Tarka Line

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Tarka Line
Tarka line logo.svg
Cowley Bridge 142009.jpg
Crossing the Exe at Cowley Bridge
OwnerNetwork Rail
LocaleDevon, England
TerminiExeter St Davids
50°43′45″N 3°32′38″W / 50.7291°N 3.5438°W / 50.7291; -3.5438 (Exeter St Davids station)
51°04′26″N 4°03′49″W / 51.0740°N 4.0635°W / 51.0740; -4.0635 (Barnstaple station)
TypeCommunity rail
SystemNational Rail
Operator(s)Great Western Railway
Depot(s)Exeter TMD
Rolling stockClass 150 or Class 158 DMUs
Line length39 mi (62.76 km)
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge
Old gauge7 ft 14 in (2,140 mm) Brunel gauge
Route map
Tarka Line.png
(Click to expand)
Tarka Line
Exeter St Davids
Red Cow Level Crossing
Riverside Yard
Newton St Cyres
Crediton Level Crossing
Salmon Pool Level Crossing
Coleford Junction
Sampford Courtenay
Morchard Road
Eggesford Level Crossing
King's Nympton
Portsmouth Arms
Umberleigh Level Crossing
Langham Lake
Pill Bridge
GW Line Junction
Ilfracombe Line Junction
Stations marked with ‡ only operate on summer
Sundays only and are on the Dartmoor Railway.
Mileage from Exeter St Davids railway station

The Tarka Line, also known as the North Devon Line,[1] is a local railway line in Devon, England, linking the city of Exeter with the town of Barnstaple via a number of local villages, operated by Great Western Railway (GWR). The line opened in 1851 from Exeter to Crediton and in 1854 the line was completed through to Barnstaple. The line was taken over by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) in 1865 and later became part of the Southern Railway and then British Rail. In 2001, following privatisation, Wessex Trains introduced the name Tarka Line after the eponymous character in Henry Williamson's book Tarka the Otter. The line was transferred to First Great Western in 2006.

It is one of the railway lines supported by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership and passenger numbers on the line have more than tripled since 2001.


Early proposals[edit]

The first proposals relating to what would become the Tarka Line originated in the 1820s, when it was proposed that a railway line might be built from Crediton to Exeter Quay. Authority was obtained to build this line by an Act of 1831, but construction never started and the powers lapsed. However, business interests in Crediton became interested in a railway again after allies of the Great Western Railway (GWR), the Bristol and Exeter Railway (B&ER), reached Exeter in 1844, and the GWR-allied South Devon Railway started extending that line to Plymouth. In 1844, the Exeter and Crediton Railway (E&CR) was formed and a proposal was put forward for a new line to connect Crediton to the B&ER.[2] This proposal was accepted and authority was granted by an Act of 1845. The new company had capital of £70,000 (around £8.5 million in modern money), and made arrangements with the B&ER for the latter's trains to run to Crediton along the former's tracks.

Meanwhile, a proposal from business interests in Barnstaple was put forward in 1845 to build a new line connecting their town to the B&ER at Exeter. However, these proposals were rejected by the Railway Commission under Lord Dalhousie, the so-called "Five Kings", who wished to defer the decision on linking Barnstaple to the national railway network in order to appraise an alternative proposal by the B&ER to construct a line that would run between Barnstaple and their station at Tiverton.

E&CR constructed and gauge controversy[edit]

By January 1846, construction had started on the E&CR and on an unrelated line connecting Barnstaple with Fremington Quay, five miles to the west, and this created a new sense of urgency in connecting Barnstaple to the national network. Two proposals to reach Barnstaple were put forwards: an east-west route from Tiverton to Bideford, via Mid Devon and Barnstaple; and a north-south route from Barnstaple to Crediton (with access to Exeter along the E&CR). The Tiverton option had Isambard Kingdom Brunel as its engineer, was favoured by the GWR, and had backing from the Five Kings and the Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire, Hugh Fortescue, 2nd Earl Fortescue. Meanwhile, the LSWR had long-term ambitions to challenge the GWR's dominance in the south-west, and they backed the rival Crediton option, installing John Locke as its engineer.

The GWR party failed to submit their plans in line with the standing orders, and so Parliament rejected them, authorising the Crediton route despite the recommendations of Dalhousie's commission and the preference of the Lord Lieutenant. This Act of 1846 created the LSWR-allied Taw Vale Extension Railway (TVER). In 1847, the GWR party tried and failed to agree a lease of the TVER's line to the B&ER. In the same year, the LSWR party purchased a majority stake in the E&CR and then leased the E&CR line to the TVER. The E&CR board, led by a J.W. Buller, remained aligned to the B&ER until Buller was removed that year (amid a procedural controversy that resulted in an unsuccessful appeal to the Five Kings). At the same time, construction continued on the E&CR, and by the end of 1847, the line was complete except for a connection to the B&ER. Given the departure of Buller, the E&CR directors conceded that an agreement with the B&ER would be impossible and ordered that the line be converted to the LSWR's narrow gauge and a station be constructed at Cowley Bridge.

