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The Okehampton Line

Restoring the second route from Exeter to Plymouth around the north side of Dartmoor

Reopening the Okehampton route, which runs round the north side of Dartmoor between Exeter and Plymouth, has long been advocated by Railfuture and others. This would be an additional railway route to that via Dawlish, Newton Abbot and Totnes.

from Gerard Duddridge
The closed section of railway beyond Okehampton runs hidden in the landscape below the rocky outcrops of Sourton Tors and the Dartmoor granite mass behind. View South-eastwards from near Northlew.

Reopening the railway from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton would:
  1. Provide an alternative route for when the sea disrupts normal Exeter to Plymouth train services via Dawlish and Teignmouth, and/or if land slipping and debris flows have to be dealt with on the section of line between Parsons Tunnel and Teignmouth. In addition the tracks are steep and tightly curved on the railway between Newton Abbot and Plymouth, potentially leading to more track maintenance and temporary line closure. Whilst passengers can be transferred to bus replacement services, these make travelling particularly difficult for those with disability or simply carrying luggage. For short notice emergencies it is not always possible to arrange enough buses and they cannot substitute for rail freight movements or the overnight sleeper service from Penzance to Paddington. The alternative Okehampton route is needed and has been needed for these reasons ever since its closure as a through route in 1968.

  2. Provide more line capacity for developing both passenger and rail freight services west of Exeter to Plymouth, Cornwall and Torbay. On the existing route, between Exeter and Newton Abbot, space on the tracks for long distance trains is competing against the need for local trains to stop at places such as Dawlish and Teignmouth. With more overall line capacity west of Exeter reopened/new stations could be considered for Exminster and perhaps Bishopsteignton.

  3. Provide a railhead at Okehampton for large parts of West Devon and North Cornwall that are many miles from the existing rail network. Places that would benefit include Holsworthy and Launceston and the Cornish coast between Bude, Boscastle and Tintagel. On the reopened route Tavistock would regain rail services and a commuter link into Plymouth avoiding the mostly single carriageway and congested A386 road.
During early 2020 Network Rail have been busy strengthening the sea wall at Dawlish, on the existing railway between Exeter and Plymouth. This should ensure that there is no repeat of the sea wall collapse and loss of the actual track that took place in February 2014. However, this does not provide a guarantee that there will be no disruption to the actual running of train services from time to time by the sea and other factors such as track maintenance. The Network Rail work on the coastal line does not increase line capacity for more trains west of Exeter.

Trains can already run on the route from Exeter as far as Okehampton, as the track has remained in-situ since the June 1972 closure to serve Meldon Quarry 2 miles west of Okehampton. Passenger services should be restored as soon as possible to Okehampton and then Tavistock, Bere Alston and Plymouth.

Unlike the work at Dawlish, which is just adding to the existing sea wall, the work at Teignmouth is a major civil engineering project for the sea wall and cliffs that is likely to result in disruption to rail services. If the full route between Exeter, Okehampton Tavistock and Plymouth were reopened before work on the cliffs at Teignmouth is undertaken then services could be maintained between Exeter and Plymouth.

from Gerard Duddridge
There are Network Rail plans for rebuilding the sea wall and stabilising the steep cliffs on the existing coastal route here near Teignmouth. If this solution is adopted construction will be disruptive for rail passengers, so ideally the alternative Okehampton route would be reopened first to allow diversion of Exeter to Plymouth and Cornwall trains during the work.

The Okehampton route from Exeter to Plymouth is 57⅞ miles long compared to 52 miles via Dawlish and Newton Abbot. The original route from St. Budeaux Victoria Road into Plymouth via Ford was slightly longer than that which would be used today via Keyham. The distances in the table below are compiled using data from the Network Rail Sectional Appendix August 2020 and from other sources.

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Table to show the status of different sections of the Okehampton line. The mileage at Meldon is approximate.


Restoring Exeter to Okehampton: initial timings and service level

Railfuture suggests that Exeter to Okehampton should be an hourly service, but recognises that current low line speed, single track (since October 1971) and unknown passenger demand in the 2020 virus pandemic situation may limit the initial service to around 7 trains per day eachway. So similar to the level of service operated just prior to closure, and almost double that of the last summer Sunday service to operate in 2019.

