Letter to Des Brailey, Leader of North Devon Council

18 February 2016

Mr D. Brailey
Leader, North Devon Council

Electronic copies for information to:
Peter Heaton-Jones MP
Geoffrey Cox QC MP
Jane Whittaker (Torridge District Council)
Dan Okey (GWR)

Dear Mr Brailey,

I write on behalf of North Devon Public Transport Users (NDPTU) to welcome your appropriately measured comment on aspirations for a through Barnstaple to London rail service (reported in the [North Devon] Journal, 4 February). Given the current concern for our transport links, however, we suggest that a fresh appraisal of what is expected of Barnstaple’s rail service would be timely. More particularly, we urge you and North Devon Council to consider whether a radical overhaul of the service could bring benefits to the area which far exceed any that might accrue from the introduction of a single through train to London. From the attached pages, it will be clear that NDPTU believes that they could. Moreover, we insist that, by requiring the railway to focus on what it does best, they could be obtained without engendering the financial doubts which rightly concern you.

Yours sincerely,

John Gulliver

Exeter–Barnstaple Rail Service: need for a fresh appraisal

1. The through train to London option: three key weaknesses

1.1 While a single through train would be useful in itself, it would do nothing to meet North Devon’s need for swifter links with the capital in both directions throughout each day.

1.2 Links with London are a major concern for some, but efficient connections with other parts of the country, including Plymouth, Bristol, the Midlands and the North, also matter. The single through train option would do nothing to address them.

1.3 Any service between Barnstaple and Exeter must serve two primary functions: provide commuters and others with an efficient service to and from Exeter itself; and provide links with rail services beyond Exeter. The single through train to London option might contribute to both once a day, but leave all else untouched. Moreover, it would entail inefficient use of extremely expensive rolling stock.

2. A better alternative: efficient links throughout each day

2.1 A better alternative, advocated by NDPTU, would have three elements:

2.2 Such arrangements would enable people to be in London Paddington by 9 am or soon afterwards, two and a half hours earlier than now, to return later than now, and to have the option of travelling equally swiftly at other times throughout each day. They would be equally advantageous to those travelling to and from other places.

3. What has to be done to make this rail service possible?

3.1 Trains on the main line between London Paddington, Exeter and Plymouth increasingly run on an hourly basis in both directions throughout each day. Such a service may well soon be standard. New, faster trains, soon to be introduced, are likely to be associated with it.

3.2 To link with this regular service on the main line, trains between Barnstaple and Exeter must also operate on an hourly basis throughout each day in both directions (see Fig. 2: Exeter–Barnstaple Standard Hour Diagram, attached). Currently, just over half the trains do this. The service must be redesigned so that all of them do so.

3.3 To complement the faster main line service, to make the service offered by the North Devon line more attractive to prospective passengers and to use its expensive rolling stock more efficiently, journey times between Barnstaple and Exeter St Davids need to be substantially reduced. Instead of averaging 66 minutes as now, a standard time for all trains of 55 minutes should be introduced. In the longer term, with track and signalling improvements already planned, this could and should be reduced to about 50 minutes.

4. What prevents the institution of such a service on the Barnstaple line today?

4.1 With the exception of a single, once-a-week, late night service, the journey times of every train on the Barnstaple line are greatly increased by two constraints: each train must offer a service to between six and eleven intermediate stations; allowance must be made for trains to pass each other at predetermined, yet far from ideal points (see 4.2, below) on an otherwise single-tracked route.

4.2 These constraints have unfortunate consequences:

4.3 Unless these constraints are removed, the service will continue to be needlessly expensive to operate and a substantial reduction in journey times will be unachievable.

5. How could these constraints be removed?

5.1 The construction of two new passing places at more favourable locations, as proposed by Tarka Rail Association, might obviate some of the delays caused by the inconvenient siting of those presently used. They would not by themselves overcome the delays attributable to the high number of intermediate stops. In consequence, their contribution to reducing journey times would be limited. Moreover, the cost of installing the new passing loops would be high. The limited contribution they would make to the reduction of journey times would weaken any business case advanced to justify them.

5.2 The approach outlined in 5.1 might make make a greater contribution to the reduction of journey times if it were accompanied by the institution of a two-level train service, as advocated by a local rail users association. This would involve the operation of two trains in each hour in both directions, one serving a limited number of stations and the other many more: four trains in all in continuous operation.

5.3 The distribution of the population in the areas the lines serves is heavily weighted towards the Taw and Torridge estuary conurbations. Elsewhere, its density is low (for the most part, less than 0.5 per hectare). This is reflected in the very low usage of most of the stations involved (see ‘Barnstaple–Exeter Line: Station Usage 2014–15’; attached). Along with the capital costs of new infrastructure and the additional operating costs associated with the extra train sets involved, this makes the construction of a successful business case for this proposal highly improbable.

6. A practical, financially defensible solution.

6.1 A third approach is possible. It involves focusing the rail service on just four of the line’s twelve stations: Barnstaple, Umberleigh, Eggesford and Crediton. With trains using only the existing passing arrangements at Eggesford and Exeter St Davids, this would facilitate a substantially faster service between north Devon and Exeter with little of the need for the substantial and very expensive infrastructural work associated with other schemes. Moreover, the service would require the use, not of the three or even four train sets of the alternative schemes, but just two.

6.2 The reduction in journey times facilitated by the recommended concentration of the service on these four stations could be expected to generate substantially greater usage to and from its northern end in particular. It could also contribute significantly to the reduction of traffic mileage and incidents in the Barnstaple area, on the North Devon Link Road and around Exeter.

6.3 The capital costs of this approach would be minimal. Its operating costs would be much lower than those of the other schemes. The reduced journey times and improved connections at Exeter St Davids could confidently be expected to attract substantially greater usage, especially to and from the Taw and Torridge conurbations, with all that this means for enhanced revenue (a matter of concern if responsibility for the service is ever devolved to local government). A sound business case for the approach is eminently constructable.

6.4 NDPTU urges North Devon Council to give this scheme its close attention.

7. Anticipated objections and supporting information

7.1 Objections to the scheme on grounds of hardship, inconvenience and loss of amenity, must understandably be expected from people who attach importance to the stations which would lose their service. NDPTU takes these seriously, but offers a reminder that trains are not the only means of providing public transport. In some circumstances, other means may have more to offer. See 7.2.

7.2 NDPTU notes that many of the stations on the Exeter–Barnstaple line are accessible only to those who have cars or are prepared to walk or cycle along narrow and unlit country roads. Buses, minibuses and fare cars have greater potential than rail for putting public transport within reach of people living in thinly populated rural areas.

7.3 NDPTU is therefore systematically looking at ways in which other public transport provision exists or could be made available for people who would lose their nearby train service in the above scheme. The following attachments, ‘Bus and Train Services in Mid Devon’ and ‘Peak Service Frequencies between Copplestone and Exeter: Train and Bus Compared’, show how this is being done. Thus, on the latter, we note that existing bus services may not only duplicate rail provision, but by their frequency exceed it in convenience.

8. Supporting information and its significance

8.1 The Barnstaple–Exeter line is one of four which make up the emergent, Exeter-centred Devon Metro (see ‘Station Usage 2014 Comparison: Axminster, Exmouth, Paignton and Barnstaple Lines’; attached). It differs from the others, however, in a number of significant ways:

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