The Salisbury-Exeter line was a partial Beeching closure. The old express service from Waterloo to Exeter and Plymouth was abandoned and the Salisbury-Exeter section of the line was reduced over most of its length to single track, with the expectation that full closure would follow. However, the local communities fought for the line’s survival and passenger numbers soon started growing again. Templecombe station was re-opened in 1983 by popular demand, followed by an additional passing loop near Tisbury (unfortunately not in the station as the south platform had already been sold). After a long campaign by local councils, an hourly service between Waterloo and Exeter was reinstated in 2009. This was made possible by building a “dynamic loop” at Axminster, at a cost of £20m, of sufficient length that allowed trains to pass with ease, and an additional platform.
The continued growth of rail usage has led to an urgent need to improve services further and SERUG was formed in 2016 to lobby for these improvements.
The increase in house building in all towns along the line (especially in the Yeovil and East Devon areas) will result in further capacity issues and there is little opportunity to increase services without infrastructure improvements. Every station between Salisbury and Exeter has seen substantial passenger growth over the past decade. At peak times, trains are often full and standing all the way from Waterloo to Yeovil (a journey of well over 2 hours). The average speed of even the fastest train between Waterloo and Yeovil is just 53 mph! There are few places of similar population and distance from London with such slow services.
The western part of the line has seen a huge increase in usage by commuters between Axminster and Exeter. It is not possible to run more morning commuter services without additional track capacity. Additionally, the section from Yeovil to Exeter is also used as a diversionary route when the Great Western Line west of Taunton is closed. Capacity west of Yeovil is very restricted and insufficient to cope with even the basic timetable when diversions are in operation.
We wish to work with train operators and other rail-focused organisations to promote the line and its journey opportunities, but we remain firmly independent. We receive no funding from any rail operator, train builder, Network Rail or other commercial organisation with a focus on railway operation. This is vital as our Proposals are long term.
SERUG recognises that Covid-19 has changed many aspects of live and we have revised our priorities to support the rebuilding of rail services and the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
At this time we are setting out our priorities as we recover from the pandemic:
Encourage Passengers Back to the Railway
We will work with the rail industry, MPs, Local Councils and others to develop a railway that puts the passengers first, whose services are reliable, and which provides a safe and pleasant travel environment, with better connections between rail and local transport networks.
Re-instatement of a daily minimum hourly service between Exeter and Waterloo throughout the day is essential.
Although some commuter and business travel may reduce, leisure travel is likely to increase. Value for money will therefore be vital in attracting passengers back to the railway, and we will lobby for a simplified fares structure.
Maintaining Staffed Stations and Improving Facilities
Existing station staffing levels should be maintained.
The west of England has a higher than average percentage of people over 60, many of whom rely on station staff to assist in planning journeys. Whilst access to online booking/ticketing will develop, station staff also provide the human touch and add a degree of security for passengers. They will play an important role in encouraging passengers back to the railway.
We will lobby to increase car parking capacity where required, to meet the demands of returning passengers.
Disabled access should be provided to/from all platforms at all stations.
Improved Resilience and Capacity
The current infrastructure struggles to provide a reliable and resilient timetable. The West of England Line Study (2020) made specific proposals to improve the line and is supported by all local MPs.
More passing loops, extended sections of double track and upgraded signalling would improve better timetable resilience and allow several vital improvements:
Introduction of the Devon Metro service serving all stations between Axminster and Exeter.
Improved capacity on the line to allow the diversion of GWR services, when the line between Exeter and Taunton is closed.
A half hourly service throughout the day between London Waterloo and Yeovil Junction, when demand is sufficient.
Replacement of the current Class 158 and 159 Diesel Trains
The reliability of these 30-year-old trains is still a concern, despite recent engine overhauls. New rolling stock is required, which should be capable of operating at 100 mph where infrastructure allows.
New trains must meet de-carbonisation targets. Bi-mode (diesel/electric trains) should be considered.
New rolling stock should have corridor connections to all carriages, fully accessible toilets, and a good passenger environment including comfortable seating, WiFi and power points. There should be more luggage space than at present, with standard and first-class accommodation.
Electrification and Faster Journey Times
The maximum speed on key sections of the line should be increased to 100mph. Electrification from Basingstoke to Salisbury (as a minimum) would also reduce journey times and contribute to de-carbonisation. Together with the resilience improvements and new rolling stock, this would cut journey times between London and Yeovil by around 20 minutes.
Maintain Recently Increased Seating Capacity on all Trains
Most services operating west of Salisbury in early 2021 have been formed of six coaches, which gives a theoretical seating capacity of 380 passengers. This has assisted with social distancing during the pandemic. Retaining six-carriage trains would provide better capacity when services and passenger numbers return to normal. New rolling stock should match the current capacity.
Re-instatement of Catering Services on all Trains
The re-instatement of a catering service on all trains is essential. Few stations west of Basingstoke provide on-platform catering, and those that do often have limited opening hours.
Passengers expect catering on long distance rail journeys. They will not be attracted back to the railway without a catering facility for the majority of their journey.
The Ability to Join and Split Trains at Yeovil Junction
This would make better use of rolling stock and provide a wider range of journey opportunities, including improved connections to Weymouth, Westbury, Bath and Bristol.
A PDF version of these Objectives can be downloaded here.