Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has just at 12.05pm today dispatched the first passenger train from Okehampton to run on the revamped Dartmoor Line, as the route once again becomes part of the regular UK rail network for passengers after 50 years as a freight only line with occasional heritage and Sunday Rover services.

This has been made possible thanks to over £40 million of Government investment through the Restoring Your Railway programme. The line links Okehampton to Exeter via Crediton and will officially reopen to the public for regular year-round, all-week passenger services on Saturday (November 20).

However, the first train left at 12.05pm today (Wednesday), travelling from Okehampton, carrying local school children, campaigners, railway staff, and supporters who all helped make the project happen. TV presenter Tim Dunn, whose programmes include The Architecture That Made The Railways and Secrets of the London Underground, was there making live video footage and reporting for GWR's Facebook page and members of the national press were also present.

The Department for Transport, Network Rail and Great Western Railway (GWR) have worked together to reopen this line ahead of time and under budget. Benefiting from the application of Rail Project SPEED approaches, the Dartmoor Line has been transformed from a mothballed former freight railway with occasional Summer Sunday services to a full seven days per week passenger operation in a mere nine months since confirmation of funding, coming in more than £10m under budget.

A service will initially run every two hours, with plans to expand to an hourly service in 2022. This will benefit students heading to colleges in Exeter as well as tourists travelling towards Dartmoor, easing congestion on local roads and helping boost local economies.

Okehampton teenager Tom Watts - a former Okehampton College student now attending Exeter College - has won a competition run by rail operator GWR to design a new logo for the line, with his impressive design showing a silhouetted figure (actually Tom himself) against the backdrop of one of the Dartmoor tors.

The line was originally opened to Okehampton by the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) 150 years ago in 1871, and subsequently became part of the LSWR and later Southern Railway mainline from Exeter to Plymouth via Tavistock and Bere Alston, with long branch lines to Bude and Padstow via Halwill Junction, Launceston and Camelford. The former SR network west of Okehampton and Meldon was closed in the 1960s and British Rail ended the Okehampton to Exeter passenger service in 1972, but the track remained in place to transport stone from Meldon Quarry which was a good source of railway ballast.

Since 1997, under private ownership, passenger trains to Exeter only ran during some Sundays in summer as part of the Devon County Council subsidised Dartmoor Rover scheme connecting with local buses, although the company Dartmoor Railway also ran more regular heritage shuttle trains from Okehampton to Meldon, and occasional dining and Polar Express trains over longer parts of the line, until its parent company went into administration prior to the COVID pandemic. The line was then bought by Network Rail and the incredible renaissance of the route began as part of the Government’s ‘Reversing Beeching’ strategy.

The Restoring Your Railway fund was launched in January 2020 to reinstate axed local services and restore closed stations, many of which were cut following Dr Beeching’s report on ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ in 1963. The fund is focused on delivering schemes that can ‘level up’ the country, reconnect cut-off communities, improve access to jobs, homes and education and boost opportunity across the country.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Improving transport links is essential to levelling up and spreading opportunity across the country, which is why we are driving forward our pledge to reverse the Beeching cuts in Devon today.

“As we reopen the Dartmoor line, we are rightly reconnecting communities, giving passengers the chance to choose rail over the road and travel from Exeter to Okehampton on greener, cleaner modes of transport.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “By restoring the Dartmoor Line we are undoing 50 years of damage, reconnecting a community and creating new opportunities for jobs, tourism, education and recreation.

“We have made it our mission to reverse cuts made in the Beeching era of the 1960s. The passion, nostalgia and enthusiasm for that ambition is clear right across the country.

“People love their railways, and rightly miss them when they’re gone. Today – ahead of time, and under budget – we’ve made a decisive step in fixing that, cutting the ribbon on a line and making a real difference to people’s lives.”

The Department and its partners have accelerated the reopening of the Dartmoor Line, delivering passenger services in only nine months from the original funding being approved to entry into service, and saving money at the same time. As the Government continues its overhaul of the railways following the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, it says more lines and stations will be reopened.

To make the Okehampton line restoration possible, Network Rail’s team of engineers worked tirelessly to deliver a huge programme of work, including laying 11 miles of new track and installing 24,000 concrete sleepers and 29,000 tonnes of ballast in a record-breaking 20-day period.

Repairs have also been made to 21 structures along the route, including four bridges. Other infrastructure work has included level crossing improvements and the installation of railway communications equipment. Vegetation clearance, earth and drainage works and fencing have also been completed and further infrastructure work will continue to take place to increase the line speed to enable an hourly service in 2022.

Michelle Handforth, Network Rail’s Wales & Western regional managing director, said: “Today marks a significant milestone for the railway and the local community and I am delighted to have been able to welcome the Secretary of State to Okehampton to mark this special occasion.

“I am so proud of our engineers whose hard work and dedication has resulted in this line reopening ahead of schedule and today enable the Secretary of State, campaigners and supporters of the Dartmoor Line to enjoy a first passenger journey.

“I would like to thank the local community, our partners and everyone who has supported us in reopening this railway line and I am excited to think that this Saturday, regular passenger services will resume for the first time in nearly 50 years.”

Great Western Railway has identified suitable rolling stock for the line and developed a robust timetable with franchise funding ahead of funding being agreed for the infrastructure elements of the project. The project has also hugely benefited from strong local support spearheaded by Devon County Council, without which it would have taken far longer to reach the point where regular year-round services can be restored after almost 50 years.

Great Western Railway, Dartline Coaches and Devon County Council have also made sure that local transport is all coordinated, ensuring easy bus and train connections to the rest of Britain are easily accessible from the Dartmoor Line. From Saturday (November 20) buses on the 118 route from Tavistock, Mary Tavy and Lydford will be timed to run to Okehampton railway station to connect with the new train service, and there will be other bus route enhancements too.

More work will be carried out on the Dartmoor Line over the winter, including on the station buildings to enable the restoration of the café at Okehampton and other facilities.

Mark Hopwood, GWR Managing Director, said: “This has been a key aspiration for the community and the rail industry for some time and today is a significant day for everyone who has been involved. I am delighted to have been able to invite the Secretary of State, and leading community campaigners, to enjoy a first passenger journey on this restored line.

“The support and advocacy of the local campaigners over the years has helped deliver a fantastic new service for customers, which we hope will grow from strength to strength.”