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Decision expected soon on rail restoration study

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020 8:25am

By Daniel Clark, Local Democracy Reporting Service

Bere Alston Railway Station

The council want regular Okehampton to Exeter services restored

A decision on which railway lines could receive funding towards feasibility studies of routes that could be restored could be made within two months.

A £500m fund was launched by the Government at the end of January to help fund feasibility studies of routes lost under the Beeching Axe that could be restored.

Devon County Council has already put forward the Bere Alston to Tavistock line as their submission for the fund, as well as reiterating the desire for regular weekday services between Okehampton and Exeter.

West Devon Borough Council passed a motion this week as well for the council to write to the Secretary of State for Transport and the Prime Minister urging the government to set and announce the date for the re-opening of the railway line between Okehampton and Exeter as a matter of urgency.

Answering questions on a variety of railway related issued at Thursday’s Devon County Council meeting, Cllr Andrea Davis, Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Development and Waste told councillors on Thursday that the Government aim to announce which proposals they aim to offer funding for by mid-April.

Cllr Davis said: “There will be a lot of competition for the £500m pot of the Beeching Reversal Fund, which is likely to be spread nationally, therefore we will be making the case for the most advanced schemes in Devon.

“We will reiterate the desire to run regular weekday services between Okehampton and Exeter currently being investigated by GWR and will be applying for funding to progress work with the Tavistock to Bere Alston rail line reopening.”

The line between Bere Alston and Tavistock North closed in 1968 as part of the Beeching Axe, but with the majority of the track still intact and under public ownership, is a top priority to reopen, and is part of the Devon Metro proposals for rail in the county.

Devon County Council now have ownership of 90 per cent of the track, and proposals to reopen the line were due to be funded by development planned for Tavistock, but as the costs have reopening the line have risen to around £94m, a recent ‘A386 Tavistock to Plymouth Corridor Study’ concluded reinstating the rail link from Tavistock to Bere Alston, was not viable at this time.

Okehampton to Exeter passenger services were withdrawn on June 5, 1972, but since 1997 a limited service has run between Okehampton and Exeter on Sundays during the summer.

The Dartmoor Railway, the heritage rail company based at Okehampton Station, has recently gone into administration, but Cllr Davis said that it would not affect any reinstatement of a mainline service.

She added: “The County Council has a 60 year lease to Dartmoor Railway CIC for the station building, which has limited permitted use including a café, visitors centre, retail unit and a flat. The County Council remains hopeful of seeing regular weekday rail services reintroduced between Okehampton and Exeter and there is nothing from a Devon County Council-owned asset perspective that would prevent this from happening.

“The lease of the rail line from Aggregate Industries to Dartmoor Railway is a separate matter, which we have no influence over. As the administrators have now been called in a moratorium will be in place which means that no action can be taken against the tenant for the timebeing and we need to allow the administrator time to decide what steps they need to take to achieve the best outcome for its tenant.”

Cllr Kevin Ball, who represents the Okehampton ward, said that GWR were in talks with the DfT about reintroducing regular services to the line and he was hopeful of an announcement being made soon.

He said: “I know that GWR are in deep talks with DfT and we are hopeful of an announcement soon., and I know the cabinet member has played her part in putting the pressure on them to get a response, and at West Devon, we passed a motion to push that way as well.

“The Northern route is a complimentary route and is about having a second route into the Peninsula. This fund is ideal tod raw on for the Tavistock to Plymouth and welcome that we are going to do that.

Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, and who had asked Cllr Davis for the report, said he would welcome any funding from the Beeching Reversal Fund as the Beeching Axe was devastating for Devon, a scandal, and the wrong way to go.

Cllr Gordon Hook, who represents the Newton Abbot South ward, said that the getting the four miles of track between Newton Abbot and Heathfield reopen would ‘return the best investment in the whole of the South West’.

He added: “What an immense benefit it would be to the issues of pollution and congestion in Newton Abbot which often gets clogged up with traffic. If we can get that short section of railway reopened, it would be the most advantageous investment in any four miles in the country. It is a relatively tiny venture that would bring immense benefit.”

Cllr Richard Hosking also called for a feasible study for the old Primrose Line from South Brent to Kingsbridge to be carried out, while Cllr Andrew Saywell took the opportunity to reiterate that Torridge has no railway lines whatsoever.

He added: “Communities like mine that struggle with access to the railway. We accept the railway won’t come back in the short term, maybe even the long term, but if we cannot bring railway in, can we facilitate access to the railway for people in far flung areas like mine.”

Responding, Cllr Davis told Cllrs Hook and Hosking that they do have the power themselves to help put forward proposals for their chosen lines to reopen, outlining the process in which applicants for the Beeching Reversal Fund need to submit their applications.

Outlining the process, she described as being a ‘bit like a game show or Love Island’, and that there will be at least two rounds of assessments for the proposals.

Any application needs to be sponsored by one or more Members of Parliament whose constituencies would benefit from the scheme, and the group promoting the scheme could include community groups, local government, local enterprise partnerships or other interested parties.

An expression of interest from the MP is needed by February 28 to be considered in the first round of assessments, before a short submission making the case is needed by March 16.

Successful applicants to this stage will then be asked to pitch their proposal to a panel of experts in late March, which an announcement of which proposals the Government will offer funding to within two weeks of the panel.

Winners would then agree the broad train service specification to be investigated with officials and work with the government to develop the project’s business case to submit to the Department of Transport to make the case for the project receiving more substantial development funding, Cllr Davis told the council.

Bids for funding should focus on making the strategic and economic case for the scheme, as well as setting out any recognised challenges.

Further details from the Department for Transport state that applications should set out the journey opportunities that will be created and the expected demand, economic opportunities such as improved tourism, or links to new housing and critical infrastructure.

An outline the services proposed to be run on the restored railway, which should include frequency and interactions with the existing railway, is also required, as is whether there are any freight opportunities and what they might be.

No estimates of the infrastructure required and operating costs for the scheme are expected to be submitted by bidders, but a map of the route proposed, any constraints or complications beyond straight forward reinstatement of the line would be needed, as would details around land ownership.

The DfT will fund 75 per cent of costs up to £50,000 of successful proposals to help fund transport and economic studies and deliver an initial business case, with future funding to develop projects towards delivery would be subject to submitting a successful business case.

There will be at least two rounds of assessment for proposals, one in March and one in June, the DfT added.

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