The Exeter to Okehampton service prior to the 1972 closure stopped sometimes at Newton St. Cyres, but almost always at Yeoford, Bow, North Tawton and Sampford Courtenay. For a restored train service it is suggested that all trains stop at Crediton, the possible new Okehampton East/Parkway station and one other that might initially just vary between Newton St. Cyres or Sampford Courtenay. This strategy would ensure that journey times did not exceed those of around 45 minutes from Okehampton to Exeter St. Davids, as on the summer Sunday trains.

For an hourly clockface timetable the necessary minimum Crediton to Okehampton journey time of 27 minutes could be achieved (35 minutes from Exeter St. Davids) by raising the minimum line speed to 60 mph, including further improvements at Salmonpool level crossing and a maximum of two station stops between Crediton and Okehampton. This assumes that the single line token continues to be picked up at Crediton signal box as at present. This would give capacity for an hourly clockface timetable based on passing the opposite train at Crediton and 6 minute turn round times at Okehampton. Crediton and Okehampton East Parkway could be served hourly, North Tawton 2 hourly and other trains Sampford Courtenay or Newton St. Cyres.

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On 6th May 2017 a Barnstaple bound train halts to pick up the token for the section of line to Eggesford and will then crossover to the Barnstaple track using points seen in the far distance. A similar arrangement would be satisfactory for the Okehampton service in the short term. When operating as the full route to Plymouth this system should be upgraded to shorten travel times.

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Salmonpool level crossing between Crediton and Yeoford, as shown here in May 2017, has for many years slowed trains to 25 mph on both the Barnstaple and Okehampton line tracks. It has recently been upgraded to half barrier operation allowing 70 mph for Barnstaple bound trains. The Okehampton line track should now be upgraded as well from its current maximum 40 mph.

Stations between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton - those proposed and the others

This section contains information on the places passed through or nearby on the Ohehampton route. It contains suggestions for which stations that might be served by an hourly stopping service and those which would not be. By limiting stops to 8 to 9 stations between Exeter, Okehampton and Plymouth the service should take no more than 1 hour 20 minutes. This would be similar to timings on the route via Dawlish for trains that serve all stations.

Newton St. Cyres – some additional services to be provided by Okehampton service
Newton St. Cyres near Exeter is situated astride the A377 road and is where over half the parish population live out of a total of 876 (2017 ONS estimate, Office for National Statistics). There is a frequent bus service on the main road and consequently an infrequent train service, as the railway station is over half a mile away.

However, around 75 residents live at Sweetham which which forms a small community around the station together with the famous Beer Engine public house and village recreation ground. There is no pavement from the main village, but there is lighting.

Prior to closure of the Okehampton line Newton St. Cyres was served by a combination of Barnstaple and Okehampton line services. From 1968 to 1972 there were 3 to 4 trains to Exeter and 6 to 7 from Exeter. The 1972/73 timetable carried the note about the closure stating, 'This may result in adjustments to the Exeter - Barnstaple service". In fact this did not happen and ever since Newton St. Cyres has had a poor rail service. In todays 2020 timetable Newton St. Cyres is well served by Barnstaple line trains in the evening, but only one during the day which is timed for commuting into Exeter. It is suggested that 2 or 3 Okehampton line trains stop during the middle of the day at Newton St. Cyres. At other times people can still use the regular bus service to Crediton and Exeter from the centre of the village.

Yeoford – to continue to be just served by Barnstaple line trains
Yeoford is a small hamlet within the large parish of Crediton Hamlets. The number of houses suggests that around 350 people may live within ½ mile of the station. The railway through Yeoford operates as 2 separate single line tracks and the former down line platform now on the Okehampton track is disused.

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A Barnstaple to Exeter service slows to check for passengers on 14th August 2020. The track on the right is for Okehampton and runs alongside the disused island platform. This is the platform which would need to be restored if this section is restored to normal double track operation.

Given that Yeoford is well served by the hourly Exeter to Barnstaple service there would seem to be no urgency to spend money on platform restoration for the Okehampton line.
The down platform will need to be restored for the Barnstaple line service if and when the line is restored to true double track working between Crediton and Colebrooke Junction . Some Okehampton line stops might then be considered.