As for the TVER, the end of Railway Mania had left it without funding and the Act of 1846 had left the decision on its gauge to the Railway Commission, who in 1848 announced it would be in broad gauge. Four days later, the conversion of the E&CR was complete. Thus, in 1848, construction had not yet started on the Crediton to Barnstaple line, there was no capital available, and it would have to be constructed in a gauge that would make through trains to Exeter impossible. Meanwhile, the Commission also told the LSWR that they would not be permitted to construct a line linking the Cowley Bridge to Exeter, leaving the E&CR completely isolated.

Progress resumes and services begin[edit]

The deadlock was broken in 1851 by William Chapman, chairman of the LSWR and the E&CR. He agreed to convert one of the two tracks on the Crediton line to broad gauge and lease the line to B&ER; in exchange, the B&ER agreed to construct a junction allowing trains to run from Crediton to Exeter St Davids, and Cowley Bridge station was never opened. A service commenced of seven trains a day in each direction—the first trains to run on the future Tarka Line—and new railway stations opened to passengers at Newton St Cyres and Crediton. In the same year, new company the North Devon Railway (NDR) was formed to replace the financially failed TVER and construction started on the Crediton–Barnstaple section. The NDR opened in 1854 with stations at Yeoford, Copplestone, Morchard Road, Lapford, Eggesford, South Molton Road, Portsmouth Arms, Umberleigh and Barnstaple, as well as a siding at "Chappletown". However, the track south of Crediton continued to be owned by the E&CR. The NDR was taken over by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) in 1865, and while the E&CR remained nominally independent, the majority of its shares were owned by the LSWR and the B&ER. The section south of Crediton became part of the LSWR in 1876.

Grouping and nationalisation[edit]

Following the passage of the Railways Act 1921, the LSWR was merged into the Southern Railway, and twenty years later this became the Southern Region of British Rail. Along with the LSWR line to Plymouth, the route was part of the "Withered Arm" of Southern routes in predominantly Great Western Railway (and subsequently Western Region) territory.

Wessex Trains and First Great Western[edit]

The Tarka Belle at Bristol Temple Meads in March 2006.

On 13 October 1996, the Tarka Line was taken over by Wales & West, controlled by Prism Rail. National Express purchased Wales & West from Prism Rail in July 2000 and on 14 October 2001 rebranded Wales & West as Wessex Trains after the Strategic Rail Authority transferred the company's Welsh services to Wales and Borders.

Sponsored by the North Devon tourist board, Wessex Trains renamed unit 150241 to The Tarka Belle and changed its livery to advertising for tourist destinations on the Tarka Line.[citation needed]

The line was transferred to First Great Western in 2006, who rebranded as GWR in 2015 and introduced the line's current fleet and service pattern in December 2019.


The Tarka Line runs between Barnstaple and Exeter St Davids, but trains continue east across Exeter to terminate at St James Park.[3] The line leaves Exeter St Davids to the north, and then turns to the west. The railway broadly follows the route of the A377 road, and north of Lapford, the Tarka Line is intertwined with the River Taw.[4]

It runs through Newton St Cyres, Crediton and Yeoford, and then remainder of the line runs north-west through Copplestone, Morchard Road, Lapford, Eggesford, Kings Nympton, Portsmouth Arms,Umberleigh, Chapelton to terminate at Barnstaple.

The majority of stations on the line are request stops. On summer Sundays before the company ceased trading, the Dartmoor Railway ran alongside the south-eastern Tarka Line between Exeter and Yeoford.


Passenger services on the line are operated by Great Western Railway mainly using Class 158 diesel multiple units, having replaced Class 143 units that operated majority of services on the line until December 2019.[5] In September 2020, Class 166 units also began operating on the line on weekends.[citation needed]

Passenger volume[edit]

The majority of passengers on the Tarka Line travel to or from Barnstaple – about three times the number of all the other stations north of Exeter. Portsmouth Arms is the quietest station in Devon. Some of the smaller stations have seen a decline in passenger numbers during the last few years, although there have been significant increases at Umberleigh, Eggesford, and Copplestone and on the line overall with passenger numbers more than tripled since 2001.[6]

