the coastal railway between Holcombe and Dawlish and a host of upgrades and new stations, we’re delivering on our ambitious plans in Devon and Cornwall.
“This funding will provide passengers with reliable, punctual journeys, and improve connections between communities as we build back better from Covid-19.”
Exeter College Principal and Chief Executive John Laramy CBE said: “The return of the Okehampton to Exeter rail line full-time is great news for the region as we look to build connectivity across the South West. As we all know, enhanced connectivity is a key driver for productivity and this development will open up new opportunities to support the growth of our economy within this area.
“We have students study with us from across the South West region and another rail route into the heart of Exeter can only be a good thing, not only for learners themselves, but also for the city of Exeter.”
Pamela Woods, Chair of Dartmoor National Park Authority said, “Opening up the line to Dartmoor with a regular train service is very much welcome as we celebrate our 70th year as a National Park. Providing a sustainable route to access Dartmoor via regular rail links supports our green travel strategy, reduces congestion and provides a more accessible way for all to enjoy the National Park.
“We are looking forward to working with GWR to provide visitor information at Okehampton Station, to make the most of the opportunities this presents to support our tourism businesses and the local economy.”
Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “It is encouraging to see the planned restoration of the Dartmoor Line’s rail services, as the first project that will be completed from the ‘Restoring Your Railway’ Programme, and as the first scheme to incorporate the principles of Rail Project SPEED, the initiative to deliver rail projects more quickly and cost-effectively.
“The rail industry still faces a lack of certainty over rail enhancement projects, so we urgently ask the Government to publish its list of rail enhancement upgrades to provide much-needed visibility to the industry, helping it support the ‘build back better’ agenda.”
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