Bow - to remain closed or at least for now
Bow is situated on the A3072 Copplestone to Hatherleigh road. Of the 1,287 (ONS 2017) inhabitants of the parish around two thirds live within the actual village. There are only a few houses near to Bow station which is 1¼ miles south of the village.

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Sketch map to show the location of Bow, North Tawton and Sampford Courtenay in relation to the Okehampton line stations.

Walking to the station would be along an unlit lane and without a pavement. The station building like North Tawton is in private ownership, but the old railway land around forms part of the property so making car parking provision a particular problem. The platform height is significantly low and a lot of work would be required to bring it up to the correct height.

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View of Bow station from the road. Unlike North Tawton there is no access to the former platform and both the station frontage and station house/building is in private occupation". With the former goods yard area occupied as well, there is no former railway land that could be used for parking.

Given the poor location of Bow station and the impact on overall train speeds and timing of Okehampton line trains the station is not recommended for inclusion within the basic hourly stopping service.

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Bow is situated some distance from its former railway, but does have a regular bus service from the stop seen in the picture. The entrance to station road is just visible on the right.

As an alternative, the bus service (Stagecoach 5A/B) is accessible within the village on the main road. It provides an hourly service of 12 buses per day taking about 45 minutes to Exeter St. Davids station and 16 back taking 41 minutes. Perhaps needed is a return bus from Exeter later than the 20:08 (at St.Davids station) on weekdays and Saturdays, plus a Sunday service. An option woud be to provide this as a bus/rail connection from Copplestone station on the Barnstaple line. Copplestone is only 3 miles away and offers an hourly rail service into Exeter, although unfortunately the station currently lacks sufficient parking for rail passengers who need to drive there.

North Tawton – every other train when Exeter to Okehampton is hourly
North Tawton is the largest of the settlements between Crediton and Okehampton and had an estimated parish population of 2,019 in 2017 (ONS). It ranks as a small town and is about 1 mile from the former railway station. For visitors there is a town trail, the long distance Tarka Trail is close by at Newland Bridge and the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes lived in the town. Not far from North Tawton station is the original Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at North Wyke (Rothamsted Research). Whiddon Down is just 5¼ miles away along the direct A3124 from North Tawton station making it easily accessible to parts of north Dartmoor. North Tawton would be Chagford’s nearest station at 10 miles compared to 22 miles to Exeter.

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Left: North Tawton town centre. Right: St Peter’s Church, dating from the 13th Century, is the oldest existing building in North Tawton.

North Tawton was included as a reopening proposal in the A-Z of Rail Reopenings 1998 by the Railway Development Society.ISBN: 0 901283 13 4.

The North Tawton Neighbourhood Plan supports the reinstatement of the railway between Okehampton and Exeter. Paragraph 43.3 states, ‘88% of respondents to the Neighbourhood Plan Questionnaire expressed support for the Okehampton to Exeter railway to reopen on a regular basis. 80% said they would use the railway for social reasons, 67% to connect to mainline train services, and 24% would use the train to travel to work.’

On the east side of North Tawton station the railway crossed what was originally a minor class 3 road. It links the A30 trunk road at Whiddon Down with the A3072 Copplestone to Hatherleigh road at de Bathe Cross near North Tawton station. This was first upgraded for light traffic in 1978 and later at a cost of £1.17 million as a lorry road in 1985 involving reconstruction of the railway bridge (Number 591) for increased height. This became the B3219 and is now the A3124.

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The original bridge (number 591) was of iron deck type and too low for lorry traffic. It was raised (probably in 1985) as the final part of upgrading this road which links North Tawton at de Bathe Cross with the A30 trunk road at Whiddon Down. This view south towards Whiddon Down shows the new bridge and is single track. The original lower bridge carried double track and the two platforms extended across it to the east (left on photo).

From west to east the railway was built on a gradient climbing at 1 in 80, but with a safer 1 in 264 through the actual station. The platforms crossed Bridge 591 for a short distance, but were on the restart of the 1 in 80 gradient eastward to Halse Moor. The subsequent height increase for Bridge 591 was achieved by the railway continuing to climb steeply through the station, but with the disadvantage that the platform surfaces are now unusable and are about 2 or more feet below rail level as they near the modern bridge 591.

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North Tawton up platform viewed back towards Okehampton. The track here is seen above platform level as it climbs eastward to pass over the new Bridge 591. Note original bull head track that would best be replaced for modern working.

