Railway Consultation

Devon County Council are running a consultation today about proposals for a new branch-line railway connecting Tavistock to Plymouth.  There’s a whole lot more to it than that: it’s tied up with a proposal to build the biggest development of all of new houses which, coming on top of what’s recently been built will see Tavistock’s population rise by 40-50% since the 2001 census.  There are linked proposals for a new cycle route, though that won’t go anywhere very useful and will only really serve any purpose if it persuades more parents to let their kiddies cycle to school.

Anyway, the main topic is the new railway, to be built from Tavistock to Bere Alston where it joins the existing Tamar Valley line.  That scenic line serves areas which are quite cut-off by road due to local geography, a consideration that doesn’t apply to Tavistock where we have a decent road, an excellent bus service to Plymouth, and a selection of buses to other destinations.  Much of this line will follow a section of the old route that was closed in 1968.

I’ve now sent them a detailed response, which for posterity I’ll reproduce here.  I may add footnotes for blog readers who don’t have the local knowledge assumed in my response.

Q2: Proposed Railway Tavistock – Bere Alston – Plymouth:

It is difficult to answer the question as posed, because there is insufficient context. Specifically, what consequences flow from acceptance or rejection of the line. Two questions in particular need to be addressed:

  1. Is it likely that rejection of the railway would imply major road projects, such as widening the A386? If it were a choice between spending similar money on either the one or the other (with no option not to spend it) then I would definitely favour the railway.
  2. Might the railway be extended to provide a through route to Okehampton and Exeter[1]? If so this becomes a project for the entire region, and potentially a long-term national-scale solution to the problems of the existing line where the coastal stretch around Dawlish/Teignmouth[2] is surely not going to be maintainable. I would strongly support that project.

Answering the question in isolation and without the above context:

Firstly, I would use the rail service myself. I would find it particularly useful to be able to use a through ticket when travelling to destinations outside the local area. However, this is a very marginal utility, and could be served in other ways (of which more below).

However, the proposal as it stands is surely a White Elephant. We have an excellent bus service serving many popular destinations in Plymouth that will not be touched by the proposed rail service[3]. It seems inconceivable that a single-track railway will compete with a bus service that runs up to four times an hour, and can get me home after an evening in Plymouth[4].

Congestion on the A386 may be a problem, but that begs the question: if motorists aren’t using the buses now, what are the chances they’ll use a train in future? They are making the choice to sit in traffic jams when an alternative already exists!

It is true the bus service has shortcomings:

  1. The buses have hard seats and are less than comfortable, especially when crowded.
  2. At peak times, the buses can get overcrowded in the Plymouth sections of the route, specifically between Roborough and the city centre. This is not a problem on the out-of-town (Tavistock-Roborough) stretch.
  3. Many of the buses, including frustratingly all evening services, take tortuously long routes “round the houses” into Plymouth. The diversion at Roborough hardly ever picks up or sets down passengers, and the diversion to Marjons and Derriford would surely be quicker to walk from the Tavistock Road for any able-bodied person. Does the hospital really run evening appointments for those patients for whom a short walk would be a problem?
  4. Buses cannot be used as part of integrated transport:
    1. There are no “through” tickets to combine bus travel with trains, city buses or other public transport.
    2. It is not possible to carry a bicycle on the buses. I have even been refused a folding bike that fits very comfortably alongside other things on the luggage rack and is always welcome on trains.

A new railway could address all of these problems. But so could an express bus (or coach) service with fewer stops, particularly in-town in Plymouth. Together with joined-up thinking on the subjects of through tickets, and carriage of bikes (at least folding ones – and drivers need to be aware of such a policy). It would surely make sense at least to trial such a service before spending substantial money on the proposed railway!

[1] This through route existed before 1968.  I’m told that Dr Beeching even recommended keeping it open as the main route between Exeter and Plymouth, but was overruled.
[2] This coastal stretch runs under a crumbling cliff that from time to time loses a chunk (as in this story – the railway is visible in the second and third pictures), and is so exposed to the sea that in high tide and rough weather the waves wash up right over the roof of a train.
[3] The train route will be ideal for commuting to the naval dockyards and for central Plymouth, but that’s about all.  The bus, by contrast, serves a number of Plymouth’s most important modern employment hubs.
[4] Timetable is here.

Posted on January 30, 2013, in devon, railways, tavistock, transport. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A good analysis.

    I concur in particular with your point [3]. Plymouth City Centre and Dockyard employment is declining (with the possible exception of the University and FE College which are conveniently located for the railway stations). Most new employment growth is on the periphery of Plymouth which is not served by rail and which would be best accessed by a good, fast bus service.

    Unless it is part of a larger project with higher frequencies, good connections and at least the prospect of a northern link to Okehampton and Exeter in future, the rail proposal is severely compromised, may limit or even jeopardise the existing services to Calstock and Gunnislake (which have growing rail passenger numbers and suffer from poorer road links to Plymouth), and is unlikely to make a significant dent on road traffic into Plymouth. Line capacity and operating cost constraints are also likely to mean no useful evening services (a problem for existing Tamar Valley Line users too).

    The cynic would say the rail proposal is little more than a sweetener from property developers eager to get consent to build 750 new houses on greenfield land on the edge of town. The wider impacts of this proposed housing development are of far more significance to the local population, but are being sidelined in favour of the rail “opportunity”.

    Finally, I would suggest that Devon County Council’s thinking is muddled between the need for a commuter rail service and the desire for a leisure cycle path along the route. It would be possible to accommodate both provided the railway line is limited to single track (the former alignment was double track) but there would be significant regulatory and safety issues with having an operational railway and cycle track in close proximity for several miles. Engineering logic would suggest that the single track line should be laid centrally along the trackbed to make the most of structure clearances and to spread the axle loading laterally across the line’s ageing bridges and viaducts. The adjacent cycle path would require the track to be laid to one side instead – possible, but limiting for the railway engineers.

    My guess is that we’ll see the cycle path in a few years’ time, but probably not the railway. A pity, as with proper ambition and investment, a revived rail service on the Plymouth-Tavistock-Okehampton-Exeter route would provide many local and regional benefits.

  2. They’ve now published a followup to this exercise in a “Consultation Outcomes Report“.

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