Tag Archives: Devon

It’s not just the infrastructure, stupid!

Making better use of what transport services we have already will provide quicker and cheaper solutions.

Down here in Devon discussions about transport invariably end up talking about improving the resilience of transport infrastructure on the peninsula. Whether it’s dualling the A303 to provide an alternative to the M4/M5 or building another railway between Plymouth and Exeter, there is a real head of diesel fuel behind the campaign to give Cornwall and Devon better physical transport connections to the rest of the country.

The collapsed railway on the Dawlish sea-front in February 2014 has become the icon for what’s wrong with the peninsula’s rail services. The fact that Cross-Country Voyager trains still regularly break down on the sea-front because the waves chuck seawater into their diesel engines is presented as another reason for “doing something about Dawlish”. Commentators generally ignored the quicker and cheaper solution of replacing those trains with ones that can withstand a bit of sea water, such as Great Western Railway’s ageing 125s.

Every so often, a body called the Peninsula Rail Task Force pops up with yet another report aimed at persuading central government to find a lot of money to provide a new railway line across Devon. This body, which is made up of local authorities and the two Local Enterprise Partnerships (aka the Plymouth business lobby), focusses almost entirely on improving resilience through capital expenditure. Leading local politicians and MPs read from the same song book, though since all but one of the MPs are Tories their demands for more public spending are inevitably unconvincing.

So we have a campaigning mindset focussed on infrastructure. That’s not wrong but it’s not the whole story. The problems with our transport network extend well beyond the this. One of the greatest disincentives to using public transport is the lack of good local connections between rail services to or from the rest of the country and those communities without a railway station.

Much of the problem is due to the lack of evening bus services. Someone living in the South Devon town of Kingsbridge who needs to do a day’s work in London will get the first bus to Totnes station, wait over an hour and then a train to Paddington arriving at 11.24am. Several meetings later, the same person just manages to catch the 5.03pm from Paddington arriving at Totnes at 7.55pm. Sadly, the last bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge left at 7.05pm. The well-off will have no problem summoning a taxi, but not everyone is well-off. So our traveller drives from Kingsbridge to Totnes and back again, because there is no public transport option at the end of the day.

These examples are replicated all over the Westcountry, and beyond. What they show is, despite the endless rhetoric of politicians about “integrated” transport, nothing changes. There was a publicly-funded Commission on Integrated Transport which lasted from 1998 until its abolition in 2010, presumably on the grounds that it hadn’t actually integrated anything. When I mentioned the importance of better connections at a meeting where train and bus operators were present, their representatives looked at the ceiling and shook their heads.

In our system of public transport which depends on private sector operators, the needs of passengers regularly come second to the needs of the companies’ owners to make a profit. So if it’s not profitable to run a bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge in the late evening, and Devon County Council has insufficient money to subsidise one, it won’t run.

Is there a solution?   There is, and the government already has the statutory powers to achieve it.

The Railways Act 1993, which privatised the railway network, contains the relevant powers.  They just haven’t been used to their full potential.

The key point is that the Secretary of State for Transport is under a general duty “to contribute to the development of an integrated system of transport of passengers and goods” (section 4 of the Act). So far so good, but general duties need to be put into practice. Again, the Act provides the power and the rail franchising system provides the mechanism.

Almost all rail passenger services in the Westcountry are provided by Great Western Railway (GWR) under a franchise agreement. This is a legal contract between the government and the company. The revised GWR franchise agreement runs to 581 pages, plus three more substantial documents about levels of services to be provided. There are only two references to bus services in the entire franchise agreement, both relating to the conditions in which bus services may be substituted for rail. Nothing in the agreement compels GWR to coordinate its services with buses.

However the Act empowers the Secretary of State to set conditions in a franchise agreement (section 29(5)) which give effect to the general duty to develop an integrated system and, specifically, which may require the franchisee as a condition of its operating licence to enter into an agreement with other bodies to achieve the requirement to achieve integration (section 9).

So it’s all there. What is now needed is the will to make it happen. As we saw above, part of the integration problem is that the bus operators will not run late evening services on some routes. Using the franchising system places the duty to secure integration on the rail operator rather than the bus company. This is inevitable because bus services are not regulated in the same way railways are.