As the gradient must now have been lessened on the east side of Bridge 591 any new station platform might best be considered here instead. A length of level line sufficient for a 5 coach train may well be possible. There would need to be a footbridge link back across the A3124 to the old station approach road adjacent to the Railway Inn.

There are some areas that could be used for parking around the former station building and approach road, but some is used by the Railway Inn. It might be necessary to use some areas of the former goods yard.

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View into the former goods yard area at North Tawton station.

Sampford Courtenay – a few services should stop
The parish of Sampford Courtenay had an estimated population of 629 in 2017 (ONS) and is over 6 miles from south to north. It includes the village of Honeychurch in the north. Sampford Courtenay village houses around 200 of the parish residents and from south to north the settlement is 1½ to 2 miles from Sampford Courtenay station. Access from the station is along an isolated country road with no pavement or lighting beyond the first and last houses. Around the station, which is located at Belstone Corner, there are around 100 residents living within ¼ mile.

The station might be considered too close to North Tawton to be reopened as well, but currently it is the only station between Crediton and Okehampton that actually has a useable platform. This was upgraded in 2002 for a 3 coach length and has been served by the summer Sunday trains running up to 2019. The ‘Sampford Courtenay Parish Survey Report 2019’ (32% return from 250 dwellings) showed that only 1% of respondents would use the train daily, but 14% weekly and 77% infrequently. On this basis it is suggested that some trains continue to stop even when North Tawton is reopened, perhaps a minimum of 5 per day.

Of those responding to the survey, 86% would want to go by vehicle to the station and the remainder walking. Therefore some parking provision is needed at the station. There should be room to park 20 cars, but a little more if the entrance to the adjacent industrial unit in the former goods yard was modified. The station would need lighting and a platform shelter. There are no facilities close to the station other than a telephone box.

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View of restored, but now neglected Sampford Courtenay station platform.

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This small area might park up to 20 cars. The former goods yard behind is in private industrial use, but an alternative entrance for it would release a few more parking spaces.

Stopping some trains at Sampford Courtenay would benefit the small community around the station which was previously served several times daily by the 318 bus service between North Tawton and Okehampton. Now there are only 3 buses per week calling eachway at Sampford Courtenay station. Sampford Courtenay village is served Mondays to Saturdays by Stagecoach 5A between Okehampton, Hatherleigh, Crediton and Exeter, but the journey takes around an hour compared to around 35 minutes by train if run similarly to the summer Sunday trains. With upgraded track the journey from Sampford Courtenay station to Exeter St. Davids’s station would drop to about 20 minutes if only calling at Crediton.

Okehampton – all trains to stop

Okehampton is situated on the north side of Dartmoor and was located directly on the A30 London to Penzance road until the town’s bypass opened in 1989.

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Okehampton centre on the main A30 London to Penzance road until bypassed in 1989.

Okehampton is small town, but with a growing population that reached an estimated 7,057 in 2017 (ONS). This is about the same size as Totnes (7,903 in 2017) and there are other similarities, and not just that they both have castles. Okehampton like Totnes is midway on an Exeter to Plymouth railway line. Exeter to Totnes is 28¾ miles and only a few miles futher than the 25 miles from Exeter to Okehampton. Totnes is 23¼ from Plymouth and Okehampton 32⅞ miles.

The catchment area for Okehampton includes Hatherleigh, Holsworthy and North Cornwall places such as Bude, Launceston and Camelford. In comparison Totnes covers much of the South Hams including Kingsbridge, Salcombe, Dartmouth, parts of south Torbay and Buckfastleigh. Totnes recorded 696,226 rail passengers at its station in 2018-2019 (Entry and Exit figure from the Office of the Rail Regulator) and this could be used to indicate a possible upper annual figure for Okehampton. However, only if Okehampton achieved a similar service level of around 2 trains per hour. Axminster has a similar population to Okehampton at 7,452 (2017 ONS estimate), it is 27¾ miles from Exeter and also serves a wider catchment area (Seaton, Lyme Regis, Bridport and Chard). One difference is that Axminster only has around one train per hour and this could explain the lower entry and exit figure which was 384,220 for the period 2018-2019. Okehampton could be expected to achieve a usage figure in between that of Totnes and Axminster.

