Improve The Barnstaple–Exeter Rail Service — But How?

It is widely acknowledged locally that the Barnstaple–Exeter rail service needs improvement and that a major part of this should involve shorter journey times. What is not agreed is how this could be achieved. Broadly speaking, two positions are held.

One, advocated by the Tarka Rail Association, centres on the accelerations that could be achieved by infrastructure improvements. These would involve raising line speeds, installing additional passing loops and modernising the level-crossing and single-line token-exchange arrangements. This approach, TRA says, would accommodate a two trains per hour service, initially for part and eventually for the whole of each day. One would run fast between Barnstaple and Exeter, with a limited number of intermediate stops. The other would provide a service to the smaller intermediate halts.

The other, advocated by NDPTU, endorses the call for improved level-crossing and token-exchange facilities, and welcomes the advantages offered by increased line speeds (which will be possible anyway by the necessary renewal of life-expired track). It sees the greatest gains accruing, however, from the concentration of the service on Barnstaple and just three evenly-spaced intermediate railheads — Umberleigh, Eggesford and Crediton. Local bus services, linked to these railheads, would provide transport for the surrounding areas superior to any facilitated by rail alone.

Adelante train at Charlbury station The recent partial redoubling of the Cotswold line between Oxford and Worcester, a photograph from which is shown here, has been held up by those who advocate the first approach as an example of what we should aspire to for the Barnstaple line. Other lines, they point out, are being heavily invested in. In time, they say, this will materialise here, if we shout loudly enough. Until such time, however, we must endure the status quo, perhaps with minor tweaks and improvements, but basically all trains would continue to offer at least six intermediate stops.

We simply don’t believe that major, taxpayer funded, upgrades of the kind envisaged will happen on the Barnstaple line. On its eleven intermediate stations alone, the Cotswold line between Oxford and Worcester carries more than a million passengers a year — that’s more than seven times the traffic at our line’s intermediate stations, and nearly double its entire traffic. To put it another way, for Kingham, the fourth busiest intermediate station on the Cotswold line (2010–2011 footfalls: 150,890), read Yeoford, fourth on the Exeter–Barnstaple (footfalls: 12,948).[1] The Cotswold line station is nearly a dozen times as busy. (For further information see www.clpg.co.uk.)

The Exeter–Salisbury line is also single track with passing places, but far busier than the Exeter–Barnstaple line. With the exception of Whimple, every intermediate station on it is far more heavily used than any intermediate on the Barnstaple. It has long had hopes for further passing loops in addition to the one recently installed at Axminster. But even these are not in any investment programme this side of 2019 (Devon County Council).

There are many other comparable examples nationally. For example, Aberystwyth–Shrewsbury was promised an addtional passing place to enable an hourly service back in 1999. There is still no sign of it (Shrewsbury–Aberystwyth Rail Passenger Association: see http://sarpa.info).

In the light of all this, what chance is there of more passing loops on the Barnstaple line? We know of no business case for it. Indeed, it is highly improbable that a convincing one could be put together. In fact, the investment required would only be to sustain a service to halts used by no more a few dozen passengers each way a day in total. If we did have a two-tier service, an hourly fast supplemented by stoppers, who would use the stoppers? Barely a mini-bus load.

We note that a single passing loop with a modified station at Penryn on the Falmouth line cost nearly £8million. Well over half of this came from the EU.[2] Can anyone seriously suggest that the huge investment required for not just one, but two new loops, plus the cost of the extra train sets and crews required to run such a service on the Barnstaple line, could be justified or would have any chance of being implemented? It would involve an extraordinarily distorting use of scarce public funds.

So, what should become of those few dozen daily users of the likes of Morchard Road and Yeoford stations? If they choose to drive a few miles further up the road, they would have an excellent railhead connection, with free car parking, at Crediton. If the public money saved by not serving those stations were reinvested in rural buses, their whole communities could actually have improved public transport. Let’s learn the proper lesson from the Cotswold line. It already has rural bus services linked to trains at suitable railheads: buses performing a local role, directly serving far more small communities than rail ever could, linked to a good train service (www.railbus.co.uk). This, surely, is the way forward.

[1] Office of Rail Regulation figures

[2] ‘Green light for Penryn Loop’, Modern Railways, September 2008


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