Before the train operating companies dismiss the idea out of hand, they might reflect on their ownership. GWR is part of First Group which runs bus services in most of Somerset, much of Cornwall, and the Plymouth, Tavistock and South Devon area. Stagecoach buses – part of Stagecoach Group which runs the London–Salisbury–Exeter rail franchise as South West Trains – cover the rest of Devon. Instead of running their bus and rail divisions as if they were on separate planets, they should look for beneficial business opportunities arising from a more integrated approach.

More challenging is engaging the other Westcountry bus operators which are not owned by train and bus conglomerates. They may see market opportunities in providing services to connect with trains, and then publicising them – something the bus industry as a whole is lamentably poor at. The train operating companies make good profits from their rail businesses. Putting a little back into supporting connecting bus services could improve their public image as well as encouraging people to make better use of their own services.

Yet at the end of the day the experience of voluntary integration in this country outside the metropolitan areas has been poor. Big companies like First Group and Stagecoach are, at bottom, about making profits for their shareholders and will not provide commercially unviable services. Local authority funding for subsidising such services has been severely cut. Central government has the tools to put this right, and should be prepared to do so.






Reopening Devon’s second main railway line: impacts in pictures

Burn Valley and Brent TorThis is the valley of the River Burn between North Brentor and Mary Tavy in west Devon. The Campaign to Protect Rural England wants to build a main line railway through it.

My blog The wrong kind of evidence on the line challenged the CPRE’s claim that its recent report made a case for reopening the dismantled railway line between the Devon towns of Okehampton and Tavistock. The trackbed runs along the north and west edges of Dartmoor. The scheme would form part of a larger project, supported by the Plymouth business lobby, for a second main line between Plymouth and Exeter. Further background in my other blog – please read it.

This new blog attempts to show pictorially the changes and damage that rebuilding the dismantled line would cause. It’s worth remembering that the line would need to be rebuilt to modern engineering and safety standards: it wouldn’t be a case of just chopping away some trees and bushes and then laying the track.

Click on the pictures for a bigger view!

Impact on cyclists and walkers

The stretch of trackbed between Okehampton and Lydford forms part of national cycle route 27, as well as a generally flat path for walkers.

Sourton Down cycleway

Trackbed as cycleway at Sourton Down

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton end

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton end

Though some parts of the path have trees and bushes on either side (which form a useful windbreak), there are stunning views too.

Looking north-east from Meldon Viaduct

Looking north-east from Meldon Viaduct

The Tavistock viaduct is a very attractive footpath with fine views of the town. It seems unlikely there would be room for pedestrians and cyclists if the railway were put back in place.

View from Tavistock viaduct

View from Tavistock viaduct

Rail safety regulations would specify a minimum distance, as well as barriers, between the railway line and a cycle path or footpath, so not only would peace and quiet go out of the window but also the landtake would be significant.

Impact on homes and farms

Most, perhaps all, of the old trackbed south of Lydford is in private ownership. Some is now in farm use, and elsewhere stations buildlings have been converted into private homes with the trackbed itself forming part of the garden.

Brentor stn view twds Tav

Brentor station is now a private house and garden

At Tavistock, offices and private houses surround the old North station and block the viaduct.

Housing at Tavistock North station

Housing at Tavistock North station

House at east end of Tavistock viaduct

House at east end of Tavistock viaduct

Impact on structures

Meldon Viaduct is a structure of historic interest. Whether it could be strengthened to take trains again seems doubtful since Network Rail have in the past said a new structure would be needed if the line were to reopen.

Meldon Viaduct

Meldon Viaduct

Elsewhere, stone overbridges have disappeared and would have to be replaced. Network Rail bridge architecture is not renowned for its sensitivity to the natural environment.

Missing bridge over a road at Prewley Moor

Missing bridge over a road at Prewley Moor

 Impact on wildlife

I’m no wildlife expert but it’s reasonable to assume that those parts of the trackbed now covered in vegetation are home to all manner of beesties.

Trackbed at North Brentor bridge

Trackbed at North Brentor bridge

Impact on landscape and tranquillity

Although the rumble of the A30 traffic is audible around Meldon, the area around Brentor and Mary Tavy is silent save for the occasional bleating of sheep. It is unspoilt and nature has reabsorbed the dismantled railway back into the landscape.