The station at Okehampton survived the rail closures and helped by the summer Sunday rail service and heritage support, it is now a refurbished complete and ready to use station. It has a canopy over the main platform (number 3), buffet and toilets. There is a second platform (number 2) so making this a convenient place to pass trains, should the railway remain as mainly single track. A second footbridge suitable for disabled access is needed for access to platform 2. Both these platforms are of 6 coach length, but could be extended at the east/Exeter end of the station.

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View of the main station platform at Okehampton - number 3 up side of line viewed in Tavistock and Plymouth direction.

Platform 1 is behind the station and was formerly often used for connecting services running on the now closed lines to North Cornwall. Reinstatement of this 3rd line could become important for holding trains, if the route remains single track and is being used for services diverted from the Dawlish route. For this track reinstatement to be possible, the huts of an adjacent cycle hire business would need to be moved slightly to provide adequate clearance.

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View behind the station showing the goods shed now in use as the Youth Hostel. Reinstatement of the platform 1 loop would need to run alongside, as it always did, on the left hand side.

On former railway land at Okehampton station there is space to provide car parking, with 30 spaces on the station approach, 20 short stay approximately opposite the main station building and around 100 on the site of the former locomotive depot and engine shed. This would give a total of 150 spaces, which is almost as many as Totnes with 20 short stay and 145 ordinary. Work needed is resurfacing and clear marking out of the car parking areas.

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The land shown here was the site of the locomotive depot, but today would provide space to park 100 cars.

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On the right of the station building there would be space for 20 short stay parking spaces and 30 ordinary spaces on the approach road. This would still leave room for bus waiting and a number of taxi spaces.

Okehampton East Parkway (Exeter Road) – all or many trains to stop

Before reaching Okehampton station, trains from the Exeter direction pass under Exeter Road at bridge number 606 (the old A30 now B3260). In the 1950s the eastern edge of Okehampton was still ¾ mile away and only a little closer at the time of the 1972 closure of the line. Since then Okehampton has grown eastward, so that the nearest houses are now only ⅛ of a mile from the railway. The Exeter Road Industrial estate has grown up alongside the railway and has now started to surround it. A new station at this location has been suggested by many, including Railfuture as long ago as 2000.

Now, even more houses are planned nearby. These would be built on farmland just to the north of the Exeter Road Industrial Estate and extending across the Crediton Road. The joint Plymouth, South Hams and West Devon Local Plan, adopted in 2019, has allocated land for 775 new homes (planning references 01089/2013 and 2731/15/OPA). Also to the east of the railway 42,700 square meters of land for employment floor space.

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These fields as seen in June 2012 are destined to be filled with new housing. The view is looking towards Abbeyford Woods and the photograph is taken from one of the new roads only a few minutes walk from the proposed Okehampton East Parkway station. The mast which can be seen in the distance, and also in the next picture, provides Freeview television for Okehampton and radio over a wider area.

Reasons for locating a new station on Exeter Road include the close proximity of the new residential areas, those planned, plus easy access off the A30 trunk road from both west and east. There is land that could be used for car parking and a possible plan was drawn up by local campaigners and appeared in the Okehampton Times: Wednesday, 20 September 2017. The plan showed a car park with around 250 spaces, but the platform appeared to be on the 1 in 88 gradient leading down to Sampford Courtenay.

Instead the new station platform should be located a little further south, as the gradient is thought to level off at a point just north of the accommodation bridge number 605. If correct then there should be an 11 coach length on the level with the new platform extending through to the Exeter Road overbridge (number 606). This would also enable there to be a pedestrian link up to the Exeter road and for passengers to connect with any buses passing this point.

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Viewed from the Belstone direction on Dartmoor, the eastward growth of Okehampton along the Exeter Road can be clearly seen. From left to right the railway is running out of sight in cutting between Okehampton station and the potential Okehampton Parkway on Exeter Road, but marked but by the long line of trees. The top of bridge 606 is just visible on the right where the B3260 (old A30) crosses the line. On the north side of the road bridge there is a parallel pedestrian bridge, just visible in the picture, as it is painted bright blue. To the left (west towards the town centre) can be seen the buildings of the Exeter Road industrial estate, followed by the first houses. Railfuture is suggesting that there should be pedestrian access to the new station platform and bus stops in the vicinity of Bridge 606.