Station usage
Station name 2002–03 2004–05 2005–06 2006–07 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12 2012–13 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 2017–18 2018–19 2019–20
Newton St Cyres 1,147 702 780 889 1,662 1,868 1,784 2,774 3,212 2,252 2,760 2,510 2,082 2,940 2,468 3,000 2,684
Crediton 21,607 22,478 22,550 24,021 27,422 32,344 36,784 44,074 48,978 43,016 50,342 52,492 55,112 58,390 56,006 57,670 66,606
Yeoford 7,993 6,883 6,848 7,701 7,445 7,946 10,504 12,948 14,164 13,746 15,588 17,128 16,450 18,580 18,156 17,116 17,236
Copplestone 1,231 356 1,090 2,283 4,563 7,422 8,164 10,024 12,682 10,990 14,058 13,476 12,304 13,522 15,262 17,868 19,438
Morchard Road 4,676 3,442 2,712 2,341 2,904 4,170 6,482 8,834 11,456 11,494 11,416 11,822 12,222 13,210 12,134 12,378 14,642
Lapford 4,912 2,104 1,658 2,208 1,967 2,058 1,878 2,374 2,062 1,796 2,354 2,704 2,252 2,262 1,498 1,316 2,078
Eggesford 11,430 14,152 16,009 18,184 18,658 21,298 22,858 25,500 26,902 30,062 26,160 29,106 29,920 28,902 31,628 29,802 32,228
King's Nympton 4,013 2,400 1,781 1,009 1,033 1,542 1,984 2,578 3,006 4,482 3,748 3,422 5,758 8,030 6,640 5,000 6,098
Portsmouth Arms 614 372 510 667 1,012 844 676 936 884 694 844 1,510 756 518 444 466 502
Umberleigh 7,951 8,301 10,408 12,564 13,811 16,256 17,718 19,808 22,774 31,454 34,210 37,609 31,324 37,076 34,784 33,060 32,302
Chapelton 734 472 161 120 208 176 162 190 190 258 232 192 100 566 188 446 192
Barnstaple 176,682 194,474 210,846 238,082 261,174 283,920 302,998 342,328 372,438 382,186 384,234 427,394 421,346 443,450 440,404 432,196 424,822
The annual passenger usage is based on sales of tickets in stated financial years from Office of Rail and Road estimates of station usage. The statistics are for passengers arriving and departing from each station and cover twelve-month periods that start in April. Methodology may vary year on year. Barking and Blackhorse Road are affected by usage of the ticket gates for the Underground and that Gospel Oak connects to the North London Line section of the London Overground and is similarly affected. Barking is further affected by the ticket gates used to access C2C services.

Community rail[edit]

The Tarka Line is named after the otter in Henry Williamson's book Tarka the Otter which is set in the area. It is one of the railway lines supported by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, an organisation formed in 1991 to promote railway services in the area. The line is promoted by many means such as regular timetable and scenic line guides, as well as leaflets highlighting leisure opportunities such as walking or visiting country pubs.

The Tarka Line rail ale trail was launched in 2002, the first of several such schemes which encourages rail travellers to visit pubs near the line. The trail originally covered 16 pubs, and the number has risen and fallen over the years, but in 2020 is 11 pubs.[7][8][9] There are three pubs in Exeter and five in Barnstaple, with one each at Lapford, Portsmouth Arms, and Umberleigh. 10 stamps collected in the Rail Ale Trail leaflet entitle the participant to claim special Tarka Line Rail Trail souvenir tour shirt.

Wessex Trains covered Class 150 2-car DMU number 150241 in coloured pictures promoting the line and named The Tarka Belle. It is still in service with Great Western Railway (Formerly First Great Western) but is no longer in that livery.

The line was designated by the Department for Transport as a community rail line in September 2006. This aims to increase revenue and reduce costs. Among possible options are increasing the car parking at stations, looking at ways to increase the train frequency and facilities at stations.


No-signaller token remote working[edit]

Parts of the line are single track, meaning that trains travelling in opposite directions must sometimes wait for each other. Collisions are prevented on these sections by requiring the train crew to be in possession of a physical token released from an electrically operated apparatus at a station under a system known as no signaller token remote working.[10] The full journey from Barnstaple to Exeter takes just over 1 hour, much the same as the journey time in a car.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nicholas, John (20 July 1992). The North Devon Line: Exeter to Barnstaple Railway from Inception to the Present Day. O.P.C. Railprint. ISBN 978-0860934615.
  2. ^ "EXETER & CREDITON Railway, London & South Western Railway". Great Devon Railways. Retrieved 21 November 2020.
  3. ^ "Exeter to Barnstaple" (PDF). Great Western Railway. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  4. ^ Phillips, Mark. "A short story of a railway and its river". Rail Engineer. Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  5. ^ Gussin, Tony (16 December 2019). "New trains start work on the Barnstaple to Exeter Tarka Line". North Devon Gazette. Retrieved 13 November 2020.
  6. ^ "Station Usage". Rail Statistics. Office of Rail Regulation. Retrieved 13 March 2009.
  7. ^ Falconer, Kieran (6 September 2009). "All abroad the real ale train". Express. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  8. ^ Hancock, Nick (16 September 2009). "Rail ale drinkers are back on right track". Express and Echo. Retrieved 18 July 2016.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ "Tarka Line Rail Ale Trail". Great Scenic Railways. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  10. ^ Gordon D. Webster (15 November 2016). Signal Boxes and Semaphores: The Decline. Amberley Publishing. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-4456-5618-2.
  • Nicholas, John (1992). The North Devon Line. Sparkford: Oxford Publishing Company. ISBN 0-86093-461-6.
  • Department for Transport, Rail Group (2006), Route prospectus for the ... Tarka Line'

External links[edit]

Map all coordinates using: OpenStreetMap 
Download coordinates as: KML

Coordinates: 50°53′38″N 3°52′42″W / 50.8939°N 3.8783°W / 50.8939; -3.8783