The Campaign to Protect Rural England – CPRE – used to pride itself on evidence-based (or at least evidence-backed) lobbying. The publication last month of a report on the rebuilding and reopening of the old railway route across Devon between Okehampton and Tavistock  raises questions as to whether spin has now got the upper hand at CPRE HQ.
For those unfamiliar with Devon and its railways, the key facts are these. Before the Beeching closures in the 1960s there were two main line routes between Exeter and Plymouth: one south of Dartmoor via Dawlish and Totnes, and one to the north of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock. Following Beeching the latter line was closed to passenger traffic and the track between Meldon Quarry (just west of Okehampton) and Bere Alston (south of Tavistock) removed. Within this 15-mile “gap”, much of the trackbed is now part of the national cycling network and the rest in private hands. Following the two-month long closure of the remaining main line when the sea wall at Dawlish was breached in the winter of 2014, there has been considerable debate about the value of reopening the line via Okehampton.
Now back to CPRE.
In his foreword to the report CPRE’s Chief Executive states: “this report makes a compelling case as to the economic, social and environmental benefits of restoring sections of rail lines that were axed in the 1960s, turning them from dead ends into through routes again.”
The CPRE press release is similarly bullish: “a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has today found that the case for reopening rural railways in England is becoming irresistible.” 
Having long argued for a Plymouth-Exeter route that avoided the Dawlish sea wall, the local business lobby lapped this up. The head of the Local Enterprise Partnership was quoted as saying in relation to the idea of reopening: “Improved connectivity will increase productivity and growth by enabling economic sites across rural areas to be opened up for increased business.” 
Now to be fair to the authors of the report, they are a bit more cautious about what can be claimed. They point out that they are not making an investment case itself, but rather that the findings “offer a basis for developing an updated business case” (p8).
However, the authors state the focus of the report is the “local social and economic impacts” of a new line (p6). The evidence for these “impacts” are drawn from interviews, a literature review (primarily the West Devon Borough Council Local Plan and some business surveys), and a workshop at which “experts….validated the findings” (p6).
Having defined its focus, the report wanders off into unrelated territory. For example, it states that one of the factors to be considered in an investment appraisal is “Meeting the strategic needs of the naval dockyard in Plymouth” (p7). However much one may admire the Royal Navy, this objective is at some distance from CPRE’s own charitable goals.
There are vague and unsubstantiated statements. For example, the Dartmoor National Park Authority is held to appreciate “the obvious benefits that improved connectivity will bring to Dartmoor” without giving an inkling as to what these benefits are (p17)
The section on the local economy and its development (pp19-22) regurgitates a load of information from the Local Plan and the LEP’s Strategic Plan, but doesn’t link any of this to the rail investment case. There is one reference to a separate survey of businesses which found that 53% of the 300-plus businesses questioned reported that poor public transport links were seen as contributing to difficulties in recruiting staff. The CPRE report does not point out that this survey covered two other district council areas in addition to West Devon, nor does it record that only 20% of the businesses in West Devon identified public transport as inhibiting recruitment .
Many statements simply do not support the contention that there are economic and social benefits from reopening. Take four examples.
First, an investment appraisal factor is “The enlargement of the Exeter catchment both in terms of travel to work/education and more widely for day out/shopping” (p7). It’s not clear why encouraging people to spend in Exeter is an economic benefit to the rural areas, nor indeed why anyone is going to travel from Tavistock round the northern edge of Dartmoor to Exeter when Plymouth is bigger and nearer.
Second, the report notes that there are high levels of commuting from West Devon to Plymouth and Exeter, contrary to the Council’s policy aim of residents finding employment within West Devon. So it’s a bit surprising that anyone should be enthusiastic about making it even easier to commute out of West Devon (p16).
Third, presumably as evidence of the need for the rebuilt railway, the report cites a business based in Holsworthy complaining how difficult it is to find transport services to send employees away for training (p18). OK, but Holsworthy is 20 miles from Okehampton and 23 miles from Tavistock.
Fourth, health. The report notes that people needing acute hospital services travel to Plymouth if they’re in the Tavistock area and to Exeter if they’re in the Okehampton area. It also notes that the “main hospital sites are poorly located for future access by train” (p19) so no help there for the investment case.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the report is that it fails to make any coherent case for joining up the gap between Okehampton and Tavistock. The attitudinal survey reports that Okehampton residents are interested in a train service to Exeter (where the track remains in place) but not to Plymouth (p26). There are complaints about the bus service, which could be resolved far more cheaply than rail reopening by local authority subsidy. Similarly, Tavistock residents favoured a rail link to Plymouth, but said nothing about getting to Exeter (p31).
The report is more convincing when it reviews the practicalities involved in rebuilding the line. Not least the challenge of what to do with the Victorian iron-built Meldon Viaduct, now a much loved cycle route and public footpath, and the need to demolish houses in Tavistock that have been constructed on the trackbed (pp37-39). Retaining the amenity of the 6-mile cycle route is also recognised as a challenge, though one suggestion is to reroute it well to the north, thus ruling out any realistic possibility of its use by cycling commuters between Okehampton and Tavistock, a policy that CPRE campaigns for nationally.
What on earth is the CPRE doing promoting all this? The organisation that has demonstrated how tranquillity in the English countryside is being lost now supports a scheme that would lead to noisy diesel trains (we don’t get new trains down here in the southwest) belching fumes into the atmosphere, shoving walkers and cyclists aside, and destroying peoples’ homes. See my related blog for pictures of the impacts. The scheme would also, on the report’s own admission, lead to increased car traffic to the new railhead stations which – particularly at Okehampton – would involve the development of park and ride facilities, necessarily on greenfield.
There may indeed be a case for rebuilding a railway between Tavistock and Okehampton. The CPRE’s report does not make it, and nor do the report’s authors claim that it does. But the spin given to the report, not least the unsubstantiated claim in the CEO’s foreword quoted above, means that a document with an ambivalent evidence base will continue to be held up as a “compelling case” for destroying a much-valued and accessible area of tranquillity in West Devon.
 Rural Reconnections – the social benefits of rail reopening, written by Greengauge 21 for CPRE, June 2015, available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/rail/item/3986-rural-reconnections
 Western Morning News, 17 June 2015, Inland rail link ‘vital’ to unlocking the South West’s potential at http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Inland-rail-link-8216-vital-8217-unlocking-South/story-26707587-detail/story.html
 DR Business Survey: South Hams, Teignbridge and West Devon, March 2015, at http://drcompany.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/DR-Business-Survey-Final-Report-Mar-2015.doc.pdf See the chart on p22.