The new station platform would be on a curve of about 600 m radius (30 chains), but this is unavoidable. The curvature increases the stepping distance between platform and train and would need special permission to be built. However, there are numerous examples of existing stations with this curvature or even tighter including Bere Alston (further on to Plymouth), Saltash and St. Germans in Cornwall.

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Suggested site for Okehampton Parkway station platform. The left hand picture is a view north from the pedestrian bridge alongside the old A30 bridge 606. Here there could be a path down to the platform. The platform would then continue under the accommodation bridge number 605 from which the right hand picture is taken. At this point the line is still thought to be level where it is alongside the stagnant water (right/east side of track). From here the line drops at 1 in 88 towards Sampford Courtenay and so the station platform should not be located any further north than here. Bridge 605 might itself be used for access between the station platform and parking on the east side of the railway.

Bus/Rail Links from Okehampton main station – proposals and discussion

In the longer term it is suggested that the disused connecting railway from Okehampton to Launceston (North Cornwall) is reopened and most probably via Halwill. However, in the meantime bus services should be improved, as todays planned frequency is just 4 per day eachway on Stagecoach service 6A from Exeter to Launceston via Okehampton. For Okehampton to Launceston this is far less than in the past. Just over two decades ago there were 9 services to Launceston and 10 back and made up of DevonBus 186, Western National X10, Tilleys 227 and National Express 505.

A dedicated Rail Link bus, co-ordinated and operated as if part of the railway network, should be run between Okehampton main station and Launceston. Some bus services to be non-stop and others via the former A30 to serve Bridestowe, Lewdown and Lifton.

The following Okehampton station links map shows a possible route inbound via Okehampton town centre and then outbound direct onto the westbound A30. From Okehampton station the bus route would use a new road created alongside the railway to Tors Road, turn left and cross the railway on Bridge 610, then cross the A30 Okehampton bypass. Buses would then turn right from Tors Road on to the westbound A30 using an upgraded emergency access road, which was indirectly created when the new A30 road cut through a former lane and a deviation had to be made.

Okehampton Station Links Sketch Map showing simplified 2020 bus services and suggested additions where the coloured line has a centre dash.
The map shows the main bus routes, although simplified for clarity, that might be developed as links to the Okehampton railway service.


Bus/Rail Connections from Okehampton East Parkway (Exeter Road) – developed from existing services

Those buses timetabled for 2020, which pass the railway at bridge 606 on Mondays to Saturdays, are summarised in the table below. In addition there are some once weekly services that would also pass Okehampton East Parkway station –

670 Thursdays only return service starts at Cheriton Bishop and runs to Okehampton via Spreyton, Whiddon Down, Throwleigh, Sticklepath and Belstone.

671 Wednesdays only return service starts at Newton Abbot and runs to Okehampton via Bovey Tracey, North Bovey, Moretonhampstead, Chagford, Whiddon Down and Sticklepath.

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The table shows the number of buses timetabled in 2020 to pass bridge 606 near the suggested pedestrian entrance to Okehampton East Parkway station (column 2 and 5). Bus service numbers in column 4 and 6

A further possibility would be to modify service 75A/B which runs from Bideford/Barnstaple to Okehampton via Hatherleigh. After serving Moyses Meadow as at present, it would run east to Okehampton East Parkway. If service 5A (Exeter to Okehampton via Hatherleigh) was similarly extended, there would then be 13 bus/rail connections between Okehampton East Parkway station and Hatherleigh (based on existing 2020 timetables). Combined with the other buses already running this would give 24 buses per day from the parkway station to Okehampton town centre.

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Service 75B from Barnstaple is seen in Market Street, Okehampton (September 2020). This service is one that could be extended east to connect with trains at the proposed Okehampton East Parkway station. Connecting at the Parkway station, rather than the main station, would avoid too many buses running via the residential Station Road in Okehampton. It would also better connect the new growth areas around the Parkway station with Okehampton town centre.




(This page to be continued.)


See also:
The case for Okehampton, 2014

Rural reconnections: the social benefits of rail reopening - Greengauge 21 study for Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2015.

Re-opening Tavistock-Okehampton: why, when and how March 2019

The case for Okehampton reopening November 2019.







Rail User Express Rail Action