The premier rail route to the South West has always been the Great Western main line, the first to open and the best-known.
It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who visualised his line from London to Bristol should be extended to New York by means of steamships, the first of which was Great Western (1838), followed by the celebrated Great Britain (1845).
Beyond Bristol, a series of railway companies, either sponsored or taken over by the Great Western Railway, extended the line through Devon and Cornwall via Exeter (1844) and Plymouth (1849) to Penzance (1852).
Brunel chose to direct this route across difficult, spectacular country along the south coast: that was the reason for his failed atmospheric experiment, his magnificent Royal Albert Bridge (1859) and his long-vanished timber viaducts.
The early rail route from London to Southampton grew into the London & South Western Railway, which reached Exeter in 1860 via a southerly route through Andover, Salisbury and Yeovil.
The only way the L&SWR could penetrate into Devon and Cornwall was by taking the opposite route to the GWR, round the northern fringes of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock, reaching Plymouth in 1876.
This line was severed in 1968, and regular services from Plymouth now run only to Bere Alston (for Gunnislake) and, from November 20th 2021, from Exeter to Okehampton, via Coleford Junction, where the Tarka Line branches off to Barnstaple..
Okehampton Station has been maintained by the Dartmoor Railway, a volunteer-led group. Track remains along the former L&SWR main line to a quarry three miles beyond Okehampton which closed in 2011, the Dartmoor Railway continued to run trains as Meldon Viaduct until 2019. A new organisation, the Dartmoor Railway Association (DRA) was formed in May 2021 to preserve the railway heritage of the line.
Increasing concern about the sustainability of the Great Western main line through Dawlish, particularly after a washout in 2014 which halted services completely for three months, has led to suggestions that the L&SWR line through Okehampton should be reinstated to Plymouth as an alternative route.
The plan to reinstate the line from Bere Alston to a new station at Tavistock West is at least a step in implementing this proposal.
Network Rail’s consideration of the options to safeguard the rail route into Devon and Cornwall can be found at https://www.networkrail.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/West-of-Exeter-Route-Resilience-Study.pdf.
The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.