25 years of the Tarka Line

Article for the North Devon Journal – written by Richard Burningham, Manager of the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, October 2014

Twenty five years ago this month, in October 1989, the Tarka Line was officially launched.

Coming up with the name was one of the early actions of the Exeter – Barnstaple Line Working Party, founded by British Rail and Devon County Council as part of an initiative to develop and promote the line at what was a tricky time.

Tiverton Parkway station had opened three years earlier and with the newly opened North Devon Link Road, there was a real concern that the line would lose a lot of its passengers and could even be closed.

Under the Tarka Line banner, we have come a long way since then. The partnership between British Rail and the County Council expanded to take in other rural lines in the two counties, with Cornwall Council, Plymouth City Council and Plymouth University joining too. This is the small, non-profit body I have run since 1998, the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership.

The Working Party still meets too. It’s now called the Tarka Line Forum and also includes representatives of the Tarka Rail Association, North Devon Council and Barnstaple Town Council amongst others.

Our focus right through has been to promote use of the line, work for improvements to services and facilities, boost the local economy of the places served through their rail link and work to link the community and railway as best possible.

The County Council, the TRA and we have looked for every opportunity to make progress, aided by the rail industry and particularly, in recent years, by First Great Western. The County Council has provided significant financial support.

In years past, both the Strategic Rail Authority’s Rail Passenger Partnership Fund and the Countryside Agency’s Rural Transport Partnership funding have made a significant difference on the Tarka Line, adding trains to the timetable and helping market the line and the places it serves.

In 2004, the Government launched its Community Rail Strategy which has led to a new focus on rural lines, particularly by the rail industry, some additional funding and a further impetus. The Strategy was adopted by the new Government in 2010 and continues to this day.

Over the years, the Tarka Line timetable has been expanded so that the line now has its best ever service (more trains than when steam trains went to Waterloo) and this, the marketing and attractive fares introduced by First Great Western in 2006, have led to the line being busier than ever before – with a shade under 600,000 journeys made on the line last year, up from just over 225,000 ten years before, in 2003. No-one, but no-one talks of closure, or cuts, now and that’s a very good thing.

Another great sign, in the last two years, Network Rail have carried out the biggest investment in the line itself in probably 100 years. Many miles of track have been renewed.

So, job done, you might think? Not at all (as readers of the Journal’s Letters’ pages will know).

The line can be much further improved and talks are taking place between the rail industry, the County Council, the TRA and ourselves on the way forward. We maintain good links with John Gulliver and the NDPTU and their views are fully considered too.

Here’s what are we looking for –
1) More coaches on particularly busy trains
2) A full hourly service through the day
3) More trains on Sundays
4) Faster journey times between Barnstaple and Exeter (trains taking regularly less than 60 minutes), while maintaining a good service at key intermediate stations such as Umberleigh
5) Better quality rolling stock, more suited to the fact that 7 out of 10 Tarka Line passengers are travelling the whole length of the line.

All of this is within our collective grasp, thanks to the huge success of the Tarka Line over these years.

Realistically, we are probably looking at three more years (late 2017) before the big leap forward can be achieved, but as much that can be done to advance things before then, will be.

The key to this is replacing diesel trains with electric ones between Paddington, Reading, Oxford and Newbury. These diesel trains will move west, releasing others for Devon and Cornwall.

The aspiration is that the Tarka Line’s trains will then be higher spec 90MPH Class 158 express trains, currently working between Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton and Portsmouth.

That’s what we are all working for.

By the time we celebrate thirty years of the Tarka Line, I am confident that most, if not all of the things I have listed will be happening and that more local people still will be taking the train.