Mary Tavy

Mary Tavy

As a lobbying group, the CPRE ought to take seriously the government’s stated policy that the natural environment can be valued as part of any investment appraisal process. Sadly, there’s no evidence that this figures in CPRE’s current thinking about reopening rural railways.

The wrong kind of evidence on the line

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 [1] 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.” [2]

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.” [3]

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 [4].

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.


[1] 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

[2] http://www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/latest-news-releases/item/3987-persuasive-case-for-un-beeching-south-west-railway-has-national-implications

[3] 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

[4] 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.

Local austerity – how the environment and the people lose out

Like other local authorities across England, Devon County Council is having to make cuts to services in the name of the god Austerity. The Council’s Tough Choices consultation invites the public to comment on where the cuts should fall. Does it really?

One consultation in progress is the public transport budget, where Devon says it needs to make savings of £1.76m out of a budget of £5.77m, or nearly one-third of the total [1]. To achieve this, bus services across the county will be reduced, following a withdrawal of subsidies to the bus operators. Councillors decided to go out to consultation on the proposal, even though they recognised the environmental and social downsides set out in the officer report [2]. These are:

  • reducing the scope of bus services as an alternative mode of travel to the car
  • a consequent likely increase in traffic
  • increased vehicle emissions
  • increased greenhouse gas and other emissions
  • reduced public transport network resilient to future effects of climate change
  • reduced sustainability of communities served by council funded bus routes that will have a reduced level of service in the future
  • reducing the ability of people without a car to travel to work
  • a negative impact on knowledge and skills, employment levels, and local businesses

It gives more than pause for thought that any public body is prepared to implement policies with these results.

Meanwhile, the Devon highways budget is also under scrutiny. The budget for maintenance alone is currently a hefty £63.8m [3]. The saving the County Council intends to make here is £3.4m, or 5%. The goal is to “find different, more cost-effective ways of doing things and that non-essential work is stopped so that we can maintain a safe and effective highway network while helping to support economic growth”[4]. The proposed reductions put forward for consultation, and which look likely to be implemented are:

  1. Reduction of gritting and snow-clearing flee
  2. Change of criteria for gritting and snow-clearing routes
  3. Stop maintaining grit bins
  4. Closure of picnic sites
  5. Stopping grass cutting (except for visibility areas)
  6. Stopping weed treatment
  7. Remodelling of the parish lengthsmen service
  8. Reduction in Neighbourhood Highway Team staffing

The impact assessment of these cuts acknowledges they are expected to make life worse for some people, particularly in rural areas [5]. However they do not have the long-term environmental impacts envisaged for the public transport cuts.

The extent of Devon County Council’s commitment to social and environmental improvement is revealed in other savings measures. A cheap cut is the proposed £0.1m saving from reducing school crossing patrols, which will lead to increased car use as parents drive their children to school and, in the words of the officer report, “Increases in motorised travel will have the double effect of reducing daily activity levels and increasing collision risks for those children who continue to travel on foot.” [6].   UPDATE 14 February:  Devon County Council’s Cabinet decided yesterday not to proceed with the school crossing patrol savings.

Apart from the social and environmental vandalism, what is striking about all these measures is that they are easy to implement.  By contrast, the main highways budget is spent through a long-running contract with a private company, South West Highways, recently extended to 2017.  As is so often the case, the relationship between the commissioner and the contractor gets very close. In this case, the Council and SWH have set up a “Virtual Joint Venture” [7].  Council and SWH staff are co-located at County Hall and in the local delivery units, which gives SWH easy access to the driving seat. Under the current contract, SWH receives a fee of 2% of turnover.

Dismantling any of this would be considerably more difficult than cutting a subsidy or sacking a few lollipop ladies. And of course reducing highways spending in a roads-dependent county like Devon would have the economic growth lobby up in arms. So should we be surprised that the axe is falling on the easy targets rather than on the substantial contracted highways budget, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences?

It’s unlikely that Devon County Council is the only local authority making the same judgement calls.  But that doesn’t mean they are good ones.  The real villain, of course, is Austerity.


[1] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_sc152.html

[2] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_document.htm?cmadoc=minutes_exc_20150114.html, minute 280

[3] https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/maintaining-roads/

[4] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/background/background-information

[5] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/files/2014/10/Highways-budget-impact-assessment-2015-to-16.pdf

[6] http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_pte152.html

[7] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_hcw141.html