Do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?

Destruction of an 80-metre section of sea wall at Dawlish has reopened the debate about the merits of finding an alternative rail route into Devon and Cornwall. The obvious alternative is the ‘Withered Arm’ via Okehampton.

Bft38VlIcAALrtrThe sea wall breach at Dawlish did not just leave Network Rail’s tracks hanging, it also swept away a road and came close to damaging houses. Picture: @SuptArmes

My former RAIL Magazine colleague Andy Roden is spearheading a campaign to reopen the Withered Arm, which is the old London and South Western Railway route that runs inland around Dartmoor. Both ends of the route exist as branches (Plymouth-Bere Ferrers/Gunnislake and Exeter-Crediton-Okehampton/Barnstaple). However, there’s a 20-mile missing section between Meldon and Bere Ferrers.

The route was a victim of the 1960’s Beeching closures but there’s already a well-developed plan to reopen five miles of the western section to restore Tavistock to the rail network. That leaves 15 miles from Tavistock to Meldon Quarry. From Meldon eastwards through Okehampton the line is privately owned by the Dartmoor Railway. It switches back to Network Rail ownership at the former Coleford Junction.

In total, the ‘Withered Arm’ distance between Cowley Bridge Junction (Exeter) and St Budeaux Junction (Plymouth) is 54 miles. This compares with 57 miles via Dawlish but the ‘Arm’ has very low line speeds, 30mph, compared with the Dawlish route’s 60mph. (Speeds do vary and Pacers can run faster than 30mph on the ‘Arm’.)

Aside from the engineering needed to reopen the Withered Arm, planners must also consider the route’s likely traffic. Currently the eastern branch has 14 trains per day (Exeter-Barnstaple) and the eastern line has nine (Plymouth-Gunnislake). Tavistock is clearly worth serving and Okehampton could provide traffic despite it already having a dual-carriageway link to Exeter. But the case for reopening will be far stronger if the line can support itself on its own merits and not simply as a diversionary route should trouble revisit Dawlish.

Campaigners will need to be careful that the debate does not move to become ‘either/or’ for there are many more communities along the main route through Dawlish. There’s Teignmouth, Newton Abbot, Torbay, Totnes and Ivybridge to be considered. It’s clear that if these communities are to continue to be properly served, then the line through Dawlish must remain and must be repaired. If it’s to be repaired, and surely strengthened to counter severe storms, then do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.